Beware The Subtext

Your spouse comes home wearing a new suit and asks you, “Hey, do you like my new suit?” As it happens you don’t.

But you’re a nice person. So you say, “I think it’s great.”

To which your spouse replies, “You don’t like it, do you?”

“Sure I do. I’d tell you if I didn’t.”

“No you wouldn’t.”

and so it goes. Your spouse knows you well and can read the subtext of what you’re actually saying.

When we speak or write, we communicate on at least two levels. There’s what we actually say, and then there’s the subtext. As the writer or speaker, we assume that the subtext is hidden. But it isn’t. In fact, the subtext can say more about us than the real text.

Imagine I’m trying to sell you my consulting services and I say, “After all my experience in the field of writing, I can offer you solutions that — quite frankly — are beyond you and your colleagues.”

It could be true. But I’d be doing a poor job of selling myself if I were ever to use such a line, because the subtext reads, “I’m an arrogant and patronizing jerk.”

How does this apply to the web? Well, subtext is everywhere. This last week, I was doing some work looking at how various sites sell and position their affiliate programs. I wasn’t looking at the various deals and commission rates, just at how they presented the program to prospective affiliate partners.

I found a lot of subtext – some of it good, and some of it bad. Here’s a major subject heading taken from the affiliate area of the Barnes and Noble site.

“Affiliate Network: Why Is the Best”

Ouch. To my mind, that ranks along with my earlier line: “In the field of writing, I can offer you solutions that are beyond you and your colleagues.”

The subtext of the Barnes and Noble site? “Listen to us because we’re jolly important and you should be honored to share the same cyberspace.”

I would humbly suggest they think of tweaking it to say something like: “Affiliate Network: Why you’ll make more with”

Or perhaps: “Affiliate Network: works harder to make you more money.”

Hidden further down the same page, B and N says: “We’ll put your brand on our site. Every time a visitor follows an Affiliate link from your site to, we’ll proudly display your graphic link on the upper left corner of every page on our site. You design the graphic.”

There now that’s more like it. What a great benefit for the prospective affiliate! Why not bring this further up to the front?

By contrast, I really like what the guys at do with their opening. Here’s the first thing they say: “If you have a web site, we have an easy way for you to earn money and increase your site traffic. By becoming a Affiliate, you can open your own online software store in minutes, for free! Join now and link to from your web site — it’s that easy! You’ll earn 5 to 10 percent for every software title you sell.”

Great stuff. In 63 words they cover all the ground. They tell me that I’ll earn money, get more traffic, can open my “store” in minutes, that it’s free, and how much I can earn. And not one self-serving word about what a wonderful company they are. It’s all about me!

The subtext? It says this: “We know that the success of our affiliate program depends on you, our prospective affiliates. So we’re not going to waste your time — we’re going to get right to it and tell you what you can get from this program.”

Subtext is a powerful thing. It’s lurking behind every line you publish. So don’t just proofread the text of what you put online. Proofread the subtext as well.

You’ll be glad you did.

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