Be Direct

Tell me: How come most content on most Web sites is written the same way on every page? Visit Yahoo, and you’ll see that there’s absolutely no difference between the tone of voice of Yahoo Finance and that of Yahoo Personals. The writing style, the graphics, and the icons are the same.

Yes, you might say, we need to see Yahoo’s brand values expressed consistently from page to page and from section to section. But do we really need that sameness?

This sameness was a prerequisite in the “good old days,” when you were creating brochures, for example. You needed clear consistency and uniformity from page to page. Today’s billboard campaigns need consistency between displays so that all side-of-the-bus ads and all billboards are the same — and are therefore legible to the masses of passersby.

But the Web is different, and its difference should put question marks on some of our golden rules of advertising.

Now, how would my argument manifest itself in practice? Simple. It would appear as targeted copy. You would target your writing to your specific audience. The vast majority of Web pages, just like the billboards, still try sending uniform messages — but to nonuniform segments.

So, if Yahoo were to follow this targeting guideline, a finance expert would write to a finance expert, a person who understands the dad with an interest in finance would write to the dad with an interest in finance, the single woman looking for a husband would write to… Well, you get it. Of course, not everyone has writing skills. But a representative of your target audience certainly has an understanding of that audience, because he or she is the audience. A copywriter can fix the details. We’re talking about being direct.

My second question is, How come the icons are the same on all pages? Now, don’t tell me about brand consistency again. A brand can have many faces — and often does — and still be strong and clear.

Visit MSN, and you’ll see there is absolutely no graphical difference between pages. The icons in MSN’s WomenCentral section are the same as those used in its sports pages. The graphics are exactly the same in all locations because some brand manager decided to go ahead with a uniform, safe, and easy template. You can’t tell me that there’s value in a uniform look when it’s dealing with such different audiences.

However, the value of a targeted look would be great. If the tone of voice and the graphic style of a brand were informed by the audience being addressed, the contact with that audience would gain relevance and meaning.

What usually happens, though, reflects the habit of sad compromise apparent on the MSN and Yahoo sites, and on most other sites. Most branding people seem stubbornly incapable of comprehending a crucial fact: Being direct means communicating successfully in a world that no longer offers brand builders a uniform audience.

So here is my suggestion: Walk through your site, and note the different audiences you’re currently trying to communicate with. Then start from the audience end and work backwards. Ask your audience segments to supervise your copy rewriting and your graphics redesigning so that you achieve communication tools that each audience finds appealing. Graphic consistency is still possible. But the most visible point of attraction needs to be your target-directed message. That’s what the Internet is all about, isn’t it?

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