Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Content strategy tip: Show, don't tell.

If you're like most business people (and many writers), the concept of "show, don't tell" is hard to integrate. When I talk to clients about demonstrating their corporate characteristics, and living their brand, and acting on their mission statements, I always get very enthusiastic head nods, and "Yes!" exclamations. Everyone's excited and on-board. And then they say, "And on the home page, we need to say something like 'We care about each and every customer as if they were our children, and you can trust us to provide the best service in the industry, bar none! You have our word on that, and our word is our bond!'" Hmmm... they missed my point.

Please, for your own sake, stop trying to tell your customers what to believe. They don't like it, and they don't trust it. That kind of copy is not only useless, it's potentially damaging. People just don't believe what they're told anymore--they believe what they experience. You still need to develop key messages for your website, but instead of conveying these messages through your copy, you need to convey them through experience.

Let's look at the client's message above and see how we can turn web copy into web experiences.

What's the first message in their home page copy? "We care about each and every customer as if they were our children..." OK, fair enough. But, instead of telling them, how can we show that you care about them? First you have to care enough to really know and understand them. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Get to know your customers well. Parents don't care for their children simply by telling them they care. They look after them and guide them. How can you look after your customers? How can you guide them? (Hint: It's NOT by telling them that you have the perfect product for them!) When customers come to your site and find information that's useful and pleasantly surprising--information that fits into the context of their lives and makes them feel understood--then they know you care.

Next message? "...and you can trust us...". Can they? What inspires your customers to trust you? It certainly isn't you telling them to. But maybe it's your credentials, or your professional reputation, or how long you've been in business. Maybe it's because you're local, or maybe it's because you're global. It may be because you have testimonials or reviews or recommendations from other customers just like them. Or they may trust that if you've already sold 20 billion products to 20 billion happy customers, then they're likely to be a happy customer too. Again, it's all about knowing what inspires your customers to trust, and then showing them that you're trustworthy.

And: "...the best service in the industry..". Says who? Other than you, I mean. If you can back up that statement by showing that reputable organizations, publications, or awards have recognized you as being the best, then do it. If not, don't say it.

And finally: "You have our word on that, and our word is our bond!' Really? What guarantees or warranties do you offer? What's your return policy? What experiences have other customers had that demonstrate you sticking to your word? Make these things obvious on your site rather than your verbose promise. (And ditch the exclamation marks. Nobody trusts exclamation marks.)

If all of these messages are demonstrated through the content on your site, you don't need to say them. Your customers will see it, believe it, and say it for you.

So here's my challenge: Take a look at your corporate mission statement and key customer messages, and think about ways that you can demonstrate them through your web content. Then share your ideas with us in a comment below. And a call-out to all the other content strategists and web writers out there: What other messages and values have you demonstrated online, and how?


  1. Great post Kathy. I think part of the reason is that many companies do not do the right kind of research with their customers. When they do customer research, they ask them about their product and their service: what they like and don't like about it, how they would like to see it improved, if they were happy with delivery and service. It's still a lot rarer to find them asking about their information needs, or even about the types of info they use when evaluating a purchase decision.

  2. Glad you liked it, Lise. You're right... it's a substantial mind-shift away from product and service promotion to providing an experience that ultimately results in a product or service purchase. And the right research is a critical starting point.

  3. I couldn't agree more than "show, don't tell" both for the company and for the consultant is the best way to get buy-in, win customers, keep people coming back!

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    Know Your Customer