Communicating Ideas That Sell
COW Library : Business & Career Building Tutorials : Mack Aston : Communicating Ideas That Sell
In the premiere issue of Creative Cow Magazine, Ron Lindeboom wrote something about content on the Net that caught my eye - and should have caught yours: "There's a glut of content; what is missing are the people who know what to do with the content."
Why is this statement not only true, but important to you?
YOU ARE YOUR PRODUCT
Put simply, the message is you and you are your message. Whether your message is a high-quality training video, a television commercial, an indie film, a web site, or print media, getting your message to stand out from the herd on the digital hillside is the key to success on the Net. Having all the tech-toys, and even knowing what to do with them, is a great start. Yet, when you look down that camera or stare at a computer screen, you'd better be saying something that someone wants to hear. Better yet, you'd better be saying something that everyone wants to hear.
Your message can be more than words. In advertising, your message is your "brand." And, to pick on Ron again, "...the Net is about people." What does that fact have to do with your brand or message? To paraphrase the good folks at Silberware.com: "Your brand is not your logo. Your brand is not your color palette. Your brand is not an abstract concept disconnected from you or your company. Your brand is not an afterthought. Your brand is you." Substitute the word "message" for "brand" and the concept is the same.
So how do you go about producing content that not only grabs attention, but actually says something that people want to hear? How do you hack your way through the webglut?
Your grammar may be sparkling. Your spelling impeccable. Your writing top-notch. But good writing alone is not enough. If it were, average novelists would be rich. They aren't. So before you put your dazzling prose down, here are some tips that will help direct your message. Remember, it's not the writing, it's the message.
WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE?
What is it that you are trying to accomplish through your content? Are you selling a product? Selling an idea? Giving advice? Whatever it is, make sure you know your goal. And then keep that goal in mind as you write your content - always.
Aharon Rabinowitz, in his article on creating tutorial podcasts (Creative Cow Magazine, premiere edition), sums up his approach by writing that "you need to think about what it is you want to say, how you want to say it, and who you want to say it to." Great advice.
WHY SHOULD THE READER CARE?
The reader is the content consumer. What's in it for him ? More often than not, web content revolves around a product or features. Take Adobe Photoshop, for example. Perhaps you're writing a piece about how to make type flow in a circle (type on a path). Before you start pecking at your keyboard, ask yourself what the reader cares about. In this case, the reader cares about getting type into a circle, perhaps to create a logo. Notice that the reader doesn't necessarily care about all the cool features in Photoshop that enable that circle of letters. So give the reader what he wants. Tell him precisely how to accomplish the task, and leave the feature gab for another article on Cool Photoshop Features. Good web content is not about what you want, but what your reader wants.
WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR READER TO DO?
This question is important especially if you are selling something. Selling doesn't necessarily mean "product sale." If you're trying to get a message across, you are selling your message. So what do you want from Joe and Jane Content Consumer? Do you want them to fill out a form? Send you an email? Sign up for a class? Whatever it is, make sure you tell your readers what you want from them - maybe they'll just do it.
WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?
It would be folly to write an article about a P2 camcorder if your audience doesn't know (or care) what P2 even means. Conversely, it would not do to write down to a technically sophisticated audience either. Know your audience.
BOOM THE BENEFITS
Let's face it. We all want something. Whether we're searching for what the latest version of Final Cut Pro can do or just skimming the daily news. We're after something. Ergo, write content that booms out benefits! You'd be surprised at how many web sites violate this simple truth about human nature.
In my writing business I often have need for a digital voice recorder. But I'm also a musician. Wouldn't it be a Good Thing if I could find a professional digital voice recorder that also had built-in phantom power for my hiqh-quality microphones? Off I go to the web, and there it is: The Tascam HDP2. Exactly what I want - I think. Hmm. How would I know offhand? Everywhere the unit is advertised, it's presented as a bundle of features. Now features are good, very good. But what I'm really looking for is a solution to a problem. That problem can be summed up as: Where can I get a high-quality, stereo, portable, rugged, and professional digital recorder?
Cruising over to the Tascam site provides me with a huge list of features for the beast. Tascam has come up with a killer product, no doubt, and it's clear that the marketing folks are positioning it for the professional market. But what is it at first glance? The marketing copy lists only one possible benefit in the first paragraph. A mistake already, since the headline should have boomed out the benefit right away. Here's the single line in the first paragraph that hints at a benefit: "The unit, which received Pro Audio Review's PAR Excellence Award, answers the call of remote recording engineers as the professional solution for the challenging requirements of live and on-location recording." Hidden in that sentence is the word "solution."
A solution is just another word for benefit. Even given the marketpositioning influence (obviously Tascam is not aiming at the average consumer), I personally would have responded much more quickly to something like: "Tascam's new digital stereo recorder. It's your old recorder on steroids." Then if I really wanted to study the features, I could. (By the way, the HD-P2 really is your old recorder on steroids. Records at 192kHz/24-bit resolution!) In short, I may have bought the HD-P2 right away if I didn't have to wade through a feature list to get to the benefit.
Moral? It's almost always best to stress benefits over features in your web content. There are some exceptions, such as readers who are already acquainted with the product or subject. But it's hard to go wrong by giving people what they want. And what people want is something that benefits them.
When you write for the web, you're writing for an impatient audience. The reader's mouse is a second or two away from clicking off to another site. Therefore, it makes sense to put the heart of your message in a headline format. What does that mean?
Take a look at Jerry Hoffman's article in the premiere edition of Creative Cow Magazine. "Achieving a Rock Solid Final Cut Pro System: How to set-up a Final Cut Pro system that really works-no matter which version you are running." Now that's a near perfect headline. It tells you exactly what the message is and then follows up with a tagline to lock in the message. Sweet.
There's clearly a lot involved in writing content for the web, and I've only skimmed the surface. I've not talked about sentence length, grammatical intricacies, usability, and a whole bunch of other important things. But digest these few tips and you'll be well on your way to writing - dare I say it? - beefy content.
Mac King Aston is the founder of A Word Apart, a Boulder, Colorado-based business-writing company specializing in technical writing, advertising and marketing copy, web content, AV scripts, and more. His clients range from small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations. mka at awordapart dot com.
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