Wednesday, September 17, 2008

15 Seconds on the Web: Ten Writing Tips to Improve Sales

In 15 seconds, a visitor to your site determines whether or not they are interested in your product or service. Web usability experts can provide all sorts of design insights, HTML advice and search engine optimization tips to increase your site visibility and appeal. While this is helpful, the most crucial factor in the sale is how you connect with your visitor. That connection occurs in one way – through content.

Research from academia, web consultants, and behavioral scientists over the past two decades has revealed ten techniques to sharpen your web-writing skills and tighten your customer connection.

The First Four Seconds
Visitors to your website want the gist of your site, services and products within 4 seconds. That’s enough time for you to have read this paragraph aloud.

On your homepage, you have 1–2 sentences, no more than 30 words, to get this information across. Don’t waste that time. Include specific points of differentiation that are important to your target audience in those 30 words – “free shipping” or “24-hour service” and so forth. If you can have someone not associated with your business read those 1-2 sentences aloud in four seconds, and then be able to tell you what makes your service or product different, you’ve hit the right mark.

Say Yes to What They Want
Now that your visitor understands what you are and has an idea of your products and services, think about what they want to see to pick your company over a competitor. People buy to satisfy emotions, soothe anxieties or gratify desires, so the want is important – it’s their justification to buy. Put yourself in your target audience’s shoes – imagine what they want to see on a site to make them say, “Aha – this is the one.” Is it “free shipping” or is it “guaranteed overnight delivery”?

For instance, if you are a flower shop that guarantees overnight delivery, think about the emotional reasons why your service might be important to a potential customer. Perhaps they’ve just had an argument with their significant other or a family member over the phone. Then, target your content at that reason. You could lead into your special overnight delivery service with “Need to apologize…? Tomorrow is not too late with fresh flowers. We guarantee overnight delivery anywhere in the continental US.”

Clarity of the Connection
Use short, 8-12 word sentences. Paragraphs should be 1-3 sentences long and contain only one idea or concept. The key is quick comprehension.

There are two ways to measure how well you do this, a subjective method and a statistical method. Personally, I try to combine the two.

First, I write (or copy and paste) my content in Microsoft Word and run the spell/grammar check with readability statistics turned on (under Options and then Grammar). This will provide you a “grade-level” score. If your score is within the 10.00 to 11.99 range, you’ve passed the statistical test. Anything below 8 and you risk treating your visitors like simpletons. Scores above 13 are typical of three things: academic treatises, scientific papers, and engineering analyses. Even if that’s what you offer, those are end products, not content written to connect with a person’s wants.

The subjective method for readability is to provide the content to someone who knows very little about the matter at hand and ask them to read it and then tell you the gist of it. If they can, you’ve written the content clear enough for it to be understood by the average visitor.

Jargon and Buzzwords
Your time with your potential customer is limited. Really think through if you want your website to have words like “paradigm,” “synergy,” “repurposeable,” “value-added,” “best of breed,” “game plan” or any other ambiguous hype. If you think you do, read the short book Why Business People Speak Like Idiots and then re-examine your site. Maximum impact equals meaningful words.

Limit Length
For each page of content or product, place the most important information in your first two paragraphs or product positions on the page. Then keep the rest of your webpage content to under three printed pages’ worth.

This can be hard to do with the banner, the navigation bar, the copyright notice, pictures, and so on. One approach is to create a “print page” hyperlink that pulls up a content only version of the page (with thumbnail pictures for specific products). Put these print pages in a sub-directory on your website to make it easier for yourself to separate the print pages from the full display pages.

An F-Shaped Pattern
Write your content so that the shape (of the paragraphs, sentences and lists as you look at them together) is easy to skim. After deciding on the gist of your site and its products or services during the first four seconds of their visit, a visitor spends 11 seconds or less scanning your page in an F-shaped pattern: first, across the top portion of your content; then down and across again – but this time, less than ¾ of the way across; and finally down the left-side looking for something of interest in the first two or three words of each line.

Key Words and Bullets
Because of this F-shaped pattern, any text beyond the first two short paragraphs needs to have its key words in the first two or three words of each sentence or list item. The trick is to imagine writing a three-word headline – then lengthen it at the end. For instance, “Overnight Delivery – Guaranteed or Your Money Back” is better than “We provide an overnight delivery guarantee.”

Lists flow naturally into this F-shaped pattern. Bullet point lists are easily skimmed and web visitors tend to return to easily-skimmed sites 47% more. If you’re selling over the web, that can quickly convert to 47% more sales.

Your lists should only have three to four items in them. If you have a lot of items, then segregate them into three to four categories. If a list has more than eight bulleted items, you risk the visitor simply hopping and skipping over the list.

Show Your Pricing
A common gap for business-to-business websites is the lack of pricing details. This information is crucial to the financial decision-maker in every potential customer. Even if you cannot give an exact price, then show respect for your prospective customer and at least discuss price levels. When I was CIO of Chrysalis Technologies, many companies wanted to meet one, two or even three times before discussing pricing basics. In five years, not one of those companies made a sale with us; we were simply too busy and moved on to a competitor who would at least provide us a ballpark cost up front.

This may seem to fly in the face of advice you’ve seen elsewhere, but think about it: if I want to buy something, then one of my next deciding factors is if I can afford that something at your site. If your price range is within the one I’ve established – either in an approved budget or in my mind – then how likely am I to buy now and move on to the rest of my day?

Unless you have a truly, globally unique product or service, you need to provide pricing as an essential part of the customer connection.

Ask for the Sale
Too many websites show the product or the service, let the visitor know the benefits, and then leave the visitor to ponder what to do next. This should be the easy part. Include a call to action with a “buy now” button or a phrase like “call now so your feelings arrive with your flowers.” If your visitor has to pause to reflect, you can lose that thread of connection, what’s been called the “succession of yeses.” For some potential customers, that pause is all they need to remember to comparison shop and move on.

Take the Five-One-Five Test
Once you believe your content is ready, print out five of your web pages (your home page plus four more) and show them to five people in the market(s) you are targeting. Give them one minute. Do they “get it”? Do they understand what you are selling? Can they tell you what stands out as a key differentiator of your service or products? Take in their feedback and revise your content.

Following these ten tips will provide you the best chance of connecting with your customer and getting the sale. Whether you’re providing business or consumer services or products, visitors to your website want a commitment within 15 seconds.

The question is, do you?

About this author
John Avellanet is the managing director & principal consultant of Cerulean Associates LLC, a Virginia-based IT management & compliance consultancy focused on helping clients improve their financial results by aligning IT and compliance with business strategies and new product development.

Cerulean Associates LLC is located at http://www.ceruleanllc.com on the web.

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