Don’t Box In Your Writers

Ever hear these before?

  • Take the customer’s point of view (as per my own Web site).
  • Listen to your customers.
  • Understand what the customer wants.
  • Be “customer-centric.”
  • It’s all about the customer.

This is all great advice. Kind of.

Companies use focus groups, surveys, polls, and online feedback links — whatever it takes to listen to their customers.

The harder you listen to your customers, the better you’ll understand their needs and desires. And the better you understand their needs and desires, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to match what you sell to what they want to buy.

Understanding the customer is a key requirement within all sales and marketing environments, including the Web.

But there is a small problem here.

When you listen too hard, you risk losing your own voice. And if you lose your own voice, nobody will waste time listening to what you have to say.

Think of it this way. Imagine you go to a party and move from one group of guests to another, listening to the drift of the conversation and then inserting comments and opinions that you know will be favorably received. The various groups of people around the room may be talking about very different subjects and may have very different opinions. But you listen carefully and always make sure that what you say is what the group wants to hear.

To achieve this neat little party trick, you need to be a good listener. But you also need to suppress all your own character and opinions. In fact, we all know people like this. They are boring, vanilla, dull, uninteresting. What’s the point of listening to the views of someone who simply reflects back what you yourself already know and feel?

And therein lies the danger for marketers who obsess too much about listening to their customers. Yes, listening allows you to tell your customers what they want to hear. But it also means that you are presenting your company and its products and services as being characterless, dull, and boring. Just like everyone else’s. You’re saying, in effect, “Hey, we’ll be whoever you want us to be. Just so long as you buy from us.”

Oh joy. Sadly, more and more companies online present themselves in this bland, undifferentiated way.

It makes better sense to find a middle ground. Yes, listen to what your customers want. But also give full voice to the character of your own company. And give your copywriters the freedom to dig down and find that character and express it boldly.

This means trusting your copywriters and giving them your support. It also means instructing site and email “editors” — whoever they are in your organization — to back off a tad. Character and voice cannot survive overediting.

A different voice will serve you well. After all, who would you choose to spend time with at that party — the dull, vanilla person who tries to please everyone, or the strong character with real, heart-felt opinions?

Editor’s note: In case you were wondering: We haven’t forgotten about the little contest we started the last time this column was published. We’ve gotten so many entries — more than 50, and still counting — that it’s taking some time to pick out the best and most fitting tag line for ClickZ. We may even extend the anticipation by picking three among the best entries and have you vote on the best of the best…

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