Write Like Your Audience Knows Nothing (Because Usually, They Do)

“IMG_2740”by beggs is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When Your New Town Is a Different Town Than They Told You

I am finally in my new house, which sounds more triumphant than it feels because today I found out that the address I thought I lived at doesn’t exist. Yes, the address on my lease and all the paper work I got doesn’t actually exist. It turns out that I live over some invisible town line and live in a completely different town than I was told!

I found this out when I went to the post office (I live in a very small town now and that required a walk of about 200 yards) and the poor woman working the desk looked at me with sympathy when I asked how to pick up my mail. “I always tell those realtors to put the right town on their listings!” she told me in a deeply annoyed voice. “So…what happens to my mail that I had sent here?” I asked logically. It was then she looked really upset on my behalf. “Sorry honey, they just mark it return to sender. I hope it wasn’t anything important.” she concluded. Naturally, it was important.

I should have figured this out this past weekend when my nice new neighbor came over with a bag of fresh pit barbecue sandwiches and lots of advice about the local mail system. No one has mailboxes, she explained, because cars drive too fast on this road and people have to put up new ones to replace the damaged ones all the time. Also, she says the mail delivery isn’t too reliable either. It’s easier to just get a P.O. box and pick it up at the post office.

You Can’t Understand Clues Without Context

All of this reminded me of the basic advice that I often give to my copywriting clients: you need to know something to pick up on clues, so you should assume that your audience knows nothing when they start reading your webpage. The clues about my totally incorrect address and weird mail situation were there, but since I didn’t have any knowledge of the local area I was totally unable to put them together.

This advice applies to lots of written marketing, but the obvious applications are things like FAQ pages and About pages. These are where people end up where they are already new and therefore completely confused. This isn’t a license to get un-creative and repetitive though. Basic information can be a great way to convey your company ideals and even your own internal language in a way that is easy enough for a new customer to pick up on. This is your first teaching opportunity as a business and it’s something that is really worth caring about. My experience at the neighborhood post office was that kind of situation: I could have walked out frustrated and vowing never to return or I could have signed up for a P.O. box. I signed up for the box.

On the Internet, You’ve got 15 Seconds

15 seconds is how much time you’ve got to capture someone’s attention before they click away from your website. Part of this is about design and content, but a huge part of it is about confusion versus a sense of purpose. Can the reader even tell what your website is about? Is it set up so they can understand the basic details quickly and easily? Here’s the most important part though: Can you do all of this while showing some personality and style? Copywriters are basically people who have mastered this combination of imparting basic information while distilling it down to a compelling essential while sounding indistinguishable from our clients.

It’s easy to talk about all of the wonders the internet has brought us (which are extremely real) but what I’ve seen discussed more often in the last year or so is the sense of constant overwhelm that we all feel now that we are connected to everything all of the time. It’s freeing, but also exhausting and intimidating. It effects how people make decisions – and makes them more willing to let the internet make the easy ones for them. When potential customers feel that sense of overwhelm growing, they respond by clicking away.

Don’t Worry About Sounding Dumb

When you’re writing content online, it can feel like you’re insulting your customers rather than helping them sometimes. Do they really need “Click here to buy” written underneath a buy button? Do they really need a 20 question long FAQ? Keep your 15 seconds in mind and try and remember that most people reading your website are processing lots of other information in their head at the same time. They’ll appreciate the helpful reminder rather than dislike you for it.

What information do you look for when you first encounter a website? What kind of content compels you to stick around?

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