By Tony Stevenson
This article originally appeared on Builder Australia.
Many owners and managers of business Web sites feel that they need to impress site visitors with the latest in multimedia effects and high-powered graphics.
But one man disagrees.
He believes that the most effective way of initially appealing to visitors, and then getting them to come back to a Web site, is through the power of words.
The man in question is Nick Usborne, an e-marketing guru and the author of a new book titled Net Words: Creating High-Impact Online Copy. The book also has a companion site.
Usborne puts so much emphasis on the use of words to attract and hold visitors to Web sites because, he says, the experience of hundreds of millions of Web users is and has always been about words.
"Before commerce came online, people were already using the Internet as a way to connect and converse. Bulletin boards, Usenet, early community sites like The Well… these all provided people with the means to share and connect. Even today, billions of e-mails and instant messages are being sent between individuals online.…Text, text, text."
Usborne points out that it is only commerce and large organizations online that ever imagined that this space was about the bells and whistles of technology.
Find your voice
So how can Web site owners and managers use words to set their Web sites apart from their competition?
Usborne maintains that you can achieve this by resisting the temptation to fall back on corporate speak.
"A unique voice, showing some true character, will always set you apart online in a way that no design element or technological wizardry ever can.
"An e-mail from The Motley Fool opens with the words 'Dear Fool.'
"A recent e-mail from Moosejaw.com closed with the word 'Love you always.'
"These examples may sound like clever copy devices. Not so. All the copy on their sites reflects the same tone of voice. This isn’t about style, this is about the writers showing real character and expressing that character in a genuine way."
Usborne says that anyone can set their sites, e-mails, and newsletters apart simply by putting aside traditional rules of business and marketing writing, and allowing their own character to shine through—the character of the founder, of the editor, of the site. Or of the business itself.
"Remember, our users and visitors are very familiar with the power and feel of personal text through their own daily experience with e-mail and messaging. They are very sensitive to the nuances of a genuine voice and an attractive character as it is expressed in text online.
"Best of all, when you give expression to a more human voice online, you set yourself apart in a way that no other site can ever copy. A true voice cannot be copied. I cannot take on the character of your voice, nor you mine. It’s a double win. People love to hear a true voice on business sites and, at the same time, you are differentiating yourself from your competition in a way that can never really be challenged."
Usborne suggests that big companies and organizations don’t want to let go of their corporate speak or the familiar ways in which they have always written for print and other traditional media. That's because they feel that they will not be taken seriously if they speak in a more personal tone.
"But I think they are wrong. They are scared, tied to traditional ways of writing. Even for businesses online, even for big businesses, there is an opportunity to connect with their prospects and customers in a way that traditional media just don’t allow for.
"When you speak in a more personal way, your site visitors and readers of your e-mails will find it much easier to connect with you, to feel comfortable with your business, to grow loyal."
E-mail is key
Usborne thinks e-mail is hugely important to online business.
"With e-mail, you reach people at a much more personal level, in their e-mail inboxes. It’s there that you can connect with them one-on-one.
"My advice? First, pay attention to all your e-mails. Not just next week’s marketing e-mails. Take a look at all the e-mails you send out. Even those that are automatically generated by visitor actions on your site—welcome e-mails, confirmation e-mails, and the like."
It is vital to be aware of the differences between writing online and other forms of writing.
"All the differences spring from the fact that the experience for the reader is totally different online," Usborne said. "Offline, in print, customers are simply recipients of the message. Online, they are participants. Our customers write to each other about our products and services. They use the Web, just like we do. So, instead of writing to isolated individuals, we are now writing to networked people who share the medium through which we are communicating.
"The bottom line? You have to write from a place in which you feel a lot more respect for your readers. They deserve it, expect it, and will reward you for treating them as equals."
Usborne also places a lot of emphasis on e-mail newsletters. For almost any business, a regular newsletter is a great way to interact with, and keep in touch with, your customers and prospects. And he points out that the best person to write or edit the newsletter is the person who most wants to do it. Enthusiasm is infectious.
"A newsletter is where good writing really shines. Here you have an opportunity to connect with your audience one-on-one. Use a personal voice, give them valuable content. Give them real value.
"One thing I recommend with every newsletter is to include an invitation to interact. Invite people to respond, to participate. Maybe through an ‘Ask the Expert’ area, a quick poll, or a survey. Ask them to send in accounts of their experiences. Whatever it takes. When you include content from your readers, the newsletter becomes ‘theirs’ as well as ‘yours.’ That’s a very powerful thing."
Tony Stevenson is the author of the two best selling Internet books, The Australian Guide to the Internet and The Australian Guide to Online Business. His company also publishes two free e-mail newsletters, Internet Update and Sites of the Day, which are distributed to readers in more than a dozen countries.
Do you agree with Usborne that Web sites often focus too much on how they deliver their message instead of on the message itself? Have you seen content-rich Web sites fail due to drab implementation? Post a comment in the discussion below and tell us what you think.