Friday, January 8, 2010

Writing for Your Website

Content is STILL King

For better or for worse, the words that we use set a tone, and form, in others, a distinct impression of our personality. Of course, when we communicate "in person," we augment our words with a continuous, real-time feedback loop in the form of facial expressions, body language, and gestures, all of which go a long way toward influencing how the listener responds to the messages we're trying to convey. These factors all contribute to whether or not our words are credible, and whether or not the listener "trusts" us as a messenger.

In the online world, we lose access to the non-verbal cues that are so important in our one-to-one communication. As a result, our audience evaluates our online messages very differently, and — without the ongoing reinforcement of our body language and expressiveness — it is MUCH more difficult to evoke trust and, in the case of say, a sales message, to move toward a "close."

Content is More Important Than Ever

Writing for the web requires a slightly different approach than, say, scripting what you'd say in person, or even in a telephone conversation, where some limited real-time feedback is still taking place. To compound things, according to web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, during an average site visit, users read only 28% of the words on the typical web page. So you really need to get to the point quickly... and convincingly. Nielsen says, for example, that the introductory paragraph(s) found at the top of many Web pages — what he refers to as "blah-blah text" — is typically skipped-over by readers, who tend to go directly to more action-oriented content, such as product features, bulleted lists, or hypertext links. So, Nielsen recommends that writers "cut to the chase" with their web content. Don't waste word count on generic, feel-good material. Hey... it's not going to make your prospects or customers "feel good" anyway, so why bother? Your site visitors only want to learn whether or not your product or service will help to solve their problems — and as quickly as possible — so they can leave your site and move on to other business.

When prospects — or clients — visit your website, they don't have the same opportunity to analyze what you're saying against a continual flow of non-verbal cues. Accordingly, it's really up to your choice of words to help them decide whether or not to trust what you're saying, and ultimately, your business and brand. The words you choose, and the way in which you present them, create an impression in the mind of the reader, so be respectful of your audience, and when writing web copy, try to put yourself in their place. Limit hyperbole— words like amazing or unbelievable — and stick to a more basic style of writing. Also, you should write in terms that reflect your audience's language, as well. If your audience typically calls something a "widget," but you refer to it as a "doodad," you're gonna have a communication problem.

Making Your Website Headlines Work for You

Writing good headlines for your website has nothing to do with writing great literature, or even articles in newspapers or magazines. Great website headlines are worth their weight in gold, but knowing how to create them is not particularly intuitive, nor is it something that you can learn by emulating what you read in newspapers and magazines. In traditional print media, the reader has clearly decided to engage and browse through the publication, while on the web, there are an unlimited number of distractions, all just a mouse click away. Folks who are browsing a website typically don't wander through the site looking for articles of interest, in the same way that they might with a magazine or newspaper. They rely on search engines to search and discover content, so once someone manages to find your site, you have an extremely limited window of opportunity in which to engage them and maintain their attention. For maximum effectiveness, you'll want to:

  • Ensure that your content is easily found via search engines
  • Increase your visibility and exposure on the topics about which you write
  • Attract better-targeted visitors who have real interest in what you have to say

While this article is not focused on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), there are many aspects of your writing style that can help to bolster your ranking in search engines. Headlines can be particularly important. To write effective headlines for your website, you'll want to:

  1. Keep your title short — Three to six words is the ideal length, with ten words probably the limit. Search engines such as Google give "high relevance" to only the first set of words you use in the title, and they will typically display only around 8 to 10 words in their results pages (Google and MSN; Yahoo displays up to 16 words). Also, Google looks at the opening keywords of your title and checks to see whether or not they are reinforced in your own content before deciding where to place your page inside search engine result pages.
  2. Don't try to to be "clever," by using irony, puns, plays on words, or any other journalistic approach. Your title should really be more of a "label" for your article, making it easy to find for folks who are using search engines to find articles (such as yours) that are actually of interest to them. Remember, too, that on the web, headlines are often displayed out of context. Make it easy for visitors to find yourcontent!
  3. Your headlines should be able to stand on their own If somebody was to read your title without the associated article, would they have a clue about the content? Your headline needs to be self-sufficient, and make sense when the rest of the content is not readily available.
  4. Use the same terminology that your visitors would use — Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects, and think about what search terms they would use to search for your product or service... or, better still, your competitor's product. Use this knowledge to craft headlines that will be most meaningful to your audience.

Website Body Copy: Short and Sweet

First, make your "word count" for online viewing about half the word count you might use when writing for print collaterals. Many users find it tiring to read too much text on screens, and they also tend to read more slowly on computer screens than they do on paper. Use simple sentence structures. On the web, convoluted writing and complex words are even harder to understand than they are in print. Remember that web users are impatient and critical. They haven't gone to your site because you are a wonderful person, but because they have something that they need to accomplish. Write in a simple, non-hyperbolic style that allows them to quickly find the information they need.

Also, recognize that visitors especially those arriving through a search engine can enter your site at virtually any page, and they can easily move back-and-forth between pages, so make sure that each page is independent of the others, and covers its respective topic without assumptions about the previous page (or the home page, for that matter) having actually been seen by the visitor. It's also a good idea to provide links to background info or explanations to explain names or concepts that might not be clear to the casual reader.

Limit the amount of scrolling that your visitors need to do, and put your most important information at the top, so that it can be seen without any scrolling at all. If you do feel the need to have lengthy pages, make sure that you provide a "Back to Top" anchor link at both the bottom of the page. Also, the Web is a fluid medium, so update your content frequently. Statistics, numbers, and examples all need to be recent, or your company's credibility will suffer. For example, before a conference, your page about the event might have a link to a general info page or even a registration form; afterward, you might have a recap of the event, or provide links to slides or transcripts of a presentation that was given at the conference.

Lastly, most web visitors scan pages; they do not read word-by-word, so if you've got a lot of uninterrupted text, think of ways to make your document easy on the eyes. For example, to make important words or ideas stand out, use highlighting, as it will aid in their visual scanning of the page.

Fresh Eyes Can Improve Your Web Content

Keep your writing crisp and simple. Each paragraph should contain just one main idea; use a second paragraph for a second idea, since readers will often skip over any ancillary points as they scan over the paragraph. When you finally think you have a good finished product, be sure to have others proof it... not just for typos and grammatical errors, but also to see if it "makes sense" to a casual reader. Readers who don't really know much about your business can often make for great editors... their lack of industry or product knowledge enables them to spot problems that might not be obvious to you, so enlist your spouses, friends or relatives. The end result will be better for the effort!

Carving Out a Reputation

The Crucial Role of Branding and Positioning for Tech Companies

Carving Out a ReputationStarting a B2B technology company is a tough business. Many companies try, but few succeed over the long haul. But not all of the companies that fail do so because of bad technology. Some that fail even have superior technology... but they didn't have a good handle on the marketing process. The B2B technology market is a demanding one, with buyers who are knowledgable, pressed for time, and, ultimately fickle. They have no interest in wading through products that are poorly positioned, with lousy collaterals, or confusing pricing models. Which is why a good working knowledge of Product Marketing is so vitally important!

There are typically two things that stand between a technology product and its intended market: The product itself; and a successful marketing plan. Products that don't adequately address market needs, or that perform poorly, already have two strikes against them. But even a killer product, without a sound, viable marketing plan, can quickly go down in flames. Now, if you've got a product that just isn't up to snuff, that's really a Product Management issue, beyond the scope of this article (we'll cover it in the next issue). But, having successfully marketed tech products that were, shall we say, not quite ready for prime time, I'd like to talk about positioning strategies that have proven effective.

First, I'd like to talk about the distinction between Product Management and Product Marketing... In an ideal world, these disciplines work closely together but are distinctively separate, because their roles are somewhat different. At the most basic level, Product Managers "listen to" the market — learning what the market needs and building a product that meets those needs; while Product Marketers "talk to" the market — telling them what your product is and how it can help them. Not a huge distinction, but an important one. Unfortunately, in this day and age, more and more companies are combining these roles into one, especially in startups and early-stage companies. Of course, in these types of situations, you'd better have a pretty good handle on the fundamentals of both disciplines; However, for this series, I'm focusing primarily on the high-level fundamentals of Product Marketing.

Product Marketing Basics

There are four basic components that are essential to product marketing:

  • Positioning — Providing a clear description to the marketplace of your product's purpose and functionality, as a stand-alone entity, as well as in relation to competing products
  • Launch — Announcing and releasing the product to the marketplace
  • Distribution — Delivering the product to buyers
  • Sustaining — Maintaining sales and market share through marketing and promotional activities Positioning, Naming, and Pricing

This month, we'll focus primarily on Positioning. Positioning is something that happens in the minds of the target market. It's the perception the market has of a particular company, product or service in relation to their perceptions of competitors in the same category. For example, you know the difference between, say, Microsoft and Apple, because of the considerabl work that each company has done on its positioning. Other examples in the automotive industry might be Volvo (safety); Porsche (engineering); and Subaru (inexpensive dependability). In the emerging technology space, though, it's scary how many tech products have gone to market without a clear understanding of the product's position in the marketplace. Until you've properly defined your product, your target market, and the all-important "why" someone would want to buy it, you can't even begin to market it. Positioning is the foundation for virtually all of your marketing activities. And it has to be clear and logical, to both your marketplace, and, equally importantly, to your company. More on that later.

There are many ways to position your product, but here's a good example of a product positioning statement "format," of the type that was used by Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm, from his days at the legendary Silicon Valley tech marketing consultancy Regis McKenna. Moore wrote that "Positioning is the single largest influence on the buying decision." An example of the type of format he used looks like this:

Product Position Statement

For (list the targeted end-user)

Who wants or needs (list a compelling reason for them to purchase),

The (your product or service) is a (list the product category)

That provides (list your key benefits),

Unlike the (name of competing product) offered by (list your main competitor),

Which does not (list the key points of differentiation)

So, the logical extension might look something like this:

For Retailers who need real-time point-of-sale transaction security monitoring, eVanta'sTransView is an enterprise Point of Sale transaction monitoring solution that provides live monitoring and real-time flagging of suspicious transactions, unlike currently available solution that only do so in batch processes.

Here's a slightly different approach — Imagine that you're promoting a service such as tax preparation that targets the self-employed. You might work through a thought process something like this

This service would be valuable because:
The provider specializes in tax preparation for the self-employed.

Customers would benefit because:

  • Expertise in this area would provide the maximum potential for tax savings.
  • Lower fee structure enabled because of a narrower band of expertise.
  • Quicker response (and quicker refunds) because expertise enables returns to be completed in a more timely manner.

This service would be useful for:

  • Business consultants
  • Freelance writers
  • Photographers
  • Artists
  • Musicians

The resulting short and long positioning statements might read:


Bob Eckert, CPA, is a tax preparation service that helps self-employed individuals such as business consultants, freelance writers, musicians and artists file their tax forms quickly and correctly, enabling them to reduce their tax liability.


Bob Eckert, CPA, meets the needs of self-employed people such as business consultants, freelance writers, musicians and artists. Customers will benefit from using Bob Eckert, CPA, because Mr. Eckert is an expert in this area and is knowledgable about self-employment tax law, enabling the maximum about of tax savings. Clients also benefit from a lower fee structure and quicker response, because Mr. Eckert's expertise enables him to complete these types of returns more quickly than a "generalist" Tax Firm.

The Essentials

As you see, there are a number of different approaches that you can take. But generally, the product positioning process involves:

  • Defining the market in which the product or brand will compete (who are the relevant buyers)
  • Identifying the attributes that define the product space
  • Collecting information from a sample of customers about their perceptions of each currently-available competitive product and their relevant attributes

Specifically, you need to answer a couple of questions:

  • Who is your target market?
  • What challenges do they face that your product can help them solve?
  • What are the major features and benefits of your product, and how to they align with the expectations of your target audience?
  • What other products are available, against which your product must compete?
  • How does your product stand up against these competing products?
  • What class of product are you selling (low-end, mid-level, high-end)?

Answer these questions truthfully and objectively, and you're well on your way to successfully bringing your product to market. You'll be able to:

  • Clearly define your target audience
  • Clearly define your product and product category
  • Build a product that meets the needs of your target audience (althought this encroaches into Product Management territory)
  • Determine what kind of distribution system (internal or external) you will require
  • Price your product competitively (and realistically)

The Competitive Matrix

A Competitive Market Matrix

Another tool that is often used in developing positioning is a matrix (example at right), on which you would plot-out the currently-available competing products within the marketplace, along with relevant attributes, from low-to high (i.e. price, features, innovation, etc.)

A competitive matrix helps you determine your company's competitive advantage (or disadvantage, for that matter). It provides an easy-to-read portrait of your competitive landscape and your position in the marketplace. This can aid in visualizing where you are versus your competitors, and can help you to better understand your strengths and weaknesses. As you can imagine, it is critical that you are coldlyobjective about where you actually fit in the marketplace. Attempting to fudge on this area will only mean that the decisions you make based on this delusion will be flawed... as will your results. An objective view of your "real" position within the marketplace can help you determine which steps you need to take in order to a) be competitive, and b) understand what you would need to do to, in order to be where you'd want to be on the matrix.

The Value of Your Brand

Branding and positioning are key to the success of your product, so it's crucial that your efforts convey a clear and credible promise of value for your intended audience. It's important to understand what a brand is. It's NOT a product, yet that seems to be a difficult concept for some marketers to understand. Sure, you can buy a company. And you can buy its brands. But you can NOT sell these brands to the customer. All you can ever sell are products and services. That's because the brand is just a symbol, an intangible entity that is the result of your company's hard work: PR, media and analyst relations; advertising; collaterals; testimonials; and — of course — a good product. The real goal of investing in your brand is to be able to charge a premium for your product, or to increase your market share. Or preferably both.

Communicating Your Value

In order to gain acceptance for your product or service, you'll need to create compelling value propositions that address not only the user benefits of your product, but also the benefits to decision-makers and key influencers, who may not be the same as the end-user. In B2B plays, your decision-makers and influencers are — more often than not — completely different from one another, and may even be in conflict with each other. For example, say you've developed an application that helps monitor financial transactions at a brokerage, identifying and flagging unusual transactions that might be inappropriate or even fraudulent. Your end-user might be a mid-level operations employee, but they aren't the actual decision maker. While they might recommend products or services, the final decision ultimately rests with a business manager or P&L owner. Similarly, technology products will usually need to be vetted by a technology gatekeeper, say, the CTO or the CIO. Of course, their interest might be in maintaining tight control over technology spending (hoarding it all for internal projects), and they might also be wary of technology (or technology purchases) that did not originate with them. And if there are consultants involved, that can add yet another layer of gatekeeper who must also be "managed."

In this type of scenario, you'll need to look at each participant in the decision-making process, identify their respective hot-buttons, and develop specific value propositions for each of them. Each participant in the decision process must be made to feel that your product or service provides them with real, distinct value, value that they can't get elsewhere. If you already have customers, you need to ask them "What value do users get from this product or service?" You need to determine how they are better-off, as a result of using your product or service. And, what characteristics differentiate your product or service from others that are already available in the marketplace? If you don't yet have customers, you need to be talking to your prospects, and determining what they feel are the most important aspects of your offering (hopefully, you will have already done this before you began your product development efforts). Starting with the answers to these questions, you can begin to create the first draft of your positioning statement. After you've done so, test it out on people who don't really know what it is that you do or sell, and listen for their responses. Once you've piqued their interest sufficiently so that they want to know "more," you'll know you're on the right track!

Employee Alignment

One last point that is too often neglected: It is critical that your employees — at all levels — are brought into the branding and positioning process at the earliest stage. They already have a perception — for better or for worse — of your company and its products. They also may be on the "front lines," interfacing directly with your prospects and clients, and may have valuable insight on how you are already perceived within the marketplace. In order for your brand positioning to be effective, it has to reach every area of your company, and be a part of every customer interaction. In order to have a strong brand, even your receptionist must know the central values, and these values should guide their day-to-day behavior. With proper employee alignment, each and every person in your company will deliver a consistent brand experience to each and every prospect or customer with whom they come in contact. And as a result, your prospects and customers — and the marketplace — will begin to regularly associate your products and your company with the values you've established!

Well Worth the Effort

Virtually every strategic marketing activity — from naming, to collateral development, to packaging, to PR, Media, and Analyst Relations — depends on having a clear and concise brand position. A well-conceived — andconsistent — brand and positioning strategy creates a strong brand equity, which is the added value brought to your company's products or services that enables you to charge more than what can be charged by similar, unbranded (or poorly-branded) products. An obvious example of this would be Coke versus a generic or store-brand cola. Because Coca-Cola has built such a powerful brand equity, it can charge more for its product — which is why customers willingly search-out Coke, and will pay a premium price. Position your company and its products correctly, and you will quickly build awareness and enhance profitability!

Hopefully, this article has provided you with some useful information that can help you in properly positioning your product or service.

Comments or questions? Drop me a line at

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