Bad Copy: An Example in the Negative

We've talked often enough about the importance of communicating your value proposition, not only on your home page, but on all your landing pages. You want to give folks an up-front, concise idea why they absolutely need to be doing business with you.

And we've talked about the importance of the message being meat, whether you are penning the words to that value proposition or any other piece of copy on your site.

Sometimes it helps to look at an example in the negative and evaluate it by identifying what you should not do! Just like those fashion DOs and DON'Ts columns. Most people who read that stuff tell me they get a healthy idea of what they should do based on an explicit presentation of what they should not do.

Read on for the full flavor of this great big DON'T. The copy is word for word ... only the name of the company has been changed to protect its questionable innocence.

Home Page

Acme Software is a custom software development company specializing in the rapid development of highly maintainable and dynamic software to meet custom client software specifications. Acme attains rapid delivery through active management and focused teamwork coupled with the constant improvement of our internal processes and development methodology.

Acme's highly cohesive team of individuals, each with both a breadth and depth of experience can help you out of nearly any software bind. Our custom software architects have been seasoned by experience in technologies ranging from custom middleware and wireless frameworks to client-server database clients. With this diversity of experience, we can create complete custom applications from scratch or convert legacy client-server systems to distributed n-Tier applications with deployment on a variety of clients.

Our project management and in-house methodology enable us to quickly turn our technical expertise into custom software solutions that deliver value. Using our proprietary agile methodology, we deliver products that closely follow the evolution of the environment in which they will serve.

By working closely with your existing development team, with your IT management, or on a free-standing component to be integrated as part of a parallel effort, we can decrease your time to market, decrease your costs, and improve your chances for project success.

Let's say you actually find yourself resonating with this garble, so you want to know more about who these folks are (you certainly aren't going to satisfy that task on the home page). You click on About Us in the only place you can find to take action, the global nav at the top. There you get to read virtually the same thing yet again, with one major revision:

About Us Page

... Our software architects have been seasoned by experience in technologies ranging from the nascent to mature. ...

What's so wrong with this? Let me count the ways!

Comprehensibility. Having read this really important copy - remember it appears as the sole "active window" element on the home page and is regurgitated almost word for word on the About Us page - do you really understand what this company does? I figure any intelligent lay-person (and I consider myself an intelligent lay-Martian), after reading this, should be able to come up with a concise, explanatory statement about a business's character. I can't.

Clarity. What the heck is a "proprietary agile methodology" (elsewhere referred to as their variation of XP 'Extreme Programming')? And by "nascent to mature technologies," do they mean some of their dudes work with laser devices while others use animal bones and chipped stones?

Image. I figure it's best if we say what we mean without dressing it up too fancy. There's a point when useful meaning starts to drown in pomposity, and you find yourself in a head game rather than a persuasive process. And in an image-conscious world, this is not the sort of image or emotional reaction you want to cultivate.

Showing versus Telling. Anyone's auntie can tell you she'll deliver value. Ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. The real key to winning the hearts of folks is showing them you can deliver value.

We-We. The overwhelming level of insiderness here is appalling. It's not just that the copy waxes lofty about how wonderful Acme is. Look at all the jargon (at least, I assume someone somewhere acknowledges that this means something). That insider pretense pushes most folks away. Its purpose is exclusionary.

Persuasiveness. Here's the real problem. Having thoroughly confused me, the copy then offers nothing in the least bit persuasive to encourage me to stay engaged with this site. No embedded links. No calls to action. It doesn't speak to any emotional need I might have. In fact, it doesn't even seem to care about me, leaving me only with a few bright technology-related images and a global navigation bar. Believe me, I'm not persuaded.

The short of it is this: if I can't make sense of why you think I need you, then how in the world can I have any degree of confidence in you? How will I believe you'll be able to understand and work with my needs?

The only way I'd allow any of you, my lovely readers, to put copy like this on your Web site is if you told me you wanted to drive away 99.9% of your visitors to increase the odds you'll be working with that rare client who "gets" this sort of communication.

For the rest of us, perhaps a little hungrier and much happier to appeal to a broad audience, this sort of copy is a negative filter. Take it from me. If you have copy anywhere on your site that reads even remotely like this, you are in serious trouble. And if you feature it as the sole active-window element on your home page, I predict dead-in-the-water status for you.

Personally, I think the best use for copy like this is to play MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) games with your friends. Time them. See who blanks out the fastest. Unlike my little exercise today, you don't even need to make a point with it!

With thanks to John Morana for bringing this item to our attention!

Volume 89: 3/15/04


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