Jousting with Trolls

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away in cyberspace, there lived an email list for internet travelers searching for the meaning of “information architecture.” I remember it well–especially the thrilling chirp, buzz ‘n rattle of my modem dialing in and that one dude (or was it a dudette?) who alternately bedeviled or captured or led or derailed almost every thread struggling to weave its way through our feverish little minds. S/he never identified him/herself and we never figured out who s/he was, but s/he definitely dominated the discussions despite our occasional attempts to shame or out or ignore him/her. So that’s one kind of troll–the arrogant show-offs and con men. Think Donald Trump.


Then there are the pranksters who just want everyone to lighten up a bit, have some FUN. The internet’s response to the British government’s recent public poll on the name for a new government research ship is an good example of that.

And then, of course, there are the Bad Trolls, the ones out to do damage, the ones you have to  deal with or, better yet, avoid to begin with. Here’s an excellent, quick primer on doing just that and handling ego-maniacs and funsters, too:

Meatspace events now mostly for online content

Marketing and sales seer David Meerman Scott (“The New Rules of Marketing & PR”) recently had an ‘aha’ moment while watching the Vans World Cup of Surfing in Hawaii:

I was surprised by how low key this important competition looked to me while there in person. I knew it was a big money event and had seen it on video and covered in the surf magazines in prior years, but I thought it strange there were only a few hundred spectators on the beach.

That’s when I realized that the entire production is built around the videos and photos that come out of the contest.

So… more and more these days it’s not just that “a picture is (still) worth a thousand words,” it’s that meatspace events are now designed more to produce online content than to entertain “in person” spectators.

At Vans World Cup, photographers line beach largely empty of spectators

At Vans World Cup, photographers line beach mostly empty of spectators

> read/see full D. M. Scott post 


Dark patterns of trickery

Surely you know from maddening experience that more than a few websites and applications are consciously, methodically, diabolically designed to trick you into doing things you don’t want to do. Now there’s a website where you can learn all about such “dark patterns,” conceived and managed by Harry Brignull, a UK-based UX designer with a Ph.D in cognitive science.

dark side

A likable “like”

It’s hard not to “like” your periodontist on Facebook if you have to stare at a personal request from one of his hygienists for two hours AND she does such amazingly skilled, pain-free work. Thanks to Elena (hygienist) and Dr. Jorge Ramirez of Periodontal Solutions of South Miami!

View from the chair - not for the faint of hear, but likable anyway.

View from the chair – not for the faint of heart, but likable anyway.

Yet another handy Google app

I’ve been using Google Voice for a while now to record phone interviews for Web copywriting. Usually I’m capturing accurate quotations or how someone talks so I can ghost-write a blog post or first-person bio.  You have to have a Google account and get a unique Google Voice number so people can call you (not vice-versa) and Google can alert them when you start recording. The result is a no-frills list of your recordings on your Voicemail page that you can annotate to make an easily readable index. Fast forward and reverse in playback are kinda klunky, but you get used to it.

Google Voice interface - recorded call.

Google Voice interface – recorded call.

And Google Voice does a lot more than just record calls.

What’s Your Style?

Every organization that publishes on the Web should use an editorial style guide approved by whoever is ultimately responsible for the quality of the organization’s content. No matter what size your business is or what business you’re in, an editorial style guide will:

  • save you time and money by avoiding internal disputes about grammar, punctuation and spelling;
  • help you make sure all your content (not just Web content) is consistent;
  • improve the quality of your Web content—help you communicate more clearly and powerfully with site visitors.

Most organizations use either The Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style (for more scholarly content). Many more editorial style guides are available for different industries, countries, professions, and media (check out this extensive list on Wikipedia). Savvy, mature organizations usually supplement a published guide such as the AP Stylebook with an “in-house” guide that covers spellings, punctuation and usage unique to their business or industry. Those internal guides should be regularly updated and approved as new editorial issues arise.

And please note that I’m talking about editorial style guides here, not graphic design style guides (fonts, color specifications, ‘look and feel’) etc. Editorial style guides should also avoid wading into ‘voice and tone’ requirements, branding issues, editorial workflows, personas, competitive analyses and other content development policies that are much more useful in higher-level content or marketing strategies developed for specific Web projects.

“HTTP error”

If you get an error message like that and go blank with frustration and disinterest, you’re like me. You may know what “HTTP” stands for and kinda what it does, but hey, you’re trying to get work done with other humans, not respond to a computer application that talks a computer programmer’s preferred lingo. So you’re stuck, or at least delayed until you figure out what that message means or can ask someone who does. More to the point I want to make here: I got that message while trying to upload an image to a WordPress post – see below (red box, upper left):

Error message received during attempted image upload to WordPress post.

Error message received during attempted image upload to WordPress post.

Since starting to work with WordPress a few years ago I’ve learned the hard way that it’s definitely not for anyone with no affinity for, or basic knowledge of, computers and networks and how they work; and it’s probably not for anyone who isn’t familiar with basic HTML. It’s the love child of countless programmers and still dominated by them, so when you get a message like “HTTP error” it’s them basically, blithely saying (between the lines): “most of us here in the WordPress community are pretty geeky and know what that means and don’t mind dealing with it.” Which reminds me of one of my favorite books, a classic, about human interaction with technology, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper. I highly recommend it to anyone who almost didn’t read this post when they saw the headline. Here’s from an editorial review of “Inmates” on

The recurring metaphor in The Inmates are Running the Asylum is that of the dancing bear–the circus bear that shuffles clumsily for the amusement of the audience. Such bears, says author Alan Cooper, don’t dance well, as everyone at the circus can see. What amazes the crowd is that the bear dances at all. Cooper argues that technology (video recorders, car alarms, most software applications for personal computers) consists largely of dancing bears–pieces that work, but not at all well. He goes on to say that this is more often than not the fault of poorly designed user interfaces, and he makes a good argument that way too many devices (perhaps as a result of the designers’ subconscious wish to bully the people who tormented them as children) ask too much of their users. Too many systems (like famously frustrating VCR controls) make their users feel stupid when they can’t get the job done.

Google Unchained

Since moving to South Florida and having to drive in Miami occasionally, my wife and I have depended on the Google Maps girl (we call her “Rachel”) to show and tell us the way. It’s a blessing—and a curse when she gets confused, usually by some god-awful Miami on/off ramp with stoplights and curvy one-way avenues, all under construction and crawling with Miami drivers (who else?) who think they’re in a stock car race or video game car chase scene. Several times she’s had us driving around in convoluted circles while she sorts things out and gets us back on track. We’re totally at her mercy. My only consolation is that now and then I seem to hear a tinge of anxiety in her voice as we make turn after turn through some run-down Miami ‘sector’. (It’s not a healthy relationship.)

I thought none-too-fondly of frazzled Rachel and her ubiquitous master in Mountain View a few days ago when I Googled “K-Mart” in Key Largo and got this shot of the REAR of the store:


Seems the Google Maps car shot K-Mart’s derriere instead of its mug. (Note politely confused, clueless reviewer politely suggesting that K-Mart “looks little tired.”) What’s up with that? A coding error? Algorithm seizure? Or are driverless Google Maps cars already on the prowl and as ditzy as Rachel? Or, God forbid, “driven” by Rachel?!?

Emotional advertising – keepin’ it real

The McDonalds “I’m Lovin’ It” slogan was bad enough, unless you actually liked McDonalds food. Their more recent “Choose Lovin” campaign is an even bigger stretch, trying as it does to connect an unhealthy, environmentally irresponsible fast-food chain to the most sublime of all human emotions. It got a lot of Bronx cheers as a result, mostly from folks who pointed out that the company might want to kick off its “lovin’” campaign by announcing that it would start paying its employees a $15 minimum wage and also show Earth more love by not buying potatoes grown with toxic pesticides.*

Still, emotional pitches are all the rage these days among digital age Madmen. “The rise in emotional advertising comes at a time when brands are striving to create ‘content,’ not simply make ‘ads’,” writes Rae Ann Fera in Fast Company.** “That is, they are devoting their energies to crafting stories (and other things—products, apps, experiences) that people actively seek out and share—stuff that looks more like the entertainment and editorial material audiences like, not the unpleasant interruption to that material.”

So what works? The answer is pretty simple, according to several advertising gurus Fera quotes: being strictly true to real human emotions and making sure the specific emotion elicited by an ad somehow matches consumers’ actual experience of a company. According to Fera, Volkswagen’s now famous “The Force” ad had a below-average “purchase intent” score with consumers in pre-distribution testing, but a phenomenal “neuro-engagement” score. Volkswagen’s decision to run “The Force” paid off, she says: “It became among the most beloved and shared Super Bowl ads ever, amassing a staggering 56 million views on YouTube, earning a reported 6.8 billion impressions worldwide and more than $100 million in earned media. And it helped the VW brand achieve the best market share stateside in 30 years in 2011. So much for purchase intent.”

I would add only that “The Force” was phenomenally successful in large part because of its multi-level “surprise” factor—the little boy’s surprise and the surprise we experience with him when the VW turns on, accented by his father’s raised-eyebrow glance at his mother just after we see the remote in the father’s hand. Deutsch L.A. adman Douglas Van Praet would call that a “pattern interrupt,” which he sees as an essential component of successful advertising.***

And of course all of the above can and should be applied well beyond TV advertising–to many kinds of marketing communications, including Web content strategy and copywriting.


* “McMadness: Activists Pile on at McDonald’s Shareholders Meeting” (Allison Aubrey, NPR)

** “The Rise of Sadvertising – Why Brands Are Determined to Make You Cry” (Rae Ann Fera, Fast Company)

*** “Research–You’re Doing It Wrong. How Uncovering the Unconscious Is Key to Creativity” (Douglas Van Praet, Fast Company)

Content strategy–a money-saving discipline

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway): Every Web writer should prepare some kind of content strategy, no matter how barebones, for each and every gig — before starting to write. Even if it’s just figuring out the main messages the client wants to get across, how they align with the brand, who you’re writing for (personas!), what style guide you’ll be using, who needs to approve your copy (editorial workflow), and so on — you need to know all that beforehand to write copy that’s worth its salt. Most clients with any communications experience recognize that and cooperate, although often you get the impression they think you’re being a tad finicky. (I remember one exec. calling me “methodical” with a slight air of disparagement). Some will even review and approve the document or documents you prepare for them to make sure everyone’s ‘on the same page’ from the get-go.

The hard part, I’ve learned, is (1) getting get busy execs. to recognize that the time and effort required to prepare those documents is worth paying for and (2) the documents are not optional guidelines that can be ignored later or whimsically changed along the way; they’re specific plans that should be respected and followed throughout a Web project if the copy is to be high-quality and not cost more than originally planned. A documented content strategy plan signed-off on by key project stakeholders can work wonders in avoiding the many additional rewrites, follow-up meetings and phone calls that result from not having a strategy.

Here’s a table of contents from a  pretty basic content strategy I recently put together for a small company (13 employees) that hired me to write copy for their new website. It includes most, but not all, the main components of a typical content strategy planning document:

  • Intro (explain purpose of document)
  • Market position
  • Competition
  • Market differentiators
  • Site business goals
  • Brand attributes & messaging
  • Web copy voice and tone
  • Editorial style guide (published)
  • Personas (goal-based)
  • Website content support for social media channels
  • Blog content support for company brand


“Defining the damn thing”

Back at the turn of the century, when the Web was young, not long after Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” (aka “The Polar Bear Book”) was published and information architecture (IA) began to make a name for itself, I spent a lot of time (probably too much time) on an listserv hosted by The American Society of Information Science. It was devoted to (you guessed it) IA, and by far the longest-running, hottest, most thrilling, frustrating, addictive thread was called “Defining the Damn Thing” (IA). Even with all the debate, even back then, thanks again largely to “The Polar Bear book,” most of us who called ourselves IAs were well aware of how important it was to pay close attention to content while designing and building websites.

Fast forward about a decade and I’m four years into a job as “Web writer” that required me to do a lot of IA without actually calling it that, and I get a call from a Web design agency that wanted to talk to me about a “Content Strategist” job. Though I’d never heard of that job title it sounded like just what I was doing, so I poked around and found some new books about “content strategy” and a lot of online debate about what “content strategy” was and had another “defining the damn thing” moment and déjà vu all over again. By 2010 I was working as a Content Strategist (note title case) for Verizon Telecommunications, basically doing much of what I’d been doing for the past 12 years (but making more money).

Then along came “Content Marketing” and people calling themselves “Content Marketers,” aided and abetted by the rise of social media, which unsettled many a newly anointed “Content Strategist,” including me, until I figured out that “content marketing” was basically all about creating good content, publishing and sharing it and thus attracting more attention to a business or organization or self or what-have-you, which again was a big part of what I was already doing.

And then I knew (as someone says somewhere in the Bible)… that like all the many new Web design and development roles and job titles that have come down the pike over the years, “content marketing” is just another healthy symptom of the explosive growth of the Internet and Web and social media and networks and the resulting constant demand for new specialties and specialists to get a lot more new, different work done.  And by now I’ve learned to just keep doing my Web content whatchamacallit thing and if anyone asks me what that is, just describe it to them so they can understand it as much as they need to–and let the job titles fall where they may.

"The Polar Bear Book," where for many Web IA's (erstwhile and otherwise) it all began.

“The Polar Bear Book,” where for many Web IA’s (erstwhile and otherwise) it all began.

Beware jargon

Consulting recently on a talent agency’s “skillmap” for copywriters, I said that good copy should be “jargon-free.” A colleague disagreed, said jargon “can often help establish rapport with a niche target audience,” especially in a situation where non-specialists are trying to show specialists they can ‘talk the talk’.

If you take most dictionary definitions of “jargon” literally, she’s right – jargon is useful and efficient for communication within exclusive groups, neither good nor bad in itself. And sometimes an outsider, if they’re really good, can get away with ‘talking the talk’. But far more often jargon is used to impress outsiders (“we’re in the know; you aren’t”) or feign insider status or expertise that the writer or speaker doesn’t have, so it narrows the audience and degrades into lingo that even the insiders don’t understand. Scott Berkun (one of my favorite thinkers about the digital realm) makes that point nicely in this blog post, “Why Jargon Feeds on Lazy Minds”:



Viral ice water

Here’s a good start on explaining the huge success of the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” that was all over the media (especially social) in August – Erin Carson, Tech Republic:

  • Compelling message with emotional resonance (humor);
  • Peer pressure (competition)
  • Time sensitivity – 24 hours to respond;
  • Low physical risk to participants;
  • A clear “template” (what to do) with a clear call-to-action;
  • Mobile usability – easy ‘shareability’.

I would add:

  • Trust in the ALS Association – a known, recognized organization
  • Awareness of ALS as a horrible, incurable disease (fear, self-preservation)
  • Getting a tax write-off.

And I’d also emphasize the particular strength of “peer pressure” (competition) among celebrities – even if a member of the Rich and Famous Club wasn’t initially interested in participating, his or her publicist probably said “you gotta do this,” especially after it reaching a tipping point when le-tout-LA was doing it and celebrity wannabees and anyone chasing easy “cool” points started doing it, too.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST, it required all participants to challenge someone else. Here’s from a list of “Top 10 Reasons People Give” I recently found in a file of goodies I saved from my work for the foundation that fundraises for Boston Children’s Hospital: “Ask and Ye Shall Receive: the number one reason people give–someone asked them to give!”

Mickey Rourke accepts the challenge on "Late Night."

Mickey Rourke accepts the challenge on “Late Night.”

InBug-60px-R copy

Fast-food information

Numbered lists… “listicles” – they’re everywhere on the Web, like an invasive weed. But there’s no denying we’re drawn to them, click on them, eat them up. New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova calls them our “fast food information diet.”

“The article-as-numbered-list has several features that make it inherently captivating: the headline catches our eye in a stream of content; it positions its subject within a pre-existing category and classification system, like ‘talented animals’; it spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that’s finite, whose length has been quantified upfront. Together, these create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption—a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. And there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.”

– Maria Konnikova, “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists,” New Yorker, December 2, 2013



Listicles – now running wild on the Web


4 Must-Read Lists!

4 Lists You Really Should Read!


At Wordcamp Miami I picked up some buzz about a book called “Youtility,” heard it was the latest/greatest about online marketing, read it, and was thinking about it when I had to go to Radioshack to see what I could do about a water-damaged iPhone (don’t ask). I was just about to pay way too much for a new phone, when a customer behind me, a deeply tanned 60-something guy wearing wraparound shades, a goatee and a Miami Heat ball cap, said “You know, there’s a guy in Homestead who fixes water-damaged iPhones. Just Google ‘iphone repair, Homestead’.” “Thanks!,” I replied, thinking to myself: “What a perfect Youtility demo!”

The book’s sub-title is “Why Smart Marketing Is About Help, Not Hype.” If the author, Jay Baer, had overheard us in Radioshack that day, he surely would have pointed out that while the goateed guy wasn’t selling anything, he sure was helpful. The Radioshack employee, on the other hand, had been totally focused on selling (hype), and by not mentioning any alternative to shelling out $500+ for a new phone, she missed a perfect opportunity to convert me into a grateful, loyal customer who might eventually spend more than $500 at Radioshack stores.

A key component of “youtility” is what Baer calls “radical transparency”:

“Creating customers by answering their questions is imminently viable and carries remarkable, persuasive power. Unless it inhibits ease-of-use, there is no downside to providing extraordinarily detailed information to your prospective customers. It doesn’t matter whether anyone in your industry is providing self-serve information—big companies are, and they’re training all consumers to expect it.”

Source: "Youtility" via Hubspot (2012)

Source: “Youtility” via Hubspot (2012)

General conclusion: smart, helpful Web content, as much of it as possible and affordable, is a smart investment for any company trying to build long-term, productive relationships with its customers. That’s not big news, it’s obvious, but easy to forget.  (So many of the many new, buzz-worthy new booklets about Web writing and content strategy are just lite, ‘fast-food’ versions of important points that thought leaders in both fields have been making for years – re: “youtility,” see for example, “Letting Go of the Words,” THE best book about Web writing, by Ginny Redish, published in 2007, pps. 110-113, ‘Market by Giving Useful Information.’)

“Content is Core”

Biggest hit, loudest crack ‘o the bat (for me anyway) at last weekend’s deliciously inspiring Wordcamp Miami: John Carcutt’s preso, “Content is Core,” specifically his astute categorization of the 3 main layers we should work on to get content (helpful, useful content!) noticed on the fantastically huge and crowded (and getting more so every day) Web:

j_carcutt_layers_wp_mia_2014   j_carcutt_layers2_wp_mia_2014

Wordcamp Miami 2014 – University of Miami, Coral Gables, May 9-12

> more recap and photos of Wordcamp-Miami from Jeff Chandler (“WordPress guy,” Ohio, WC-MIA attendee) 

Bye-Bye Ernestine

I’m seeing a lot of Keys websites with outdated, stale content… words and images that apparently haven’t changed in months (years?)… no recent news suggesting anyone is expecting me to check in … no fresh blog comments showing that anyone is there to welcome me… in other words: a lot of “brochureware” – which is fine as far as it goes (better than no site at all), but it sure misses out on the lively, personal back-and-forth, the social interaction that makes the Web hop these days–and makes Google ‘bots happy. (And no, posting regular product and event announcements on Facebook and getting some ‘likes’ is NOT the level of social interaction I’m talking about!)

I’m sure many small business owners are aware that their sites are like billboards, but they’re just too busy doing all the other work they have to do, and it takes too much time getting their computer guy or gal to update content or add a new page, and there’s always a financial cost associated with all that. So I keep wanting to tell them: YOU NEED WORDPRESS! Once a WordPress site is up and running, you can update it yourself–quickly create new pages and blog posts, revise outdated language, update your schedule or menu or product offering or whatever else your business needs to stay current, add images and other media, then click the “Publish” button and you’re good to go! It’s empowering! Your customers will take notice! It’s good for business! It’s Do-It-Yourself at its best! It cuts out “the middleman.” It’s like making a direct call instead of going through an operator!

Lily Tomlin as "Ernestine"

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine, the famously ditzy, nosey “Laugh In” operator.

Google likes it fresh… usually

You’ve probably heard that search engines like it if you have a blog on your site that you update fairly often (once a week is the common wisdom). But the same goes for ALL content on your site – in general, the more it changes, and the more of it that changes, the more brownie points get stirred into the particular mathematical stew (algorithm) being cooked up by the particular engine (think: Google) that’s nosing through your site. Which doesn’t mean that The Machines aren’t also good at recognizing and valuing old content that’s good – they do that, too, by looking at it from a different angle.

"A webpage is given a 'freshness' score based on its inception date, which decays over time. This freshness score can boost a piece of content for certain search queries, but degrades as the content becomes older."  - Cyrus Shepard, Moz Blog

“A webpage is given a ‘freshness’ score based on its inception date, which decays over time. This freshness score can boost a piece of content for certain search queries, but degrades as the content becomes older.”
– Cyrus Shepard, Moz Blog

“The goal of a search engine is to return the most relevant results to users,” concludes Cyrus Shepard matter-of-factly (and obviously) in an excellent Moz Blog post on content “freshness factors. “For your part, this requires an honest assessment of your own content. What part of your site would benefit most from freshness?  Old content that exists simply to generate pageviews, but accomplishes little else, does more harm than good for the web. On the other hand, great content that continually answers a user’s query may remain fresh forever. Be fresh. Be relevant. Most important, be useful.”

Content strategy for social media

Now 5 years old, but still good as gold—Britt Parrot’s Digital Web Magazine article on including social media in your content strategy. 4 basic takeaways:

1) Social media is about going out to where the action is, the relevant conversations are, on the Web–and joining in.

2) It’s about open communication (or if you’re a cautious newbie–monitoring relevant conversations).

3) Your primary goal for your content should be communication, not just showing off the latest hot social technology. Which platform will be most effective building relationships, getting word out, gathering info. about your organization?

4) As always with content strategy, you gotta have the patience and discipline to do a careful content audit that identifies different formats (text, video, audio, images) on your site and figures out how and where to share them most effectively.

Sample blank page of B. Parrot content audit for social media

Sample blank page of B. Parrot audit for social media

Standing out from the crowd

Most successful business owners know what’s special about what they’re selling (or like to think they do)– their “differentiators” in the marketplace. But it’s amazing how often those competitive advantages aren’t clearly expressed on their websites!  Read through a few Keys sites in any business sector and you’ll have a hard time telling them apart, beyond a few different graphic designs—and even those tend to lean heavily on the same “paradise” themes (palms, bamboo, parrots, sunsets – you know the drill).

So there’s an opportunity here,  and it’s not just making sure your overall business strategy (internal strengths & weaknesses, external opportunities & threats) is expressed in your homepage welcome text. Take an hour or two to evaluate your main competitors’ sites, looking for mo’ bettah ways to differentiate your business online. Definitely check out their visual branding, usability (ease-of-use), and functionality (search, ecommerce, forms). But look very carefully at their content. Is it fresh? Credible? Relevant? Clear and concise? Easy to scan and read quickly?  And be sure check out content specific to your industry – if you’re evaluating restaurants, can you see daily specials, a wine list? If you’re reviewing hotels, can you learn about the view from each room, fees for local transportation (car & bike rentals), local attractions (both high-level and detailed information)?  The key to it all is being methodical, and yup, that probably means using a spreadsheet or at least a checklist, carefully teasing out a few things your competition does better, or isn’t doing–then tweak your site to dull their advantage or add your own to boost your business.

"Content" section of competitive evaluation spreadsheet used by a national online research agency

“Content” section of competitive evaluation spreadsheet used by a national online research agency

Section of competitive evaluation tool used by large online research agency.

Section with industry-specific items

The basics

I’ve seen it so often in the past, and am seeing it again now working with a Keys business owner trying to redesign his own website: most folks don’t realize how incredibly useful and valuable it can be to think hard about who your site visitors are, carefully analyze their content needs, and clearly visualize how you want them to interact with your site (the navigation) BEFORE you design how the site will look (page lay-outs, colors, fonts, etc.). Unless you follow at least a few basic sequential steps and produce at least a few basic planning and design documents (content inventory, sitemap, wireframes, etc.)–even just simple pencil sketches and diagrams–you can easily find yourself going around in frustrating circles and wasting a lot of time and money as words and images and links and pages all mill about in your mind like a school of feeding fish. Here’s my favorite cartoon on the subject:


Now available! Content Pain Relief (CPR)™

Does the writing on your website make you feel drowsy, confused? Do you get headaches when you even think about improving it? Do you experience shortness of breath when you realize that the writing on your competitors’ sites is much more engaging, clear, concise, informative?


You need CONTENT PAIN RELIEF (CPR)™–now, before you lose more site visitors! Use this chart to get started…

CPR Diagnostic Chart

Content Pain


Your copy reads like an impersonal, predictable advertisement, not one side of a friendly, personal conversation… and you haven’t updated it in months (years?)! Read through your entire site—identify copy you need to update or trash, and think of anything new you need to add– then methodically work on editing it all as needed.
Typos, missing words, confusing punctuation, misspellings Again – proof-read the whole site. Then make sure you’re using a common editorial style guide (The Associated Press Stylebook, for example)
Big blocks of text and long sentences that are hard to read, confusing punctuation Edit those sections to allow quick scans of headlines and text; add sub-heads; break text up into tables, bullet lists, shorter paragraphs; use punctuation that’s easier to see on a computer display (e.g. dashes, not colons).
Monotonous, self-absorbed voice weakened by marketing jargon and clichés Think again about who your best customers are and the basic, most valuable things your company is offering them—then write as if you’re having a friendly, open conversation with them about your products and/or services.
Content ‘flow’ (site navigation) doesn’t match site visitors’ actual (sequential) use of the site, doesn’t guide them through the site, help them find the information they need or do what they want to do on your site. Think again about who your most important users are, try to imagine how they use our site – or (much better!) actually watch a few of them use your site and/or review your site’s analytics (Google Analytics, for example) – then adjust your site architecture (structure, navigation) and content organization as needed.
Copy not optimized for search engines (SEO) Identify most popular, least competitive search terms, insert in title tags (most important!), URLs, meta descriptions, headers, anchor link labels, alt tags (images – clickable only). Add links to external sites where appropriate; engage in social media and other online outreach to build legitimate inbound links.
Limited budget for developing and maintaining high-quality Web copy Maximize your bang-for-buck: hire an experienced, reasonably priced Web writer and content strategist.
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Web copywriting like motocross riding

I used to see most writing, including Web copywriting, as a stack of cargo nets I fell through one after the other until I reached a level where I said what I really meant. Now I see it more like a slippery hill with a mud puddle at the bottom and I’m on a motocross bike trying to get up it, revving and spinning and charging and falling back, charging again, losing my balance, falling over, finally getting up and over. In other words, any writer worth his/her salt will tell you that writing is hard work that almost always gets better with each rewrite–always with a deadline firmly in mind. Here’s evidence of one acclaimed novelist’s muddy uphill struggle:

"Crash" (J.G. Ballard) manuscript page

J. G. Ballard (British writer) manuscript page for “Crash” (1973)

Pinterest social referrals climb

Pinterest is still a distant second to Facebook, but Facebook’s social referrals are stagnating while Pinterest’s are increasing (Source: Rimm-Kaufmann Group, Digital Marketing Report for Q3, 2013). Interesting–and validating for folks like me who see more social potential in Pinterest. (Or maybe we just take to it more naturally…:)

Social media referrals to websites

Referrals from Facebook are stagnating while Pinterest referrals are climbing (Source: Rimm-Kaufman Group – RKG)

Web analytics – the “Trinity approach”

During my stint as a content strategist for Verizon Telecommunications, I worked on the “learn” section of the company website, developing content about Verizon’s Internet products. As part of my job, I participated in a weekly sales call with about 30 other folks during which an analytics expert presented a 30+ page report full of graphics and statistics that had mostly to do with the site’s “order flow” – the long series of steps customers had to take to customize and pay for an Internet product after they clicked an “Order” button. It took a lot of explaining and cajoling before another “learn” team member and I convinced the analytics folks to add two content-related metrics to the report—average time spent viewing selected ‘learn’ pages and average number of ‘learn’ pages viewed. We could then at least briefly report that data each week on the sales call before everyone plunged into a lengthy discussion of order flow metrics. It was all a great illustration of what I was reading at the time in “Web Analytics,” by Avinash Kaushik, Google’s “Analytics Evangelist.” One of Kaushik’s main themes was that many organizations are too “obsessed” (his word) with “conversion rates” (typically sales or orders), which he saw as important “outcomes,” but hardly the whole story. “Outcomes” were just one of three main analytics areas, he emphasized, none of which should be ignored.  Here’s a diagram adapted from his book:


Adapted from "Trinity approach" diagram in "Web Analytics" by Avinash Kaushik (Google "Analytics Evangelist")

Adapted from “Trinity approach” diagram in “Web Analytics” by Avinash Kaushik

I try to keep Kaushik’s “Trinity approach” diagram in mind whenever analytics is part of my work. One of its crucial points is that all three areas are interdependent (see circular arrow). For example, you can’t reliably understand the “behavior” data you get from Google Analytics and other analytics programs without knowing what caused the behavior, the “why” of the equation, the user “experience”–and to do that you have to go to the users themselves and find out via a survey or usability test or other research. I did that too at Verizon – conducted a 3-day usability test of ‘learn’ content and designed an 11-question online survey that ran for more than six months and fielded a lot of useful data and insights, some of which we were actually able to act on to improve our ‘learn’ content. Which definitely doesn’t mean that small businesses have to go to those lengths or spend that kind of money to get at the “why” of analytics – watching even a few visitors use your site and asking them why they clicked what they clicked or what they think of your most important pages (e.g., your home page) can work wonders helping you decide how to cost-effectively improve your content.

related links

Occam’s Razor – Avinash Kaushik’s blog, great info and insights about analytics and digital marketing in general.

Content strategy for mobile

A quick survey of Florida Keys websites suggests that most business owners still think having a site that’s easy to use on mobile devices (phones, tablets) is an option, not a necessity. Here are some statistics that might get them to think again*:

  • 56% of Americans own smartphones (Pew Internet – September 2013)
  • 86% of Americans have used their smartphone to decide whether to visit a business in the last 30 days (Pew Internet – September, 2013)
  • 1/3 of ALL searches are local (Google)
  • 40% of smartphone users search locally every day (Google – 2013)
  • 79% of smartphone shoppers user their phone to help with shopping (Google – February 11)
  • 71% of smartphone users who see an ad (print, TV, online) do a mobile search for more information (Google – February, 2013)
  • “By 2015, more Americans will access the internet through mobile devices than through desktop computers.” (International Data Corporation, via K. McGrane. “Content Strategy for Mobile.” New York: A Book Apart, 2012, p. 22)

And this from a Google report (2012): “This study found that 96% of consumers have encountered sites that weren’t designed with mobile in mind. It also found that when it happens, it can be bad for business—48% reported feeling frustrated and annoyed.” (Google study – September, 2012)

*It’s safe to assume that 2011 and 2012 statistics have all since trended upward.

And this more recent (11/7/13) report from Marketing Land – “Mobile Trends By The Numbers, Just In Time For The Holidays


Responsive web design or separate mobile site?

So really your first challenge isn’t whether to develop a mobile site, but how to build one–use “responsive design” techniques to make your current “desktop” site a better experience for your mobile users, or build a separate mobile site, with its own domain?  (Developing a mobile app is another option, but usually beyond the budgets of most small to medium businesses). There are pros and cons to both options that I won’t belabor in this post since I’m not a Web developer and want to focus this post on content strategy for mobile (for an interesting discussion of  the “responsive web design” vs. “separate mobile site” debate, check out this Hubspot post–with some useful comments!).

Content strategy for mobile

Mobile text is significantly harder to read, even when optimized to a larger font size for mobile. And images displayed on mobile devices are harder to understand even after they’ve been cropped and zoomed. That’s mainly, obviously, because of mobile’s smaller screen sizes – NOT necessarily because of the distracting, on-the-run “mobile context” we’ve heard so much about. Usability guru Jacob Nielsen gives a nifty, research-based explanation of all that here and in “Mobile Usability,” his new book with Nielsen/Norman colleague Raluca Budio.  Their basic recommendation is to do everything possible to focus mobile users’ attention on essential content, which means (1) cut the fluff, especially page intro copy, unless it’s absolutely necessary to explain what’s on the page and why the following content is important; (2) relegate less important content to secondary (lower level) pages; and (3) try hard–even harder than when developing content for desktop users–to format  text in bullet lists, bolded fonts, etc. so it will be easier to scan and understand on mobile screens.

And I heartily agree with Karen McGrane’s admonition in “Content Strategy for Mobile” (A Book Apart, 2012) that if you decide to go with a separate mobile site, it should have all the same content as your desktop site. Mobile users get frustrated when they have to jump over to your desktop site to find what they need–especially if they’re bounced to a homepage and have to keep looking from there. And even more especially if there’s a link to “Full website” or “Desktop site” on your mobile site and they click it and then waste time discovering that your “Full website” actually has all the same content.

Dances with machines

Optimizing this site for search engines (SEO) yesterday, I was more aware than ever that I was changing my writing, often for the worse, so it would be easier for machines (i.e. Google) to understand. The application I used as my SEO adviser wanted me to:

  • Repeat my main keyword for each page as much as possible on that page (good Web copywriting doesn’t repeat the same words too much—to avoid the semantic carry-over ‘baggage’ of each occurrence and keep readers nourished with fresh words).
  • Use the main keyword in my page title and sub-heads  so search “bots” (robots) can more easily understand what the page or post is about  (good copywriting uses page titles and headlines or chapter titles to grab attention, intrigue readers, lead them into the writing that follows, not just matter-of-factly announce the main subject matter–boring!)
  • Keep my sentences short, no matter what (good writing varies sentence length to keep readers singing along with the sounds and rhythms of easygoing human language)
  • Avoid words with too many syllables, no matter what (good writing is precise, and sometimes a longer word packs a lot more, richer meaning per character and resonates more in your mind than a shorter, fuzzier one)
  • Include as many outbound links as possible (good writing, and Web copywriting in particular, doesn’t distract you by frequently suggesting that you read something else)
  • Avoid so-called “stop words”  in key words and page titles–words that make The Machine return too many results and/or too many irrelevant results.

“Stop words”

That last bit of advice about “stop words” really got me. “Consider removing them,” said the plug-in, sounding like Hal 9000, the rogue computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”). Here’s a snippet from just one of countless “stop word” lists:

stop words

And that’s just A through F… The list goes on. And many stop word lists are much longer. It’s hard to imagine any Web copywriter worth his/her salt willingly doing without ANY words!

Web copywriting SEO in a nutshell

Between the lines and looming large over even the geekiest professional SEO blogs and online forums, there’s a chronic ambivalence, a mixed message, between “Ignore the search engines, just create great, fresh content and you’ll rank high in search engine results”… and “You absolutely have to do [this] or [that] with your content and metadata and social networks” to get the best return on your SEO investment.The bottom line is that effective web copywriting SEO depends on:

  • Creating interesting, useful content for a well defined audience–and update it regularly;
  • Making sure your site is built on a platform that makes it easy for you to offer The Machines the right bait (URLs, page titles, headlines, keywords in copy, outbound links);
  • Engaging with social media–going out to mingle and talk usefully with your people, making sure you’re not just babbling like SNL’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” and handing out links back to your site like unwanted business cards (word is out that The Machines really couldn’t care less about those lately…).

the long view

My take on the future of Web copywriting SEO?  I’m thinking that if and when we get to the point where computers can understand Web content without our having to dumb down and interpret our “natural” language for them (and we sure seem to be headed hell-bent-for-leather in that direction!) we’d better be way more prepared to tango with them than Dave is in Kubrick’s film.