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Think Active!

A big, deep voice echoes off the walls of the lecture hall: "The passive voice is DEATH to persuasive writing!" Nobody in the room makes a sound. Not even me! I'm awed … I'm humbled … I'm certain I've just received “The Word.” And now I'm going to pass it along to you. So, to the notebooks once more. Cap off in the back there, if you please, and save the note-passing for after class. Today's lesson is about using the Active Voice to keep your customers motivated and fully engaged in the sales process.


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Every now and again I talk about the value of brilliant copy to your e-commerce efforts. Words are magical, and within them is the power to inspire, motivate, persuade and literally call your customers to action. Just as easily, your words can bore folks to tears, leave them yawning with indecision and persuade them that greener pastures lie elsewhere.

There is no substitute for superior copy. You must have perfect words and perfect phrases to make your copy vibrant and immediate. This simply will not happen if you bury your message in text written in the Passive Voice.

OK, so what is the Passive Voice, you ask? It is a verb construction that shifts the focus of a sentence away from the doer. The emphasis in the Passive Voice is always on what is happening, not who is doing it.

Passive: The mail was delivered in a timely fashion. ("by someone" is implicit, but not stated.)
: The postman delivered the mail in a timely fashion.

Passive: The stew was being gobbled by the ravenous crone. ("by someone" is the crone)
: The ravenous crone gobbled the stew.

Make sense? The Passive Voice has its uses, but for sales purposes, it is wordy, vague and distances your customer. Your goal in e-commerce is to be as customer-focused as possible in order to bring them closer, remember? Try this one on for size:

Passive Description 1: Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated immediately and an e-mail confirmation will be sent automatically to you.

Active Description 2: When you click the button, we immediately generate your order and automatically send you an e-mail confirmation.

See the difference? Feel the difference? Description 1 is wordy, vague and requires the customer to make some assumptions - who's clicking, who's generating, who's sending. In contrast, Description 2 is short and sweet. You do this and we'll do that. Ta-dah! There's comfort in the Active voice. You can trust the Active Voice. It gets things done. It makes promises that don't sound wishy-washy. It's the voice of accountability!

Now think about this:

Passive Description 1: The Sonic Drill can be used to make holes up to two inches deep and one inch in diameter using the accessory kit that is packaged in the set. Expanded possibilities are made available through additional attachments that can be purchased separately.

Active Description 2: The Sonic Drill has everything you need to make perfect holes up to two inches deep and one inch in diameter, quickly and easily. We also stock accessories that make it a snap for you to expand your possibilities.

Description 2 involves your customer and puts her inside the activity. In Description 1, she's got to work hard to make the description relevant to her. More than that, Description 1 just sounds too pompous to be appealing. One of the greatest attributes of the Active Voice is that it embraces the individual. And when you can get your customers imagining your copy is speaking directly to them, you have their emotional attention and involvement. They are engaged. They are with you in spirit. You are that much closer to a sale and a delighted customer.

When was the last time a passive pitch got your juices flowing? Can't think of one? Me neither! So purge the passive. Keep your customer center-stage. Think ACTIVE!


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Coming soon to a website near you – 
in fact, maybe YOURS!

Dear Digital Entrepreneur:

You guys and gals have been asking and asking, so OK: I'm now making house calls. That’s right, I'm visiting your own websites and will be writing in future issues about how you can apply the stuff we talk about here.

So, want a free Grokanalysis of your site? It’s simple. Just click here, fill out the form, send it to us, and if I think your site illustrates something that will be of interest to a lot of our readers, you’re in!

Good luck!!

The Grok

Harness the Power of the Rainbow

Some very well-intentioned person on the bus the other day advised me green was an unlucky color for cars. I'm still wondering if she thinks it's a lucky color for Martians! I don't know if she's right or not (they do call unlucky cars lemons, not limes, after all), but I've been thinking lately about color and how it can work for or against your website efforts.

Color doesn’t simply look nice (or not). It speaks to the subconscious, evokes meanings and feelings and moods, and has an incredible ability to influence buying behavior. It’s a huge subject, and I was thinking about where to start this when a human here at the office dropped a copy of a perfect little starting-point article on my desk1. Read on and learn how to harness the power of the rainbow.

There are oodles of things I have to say about color (you guessed as much, right?), but I think it's best to start just like Dorothy did, at that first interior spiral-point on the Yellow Brick Road. Once you've begun the journey, you’ll see all the individual bits and pieces fall into place. Think of this as the basics that should go into planning the use of color on your website, even before you write your first line of html.

Right up front, remember that the way you use color when you design for e-commerce is very different from the way you'd use color if you were designing for a personal home page or pushing the outer edge of the avant-garde. As a business, you have some very real constraints to cope with: credibility, legibility, navigation, persuasion, down-load times, browser compatibility, and more. Ignore these, go wild with a cutting-edge design exercise, and you may delight a few design aficionados but you will probably alienate the vast majority your customers and prospects.

Alex Walker suggests you start the process of color design with words: take a piece of paper and write down adjectives you think describe the ambiance of your business. Think about your style, the feel you want to convey, the characteristics of your target audience, and pick all the words you can think of that apply. Now, from this list, select the Top Five - the best of the best. These are the words that will guide your imagery and selection of colors.

I once overheard a mom telling her child she seemed "very pink." We associate colors with moods, qualities and emotions. And that's where you want to go next in selecting your colors. What colors come to mind when you visualize your Top Five words? Deep greens? Rich tans? Soft blues? Urgent reds? Pick two or three, absolutely no more than four colors. I've seen super sites that simply rely on monotones! Fewer colors make for a stronger statement and tend not to over-stimulate or tax your viewers. In e-commerce, color is a clear case where less is often more.

Next, don't rely on color as the core of your design. Walker reminds us there are six basic and equally important elements that make up effective design: line, shape, value (lightness, darkness, shading), blank space, texture/pattern and color. An excellent way to see if your layout works well is actually to remove the color. If it looks good in black and white, then you've probably got a good design that can come alive with the judicious use of color.

Color can play other important roles, as well. It can help organize your site visually. It can draw your prospect’s eye toward the most important information on a page while it deemphasizes other information. It can help convey the structure of your navigation system. You can use it to color-code different features you offer or areas of your business. Color can highlight a special offer or a limited-time offer. The keys are to use it intelligently and intentionally.

So there you have it: what I consider the best information you can arm yourself with before you take your first step onto the Yellow Brick Road of e-commerce.

1. Define the mood of your business.

2. Select a limited palette of evocative colors.

3. Make color an integral element in a strong design.

4. Make color work for you in organizing your content.

That should get you started … and I'll catch you later, further down the cobblestones, with lots more thoughts on using color to nurture your prospect along the sales process toward that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the Close.

1. "4 Simple Steps to Coloring your WWWorld!" Alex Walker, SitePoint, 2/25/2001. <http://www.webmasterbase.com/article.php?aid=357&pid=0>.


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P.S. If you enjoyed this issue, why not share it with your colleagues and friends? They'll appreciate it.

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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