Plain-spoken Online Conversion Rate Newsletter - covering web design, email techniques, sales, marketing, copywriting, usability,  and consumer psychology.

The “Grok Notes” for Web Writing

Cliff Notes are cool, aren’t they?  When you want to cut to the chase, you buy one and it reveals exactly what you were supposed to get out of, say, Moby Dick.  Saves you a lot of life energy if you are the sort who isn’t into plowing through the original, but wants a clear understanding of the salient points.

So I figure it’s time I assembled The Grok Notes on writing for the web – the short and sweet of what we’ve shared over the past months.  I’ll even give you links to the originals, for those who crave that full immersion experience!

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"What a wonderful site! You know how to put the powerful academic principles of marketing and sales into practical language. A great asset for getting past the current day hype in marketing."
Professor Allen Weiss,

Know your audience

Elena Fawkner discovered this snippet of copy from the Web site of a professional Web copywriter:

"Today's readers and Web browsers demand frankness and verisimilitude, so your written communications require exacting professional integrity with accurate and adequate research. For concrete, colorful and dynamic written material that willfully attracts customers, Bob Tony* will work with you to develop unrivaled written communications for your marketing materials, grants, newsletters, Web site, or other publications and articles. To ensure your writing tasks with pacesetting presentation and unparalleled, consistent editorial power, give your deadlines to Bob Tony*."

* Name changed to protect the ostentatious and largiloquent.i

Verisimilitude?  Willfully attracts?  Ensure with pacesetting presentation?  Editorial power?  What a mouth- and headful of gobbledygook!  Bob Tony is definitely not the fellow you want as your copywriting model!

Where do you look?  To your customers!  Folks are out there talking.  So listen to what they have to say and how they say it, then model your copy to reflect their needs and concerns.  If you’re going to invest time doing “adequate research,” dig in here!

Keep your copy customer-centered

Ditch self-serving copy that promotes how wonderful you are.  Focus on the powerful perspective of the second person (YOU!) to help your visitors put themselves inside the picture, and always let your visitors know what’s in it for them by communicating the benefits of your product or service.  Appeal to their emotions by showing rather than telling and by engaging the senses.

Create a personality

For all its interactivity and dynamism, the Web isn’t very personal.  And you want to get as nose-to-nose with folks as you can.  Do it not only by writing as you (and they) would speak, but also by creating the impression of an appealing personality.  Give your writing a distinctive, memorable style that captivates as it persuades.  And keep in mind:  who you are is far less important than who your visitors imagine you to be. 

VERBal power

Verbs get your visitors excited, and they should form the backbone of your writing.

Using active verbs will not only help keep your visitors engaged, it will also help improve your credibility.  The passive voice occasionally may help you set the right tone or focus on the activity rather than the actor, but for persuasive purposes, it tends to sound shifty and overly academic.  In general, avoid it in your Web copy.

Imperative verbs are commands.  Act.  Drive.  Click.  See.  Go.  Download.  Pair them with benefits and you have effective calls to action.

Be credible

Your copy sends out credibility vibes all the time.  Over-promising and spouting lots of marketing hype won’t work in your favor.  Neither will typos and grammatical errors.

Make your copy usability-friendly

Understanding human eye-tracking behavior helps you optimize the organization of your copy on your Web pages.  It also helps to understand how folks scan and skim copy.

  • Use bulleted points to detail critical information (including your value proposition)
  • Get important information to your visitor first; elaborate later (think newspaper articles)
  • Highlight important text by using bolding, color, a highlight feature, or making the critical text a link (as appropriate)
  • Use “white” space to separate your points
  • Keep your paragraphs concise and small –eyes glaze over when they encounter impenetrable blocks of text
  • Use font sizes that don’t require magnifying glasses
  • Avoid light type against a dark background (reverse type) – stick with contrast combinations that are comfortable on the eye

Is that everything?  Sheesh, you know me well enough by now to know that when it comes to your online copy, I could keep going till the cows come home.  But then, these wouldn’t be The Grok Notes, would they?  And you wouldn’t know which areas I think are most important to your efforts.

Now you do!


1. “Writing for the Web.”  Elena Fawkner.  Internet Day, 14 December 2001. 

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There is good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that in this edition we were going to promote our unique 3-day workshop Wizards of Web but it sold out (oops, sorry about that) without ever promoting it at all.

The good news is that we're going to be starting a list of our readers who want to be notified of our special events before they become public knowledge. Here's a preview: we'll be offering the 2-day workshop "Fundamentals of Conversion Rate Marketing"  in July and another 3-day Wizard of Web workshop in August.

Let us know if you want to be included on that list.

Bryan Eisenberg
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Speaking to the Analytical Mind

You’ve heard from our resident Suit and Geek. Now, I’d like you to hear from Robert Bly, one accomplished dude who’s going to explain how to persuade the engineer to take action.i

If you take the broader view, this is juicy information about how you sell to the Analytic personality type - engineers generally possess strongly analytical personalities. So if you hope to persuade them, you can’t ignore their needs, anymore than you can ignore the needs of your Amiables, Expressives and Assertives.

So, let’s climb inside the Analytical mind!

Six Things I Know For Sure About Marketing To Engineers
By Robert W. Bly

I am a chemical engineer and have been writing copy designed to sell products and services to engineers for 10 years. Here’s what I know about appealing to this special audience:

Engineers look down on advertising and advertising people, for the most part.

Engineers have a low opinion of advertising-and of people whose job it is to create advertising.

The lesson for the business-to-business marketer? Make your advertising and direct mail informational and professional, not gimmicky or promotional. Avoid writing that sounds like “ad copy.” Don’t use slick graphics that immediately identify a brochure or spec sheet as “advertising.” The engineer will be quick to reject such material as “fluff.”

Engineers want to believe they are not influenced by ad copy-and that they make their decisions based on technical facts that are beyond a copywriter’s understanding. Let them believe it-as long as they respond to our ads and buy our products.

Engineers do not like a “consumer approach.”

There is a raging debate about whether engineers respond better to a straight technical approach, clever consumer-style ads, or something in between. Those who prefer the creative approach argue, “The engineer is a human being first and an engineer second. He will respond to creativity and cleverness just like everyone else.”

Unfortunately, there is much evidence to the contrary. In many tests of ads and direct mailings, I have seen straightforward, low-key, professional approaches equal or outpull “glitzy” ads and mailings repeatedly. One of my clients tested two letters offering a financial book aimed at engineers. A straightforward, benefit-oriented letter clearly outpulled a “bells-and-whistles” creative package. And I see this result repeated time and time again.

Engineers respond well to communications that address them as knowledgeable, technical professionals in search of solutions to engineering problems. Hard-sell frequently falls on deaf ears here-especially if not backed by facts.

The engineer’s purchase decision is more logical than emotional.

Most books and articles on advertising stress that successful copy appeal to emotions first, reason second.

But with the engineering audience, it is often the opposite. The buying decision is what we call a “considered purchase” rather than an impulse buy. That is, the buyer carefully weighs the facts, makes comparisons, and buys based on what product best fulfills his requirement.

Certainly, there are emotional components to the engineer’s buying decision. For instance, preference for one vendor over another is often based more on gut feeling that actual fact. But for the most part, an engineer buying a new piece of equipment will analyze the features and technical specifications in much greater depth than a consumer buying a stereo, VCR, or other sophisticated electronic device.

Copy aimed at engineers cannot be superficial. Clarity is essential. Do not disguise the nature of what you are selling in an effort to “tease” the reader into your copy, as you might do with a consumer mail order offer. Instead, make it immediately clear what you are offering and how it meets the engineer’s needs.

Engineers want to know the features and specifications, not just the benefits.

In consumer advertising classes, we are taught that benefits are everything, and that features are unimportant. But engineers need to know the features of your product-performance characteristics, efficiency ratings, power requirements, and technical specifications-in order to make an intelligent buying decision.

Features should especially be emphasized when selling to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), VARs (value-added resellers), systems integrators and others who purchase your product with an intention to incorporate it into their own product.

Example: An engineer buying semiconductors to use in a device he is building doesn’t need to be sold on the benefits of semiconductors. He already knows the benefits and is primarily concerned about whether your semiconductor can provide the necessary performance and reliability while meeting his specifications in terms of voltage, current, resistance, and so forth.

Engineers are not turned off by jargon-in fact, they like it.

Consultants teaching business writing seminars tell us to avoid jargon because it interferes with clear communication.

This certainly is true when trying to communicate technical concepts to lay audiences such as the general public or top management. But jargon can actually enhance communication when appealing to engineers, computer specialists, and other technical audiences.

Why is jargon effective? Because it shows the reader that you speak his language. When you write direct response copy, you want the reader to get the impression you’re like him, don’t you? And doesn’t speaking his language accomplish that?

Actually, engineers are not unique in having their “secret language” for professional communication. People in all fields publicly denounce jargon but privately love it. For instance, who aside from direct marketers has any idea of what a “nixie” is? And why use that term, except to make our work seem special and important?

Engineers have their own visual language.

What are the visual devices through which engineers communicate? Charts, graphs, tables, diagrams, blueprints, engineering drawings, and mathematical symbols and equations.

You should use these visual devices when writing to engineers-for two reasons. First, engineers are comfortable with them and understand them. Second, these visuals immediately say to the engineer, “This is solid technical information, not promotional fluff.”

The best visuals are those specific to the engineer’s specialty. Electrical engineers like circuit diagrams. Computer programmers feel comfortable looking at flow charts. Systems analysts use structured diagrams. Learn the visual language of your target audience and have your artist use these symbols and artwork throughout your ad, brochure, or mailer.


i Permission to reprint has been granted graciously.

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GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledge and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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