Principle 1: Focus on the user. Not yourself.
Companies often make their websites all about them, but really, it's about the user. It’s a matter of perspective, and it’s our responsibility to take theirs.
Sites oftentimes are so focused on proving themselves that they forget to talk about the user. This is especially common in B2B, where Pennebaker spends much of our time. They often read something like this:
[Company name] is an [industry] company, but we aren’t just any company. We are innovators. We push boundaries, think outside the box, and [other cliches]. We’ve been doing this for over [X] years, and our team is dedicated to [keeping their jobs} your success!
Aside from how that language is written (which we'll talk about a little later), they have almost completely forgotten to talk about the user and solving their goals.
Compare that to the copy used on Mailchimp.
"Reach your customers at all the right moments. Get your business online. We'll help you: Reach the right people. Create better content. Automate your marketing".
The copy centers around the user and how Mailchimp's offerings can solve a pain point and impact their lives. The value proposition is the first thing on the page, and they don’t waste time trying to convince the user they’re trustworthy because they do that in other ways.
And with phrases like "We will help you," they are following a lesson that Donald Miller outlines in Building a StoryBrand. To summarize, he says,
Examine your pronouns. If you find yourself repeating the words “we” or “our” anywhere but on the About page, that may be a red flag.
Remember to position yourself as the guide. Focus on what the user's future will look like if they choose to work with you and what the journey looks like. Focus not on what makes you great, but on how you can help them be great.
Be Generous. Look for ways to give gifts to your audience. Reveal knowledge that might interest them. Shine a light on the struggles they've been having. Empathize with common frustrations. People pay attention to what interests them. So if you want to be seen, be generous and transparent in your approach. This is why content strategy and public relations have become so important.
Principle 2: Cut the crap. Be objective.
By objective, I mean presenting information without exaggeration, subjective claims, or boasting.
If your website is full of phrases like "industry innovator," "above and beyond," "values driven," "strong track record" (and the list goes on), then you've got some work to do. Unless immediately backed up by something more tangible, that kind of vague language (sometimes called "Marketese" or "Happy Talk") simply reads as hollow bravado.
Webflow is an excellent example of being objective. Their homepage is all about pitching their site builder to prospective users, and it is broken into three main sections–build, launch and grow.
In the launch section, the headline establishes the context, and the intro copy makes the pitch faster than a tweet. The claims they make in that pitch (fast, reliable, hassle-free, and scalable), are then followed up by how they deliver on those promises, i.e. the objective statements such as powered by AWS, 99.9% uptime, zero maintenance, etc. The cherry on top—they include a glowing testimonial from a customer who depended on a reliable hosting network and a minimal line graph of the analytics in question.
Follow the first rule. By talking less about yourself, you will naturally cut down on “happy-talk.”
Be a ruthless editor. The more you cut down on frivolous or ambiguous content, the more concentrated your message becomes.
Show, don't tell. Case studies, stats, or simply the right images can tell a compelling story.
Let others sing your praises. What you say about yourself is not nearly as impactful as what others say about you. Positive reviews can be a genuine way to leverage social proof to your advantage (just don’t fake it 😉).
Principle 3: Write like a newspaper. Make your message easy to see.
How you organize your content can be just as important as what you write. If a quick scan of your site is not compelling, users are unlikely to take a deeper dive.
In 2021, it's no secret that people skim headlines, images, and bullet points when searching for something on the web. Yet still, especially in the B2B space, it’s common to find sites under-utilizing headlines and imagery while burying their message in a mountain of body copy.
The model for what to do is actually much older than the web itself. The “inverted pyramid” writing structure exemplified by newspapers ensures that the critical information is conveyed in just a glance. Once the point has been made, the details come in to expand on or reinforce the core message. This is also sometimes referred to as “front-loading.”
To see how this translates to the web, let’s look at the meditation app Headspace. The second block on the page is intended to convey the value of meditation. And, it is done in just three concise headlines. “Find more joy. Get more goodnights. Make every day happier.” Each headline is reinforced by a short sentence or two, but if the user never reads them, they’ve still understood the message.
Make your point upfront. If people are likely to only read the headlines, don’t lament the user; write your content to match that mode of behavior. “Frontloading” your message will make a cursory scan of your site easier and more rewarding.
Use formatting and design to guide the eye. Strategic formatting, such as bolded text, highlighting, callouts, and bullet points, can make content more digestible by breaking it down.
Use pictures to replace paragraphs. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” On the web, an image can communicate in a second what a paragraph struggles to do in a minute. Plus, using graphics can improve your message by lending context, emotion or aesthetic appeal.
Now, if I’ve done a good job following my own advice, you should be able to scan through this article pretty quickly and walk away with actionable takeaways on how to improve content on your site. But, what do you think? Did any of these common mistakes sound familiar to you? Do you have any advice you wish you would have seen here? Interested in how these lessons play into Pennebaker’s process? Let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.