Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Promotional Language Must Die

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, ever since I saw this article over at the Copywriter's Crucible about how people ignore advertising when they read--but they do read the news. Apparently, people reading online have even less tolerance and attention for ads than readers of print magazines and newspapers.

I guess I just have one question: why is this a surprise?

Maybe I think more like a "consumer" than an advertiser, but when I think about my own behavior online, I have to admit: I never look at ads. I never click on sponsored links. Somebody must be, because there are plenty of people making money from PPC and text link ads. But I don't. And when I surf online I don't look at graphics much, either. If something is flashing at me, jumping up and down, or dancing the Cha-Cha in one corner of the screen, I know it's probably an ad--and I deliberately avoid looking at it.

Can Internet readers spot an ad a mile away? You betcha--if I'm not just a weird and completely unique example of my species, that is. But somehow I don't think I am. And I wonder what is it that makes marketers, graphic designers, and advertisers think that people will automatically stop and look at something they know is an ad? Do they do this themselves when they're surfing, for any reason other than professional curiosity? And why does it take an eyetracker study to figure this out? Why isn't it just common sense? It seems to me that if businesses stopped and asked themselves "would I watch/read/click on this ad by choice, if I was just a regular human being surfing the net?" before they sent a campaign off into the wide world, they'd make a lot more money.

So how does this apply to writers?

I found a fascinating article on a Nielsen study that looked at what type of writing gets the most attention online. They used several samples of writing that discussed the same topic in different ways. One was objective; it simply stated the facts. Another was promotional; it contained "exaggeration, subjective claims, and boasting." The samples were presented in long versions, short versions, scannable versions, and versions that mixed plain objectivity with subjective, promotional language.

The study found that objective language was 27% more effective at getting the message across than promotional language. Effectiveness went up when the language was concise and easy to scan. The study's conclusion states that readers take longer to process promotional language because of resistance: the copy makes a bold claim, and the reader thinks "yeah, right. You're just trying to sell me something." With objective language, readers simply accept what's said at face value.

The lesson: online readers can spot advertising embedded in text just as easily as if it were a big sparkly giraffe in the corner, dancing the tango.

This seems like common sense to me as well. I remember a few years ago I looked into AWAI, a company that sells correspondence courses on how to write sales letters. I asked about the company in a writers' forum, and some writers said the class was worth the money. There were many, however, who thought the classes were a scam. Not because they didn't like the product--most of them hadn't tried it--but because they didn't trust the sales copy on the website.

AWAI teaches how to write direct response. And their web copy is written in the same style. Click around their site, and you'll see a lot of claims that their classes will lead to working only two or three hours a month, making money hand over fist, and living in a mansion by the beach somewhere. I know that these sales letters are intended to hit the "emotional hot buttons" of people who visit the site--and hey, piles of cash, houses by the beach, and a two-hour work month sound great to me--but they were also causing a lot of distrust in people who may well have bought their product otherwise. People were thinking the claims were just too good to be true.

Meanwhile, I wrote an educational landing page for a client who sells water filters. The page discussed the health risks of chlorine vapor and the benefits of shower filters in a purely objective, informational tone. It doubled the conversion rate of his control. Why? I'd say it's because it increased readers' trust in him as a vendor.

I think that marketers, advertisers, and yes, even copywriters sometimes forget what an unpleasant feeling it is to be approached with a sales pitch. Walking out of my supermarket just a few hours ago, I saw a booth set up for a nonprofit looking for donations. I made the mistake of glancing over at the table as I walked past. Immediately the woman staffing it ran up to me and started talking very fast: "Hihowareyouwhydon'tyoucomeoverrealquickandcheckoutourwork!" I wasn't in a hurry, and I'm often willing to contribute to causes I believe in. But her approach turned me off so much that I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

It's like that in print and online, too. It can be easy to forget that the people we're trying to reach are just like us. They want real information that will help them make decisions and educate them about topics they're interested in. They don't think of themselves as "consumers" and they don't want their web-based info-seeking to be interrupted by intrusive, attention-grabbing ads or sales letters making far-fetched claims.

The bottom line: promotional language doesn't work on the web. But information sells.


Unknown said...

I don't know if part of the problem is a generational thing. The idea of selling products and services with information of value, rather than bombarding people with advertising, is a no brainer for me. Problem is a lot of marketing departments are run by people who've grown up with advertising and it's a cost/benefit formula they understand. But trying to apply old ad rules online isn't going to work so it's done to us to keep telling people this.

Thanks for linking to my post on The Crucible - your blog sends me a ton of traffic!.


Jennifer Williamson said...

That's interesting--I never thought about it being generational, but maybe it is. It may be that "consumers" nowadays (I kinda hate that word) are much less naive and more cynical when it comes to ads, and the emotional appeal doesn't work as much. Maybe as we're exposed to more and more subtle advertising from a younger age, the tougher we are to reach. So what worked for the "older generation" doesn't work so well on web readers.

Hm. Interesting article idea.