Fix Your Writing or Suffer Lower Conversion Rates

  |  September 27, 2010   |  Comments

To increase the odds of higher conversion rates for you and higher satisfaction for your consumers, you need to consider the structure, tone, and format of your writing.

The vast majority of Internet users do not read a Web page word by word. They scan it and focus on individual words, phrases, or sentences. They are often seeing your company for the first time, and do not know how much trust to place in your information. They are used to being assaulted with promotional messages and will tune out most of your attempts to overtly market to them. They are task-oriented and are on your site to get something specific accomplished.

Most of the adaptations that you need to make to your writing have a single purpose: to reduce the visitor's cognitive load.

Instead of being forced to pay attention to how the information is presented, they can devote more focus to getting their intended task accomplished. By getting out of their way, you empower them to be faster, more efficient, and effective. This will lead to higher conversion rates for you, and higher satisfaction for them.

To increase the odds of a favorable outcome you need to consider the following areas of your writing.

Structure

The preferred structure for most Web writing is the inverted pyramid. It uses the principle of primacy (ordering) to control saliency (importance). In this style of writing, you put your conclusions and key points first. Less important and supporting information should be placed last. This is critical since most readers will choose not to read very far.

Get to the point and let them decide if your content is relevant enough for them to stick around. By writing in this way you maximize the chances that they will come away with the information that you consider most valuable. The same structure should be used for creating online audio or video clips for your site.

Remember that the visitor may have arrived from any number of different inbound links and may not have a lot of context about your page. Use clear and prominent page titles to tell them why each page is important.

Make sure that you only have one main idea per paragraph. If you bury a second idea lower in a block of text, it will probably be missed as the reader jumps down to scan the lead-in text of the subsequent paragraph.

The inverted pyramid approach should be used when creating bullet lists or lists of navigational links - put the important ones on top.

Keep your pages short. This will allow them to be digested in small, bite-sized chunks that correspond to a Web user's attention span. There is evidence to show that significantly shorter text results in higher retention and recall of information, and is more likely to lead to conversion actions. Your page should only contain important information for its topic and level of detail. You can move longer supporting text to other pages, and create links for the dedicated reader.

Tone

Most Internet surfers are constantly subjected to a barrage of promotional messages and advertising. As a basic defense mechanism, they have learned to tune out most hype. Perhaps you do have to be somewhat crass to get them to your landing page. You should now stop screaming at your visitors. You are no longer (for the moment) competing for their attention with other websites. So you need to change the focus to the task that they are trying to accomplish.

Your visitors detest "marketese." Unfortunately, your landing page was probably written in this kind of over-the-top promotional style. It usually involves a lot of boasting and unsubstantiated claims. Your claims are probably not true anyway, but even if they are you can use different language to make your point.

Marketese may be (barely) acceptable in your press releases when you are trying to puff up your company and accomplishments. But on your landing page it spells disaster. Marketese requires work on the part of your visitor. It saps their energy and attention, and forces them to spend time separating the content from the fluff. It also results in much longer word counts. You are missing an enormous opportunity by not creating a hype-free zone on your landing page.

How to Avoid Writing in Marketese
  • Do not use any adjectives
  • Provide only objective information
  • Focus on the needs of your audience

Save your visitors the aggravation and only tell them what they want to hear. Your editorial tone should have the following attributes:

  • Factual: Writing factually will take a little work. It is difficult to stop making subjective statements. You may catch yourself lapsing into marketese at unexpected moments. But stick with it. You will be amazed at how much more effective your writing will be. Remember, your visitor is not looking to be entertained, and certainly not to be marketed to. They are there to deal with a specific need or problem that they have. The best kind of information you can give them is objective in nature.
  • Task-oriented: Task-oriented writing is focused on the roles, tasks, and sales-funnel steps that are required to move your visitors through the conversion action. You should organize your text in the order that the visitor is likely to need it. For example, a big-ticket consumer product site might lay out the following high-level steps for the buying process: research, compare, customize, purchase.
  • Precise: It is critical to be clear in Web writing. The audience can be very diverse and can bring a variety of cultural backgrounds to their interpretation of your language. Be careful about your exact choice of words. Never try to be funny or clever. Do not use puns, metaphors, or colloquial expressions.
  • Concise: Become a word miser. Ask yourself, "How can I make this even shorter? Do I really need to communicate this at all?" Brevity has several advantages. It increases absorption and recall of information. It shortens the time that visitors spend reading it - minimizing the likelihood of increased frustration and impatience. It supports the goals of inverted pyramid writing, and the scannable text requirements described in the next section.

Format

Since people don't read the Web, the format of your writing should support their opportunistic scanning behavior. Use the following guidelines to help you write scannable text:

  • Write in fragments or short sentences (don't worry about grammatical correctness if you have made yourself clear).
  • Use digits instead of words to write out numbers (e.g., "47" instead of "forty seven")
  • Highlight important information-carrying words (do not highlight whole sentences; stick to two- or three-word phrases).
  • Use clear, emphasized titles for page headings and important subheads.
  • Use ordinary language (avoid industry jargon and acronyms that are not widely understood).
  • Use active voice, and action verbs.
  • Use bullet lists instead of paragraphs.
  • Keep lists between three and seven items (the limit of human short-term memory "chunking").
  • Do not use more than two levels for lists or headings.
  • Use descriptive link text (describing the information on the target page).
  • Use supporting links to maintain present supplemental information and "see also" cross-referenced information.

If you review your website or landing pages with a critical eye and faithfully implement the recommendations above, I can guarantee that you will make a better and more persuasive connection with your visitors. This in turn should make your cash register ring more often.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim Ash

Tim Ash is CEO of SiteTuners.com, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, full-service guaranteed-improvement tests, and software tools to improve conversion rates. SiteTuners' AttentionWizard.com visual attention prediction tool can be used on a landing page screenshot or mock-up to quickly identify major conversion issues. He has worked with Google, Facebook, American Express, CBS, Sony Music, Universal Studios, Verizon Wireless, Texas Instruments, and Coach.

Tim is a highly-regarded presenter at SES, eMetrics, PPC Summit, Affiliate Summit, PubCon, Affiliate Conference, and LeadsCon. He is the chairperson of ConversionConference.com, the first conference focused on improving online conversions. A columnist for several publications including ClickZ, he's host of the weekly Landing Page Optimization show and podcast on WebmasterRadio.fm. His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

He received his B.S. and M.S. during his Ph.D. studies at UC San Diego. Tim is the author of the bestselling book, "Landing Page Optimization."

Connect with Tim on Google+.

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