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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007

When Developers Write Copy — Part 1

By Robert Gorell
October 11th, 2007

If you think big-budget websites have a natural advantage over small business, think again. Web copy is often the great equalizer. While many online businesses don’t hesitate to spend a large chunk of change on hiring a real copywriter for the homepage, ‘About Us’ page, and so on, so-called “details” — like bits of copy in ‘Contact’ forms or shopping carts — get sacrificed. It’s in these moments, web developers are forced to wave a magic wand and transform themselves into copywriters. And good luck to anyone who thinks their visitors don’t notice this trade-off. They do.

At risk of shooting fish in a barrel, I’d like to warm up this series with a screenshot from the social networking site every web developer and/or designer (who isn’t in a band) loves to hate: MySpace

Now, before I discuss a fourth problem, let’s take a look at points 1, 2 & 3:1.)Click click here to read FAQ” — You don’t need to have entered our hyperlink contest to know why that’s off.

2.) Are you sure there’s a sub-topic? I haven’t selected anything. (Submit may not be the best choice, either.) Regardless, this drop-down menu tells MySpace visitors that they will be funneled to a stock answer on MySpace’s own terms. It’s the “Contact Us” page equivalent of getting a robotic customer service operator (“Hi! My name’s Lucy. I’m here to waste your time and frustrate you by pretending there’s a real human on the other side of this call.”)

3.) This could be nitpicking, but if that’s their fifth most popular question, it’s no wonder the developers are spending more time on fixing bugs than writing copy. They could have just said, “Has my Profile page been hacked?” The way this is phrased makes the website and its members look bad (e.g., “It has music, sound or strange graphics on it?” isn’t a question).

In a recent blog post, The New York Times‘ David Pogue gives us a great example of sin and syntax:

My friend Rich Koster noticed a funny new feature in the latest iPhone software. In Settings, under Safari, there’s a button called Developer. It offers you a button called Debug Console, and there’s a little description there to help you:

“Debug Console will automatically appear to help resolve web page errors.”

Rich read this message the same way I did: “It will APPEAR to help resolve web errors, but won’t REALLY resolve them.”

The copy editor in me thinks that what they really meant was, “Debug Console will appear automatically to help resolve web page errors.” :)

Now for my #4.) If you look closely, MySpace’s red “NOTE” text can be distorted in similar ways:

Please choose “Cancel” from the Account Settings to delete your account. If you do not receive the confirmation e-mail for account deletion, please email us from the email address you use on myspace.

We will not honor delete requests sent via this form.

Hmm… So, I just got to this page and, before I’ve even selected anything, you want to tell me how I can cancel my account? What if I haven’t even created an account yet? Is canceling that common? Are you saying that I should email you from the MySpace account I just deleted, or the email address I used to create the MySpace account? Oh, and if you “won’t honor delete requests sent via this form,” why are you offering them? Are you not honoring them, or are you not offering them? What’s the deal, MySpace?

We’ve got a stockpile of similar screenshots from other sites, but it would be great to hear from you. Care to link us to places where the company would’ve been better off paying copywriters to follow through at each step?

UPDATE: If you liked this post, “click click here” for Part 2. ;)

[Author's Note to web developers and designers: I come not to bury you, but to praise you. There's enough on your plate already, and I've seen this happen too many times. You're expected to "make it happen," regardless of what should or shouldn't be your job. Few writers can do what you do, and there are limits to your talent as well. Besides, if it makes you feel better, consider the fact that you tend to get paid more than copywriters.]

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Comments (22)

  1. Being a developer with no money. It is impossible for me to hire a copy writer to do my work.

    I try my best to improve myself by reading Grokdotcom and using common sense.

    But I lack the magic touch. But at least I know it :-(

  2. Sébastien

    Knowing it is more than half the battle. My suggestion is to either have someone like your mom or a 5-6th grader read it to make sure it makes sense to them.

  3. Thank Bryan. I will try something like that.

    I would had love to subscribe to the hyperlink contest, but my web site is in French only :-)

  4. What happens to me is that during development, we don’t know what copy to provide and often miss the little details. We get focused on big site improvements and when we want to go back and change little bits of copy, they charge us. sometimes it’s easier to just let it go until we can make a lot of changes at once.

  5. Lydia,

    Are you a developer or a copywriter? I wasn’t sure from your comments, because I know this frustration runs both ways.

    Regardless, you’re exactly right. If company wants to do it right, they’ll have a plan in place to account for how content elements fit together. That’s what we do with our Persuasion Architecture™ methodology. Planning the visitor experience in advance is the only way to hold marketing accountable. Otherwise, marketers end up spinning their wheels, trying to hold web developers and copywriters accountable when it’s really their lack of planning that’s to blame.

  6. A slight tangent to your point – but there is a similar lesson to be had.

    Some designers know – or expect – ‘marketing/copy’ to change text on forms, fault reports etc – and so they put ‘temporary’ text in during development.

    Sadly these are not always picked up in testing (if – big if – testing takes place, how often do you deliberately make something not work in order to read the resulting error-page instructions?).

    I caught one that had gone live that said ‘if youv’e got this page its because youre f*****g stupid’ – but without the asterisks. The poor spelling/grammar was the least of my concerns.

    Chalk one up for having someone who carries the responsibility of site management in order to address the ‘your fault not ours’ issue that comes from all parties concerned.

  7. Although I am a we developer, I came up as a copywriter, and relish projects that focus on great, creative copywriting. However, these are few and far between. The problem in my experience isn’t so much that developers don’t hire copywriters, but an underlying problem. I believe that most developers, and their clients, don’t understand the value of copywriting at all. Almost anyone that speaks English, even as a second language, believes they can write, and don’t appreciate the difference between writing, even grammatically correct writing, and professional copywriting. I’ve seen clients write their own copy, hire a college student, or be seduced by the lure of outsourcing to India, Africa, Russia and even China. Great copywriting, as you know, does a lot more than just communicate – it persuades. Copywriting is probably the single most important thing on a website that influences conversions. Yet time and time again I experience clients making the cost of the copy a higher priority than the results good copy can deliver. When someone hires someone in India to write content for $50 that I would charge $500 for, they think they are saving $450. In fact, I have written emails for $500 that resulted in $30,000 in sales. If that client used a less expensive copywriter, but still achieved $20,000 in sales, they would still think they saved $450. In fact, that decision cost them $10,000. But, at least for me, it is very difficult to explain that to prospective clients. In fact, if anyone has a great solution for that, please share it here…I have been in the business for 30 years and am still looking for a way to do that. Meanwhile, I bend over backwards for the few clients I do find (usually by referral) that appreciate the benefits of, and are willing to invest in, the kind of great copywriting that not only produces results, but informs and empowers the customer.

  8. The problem Robert Ross shares is not peculiar to copywriting. One encounters it in teaching, in spades. Everyone is a critic, be thay student or parent. They can all read speak and write. In their own eyes they are experts.

    The other “problem” almost everyone has is that they can not admit that they are as affected by persuasive language as the next person. To admit that persuasive language works would be to acknowledge “mental weakness”. Consistently persuasive salesmaen and copywriters just have the “magic touch”. There isn’t really a method to it. This belief is as ubiquitous as it is false. It would seem that people carry a natural prejudice against the salesman and the copywriter. You need only onsider the lowly image of the successful used car salesman. The superstitious suspicion in which they and simlarly successful persuaders are held speaks to the level of fear people harbour where persuasive laguage is involved. To admit that consistent use of persuasive language principles cotributed to their success, and power, is a level of reality beyond most people.

  9. This is funny – I have seen myspace.com attacked many times for its (lack of) design, user generated pages that faithfully crash browsers, and endless IM spam, but never for the corporate copy!

  10. I totally agree; you want your website to have one continuous voice. If your copywriters only write for the Homepage and the About Us page, well you’ve covered about a tenth of your site (and much less of your site if you’re e-commerce!) I’m a web designer and have worked for companies that have had a copywriter on staff, and for those who have not. Through the years, I have learned how to write clear and concise messaging, because a lot of times it will fall onto the designer (which is one step up from the developer – no offense!) I mean come on, it’s not the developers job to know how to speak to the customer. So take note designers, if you don’t have a copywriter on board – don’t leave it to the mouse in your pocket OR the developers to write good copy. Make it a part of your job because it’s an undeniable part of the user experience. Even if you have to seek out an English major in your office for a little assistance – like I have – do it!

  11. Robert Ross partly voices my woes in that I am a 61-year old copywriter and ex-ad agency Creative Director. As one working out of India I share Ross’s chagrin at clients buying cheap – and bad – instead of buying effective. But he is every bit as sloppy withhis generalisation over Indian copywriting. No doubt India is crawling with lousy writers – simply because both IT and advertising are growing much faster than is healthy for recruitment – but I happen to know, from writers who’ve moved to the West – that our best writers can more than hold their own in text writing (as opposed to TV), simply because print is still big in India. Secondly, on command over the English language, Indians have – over the last 60 years – outdone Brits and other native-English speakers at high school level. Thirdly, one reason a good writer from India will charge $50 where Ross might charge $500, is that the US $ is (currently) worth about 39 Indian rupees! But Ross’s point, that buyers don’t even feel the need for quality, is true and universal. Even in India, where IT entrepreneurs and developers use horrendous English, often delivered in the phony-US accents they pick up during short stints Stateside, they’re unbelievably smug about the quality of English coming out of their content writers…The sad fact, is, however, that the bottom lines don’t on the whole prove the case for professional copywriting for websites. Perhaps because most corporate websites are developed merely to keep up with the Jones of their line of business. Split testing and even multivariate testing are very much easier on the Web than print media, so there ought to be a good business case for website owners to test their text, but until the bottom line benefits prove the case, it’s not going to happen.

  12. I’m a copywriter-turned-E-commerce manager. It is poor planning on our part (the marketing department) if we haven’t specified copy in advance, but that’s often because I have to work within the constraints of the already-in-place site infrastructure. It’s not always possible to know exactly what a feature will look like before development starts. So the copy tidbits get filled in later.

    I would love it if our developers would put “filler” copy and allow us to create our own once the structure is in place. That would be great.

  13. Lydia,

    Again, you’ve touched on the underlying problem. Putting “filler copy” in place may be a sensible band-aid solution, but it shows that the site’s content isn’t actually being planned; it’s become an afterthought to the structure of the site. In cases like that, the copywriter has to tailor the customer experience to the website — not the other way around, as it should be.

    Sorry to seem self-serving by bringing up Persuasion Architecture again, but these are the problems it solves. The good news is that, even if the site’s content and structure haven’t been planned at the same time, it’s still possible to fix a fair amount of the experience by optimizing from the customer’s perspective.

    Any way you slice it, though, good copy is worth whatever you paid for it. Dave Young has a good post from May about these issues.

  14. By the way, a friend of mine emailed me earlier to say that Bryan’s comment to Sébastien sounded harsh and sarcastic. On the contrary, we really do believe that most e-commerce web copy should be readable at a 5th grade level. And the advice about having one’s mom read it is to say that it’s usually best to avoid technical jargon or generation-specific copy.

    Can your customers read what you write?

  15. In reply to the comments on my post so far:

    Montey, we’re about the same age! Interesting. I apologize to anyone in India, Africa, Russia or China for implying less-than-stellar copywriting talent there. I was referring mostly to the huge disparity in prices. As for bad copy, unfortunately bad copy can be found everywehre, including the US – and unfortunately even here, most copy I have seen is at best mediocre. That is endemic to the industry I suspect world-wide. I certainly have seen brilliant writing out of India, though it is as rare as it is here.

    CVOSman – corporate copy and their invasion of social networks (let alone the rest of the web) is undermining, IMHO, much of the value of these sites. As this happens, places like myspace become less useful. GREED is a powerful force. What corporations need to learn is that it is possible to empower people and networks in ways that are not exclusively greed-based, and ways that will eventually provide an even greater return in the long run than those short-term strategies that are so destructive. Yes, I am an idealist.

    Joe, persuasive language is often only the start of writing good copy. Yet most people don’t even understand the necessity of that, let alone going beyond that (grabbing the reader’s attention, drawing the reader in, guiding them through the decision-making process all the way through to the call to action, reinforcing the buying decision, minimizing cart abandonments, building brand awareness/identity, establishing positioning/differentiation, building credibiliyt, etc., etc., etc.).

    Everything all around us is selling something all the time – persuasion is such a part of our lives it is like the air we breath, and we don’t even notice (some of us) that it is there – much as fish don’t even know about water. A poem is persuading us to feel something. A movie or book is persuading us to believe in something, whether an ideal or a fantasy. A friend is persuading us to wear the latest styles. So many people think they are experts in persuasion – but it does not come as naturally as people think, just because it is all around us. Yet that does make it harder for people to understand the value of copywriting. I am still looking for a way to explain this to potential clients however! It’s easy to discuss it with fellow copywriters!

  16. Robert G.,
    Unfortunately my company’s online presence is still in its infancy. Last year our online revenues reached $650k and this year we’re tracking to $1.2 million. We’re just getting to a place where we can put some real investment into the site and implement all of the concepts that Persuasion Architecture embodies. I can’t wait until we’re cleared to really jazz it up, but at this point, we can only take baby steps to make our site more user-friendly. We can only “plan” small pieces at a time and don’t have the luxury of looking at the overall picture and making large-scale improvements. We have to save the big leaps for the future… :)

  17. Robert (Ross), Agree with all the points. Most galling in the globalised market for freelance writing are the would-be online clients who demand in fractured English that the writing they need must be in impeccable English. How would they know, anyway? And by the way, many of those who want four 500-word articles a day a $2 per article are likely to be Indians, either in India or the US.

    Lydia, how do you expect to take the big leaps later if your start-up is weakened by poor copy? If in infancy your site is netting $650 k, and you’re shooting to double it, why do you think taking “baby steps” (is that to justify using poor copy?) will help you get there? No offence intended, but web marketing appears to be bringing in the big bucks to so much shoddy content, that more effective content is regarded as an extravagance. It’s exactly this kind of approach to effective writing that Ross and I – I think – deplore. Your point appears to be that, ‘if “baby steps” can yield $650 k, why bother with expensive good copy?’ while the experienced copywriter will ask,’Why not make more than $650 k with good copy instead of “baby steps”?’

  18. [...] "When Developers Write Copy" — [...]

  19. [...] “When Developers Write Copy” — [...]

  20. [...] — ZDnet.co.uk 61.) “30+ Tools for the Amateur Writer” — Mashable 62.) “When Developers Write Copy” — GrokDotCom 63.) Before & After — It’s not only the words that count but how [...]

  21. I am a copywriter turned E-commerce manager. I would love it if our developers would put “filler” copy and allow us to create our copy once the structure is in place. That would be great.

  22. I am a copywriter turned marketing manager and couldn’t agree more. With the proliferation of web copy out there it can only bring the universal level of English (and other languages) down if it’s not created by professionals.

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