One day, in the jungle, an elephant happened upon a lion. The elephant always wanted to know why lions roar so loud, so he asked. The lion replied, “I’m the king of the beasts – and I want to advertise the fact.” As it happened, this proud statement was overheard by a little rabbit which was sitting nearby. Impressed, the rabbit decided to put his new knowledge to use. The very next day, the rabbit opened his mouth as loud as he could and tried his very best to roar like the lion. Sadly (since there was a considerable difference between his aspirations and reality) all that came out of his mouth was a feeble squeak. This squeak attracted the attention of a nearby fox, which promptly ate the rabbit.

The moral of the story: don’t advertise unless you can deliver the goods.

Although the very nature of marketing is to create something that is ‘better than life’, when your message is not aligned to your capabilities, then your marketing is more likely to drop you in it than boost your sales.

When people talk about the impact of the Web, they generally talk about immediacy of communications, the shrinking of the world, global trade and so on. But the Web has had a profound impact on the way businesses communicate. Prior to the Web, organisations wanting to reach potential customers had to ‘push’ information out, via direct mail, advertisements and so on. The advertisers were in control – and the consumer had little influence on the structure, tone and content of the message. With the Web, the communications paradigm is the opposite. Consumers choose where they go and what they read. They are in control.

Web usability studies show that visitors to Web pages don’t actually read them. They scan them: quickly looking within the structure of the page for the information which they are seeking. Copywriters learned quickly to cut to the chase and present the information which visitors were seeking.

This has led to website copy being far more direct, conversational and factual. Hype is largely reduced and more focus is provided on the information required.

This is good. With the Web being one of the most influential communications mediums of the age, it’s no surprise to find that the language of the Web is creeping into other communications. Is this a good thing or a bad one? Well, in our book, it’s generally good.
People are smart and can spot when they are being lied to or patronised. And neither of those is the role of marketing. Good marketing promotes a product on its strengths; it doesn’t invent whole new strengths. Clear and conversational language, which gets to the point and communicates what the reader needs to know, is no bad thing.

That this type of copy has spilled over into printed communications can only really be a good thing, making brochures and leaflets more accessible.

Certainly our customers get a better response from marketing materials which are hype-free, clear and succinct, than they do from wordy, self-important marketing gobbledygook.

In terms of copy, we frequently spot three major crimes (especially, though by no means exclusively, on the Web).

  • ‘Corporate speak’ – huge reams of stuff that doesn’t make any actual sense and doesn’t actually tell you anything.
  • Copy which contains obviously outrageous promises.
  • Copy which is friendly, but littered with errors.

All are equal crimes, likely to cause visitors to bail out. The first because the visitor can’t relate to the message – and often can’t even work out what the company even does! The second because the message engenders disbelief and the third because mistakes simply make you look like a second-rate outfit.

  • Keep your promises in line with your product.
  • Trim hype and corporate-speak.
  • Give priority to delivering the information which the reader is seeking, not ‘spin’ or secondary topics.
  • ‘Because it’s just a Web page’, don’t drop your standards. Give Web pages at least the same attention/resources as brochures – and put them through the same quality processes. After all, the audience for a Web page is far higher than that of a brochure!