Engaging the EVERYMAN: Copy and Content Mistakes 600 Years Later

hand breaks through white screen, grabs out toward viewerSix years ago this forum conversation–Turning Corporate Speak into Useful Web Copy– took place on Webmasterworld. SIX YEARS AGO– akin to 100 in Internet years.

Technology has tripped right along, website designs and infrastructures have evolved, but that thread–on how to spin boring corporate copy (cardboard) into something your visitors may sink their teeth into (fresh grilled Angus steak) could have rolled off confused tongues …yesterday.

In 2003, laptop computers were much rarer than now, cellphones still had external antennae, and most of the people I knew still  thought the word, “blog” was some nonsense word I’d made up in my freakish brain.

Despite rigorous Internet and computing development, what’s not been so swift is the handling of  website copy and content. My God, what do we say? How do we say it? It’s not all about your business or your company, but about the emotional needs of your client…. How many times have you heard that last one? Six years from now some people will think it’s the most revolutionary concept they’ve ever heard. In fact, it’s a “tale” that’s been retold countless ways.

  • We know how to build, technically.
  • We still stumble around blindly trying to communicate via language. In many cases we’re no more nimble than a group of 7 year olds out in the road with fistfuls of fat chalk chunks scrawling our rudimentary vocabularies onto bumpy asphalt.

Take a time machine trip backwards for a moment:

14th century England– Jeffrey Chaucer, writer, poet and bard, is most well-known for his Canterbury Tales (still famous 600 years later). This viral literary work was a down to earth and bawdy selection of stories that won him a massive following and paying patrons, from the middle class up to kings and queens. Just the fact that he appealed to this breadth of audience was unheard of. Why this massive appeal? He wrote in a completely unheard of style of the day– he wrote for and about the Everyman. His Middle English, though lilting and intoxicating  by today’s language standards, was in direct opposition to the written language conventions of the day. Scholars and authors stuck close to the rule: dry and inaccessible Latin. Chaucer’s use of everyday language to appeal to his audience and interest readers, was revolutionary.

Best Sites: Big Content

Time’s list of 25 Sites We Can’t Live Without (which could be a bit outdated, from 2007) includes Wikipedia, Craigslist, Amazon, ESPN, Google (of course), FactCheck.org, How Stuff Works, National Geographic, YouTube, Kayak.com, WebMD, TMZ, and a slew of others. Most of these were and still are —– huge content sites that successfully blend engaging and frequently updated copy and content, design, a user-friendly experience, some user-generated content, and multimedia.

But getting back to more corporate content and messages- when it comes to putting our businesses online (message, brand, site design, user experience, explaining who we are, what we sell and what it’s going to do for you) in 2009 there remains a learning curve–even among major brands. Search Engine Land posted a sprawling and detailed post in February that compares Super Bowl advertisers, their brands and slogans, to search visibility, search volume, and user intent. Result of this exploration? Some surprising insight on content RELEVANCE, site visibility,  and customer engagement.

Overall, the theme among major brands was: confusing, with instances in which off-brand competitors provided a much better search option for visitors. SEL, for example, cites the differences in FINDABILITY and relevant content offered by Toyota (users searching for the slogan “are you venza,”) versus an off-brand content site, Cars.com. Which do you think wins in search results for keyword, brand relevance, AND content provided? Is it that surprising? In this particular instance it’s valuable to show that Cars.com beats Toyota at its own slogan game because the former leverages current keywords and search trends via a frequently updated blog. Six years ago few companies cared about a blog and it seems as though some still don’t get how this most rudimentary content tool can make the difference between sink or swim. It’s a sign of life behind that business or corporate curtain, an attention to customers, engagement, interest in creating an open conversation, it’s availability. (It’s like medieval bards tripping from town to town to share the most current tale of the day with their hungry audiences.)

SEL also reports that it observed an alarming number of major brands with poorly crafted content and missing or weakly crafted search snippets, the lattermost an elementary, but KEY, component.

Outside online business concerns like domain relevance, brand, search engine placement, corporate message, site architecture, content, overall design– is there room for considering creativity? Is there a slim chance of breaking free of the general everything-looks-and-sounds-the-same patina to which, it seems, many businesses believe they must strictly adhere?

Copywriter, John Carlton, over and over in his attempts to instruct, argues that the missing ingredient in most advertising and marketing copy messages is the guts to be bold. He contends that most online users and certainly those to whom you are trying to sell something, are zombies. They are flogged day in and day out with the same messages, same tone of online voice, unexciting, uninteresting, BORING. If you think they like this….then keep on. Carlton argues that the only way you have a chance in hell of standing out is if you reach out and grab your prospective client by the shirt collar and PULL HIM IN — nose to nose, not arms-length. ENGAGEment via bold copy and content, and marketing messages that  hit sweet spots your competitors are afraid to strike. Truth be told many legendary copywriters and modern online marketers, practiced these same tactics, but I continue to be drawn to Carlton’s image of the customer-zombie, which nails the problem …

“One simple trick mastered today will have your customers beating a path to your door, even if they have to fork over more cash for ….”

I pass by a grizzled, rumply guy selling newspapers every morning. He is positioned strategically in a small median at a busy 3-way stop. I can’t imagine he sells many. I’ve witnessed only 3 people stop, flag him and hand him a buck or so in exchange for the paper. BUT what’s so unique about him is that he engages almost every passerby, everyday, even in the rain. How? While balancing his coffee to-go, sometimes lighting a cigarette and hugging an armload of fresh morning papers, he makes eye contact with every driver stopped at the 3 stops signs, waves and nods his head in their direction, smiling. These greetings are quick, but he’s engaging in a way that far outdoes any of his competitors on any other street corner in the city. If I were to buy a morning paper, I’d go to his corner, even if it were out of my way.

Engagement with the Everyman.

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