baddesignThere are a lot of bad Web designers out there.

Of course, that’s nothing against Web designers – there’s also a lot of atrocious Web copy out there, too. The difference is that everyone thinks they can write well, while most everyone believes they can’t draw. Moreover, the popular perception of good writing centers on clarity, whereas the popular perception of designcenters on creativity. All of which means bad design gets unleashed on the world, and goes un-optimized, more often than bad web copy.

Having dropped that turd in the punchbowl, let me admit that I’m no designer myself, with any knowledge I do have coming from self education.

Yet precisely because I am not a designer, I’ve always aimed my self-education at developing a knowledge of design fundamentals rather than of design tools.  And this has left me continually scratching my head when I consistently see those fundamental design principles violated by Web designers.

Sometimes I wondered if it was just me and my own deeply-ingrained Conversion-centric view of Web design, pounded into me by Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg.  But as it turns out, it ain’t just me…

Why does this matter to a copywriter?

Because your Web copy’s effectiveness will be dramatically affected by page design.

So what do I recommend if you’re a copywriter who is forced to work with a mediocre designer?  Educate yourself, learn to speak design, and force designers/clients to test disputed design decisions.

Here are 14 Starter Resources to Begin Your Design Education:

When you can articulate your objections to bad design more eloquently and professionally than the designer can advocate for his design, you’ll have a huge leg up.  And when that fails, you can always demand a split test between the simpler, cleaner design and whatever creative layout your designer has come up with.

So what about you?  What design resources have you found invaluable?  What do you recommend when working with a less-than-stellar Web designer?  Let me know in the comments!

P.S. The “Bad Design Kills” icon was created by Von Glitschka and used with permission.

P.P.S. Sorry for the lapse in posts.  Had some health issues and am just now feeling on the mend.

gossipYou’re thinking of buying something or some service and an acquintance says, “Don’t do it; I bought that/hired them and it was a total waste of money.  I got screwed.”

Do you trust that acquaintance enough to let them sway your decision? Generally speaking, yes.

But if you’re on Amazon, looking at an interesting book, and you see a handful of 5-star reviews, many claiming that this is “The Best” book on the subject, do you trust the positive reviews?

Well, it depends on how well written and substantiated the reviews are, etc. But generally speaking, no, you don’t really trust them.  All else being equal, we tend to give far less credence to positive reviews than negative ones.

Why we trust negative reviews more than positive recommendations

Basically, we grant others authority in the matter of their own personal experiences. If they say their favorite color is blue, we believe them.  If they say they had a bad experience with such and such a product or service provider, we believe that too, because they are speaking from their own personal experience in that one situation.

You don’t have to be an expert on vacum cleaners to know that the one you bought has failed you miserably. And your experience alone is often enough to sway someone from buying that brand.

But a general recommendation is different. The ability to credibly make a positive recommendation requires more than just personal experience with a given product. For a recommendation to be persuasive, the reader must have faith in the reviewer’s overall judgement and in their field-specific knowledge.

You can tell me you liked a specific type of ergonomic chair, but your experience alone isn’t enough to make me want to buy that chair because there are a lot of good chairs out there and I’m not looking for good – I’m looking for the best my money can buy.

In order to persuade me that the chair you bought is the best chair for my money, you have to have more than just your experience with the chair.  You need to have broad knowledge and expertise (or at least experience) with the top ergonomic chairs on the market so that you can compare multiple chairs and competently pick out the best performing chair for the money.

To believe and act on your recommendation, I’d need to know:

  • that your use of the chair is similar to mine,
  • that you’ve already tried a bunch of chairs, and
  • what your criteria were for selecting the chair you did.

All this over and above your personal experience with the chair you eventually bought and recommended.

See the difference?

A Social Media “Friend” isn’t necessarily a friend

A lot has been made recently about studies purporting to show that people trust their friends less and experts more. It’s well worth looking at the study, but be careful about applying this too broadly.

First of all, what the study is really saying is that people trust anonymous reviews less than recommendations stemming from an authoritative source.  Well, duh!

Does that mean reviews and testimonials have lost importance?  Hell no.  Keeping in mind what we just discussed, here’s what I believe it means:

  1. Negative reviews can still have an outsized impact.
  2. Positive reviewers need to substantiate their unbiased nature and subject matter expertise.

Sean D’Souza is ahead of the curve, as usual

What this really reminds me of is Sean D’Souza’s advice on Testimonials, advice that clearly understood (and masterfully leveraged) this phenomena several years ago when his product first came out.  He used to give the PDF away to members of his newsletter, but the product he’s selling now for $40 is well worth it, in my humble opinion – and I’ve sampled more than my fair share of copywriting books, info-products, and guru advice 😉

shovelWhat tells you when it’s time to stop digging?

That repentance is necessary for salvation is hardly a principle confined to Christianity. It’s really as simple as saying that if you’ve dug yourself into a hole, you need to:

  1. realize you’re in a hole, and
  2. stop digging, and
  3. become open to solutions (aka, a way out)

And until you do, you won’t have much hope of getting out of that hole. Obviously, the sooner you recognize the hole, the easier the process is. Just as obviously, this applies to businesses as well as individuals.

In fact, a lot of hole-digging in business involves maximizing short term profit at the expense of long-term reputation, customer satisfaction, product improvement, etc. Mostly because profitability is fervently measured while the long term things often don’t even have indicators, let alone measurements. This means most companies don’t realize they’ve dug themselves into a hole until a crisis hits.

So what are your early indicators for these “soft” or long-term factors? Have you bothered to set any up, or are crises going to be the only indicator that the hole you’re in is higher than your arms can reach?


Are you demanding a state of grace, or are you willing to take people as they are?

One of the few things I don’t like about Getting Things Done is the “state of grace” factor.  Meaning you have to start your system from a point at which everything is accounted for on a slip of paper in your in-box. You have to take 1-2 days out of your life to get yourself to the starting point.

I think that’s one reason there are far more variants of GTD and people using modified GTD systems than there are actual GTD practitioners. People like the system, but most can’t start from that all-too-hard-to-achieve state of grace.

Similarly, businesses that are willing to take people as they are generally do a whole lot better than businesses that force customers to have gotten their ducks in a row beforehand. People want solutions, not an “I told you so.” Think of the difference between a normal university and most online universities. They’ll always be a Harvard, but I think a lot of 3rd Tier Colleges and Universities are about to get crunched as more and more people opt for educational alternatives that will take them where they are.

What about your business?  Are you willing to meet people where they are – to save them from their past stupidity if needed – or are you demanding customers enter your doors in a state of grace?


An apology without a “Mea Culpa” isn’t a real apology.

I know that with businesses there are sometimes legal issues with admitting you did something wrong, but frankly, more companies wimp out of making a real apology from fear than they do from actual legal constraints.

What they end up with is a psuedo-apology where they kind of sorta say they’re going to do better without specifically admitting or addressing what they did wrong. But an insincere apology is worse than no apology.

If you’re making a statement about a mishap that’s your fault, you should say that it’s your fault, specifically and directly.  Don’t hedge, don’t be vague, and don’t try to spin it while you’re apologizing.


The object of giving something up is to gain something else

Christians fast and make sacrifices during Lent  — i.e., they give up temporal, worldly pleasures and activities — so as to better concentrate their minds on the eternal and the spiritual. It’s not just about giving something up, it’s about eliminating some things to focus more on others.

This is a recognition that you can’t just add and add and add without having things get crowded out of the picture – usually the wrong things, the most important things.

While we all tend to endlessly add To-Dos to our list, there’s only so much time in the day. How many of us actively focus on a Stop Doing list? The idea is to replace less effective and efficient strategies and practices with more effective ones.  So shouldn’t we have as many “Stop Doing” items as “Start Doings”?

What’s on your “Stop Doing” list?

2010-02-16_0013If you’ve ever been frustrated and beaten down by this or that issue at work, was your outlook on that issue one of dispassionate, organizational-focused analysis?

Or was your search for a solution to the problem just as emotionally driven as any consumer purchase?

The ugly truth about B2B Copy: most of it assumes that organizations buy things.

But I’ve never heard of an organization getting on its computer, checking out a Website, filling out lead forms, or meeting with sales reps.  The only people who do those things are, well, people.

And like all people, B2B customers generally trying to do one of two things:

  1. Trying to get what they want
  2. Trying to get away from (or avoid) a problem/pain in the butt that they don’t want

In either situation, emotions rule the day.  And so does the context of the situation.  This is where even decent B2B copy goes wrong by assuming only positive motivation from the buyer.  The copy acts as if only proactive customers exist in the marketplace.

Apparently, whoever wrote the copy never lifted their head above the cubicle or observed much of the outside world.  Yes, some people are aggressively proactive. But the majority?  They’re usually moving away from pain, typically in the face of crisis. They get serious about fitness after a health scare or humiliating event. They avidly back-up computers after a hard drive failure.  And so on.

And if you don’t think the same thing happens with organizations, you’re nuts; again, it’s people that are doing the buying, and as importantly, institutions generally have MORE neurosis than individuals, not less.

Here’s a few business examples of this same behavior:

  • Sales results slide a bit, but aren’t really bad enough to push management into real action.  They look around at some of their sales training and sales recruiting options, but sit on that information as long as times are moderately good.  Then, when a competitor starts stealing away key accounts or the market starts shrinking it suddenly becomes time to buy sales training.
  • A company’s e-mail hosting requirements grows increasingly more complex.  The in-house hosting becomes shaky at best and the IT manager knows it should be outsourced.  He takes a look at his outsourcing options, but he’s got about 10 other higher-priority items on his to-do list.  He might putter along like this for a year before suffering, say, a 2-day e-mail outage.  Now the IT manager/company is really in the market for outsourced exchange hosting.

dominoesWhat I’m talking about are precipitating events – the kind of things that move a someday/maybe aspiration into a firm resolve to buy.

Now here’s the deal: most companies involved with B2B and complex sales know (or at least the sales people know) exactly what their top 5 or so precipitating events are. Yet most B2B websites fail to address the negative buying emotions stemming from those precipitative events.

Last week I was invited to take part in a landing page critique by Bryan Eisenberg.  My first question was, “what was the precipitating event?”  And based on the answers to that one question, the copy was totally transformed.

In the space of a short half-hour call, the clients themselves were able to take copy that read like something a Perl script might spit to messaging that compelling addressed the real buying motivations of the visitor.  Like magic.

You can do it too.  Just ask yourself, what are your clients’ precipitating events? Ask your sales team if you need help.

Now go look at your Web copy while keeping those precipitating events clearly in mind.

Super-Bowl_1573858cDoes anyone really think that this year’s Superbowl managed to be the number 1 most watched event of all time because the actual athleticism on display was superior to year’s past?

Does anyone think that the main draw was really about the football itself?

Or do you suspect, as I do, that it was story behind the teams and behind the game that drew people in? That the emotional connection we all shared for the struggles faced by a post-Katrina New Orleans brought in far more viewers than the actual football itself?

Bottom Line: Emotional Connection and Story sell more tickets than sheer athleticism.

Living in the South, I can say that College Sports (and especially college football) are a much bigger deal down here than most pro sports.  Alumni have a much greater emotional connection to their College teams than any pro team. And frankly, there’s also a sh*t-load more rivalries amongst college teams.  Emotions run high when Alabama plays Auburn, or Florida plays Florida State or Texas plays the Aggies, and so on.

If the NFL were smart, they’d figure out how to create more of that. More rivalries, more emotional connection, better write-ups of the story behind the games.

And what they’d avoid at all costs is a strike or “lockout” that could sever emotional connections amongst the majority of their audience.  They’d also want to squelch the kind of player free-agency that breaks the spell of team-loyalty. If the players don’t care who they play for, why should I care who I root for?

Obviously, this stuff extends well beyond football…

What kind of emotional connections are you creating with your customers? What kind of story are you telling?

P.S. Here’s another 5 Lessons in Success from Super Bowl XLIV Champion Saints

2010-02-09_2309Universally acclaimed as one of the best business books of 2007, Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick is also one of the all-time best communications books you can buy.

So the anticipation surrounding their next book is palpable – as was my excitement at receiving a reviewer copy!

But frankly, what made Made to Stick great wasn’t so much the raw content (though the content was awesome) as it was the incredibly practical and cohesive framework that the Heath Brothers used to organize that content into a method for transforming messages.

That famous SUCCESS framework made the material stick.  And building on that framework, the format of the book itself made for an easy and enjoyable read due to the numerous before and after examples (or “clinics” as they called them) and illustrative anecdotes.

Those same virtues take center stage in their newest book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard:

  • Elegant and practical mental framework?  Yup
  • Lots of Before and After style “Clinic” Sidebars?  Check
  • Incredibly engaging and illustrative anecdotes? You betcha

The Rider, The Elephant, and The Path

So having hyped the mental framework and structure of the book, I’ll give you a quick and dirty explanation of it. The Heath Bros make three points right off the bat in introducing their new metaphorical framework for change:

  • We’re fundamentally schizophrenic about change; our hearts and minds often disagree.  If you’ve ever set a 2nd alarm clock across the room to force yourself out of bed and prevent snoozing, you know exactly how much our conscious minds and emotional desires can be at odds.
  • Relying on your conscious mind to self-supervise change simply doesn’t work.  Conscious attention is a precious resource that is quickly exhausted when used to overcome the emotional desires of our heart.
  • Environmental cues often have a profound effect on our behavior and our ability to change – shockingly so.  In fact, more so than most of us would ever guess

Borrowing a metaphor from Jonathon Haidt, the Heath Brothers bring these three points together by calling the heart an Elephant, the conscious mind the Rider, and the environment the Path.

And within this framework, making hard changes successful requires 3 broad strategies:

1.  You have to Direct the Rider

In this case, the rider is the logical, conscious part of you and/or the people you are hoping to change. Now, this much isn’t a revelation, but most people do manage to get this part wrong.

They get it wrong by expecting the elephant rider to be able to muscle the elephant into making the change against the elephant’s inclinations/will.  Not gonna happen – at least not for long.  Self supervision is a limited resource that’s too-quickly used up by brute force-of-will efforts.

So how does one more intelligently direct the rider?

  • Overcome Paralysis Analysis by Finding the Bright Spots.  Our conscious minds are really good at finding problems and analyzing them.  Unfortunately, this kind of negative analysis often works against us when it comes to making difficult changes.  But we can better direct our conscious minds by using tools such as appreciative inquiry and positive psychology.  These tools direct us to look for what’s working, rather than what’s wrong. Find out what’s working in spite of the negative obstacles and analyze why.
  • Make goals actionable by scripting the critical moves.  Whether desired behavior is easy and clear or just a little bit harder and more complex makes a HUGE difference when it comes to change. Getting Things Done is almost entirely based on this premise – you have to move from inactionable to-dos and projects to well defined, do-able, next actions.  “Eat healthier” isn’t a next action.  “Switch from whole milk to 1% and save yourself 5 bacon strips worth of saturated fat every time you drink a glass” is very much actionable.
  • Point to the destination by providing people with an imaginable, concrete, BHAGs. You want to put the rider’s power of analysis to work on figuring out how to get to a motivating destination or goal, rather than using analysis to resist the change.

2. You have to Motivate the Elephant

The Elephant is the emotional, more instinctual part of you and/or the people you’re hoping to change. If your rider wants to get up early to go running, it’s your Elephant that would much rather grab an extra hour’s worth of sleep.

Most people see the Elephant as the problem, but in the vast majority of successful change efforts, the Elephant was engaged as a driving force. Here’s how Switch suggests you do that:

  • Find the Feeling.  As the Heath Bros say it, “…the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.  You’re presented with evidence that makes you feel something…something that speaks to the Elephant.” Grab their hearts and their minds will follow. User-testing is often times as much about creating empathy for the end-user as it is about getting new usability data.
  • Shrink the Change. It’s easier to tackle big problems if you’ve already got a bit of momentum on your side, so make the change feel doable by emphasizing the momentum that’s already there or by setting up quick initial wins to create that momentum. My pet store gives us a free bag of dog food for every 8 we buy from them, but according to Switch, they’d be better off making the cards say every 10 bags and giving away 2 free punches in order to create that initial momentum; a Carwash ran an A/B test on completion rates for cards using that technique which showed a 79% improvement in completion rates.
  • Grow Your People. People make choices either on a consequences/cost-benefit model or from an identity model. The first model is familiar to any copywriter familiar with WIIFM.  Here’s how the second model operates, “In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ourselves three basic questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? Successful change efforts work with and further develop the changees’ identities.  And this works in sports as well as football, as this great article on the New Orleans Saints proves.

3. You have to Shape the Path

This section of the book introduces Stanford Psychologist Lee Ross’s Fundamental Attribution Error, which states, “people have a systematic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior,”  which causes us to “attribute people’s behavior to the way they are, rather than to the situation they are in.”

In contrast, successful change efforts look to change the situation in order to change behavior, rather than blaming the changee. Here’s how Switch recommends we do that:

What I Love About This Framework

As a Persona-based copywriter and Website Optimization specialist, I often ran up against what I tend to call the industry-standard (or sub-standard, really) understanding of Website Optimization, which was the misconception that improvement came solely from tweaking the online environment: changing this button, streamlining that form, implementing different cart and checkout procedures, etc.

And while there are certainly gains to be made from those kind of optimization efforts, often times the major gains had more to do with motivating the Elephant and appeasing the Rider (in other words with messaging and persuasion) than in simply tweaking the functionality of the site.

A panhandler probably won’t get more donations by using a larger collection bucket or by setting up a debit-card swiper for donations.  He will get more donations by creating a more powerful message about his need.

In fact, Finding the Feeling, using Identity-based Decision Making, and Scripting the Critical Moves are some of my go-to ninja tools when it comes to making the big gains for clients – the kind of gains that elude the slice-and-dice-and-multivariate-test-it-all crowd.

But I’ll leave discussion of those techniques for follow-up posts.  For now, just go buy the darn book, will ya?

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