The night before the Search Engine Strategies conference in Dallas, I was at dinner with my cousin Sandra and my friends Anthony Muller, Detlev Johnson, Jill Whalen, and Heather Lloyd-Martin. In the course of conversation, Heather, of search engine copywriting newsletter Rank Write, blurted out this week’s article title.
What brings this to mind now? Well, I’ve been exhausting hours on conversion assessment reports for several clients, which puts me in a very objective frame of mind. I’ve found that the fascinating similarity between all the business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) sites I’ve been analyzing is the weakness of the copywriting. Each site fails to precisely and fully describe what the writer wants from the visitor. After all, the word “egg” may superficially resemble the word “eggplant,” but, if you mean “eggplant,” you should say it.
George Bernard Shaw said: “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last you create what you will.”
In a previous article, I quoted Roy H. Williams: “Describe what you want the listener to see, and she will see it. Cause her to imagine taking the action you’d like her to take, and you’ve brought her much closer to taking the action.” The sites I’ve been looking at don’t deliver a complete mental image that allows readers to put themselves in the picture and comprehend the whole. The following poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), about six blind men encountering an elephant, provides the perfect example: The Blind Men and the Elephant
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
Most efforts at persuasion online are nothing more than one blind man trying to convince another to “see” the elephant as he does. You’ve read copy like this: “The blankety-blank is the true essence of a high-performance blankety-blank, delivering sizzling blankety-blank in an absolutely refined way. It’s a paradigm shift with profound implications for blankety-blank.” If this is how you are speaking to your visitors, you need to develop a plan for constructing persuasive copy.
The key to constructing effective mental images and creating powerful persuasive copy lies in systematic and coherent intentionality. Your copy should not be constructed randomly. Instead, it should flow, interconnect, have a consistent personality, and reveal the gestalt as well as the particulars. It can help to follow a fundamental process similar to the one that is used in other developmental or “construction” practices.
Begin by wireframing the mental image or series of mental images you want to interconnect, starting with the action or actions you want your visitor to take. In wireframing, we begin by dealing with “what” questions — the how comes later. The goal is to ensure that the needs of both you and your readers will be met. Find all the words that help describe the complete mental images you need to convey — all the nouns that draw the mental picture and all the adjectives that modify these. Then relate these nouns with verbs, which are modified by adverbs. Finally, add prepositions to form complete sentences and paragraphs that will evoke the full mental image and its associations in the mind of the reader.
The next step is to arrange content in the form of a storyboard. You develop mock-ups of potential “pages” that support the flow of all actions identified in the wireframe. Your result looks a lot like an enhanced flow chart, with pages representing each mental image. Each sheet describes the mental image and contains a summary of the objectives.
Remember, our objective here is to elicit certain emotions that will lead people to do what we want them to do, since people buy emotionally and only rationalize it later. Once you have each sheet done, arrange the pages in the logical order of the persuasive process, with arrows between them.
The third phase, whose early segments may occur in tandem with storyboarding, is prototyping. Develop an operational model of the copy, which will allow you to see exactly how your writing functions and hear how it sounds (please read your copy out loud). This is where you really start creating your copy. When you have finished your copy and made sure it covers everything you planned in the wireframe, you can start to freeze it, preparing it for the Web. For example, ask yourself how the headlines read, where the hyperlinks are, how the pages are split up, and how they look with the design.
The fourth and most enjoyable phase is optimizing the copy, in which you test and optimize it for improved conversion rates (more on this in a future article). I recommend saving the evolving versions of your copy so you never forget where the ideas came from.
Words are magical! Treat them haphazardly and you will be making little difference between eggs and eggplant. You will have lightning bugs instead of lightning. Are you treating your words as if they have the power to persuade, or are you limply using them to simply inform?