Why ABOUT isn’t a headline

go away

Because so many businesses running websites are focusing all their attention on search engine optimisation, many are forgetting that the main purpose of your site is to sell your stuff.

Obviously it’s great – and vital – that loads of people come to your site and a proportion of them will buy or enquire. But many of your visitors won’t. And the scary part is that you’re perhaps losing all these potential business-boosting buyers without even realising it.

And it might well be because the copy on your homepage is simply ‘content’. It’s simply stuff that’s there so that Google ranks you highly enough for people to find you. So you have totally un-engaging copy and, even worse, totally dull headlines that don’t tell your visitors why they should stay and find out more about what you can do for them.

The worst symptom of this is mistaking onsite navigation for headlines.

To be as effective as it can at converting visitors to buyers/enquirers, your homepage needs to rapidly tell the prospect what your offer is, and how you can help them.  So that they stay on your site longer than the average of 8 seconds.

You can have a video that gets right to the point as soon as they land. You can have an unavoidable FREE giveaway that offers them something very useful/interesting/entertaining in return for their email address. Or you can have a good-old-fashioned headline that hits them between the eyes with your irresistible sales proposition.

But, startlingly, more and websites simply welcome you with their navigation headers: ABOUT or WHY US or OUR TEAM or OUR PHILOSOPHY.

These are not headlines. These will not win you new customers. These will not instantly communicate a really compelling reason why I shouldn’t bugger off to another site where I might be treated in the way all of us want to be treated when we’re wearing our buying hat, not our selling hat.

(Funny isn’t it, how so many of us seem to be able to utterly detach our expectations as buyers from our insights as sellers? It’s a simple question to ask oneself: how would I like to be treated and what would I like to see if I were visiting this website/shop/restaurant/brochure? And yet so many businesses – especially where online marketing is concerned – seem to have completely lost the plot on this most basic of marketing techniques.)

Perhaps you’re thinking “yes but I need to have a really dull and boring homepage to get up Google”, Well then, remember this: Google natural search via SEO is not the only way to get customers to your site. Try PPC, try Google Remarketing, try Facebook advertising, try more email marketing.

Get customers to your site because they want to be there, because they want to buy. They’re warmer prospects when they arrive, too, so with your powerful headline-driven home page you’re going to convert even more of them.

 

 

 

How Apple became the world’s biggest brand by banning the word brand

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There’s one marketing blog out there which, to me, is unmissable. It’s called The Ad Contrarian and whenever you’ve had your head rammed full of fashionable, flavour-of-the-month marketing bollocks it’s a great place to go and restore your faith in common sense.

In his latest rant, The Ad Contrarian takes apart the idea that your brand is more important than your actual product. He shows a clip of the head of Saatchi’s (big UK ad agency) blathering on about how Steve Jobs of Apple put brand before product, blah, blah.

Except he didn’t. A quote from one of Jobs’s team puts the lie to this. Utterly. And totally.

In fact, Apple understand that you don’t get people to buy your product by making them like your brand. You build a brand by getting people to like your product. That’s why they’re the world’s biggest company.

This is a fact that is utterly lost on most most marketing and advertising, ahem, ‘experts’ who will drone on about brand-building, brand conversations and engagement, and the latest must-have bit of software that is going to change the game etc etc…

In a few swift and pithy sentences, Allison Johnson, VP of Worldwide Marketing at Apple from 2005 to 2011, destroys the dreams, aspirations, beliefs and motivations of the vast majority of the world’s advertising and marketing industry.

…the two most ‘dreaded, hated’ words at Apple under Steve Jobs were ‘branding’ and ‘marketing’.…we understood deeply what was important about the product, what the team’s motivations were in the product, what they hoped that product would achieve, what role they wanted it to have in people’s lives…The most important thing was people’s relationship to the product. So any time we said ‘brand’ it was a dirty word.

Here’s a link to The Ad Contrarian

Has Google got your business by the Googlies?

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Very interesting article in The Guardian the other day. The writer was working from a premise that the internet isn’t the egalitarian, customer-empowering, democracy-supporting resource that many claim it to be.

He pointed out, for example, how the internet is actually killing (and has already killed) many art forms. Exhibit One: the music industry. People now steal their pop music instead of buying it. Artists struggle to make even a reasonable living because of the above and, perhaps more shockingly, because the legal channels to market – like iTunes and Spotify – take such a massive proportion of their revenue.

You can sell a million copies of your latest single release and make barely anything from the royalties. So, unless you’re Beyonce or Rhianna, forget it.

And of course it’s because the internet is mostly a massive, insidious cartel of monopolies.

Oh yes, Google is very jolly and they have bouncy balls instead of chairs in their groovy Californian offices – wow! cool! etc. But,let’s be honest. They have, to all intents and purposes, a monopoly on what you and I can find on the web.

They control your internet marketing completely. You want your website to be found? You need to suck up to Google. Either by paying them via Adwords or by doing your SEO to conform to their latest mysterious, top secret algorithm.

You want your new rock vid to be found? You suck up to YouTube (owned by, er, Google). You want to run targeted banner ads to follow your site visitors around – remarketing as they call it? You suck up to Google.

How can this be healthy? They virtually force you to use the utterly impossible-to-fathom Google Plus to get decent search engine optimisation results.

Nobody uses Google Plus out of choice. It’s a hopelessly bad copy of Facebook.

And Google’s partner in crime, Apple, is now the world’s biggest company. Brainwashing our kids into believing that unless they have the very latest iPhone they are somehow less valuable members of society. Not healthy, folks.

And then there’s eBay. Who now take a whopping 10% of your selling price, then add another 3.4% onto the bill if you use Paypal to sell something (owned by eBay, naturally).

All the stuff you used to take to the charity shop is now sold on eBay as Vintage and Rare. You make a little money, eBay makes A LOT and the poor and needy suffer. Nice.

 

Why you shouldn’t have a black and white website.

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I keep seeing them. Business to business websites that exclusively use black and white photography.

Bad website designers do it because they think it’s business innit, so it’s, oh, you know, serious.

(Forgive them, they know no better.)

So they use wishy-washy black and white images. Often library shots of cityscapes, or implausibly beautiful models sitting in glass-filled meeting rooms and wearing designer glasses that are meant to signify “I am a business person”. Or moody shots of clouds.

What these shots actually say is:  ”I am not a real person. This is not our office. We couldn’t be bothered to get some decent shots of our own people or premises.”

The designer then compounds the error by siting these terrible shots on pale blue backgrounds with grey type.

And, my god, are they dull.

And they’re everywhere. Please don’t do it.

The rules for designing a B2B website aren’t any different from those for a consumer website. Some folks, who measure this stuff, reckon you have around 8 seconds to hook your visitor into staying. And that means you need compelling headlines, beautifully persuasive and engaging copy, and attractive eye-catching imagery.

Whatever it is you’re selling.

Yonks ago, when I was Promotion Director for The Reader’s Digest, we used to test everything. Not just the promotion end of things where we literally tested a change of sentence in body copy, a change of word in terms and conditions.

But in product development too. If a new book was on the cards, for example, we’d test dozens of covers, titles, page layouts, prices…you name it.

And what we saw, time after time, is that ordinary punters hate black and white pictures. They see it as cheap. And boring.

Designers often see it as edgy. Or slick. And sometimes it is if you really know what you’re doing, and you use the Very Best photographers.

But most of the time it’s just plain old dull-as-dishwater.

As cold and uninviting as a dead halibut in a city gutter.

 

How to tell your customers bad news. And how not to.

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Received an email newsletter from Waitrose today. The subject line was: Free tea & coffee update. So far so good. But ‘update’? What an odd word? Hmmm….

In the body of the email they start blathering on in classic client-speak…“Just in the same way as a friend might offer a hot drink when you visit their home, we think it’s what a caring business should do when a loyal customer shops with us”.

Ignoring the gobbledook grammar (“Just in the same way”???), this kind of nonsense immediately switches on the reader’s radar…oh, hello, there’s some bad news on its way, isn’t there….

They then give me “a short guide” about “free tea and coffee etiquette”. This is a three stage process, apparently. Get a My Waitrose card, shop with us, get free tea, swipe card.

Yes, that’s what you do. Get on with it. What the hell has this got to do with etiquette?

But of course, the answer is absolutely nothing.

The poor agency writer has been asked to write an email with bad news and has tried to dress it up as friendly good news. (And I sense the heavy hand of a nervous client here.) The hapless wordsmith has been asked to hide the bad news under a blanket of fluffy, meaningless nonsense.

And, yep, here it comes…

Turns out, from Feb 9th, you can no longer get free tea in the caff unless you buy something else ‘such as a sandwich, cake, biscuit or piece of fruit. This change will enable us to continue to offer our customers the enjoyable service they expect’.

No it won’t. It’s got nothing to do with giving customers enjoyable service. If it had, they wouldn’t have stopped it.

I imagine the real reason is that their cafes are losing business because the customers claim their free teas and coffees and sit there drinking it to the exclusion of other customers, and without buying anything in the shop.

So they decide to serve up this contrived, patronising pile of drivel to the customers they purport to value so highly (see para 2).

Why not be honest, instead? We’re grown ups. We know there’s a recession on.

Why not explain that, unfortunately, trading conditions have changed and we won’t be able to offer free teas and coffees in the cafe anymore. But, hey, good news, you can still get one while you’re doing your weekly shop.

And most importantly of all, why not say We’re Sorry.

Apologise. Easy.

I might believe they really do care about their customers, then. This email actually made me a little angry. I thought the John Lewis organisation was better than this. They are treating me like an imbecile, not a customer.

But for so many companies, as Elton John said, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Is SEO killing your website?

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Something weird seems to be happening in the world of marketing.

Perfectly sensible clients, trained in strategic thinking, market analysis and sophisticated sales & marketing techniques have suddenly started putting their brains in neutral when faced with the task of making creative decisions about their company’s website.

If they were looking at a script for a TV ad they’d be saying things like “No, that doesn’t quite represent the humorous personality of our brand”.

If they were looking at a sales letter they might say “It’s almost there but the headline doesn’t really sell the offer hard enough.”

If they were looking at a brochure design they might say “That body copy is hard to read, make it black and slightly bigger”.

And yet, it seems to me, a lot of these critical faculties seem to fly straight out of the window when they’re faced with a website.

Because the SEO people have scared them. Blinded them. Addled their brains.

Now, let’s get one thing straight. SEO is vitally important. If nobody can find your website, nobody can read about how wonderful you are. You must do SEO. No question. (And, by the way, I’m just talking about on-page SEO here, not off-page, linking back from other sites etc.)

But SEO isn’t everything.

You must not let SEO drive the entire structure and content of your site.

You must not let it totally dictate your copy and headlines. You must not let it turn your website into a me-too, pile of bland garbage.

You must not let SEO turn your site into a glorified Yellow Pages entry. But so, so many sites look and feel exactly like this now.

On-page SEO works by ensuring that your site features the words that people use when searching for your type of product or services. These keywords can be in the headlines, the copy, the links, your site’s URL and so on.

But the problem is, everyone uses broadly the same words to search for you.  And these tend to be boring words that simply describe the sort of product or service they’re looking for: cheap shoes, call centre services, freelance copywriter Cambridge. That sort of thing.

These are the keywords that get you zooming up Google.

So what most of the SEO boys do (and they are boys, usually, with scraggy beards) is replace your vibrant, engaging SELLING copy with a load of keywords.

So your site races up the ranks. But its selling power has been killed at a stroke.

The headlines and copy become bland and generic. Your site feels just like everyone else’s. Because the SEO boys have ensured it IS just like everyone else’s.

Because it uses exactly the same words.

Your powerfully unique proposition “We deliver in six hours or your money back: guaranteed” is replaced by “Courier and Parcels Service Manchester”.

“Are you making these five crucial mistakes on your website?” is replaced by “Website Design and SEO Service Aberdeen”.

“Heineken Refreshes the Parts Other Beers Cannot Reach” is replaced by “Beer”.

It really has become that crass. Astonishingly so.

 

 

If the writer doesn’t understand it, your customers won’t have a chance

confused

Amazingly, I actually clicked on an internet display ad yesterday.

Internet display ads are, of course, the most ineffective advertising medium ever invented. And yet clients continue to pour squillions of quid into them. As if somehow, someday – perhaps by divine intervention or sheer good luck – they’ll suddenly start working for their brand.

But the tiny handful that do generate a click through do so because they use classic direct response/editorial techniques and offer something useful to the reader. “Lose pounds with this old wives’ trick’…’Get the new iPad for £30′…and so on.

And this one from Aviva did just that. It offered to explain a little about the government’s new pension rules, due to take effect next spring.

This met a need – my desire for knowledge about how my pathetic provision for retirement (ha!) might be affected – so I watched the little animation.

I was nodding along and understanding what it was telling me until it mentioned something about ‘your marginal tax rate’. At which point they lost me. I had to go and look it up on Money Saving Expert, never to return.

I had no idea what Marginal Tax was. I consider myself a reasonably educated grown-up sort-of person (your views may differ) with a little bit of knowledge about income tax and such like but this was a new one on me. (It’s actually just the way you, for example, only pay 40% on the bit of your income that’s over the 40% threshold. Simple.)

But experience told me instantly what had happened here. Because it happens in advertising agency meeting rooms throughout the land (and probably the world) day in, day out.

The client briefs the suits (the account handlers) about what they want to say in the video. The clients occasionally use industry jargon which is their own in-house language that everyone at the client understands.

At which point, a good account handler will say “Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean there, can you explain it to me?”.

The bad one, who is smiling and nodding but thinking mostly of going to lunch, will just write it down.

The bad account handler will then brief the copywriter and art director.

When faced with the Marginal Tax stuff, the good copywriter will say “I don’t understand that. And if don’t understand it, I can’t write about it in a way our lovely customers will understand it, either.” And the account handler will be asked to go back to the client and get the clarity she should have got in the first place.

But the bad copywriter will write it down, include it in his script and carry on thinking about how can turn Marginal Tax into a pun.

And the little video clip will get made, and the client will approve it because they know what it means and forget that the end viewer might not. (And, to be honest, they’re paying their agency a lot of dosh to think about this stuff and ensure the language used is right for the target group.)

The net result is a piece of communication that fails simply because nobody at the agency/copywriter end had the intelligence or insight (or guts?) to say “Hang on a mo, sorry I’m being thick here, but could you put this into easy-to-understand words for me so I know what I’m talking about”.

When you’ve been working with complicated clients and products for as long as I have – financial services, professional services, healthcare, hi-tech, B2B – you get a sixth sense for spotting writing where it’s clear that the writer hasn’t really understood what he’s writing about.

And it happens far, far too often.

 

 

 

 

How to do great charity advertising

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As Mr Punch says memorably, on piers and promenades throughout the land, that’s the way to do it.

There’s an Oxfam ad appearing on the telly right now asking for donations to help the Ebola victims in Western Africa.

And it’s a superb, best-in-class lesson in how to do effective charity fund-raising.

So often these days, charity ads are produced to look like perfume ads, with an eye on the awards jury rather than a focus on maximum fund-raising. Moody black and white photography, portentous celebrity voice over and a glib, punny endline. Looks cool on your portfolio site but doesn’t bring home the bacon for the charity concerned.

But this one from Oxfam gets it bang on and I imagine does extremely well. Here are the key ingredients for successful charity fundraising, on telly or in dm or the press:

1. Look cheap. The work must look like it was bashed out in a hurry by the charity team. Not crafted by creative teams with silly big beards in their plush London offices. It must look and feel urgent and real. In other words, it should not look like advertising.

2. Show results. Crises and misery make it easy to write award-winning heart-tugging copy. But don’t  just show the downside. Make sure you show the upside too — the results of the appeal. Generate an emotional response, yes, but paint a picture of hope not despair.

3. Ask for a specific amount. This ad asks for £3. No more no less.  Often it works to give three different tick boxes and an ‘other’ one in case someone wants to give a huge amount or a very small amount that’s all they can afford. Remember: the biggest donors to charity are poor people and old people. Perhaps because they’re the ones who understand being needy?

4. Tell them what this amount will be spent on. As specific as possible. Again, this Oxfam ad does it right, it tells me my £3 will buy a treatment ‘kit’. Perfect. I really feel my £3 will genuinely  make a difference.

5. Make the response mechanism clear and simple. Show them and tell them. ASK for the donation, don’t assume showing a phone number etc is enough. It isn’t. Tell them to do it right now.

Easy when you know how.

 

Has copy become simply space filler?

 

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Last week, a client referred to a piece of copy I’d written as ‘content’. As in, ‘I’ll see if anyone has any more comments on the content then get back to you’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t care less what my clients call my output. I’m simply happy and grateful that they’ve chosen me to help them out. So if they want to, they can call my work Pea Soup with a Cherry on Top. (I’d rather they called it brilliant, cutting-edge, highly-effective, a bargain at twice the price etc but let’s not be picky.)

What I do is write lots of words that sell lots of stuff. (And I’ve lost track of the number of times people have asked me what a copywriter is. So it’s a stupid job title anyway.)

But this was the first time I’d heard the term ‘content’ used in a non-digital context. It’s been fairly common for a while to call website copy ‘content’ but not advertising or direct mail copy. The client was actually referring to a sales letter I’d written.

But does this throwaway client comment actually mark a sea-change in the advertising/marketing industry? (This isn’t a rhetorical question, I’m genuinely interested to know.)

Has the power of well-crafted, strategically powerful copy been completely relegated to a position of simply space-filler?

Has the designer and mac jockey finally climbed to the top of the perceived heap, so that pretty pictures and impossible-to-read typography are now the dominant consideration when you’re trying to sell your wares?

Has copy simply become that annoying stuff that goes in the boxes on the wire-frame marked ‘copy here: 50 words max’?

Even worse, are the words on a website now considered simply SEO fodder?

You see outfits calling themselves ‘communications agencies’ or ‘creative agencies’ or ‘marketing agencies’ everywhere now.

But scratch the surface of their glossy website and, remarkably often, you’ll find they don’t have a single copywriter on the team.

Not one. Not so much as a fresh-faced junior straight out of college.

Never mind a senior, highly experienced writer running the creative side of things.

(In the olden days, the copywriter was king. And it was very rare indeed that an agency would have an art director as the top dog in the creative department. In fact, if you’ve ever seen Mad Men, you’ll know that for a long while the writers simply sent their copy down to the art department who added some nice visuals to the copy. They knew their place.)

But things, as Bob Dylan pointed out, have changed.

Call me old-fashioned (you won’t be the first, I promise you) but how can an agency selling advertising or website creation services possibly be the real deal if there’s nobody in the building who can write some great copy?

More strangely, how can clients look at the agency and think they’re going to get some great emails or a fantastically compelling website or superbly effective advertising if the agency doesn’t have a writer on board?

Odd, isn’t it?

 

Direct mail is coming back. But don’t forget the golden rules…

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People are saying that good old direct mail is having a bit of a renaissance. The growth of edm and the price of postage has seen DM die off in recent years but some are saying it’s on its way back, partly due to its very rarity and therefore renewed impact on the doormat.

Time will tell, but it’s my favourite medium by a long way, so I hope its popularity is restored to its former glory. (That’s a control-busting pack I did for Which? at the top of the post.)

Which is why I was so disappointed by a b2b direct mail pack I received yesterday from Parcelforce. You’d have thought, wouldn’t you, that a company whose entire existence is based on the post would be able to commission a half-decent mailing?

(I used to work on the Royal Mail account many years ago when I was a direct marketing agency Creative Director, and we made sure that every mailing we did for them was a paragon of dm best practice. It would be odd not to. Medium/message and all that.)

This mailing, however, was almost embarrassing in its cluelessness.

Because I work in the business, I ploughed through it to try and glean what it was all about whereas most recipients would have moved it swiftly bin-wise.

Clearly, Parcel Force have teamed up with the makers of the new Paddington Bear film. I guessed this because the whole mailing is festooned — no, smothered — in pictures of our favourite peruvian quadruped and lame bear puns abound. Bear essentials, bearing parcels. Oh, be still my quaking sides.

What this has got to do with a business to business delivery proposition, I have (still) no idea. The business benefits messages (such as they are) are buried beneath the bear puns, bear pictures and references to the film.

The mailing consists of two A5 landcape brochures in an A5 outer. A six pager and a 4 pager. 10 pages are therefore available to tell me why I should use Parcel Force. Most of these are utterly wasted. Four are just pictures of Paddington, ads for the film, and a Merry Christmas from New York message which leaves me utterly nonplussed. What has this got to do with anything?

I thought for a second, that there wasn’t even a letter. Repeat after me: YOU NEVER EVER SEND OUT A DM PACK WITHOUT A LETTER.

Leave out the brochure, leave out the response device, leave out the testimonials lift letter, the offer flyer. Leave out the bloody envelope, but never ever leave out a letter.

This letter was simply printed on the inside flap of the 4pp leaflet. A waste of personalisation as it gained no leverage from using my name. It didn’t read like a letter. It read like an ad. Wrong.

The headline on the letter was a tragedy in itself:

We’re bearers of Great British Delivery

What does that even MEAN? Clearly the writer was so excited about Paddington that any sense of trying to sell me something, engage with my business needs, or even hint at a reason for writing to me,  had never entered his or her head.

The letter starts by telling me that Paddington’s story ‘began with a Great British Delivery’  and ‘he has now become a part and parcel of British life’. Parcel! Geddit?

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS UTTER BULLSHIT?

They then tell me, second para, that Paddington is coming to the big screen.

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS IN A PARCELFORCE MAILING?

Finally, three paras in, we get to some sort of product story.  They tell me, knowingly, that ‘your customers want a carrier that can offer them choice, convenience and control’.

Eh?

My customers want this? Not my own company, then? What sort of company do they think Simon Plent Direct Marketing might be? Do they think I might be advising my clients about what parcel delivery service to use? What crazy mixed-up list is my company on?

Leaving this nonsensical non-targetting aside, the letter, and in fact the whole mailer, is overflowing with cliches about the brilliance of Parcel Force’s service:

‘We put convenience first’ ‘You need a carrier you can trust’ ‘Our exceptional quality of service’  This is entirely the level of business to business engagement it operates on. How old do they think I am? Four?

Please please please. Write the letter first. Cram it with interesting stuff I might want to know. Not stuff you want to tell me. Especially stuff about Paddington bear.

I AM A GROWN UP RUNNING A BUSINESS. I DO NOT CARE THAT THERE IS A PADDINGTON BEAR FILM COMING OUT AT CHRISTMAS.

Life is too short, and my time is too expensive, to waste it on rubbish like this.

Tell me what it is you’re offering. Tell me why I need it, how it will help my business. Tell me what you want me to do. And give me a good reason for doing it RIGHT now.

Other than to get me to fill in a form about what sort of parcel services I use (suddenly not how many my customers use?) in return for entering a prize draw to win a trip to, yep you guessed it, Darkest Peru, I have absolutely no idea what this mailer is for.

I have heard of Parcelforce. If my business involves parcels, I presumably know broadly what they offer. This mailing doesn’t tell me anything new, doesn’t announce a new service, doesn’t offer me a discount or any other incentive to use them. So what is the purpose of this mailing?

And, most frustratingly of all, it fails to answer the question burning a hole in the brain of every recipient: what the hell has Parcelforce got to do with a new Paddington Bear film?