Rob Frankel - Branding Expert

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Writing for the web.

Back in the Stone Age, when I was working as a copywriter at an ad agency -- well, let me just think about that for a moment. No wife, no kids, no mortgage payments or private school tuitions. Just me, my dog and a two seater red sports car. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Back when I was a copywriter, I wrote a brochure for a client. It's not important which client for whom the brochure was written. What's important is that for any creative product to leave the agency, it had to ascend the chain of command: from copywriter to group head to creative director, who in turn heaved it over to the "account side" of the building. The account team would run it up their flag pole to see who saluted it, and if there weren't too many changes, the brochure would make it's way over to the client for approval. It was tough. It was messy. And as it is with most things, the more people that got involved, the worse the creative product got to be.

It was tough enough going through the exercise, but the worst occasion I ever encountered was the day a general manager's secretary handed me back my copy with all kinds of red ink bleeding all over it. "What's this?" I asked incredulously. "Oh, you can't write like this," she announced. "It's grammatically incorrect."

They were never able to prove the cause of her death, which is why I'm here today to give you a few pointers about writing your advertising. And writing for the internet is just as important as it is in everyday print. Maybe moreso, because advertising on the web is an especially graphical art form.

Now, I'm no fan of overwriting an ad. But let's face it. There is a certain amount of information -- mainly selling information -- that graphics alone just won't cut by themselves. You do have to write something. But how you write it is what makes all the difference.

1. WHO CARES ABOUT GRAMMAR? If you've talked to any recent college graduate, you know that they don't know the difference between a gerund and a participle, so why should you care? Oh, I know it contributes to the decline of Western civilization NOT to know these things. So if you're writing a college thesis, by all means, stick to the MLA style sheet and don't end your sentences with prepositions. But this is advertising. Here, we write what works.

2. DON'T MAKE ME READ YOU; MAKE ME HEAR YOU. One of the best ways to improve your writing's effectiveness is to talk to your readers, instead of writing to them. When all is said and done, your reader should be able to "hear" you as if you were talking to them. It makes your site -- and what you're saying on it -- a lot more personable. If you want a trick that I teach my students, start out your sell copy with "Dear Mom". Then write the letter to your Mom the way you normally would. After that, cut off the "Dear Mom" part and you'll see what I mean. Nobody ever writes, "Dear Mom! Finally a way for you to turn 46¢ into $100,000 in your spare time!"

3. DON'T RELY ON AUDIO TECHNOLOGY. Many web designers make the mistake of thinking that cute little audio plug-ins are a way around writing text. Forget it. Audio clips are just one more cute little gimmick that distracts viewers, and more often than not, annoys them with long download delays.

4. LOOK COUNT, BUT PEOPLE JUDGE YOU BY THE WAY YOU SPEAK. Remember that beautiful girl/guy you saw across a crowded room at that party? Remember how your hormones started jumping all over the place as you approached him/her? Remember how disappointed you were when you heard how dumb he/she was when it opened its mouth to speak? Come one, everyone has one of those in their history. And badly written sites are the same animal. If your site looks great, but is loaded with badly written text, you'll have undermined your entire marketing effort right then and there.

5. WHEN IN DOUBT, CUT IT OUT. Keep it short. To the point. Nobody likes a windbag, and where people can click away from you in a nanosecond, you want to keep them moving along. Besides, too much copy can actually talk you OUT of the sale.

6. DON'T TELL THEM EVERYTHING. The trick to writing copy that turns text into sales is to direct a viewer into contacting you for more information. If you tell them every little detail on your site, they don't have any reason to call. In fact, if you tell them too much, you may give them a reason NOT to contact you. On the other hand, if your copy directs them into contacting you, you open up the opportunity of bringing in those fence-sitters who might not otherwise have bought.

One last thing: A lot of people ask me about one word sentences. They know they're not grammatically correct, but is it okay to use them?


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