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FutureNow Article
Thursday, Jun. 19, 2008

See Like An Outsider In 3 Not-So-Easy (But Worth It) Steps

By Jeff Sexton
June 19th, 2008

inside the bottle website optimizationIf you’re already an insider, this won’t be easy. Once you’re “inside the bottle,” reading the label on the outside requires serious mental contortions.

Or an outsider to come and open the bottle for you. In fact, their outsider perspective is a huge part of any consultant’s or outside copywriter’s value – so long as they’re willing to call you to the carpet over your unseen assumptions and un-named elephants.

But if you can’t bring in an actual outsider, any attempt you make to understand your reader’s or customer’s perspective will give you an edge over the head-stuck-up-their-own-bottle competition. Now for those painful (but worth it) steps…

1. Change your context

Through repeated association, things that typically go together often become fused in the mind, as if they’re supposed to go together — even if their relationship would strike an outsider as coincidental or weird. Transplanting these relationships from one context to another can allow you to see the strangeness of these connections that familiarity has made invisible to you.

This training video does an admirable job of giving insiders an outsider’s perspective. By directly comparing the medical care of a man and his dog, events and procedures that would seem normal to hospital workers (the video’s target audience) suddenly appear ridiculous because the context for evaluating them has been changed from hospital to vet’s office. The incongruity that a man is receiving worse care than a dog forces viewers to re-evaluate the “supposed to” nature of hospital procedures, as they no longer seem quite so “normal.”

Joel Greenblatt also does a nice job of this in The Little Book That Beats the Market. By moving from the stock market to of the context buying a small business such as an pizza parlor, Greenblatt liberates us from the illusion of “normalcy” that we have about wild swings in share prices. If GE’s share price moves from $25 to $50 and then back down to $25 within the span of 8 months, we think nothing of it. But that’s like saying a pizza parlor could go from being worth $10K to $20K without any major changes in the business. Changing the context allows you to see how weird stock price fluctuations really are.

So use this same technique by pretending you have to explain the Unique Value Proposition of your product or service to your grandmother or a 6th grader. Describe things through metaphor or parable, then pay attention to what doesn’t “map” well from one idea to another – especially things that strike you as odd or comical when placed into this new context. The “that’s funny” moments will become your portal to an outsider’s perspective.

2. Frame ideas like Martin Scorsese

Movie directors frame their shots in order to force viewers to focus on the intended point of action, while live stage theaters literally spotlight performers. They both make it easy for the casual observer to know exactly what to focus on, to know what’s important at that moment.

Experts and insiders benefit from a “big picture” awareness that provides similar focusing cues and mental spotlights. But outsiders, lacking the big picture, tend to see the most prominent, high-contrast stuff. In order to replicate their experience, you’ll need to mentally block your normal area of focus, to turn off your mental spotlight – so you can notice everything else.

Picture yourself as a man from Mars, with no background information whatsoever, who just landed at your website for the first time.

  • What’s most visually prominent? What’s high contrast?
  • What’s the most kinetic or fast-moving element?
  • What parts of the experience would confuse you if you didn’t already know the back story?
  • What would seem jumbled or overwhelming?

Describe the scene, website, etc. in the voice of your man from mars – and do this out loud to another person or a voice recorder.

  • Where are you led astray?
  • What false assumptions do you make?
  • Where does confusion or uncertainty cause you to abandon the task at hand or to seek help?

And before you write this post off as hokey, keep in mind that a HUGE portion of FutureNow’s success at improving client’s conversion rates stems from this exact mental exercise (except we do it with personas instead of Martians).

OK, now that you know where the outsider will miss the important stuff and become flummoxed, go back and provide your visitors with a mental spotlight to guide their attention. Be explicit, and purposefully frame your shots – create mental images from a can’t-miss-it perspective. Be sure to tell your readers how to engage their x-ray vision to look past the merely attention grabbing to see what’s really going on.

A great offline example of this is What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The second pregnancy feels so way different because 2nd time moms know what to expect – they’ve got their mental cues in place. The book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting has become a perennial best seller and must-have for first time mothers, precisely because it does such an admirable job of providing that 2nd time experience to first time mothers.

3. Do the “which means ” exercise, then ask “Why?”

Copywriters frequently do the “which means” exercise to draw out the benefits from features and to understand the customer’s real motivations.

This compact car is a hybrid, which means it uses 25% of the gas as your current SUV . . . which means you’ll feel like gas prices are back at $1 per gallon . . . which means you can go back to eating steaks instead of ramen noodles.

What they sometimes fail to do is realize that an outsider might not know WHY a hybrid uses 25% of the gas of an SUV and will therefore ask “Why is that?” at the first “which means” statement.

Copywriters for skin care products make this mistake all the time. For example, I’ve seen plenty of skin product websites which will tell me that increased cellular turnover will lead to younger looking skin (so they’ve done one level of “which means”), but they frequently forget to add copy explaining WHY cellular turnover has this effect, leaving skin care outsiders scratching their heads, unconvinced.

So there you have it, three not-so-easy (but worth it) exercises for gaining an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps you’ll only get one or two insights per exercise, or you might get an avalanche of “a-ha” moments, but the point is that even one or two insights from an outsider’s perspective can dramatically improve the persuasive power of your website.

. .

About the Author: Jeff Sexton is a professional outsider (aka, Persuasion Architect) at FutureNow.

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Comments (6)

  1. Great post Jeff. It is always interesting to read your posts. I liked the Training Video.

  2. I’m doing a lot of catchup today as I was out of touch for a few months, but this article of yours Jeff has me thinking. I’m going to digest it a bit and hopefully remember to pop back in with a few supplementary ideas in a couple days.

  3. [...] It never hurts to have an outside perspective to review your email marketing for you. In Customer Experience, Improving Conversion, [...]

  4. Well post. I learned a lot. great steps.

  5. perspective and hopefully thinking. it a bit have an outside remember to pop I’m going to digest

  6. [...] See Like An Outsider In 3 Not-So-Easy (But Worth It) Steps [...]

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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