When is a choice not a choice?

Given the limitless nature of the internet. How do users limit choice?

Although infinite choice may sound like free trade Nirvana, choice only works when you can compare and contrast between options. That works for a dozen or so choices. But what do users do when the choices on offer run to thousands?

We’re currently running some research which is throwing up some interesting mechanisms being used to filter a selection shortlist. I’m amazed at how people have adapted one of the internet’s great tools and made it work for them – and thrown the basic premise of this tool on its head (Can you throw a tool on its head?) in the process.

More soon.

Armageddon language – you're doomed if you use it online

‘Doomed’ may sound a little overdramatic, but in the first post on this blog I raised the spectre of how long it would take for doom-laden rhetoric, being used by the media to describe the current economic situation, to find itself into everyday scenarios and then into web and email copywriting. If the headline seems a little overdramatic, well, I’m trying to make a point here.

Below is a visual from my email inbox. Like many people, I prioritise what emails I open and deal with, marking less important emails as unread, to be dealt with later. When I went back to deal with a bunch of these, I came across the visual juxtaposition shown here.

It makes my point well. Retail pharma group, Boots, is using ‘the clock is ticking’ reference in the Subject line to get me to use a time-limited offer relating to their photo printing service. Hemscott, a financial information company, is talking about how to make money in the current market conditions.

The end result is rather than thinking happy snaps when I view the Boots offer, I’m reminded of a ticking bomb, thanks to Hemscott. The Boots email Subject line just makes me feel that any investment at this stage is liable to blow up in my face. They both lose.

The way we read online means we are more likely to make these subliminal connections. The way we interact with online content is a constant facination for the CDA Content Lab and an area where we are currently carrying out some interesting tests, which we hope to share with you shortly.

In the meantime, beware Armageddon language.

Paper phrases

Back in the days when communication relied on a cleft stick, paper was the perfect format.  It beat cave paintings and even clay tablets in the portability stakes. It was – depending on the servant holding the stick – reasonably fast. Eventually a whole system was built around moving paper about. The fax machine may have introduced a non-paper stage but it was, to all intents and purposes, PIPO – paper in, paper out.

We built our skill with written language around this wonderful medium. We bound it into books. Men in brown robes and tonsures used exquisite caligraphy to create copies of the bible. We developed machines that could print onto paper. There were both desk top versions (typewriters) and mainframes – giant printing presses turning out books, magazines, academic journals, newspapers and catalogues for swimwear.

We came up with protocols for laying out words; upper and lower case, underlining and indenting. Red ink, black ink and green ink. Purple prose. Colour and position had specfic meanings. Overturning or advancing a protocol took time. Be too forward in the layout of your business letter and people might asume you didn’t know how to lay one out (or you were too unsuccessful to afford a decent secretary).

But computers and the internet have changed all this. The range of fonts and colours at our disposal are infinite. Images can be added with ease. With so much choice, it’s harder to proscribe and restrict. We can place text vertically, or upside down if we’re so moved. And if we come up with some particularly clever idea it can be copied by others in a nanosecond. Nobody’s right. Nobody’s wrong.

But while we’re all having great fun exploring the visual nature of the medium we can still end up turning out the same old paper phrases, first used back in the days when upright typewriters thumped and rattled. In large and small organisations, tensions can develop between operational areas (meaning) and marketing departments (messaging) when it comes to how products or services are described online.

So here’s my SMART benchmarking tool, designed to quick-test your content for paper phrases:

Source What was the source documentation for the web content? Was it brochure, a press release, a product blue print… Where the source material came from will influence the language that finds its way online. The more internal the document the more likely it is to contain paper phrases and inhouse language.

Method How was the source material turned into web content? Simply subbing source material to make it shorter won’t turn it into good web copy. Ideally you want to review the source material, put it away and then write from memory, only returning to the source to check facts. The more complicated the material, the more important it is to atomise and reconstite the content, rather than simply edit. Subbing often leaves in paper phrases.

Approval Who gets to sign off on the content and why? The best approval processes incorporate compliance and legal perspectives early on, rather than as a final stage, when formal langauge may be reintroduced and everybody’s too tired to argue. Some of the worst give the final say to senior management.

Review When the copy has been signed off and published online it should always go through a final discreet review about a week or so after publication. Once the pressure is off and the deadline has been met, it’s suprising how easy it is to refine and improve what you already have. And if you’re more relaxed, so is your language. Small changes should not require a further approval process.

Test You may be convinced you’ve written spot-on, online copy but the only person who can really tell you that is your site users. Check site metrics looking for pages that people are leaving to soon (boring) or spending too long on (complicated). Make changes and check again. Then make changes and check again.

Today is a good day to begin

Let me see… where shall I start? Well the financial services sector is in meltdown. Banks are going to the wall and if Radio 4’s Today programme is right, senior American politicians are on their knees (well, at least one). In the UK everyone is waiting to see how far the fall-out will spread. From sub-prime mortgages to… house prices, supermarket profits, bankruptcy amongst tour operators, the price of vanilla icecream? Throw the rising fuel prices and global political instability into the mix and what have you got? The latest Mad Max movie.

The question is, why write about here? The CDA Content Lab is all about putting online content under the microscope. Why would a recession interest us?

The obvious answer might appear to be money. Sorry to bring up the ‘m’ word but when banks catch cold the whole world sneezes. The good news is that web and email are cost effective channels when you’re marketing spend has just been ripped to shreds by a Finance Director whose got Bradford and Bingley shares in his childrens’ school fees portfolio. Okay, that’s the business side of things dealt with.

But what really rocks our boat is how all this doom and gloom may be influencing the way we communicate and engage with audiences. This is particularly pertinent online where our execution of day to day tasks can be accomplished cheek by jowl with an RSS feed to our desk top announcing the latest crisis. We can dip into Tesco online and find ourselves simultaneously drawn to the BBC for a news fix.

Take a look at the first paragraph of this post and it’s riddled with nuclear, revolutionary and post-apocalyptic analogies. We use analogies to aid comprehension. It allows us to talk about things to people in a way that will allow them to understand, even if they have no direct experience of what’s being discussed. It also straddles the mental space between language and thought. Not only am I giving you terms of reference so you can understand what I’m talking about but you also get a pretty good idea of how I feel about it.

Analogies (along with first cousins metaphor and simile) also allow us to visualise things and that get’s us into really interesting territory where the web is concerned. The web is a very visual medium. Even when we’re reading online and we actually do very little of that. We’re ‘looking’ at web pages as if they were maps rather than documents; designed to take us onto the next leg of our journey, or confirm that we’ve arrived.

When we see something in a new way we tend to store it in a new way. So all this talk of doom and gloom is having a deep semantic influence. Will we notice this in the language we use and the language that’s used to comunicate back to us? Hold that thought?

Of course, we can’t go back and rewrite books and brochures to reflect this. But the internet – that’s a whole different bag. I’ve certainly been reviewing our online communication looking for words that might inadvertently trigger gloom or hesitancy. This blog aside, I’m avoiding all flippant use of the apocalyptic.