Volume 129: 5/1/06

We Are So Not There Yet!

We've been circulating a recent email from The e-tailing Group1 around the office. Bryan started it: "So, guys ... what's wrong with this picture?" Everyone chipped in an observation or two, but the real wrongness lives in these words:

"... the online channel is now truly established .... However, this growth is more measured as with this maturation, it is harder to move the revenue growth needle ..."

Whoa there, Nelly! I've got something to say concerning where you really need to be directing your energies before you can start feeling all warm and fuzzy about how well you are walking just seconds after you made the leap from crawling!

The e-tail detail we were looking at is a synopsis of e-tail Group's first quarter 2006 merchant survey. To be sure, you'll find some interesting information in here. It's well worth a read!

But let's take a hard, big-picture, persuasion-oriented look at a few of this survey's findings.

"The online channel is now truly established"

Followed later by "Use of the online channel for marketing has also reached an established level."

Sorry. It just ain't so. Continuing with my infant analogy, we were all learning to flip over onto our backs only yesterday! We weren't close to crawling even four years ago (then we were still in love with eye candy). Conversion and ROI have only recently become reasonably mainstream concepts!

What's established is the idea that businesses need to have a web presence. However, businesses haven't figured out what that presence really needs to be and how it will successfully integrate their various channels. More to the point, tons of folks are a long, long way from incorporating the critical part of the equation - the customer - into the experience.

If someone tells you we're dealing with maturity out there, don't get too comfy in your armchair. We may be involved in a maturing process, but most folks still have a very long row to hoe before they get there! At the end of the day, no one can really tell you where there is!

"It is harder to move the needle"

Yep, it can be. But only if you don't understand what motivates people to buy and can't create a system that leverages that understanding. These days, little tactical tweaks give us some statistical noise, but they don't lead to dramatic changes. Folks are familiar enough with the online environment to realize businesses aren't meeting customers' real needs.

Frankly, most businesses ignore their customers. They fail to understand what their customers want, so they are unable to provide it. You've been reading me long enough to know better merchandising online is not the key to "speaking to the dog in the language of the dog about what matters to the heart of the dog."

I'm not saying most businesses are consciously withholding. I am saying most businesses still don't get it.

"Merchants are focused on analytics"

Bravo. Analytics are an essential component in optimizing your business's strategies and tactics. But they are only going to be useful if you understand what you are measuring and have created a starting point that is founded on a viable premise.

"Particular emphasis on product pages and the shopping cart"

If you fail to engage your customers early in their buying decision processes, they'll pay minimal attention to your product pages and will use shopping carts purely as buying decision comparison tools. Frankly, this particular emphasis smacks of "cart before the horse," and it's one of the big reasons conversion rates are pitifully low and stagnant. Yes, product pages and shopping carts are important, but not until you've got the right horse lined up.

"The more evolved [are] finally addressing personalization and segmentation"

Certainly a step in the right direction, but personalization alone is never going to cut it. Our forthcoming book, Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?,2 tackles this topic in great detail. The segmentation that is most meaningful to you is "persona"-lization, which requires that you understand and articulate your business from your customers' points of view.

"Focus on integrating catalogs [and] in-store pickup"

In-store pickup is nice, and it provides continuity of experience (I talked about this years ago), but it is not a persuasive panacea for what's ailing online marketing! And the catalog world may have something to teach us about presentation and copywriting, but catalogs aren't interactive.

Before we can truly dream of calling the online world mature, we have to understand the uniqueness of this medium. Folks online are voluntary, task-oriented participants, very often engaged in pulling the information they need from the resources available to them. Once businesses truly acknowledge this important distinction, they'll be able to move beyond the catalog and direct-marketing models that limit their performance.

The Grok's Take

Ebusiness has matured sufficiently that folks are finally starting to make money online. We should all give ourselves a pat on the back, because that's really good news! However, the mere ability to make money doesn't equate with maturity in the industry.

The online world is still floundering, ineffectively trying to adapt traditional marketing techniques to the entirely new environment of emerging media. It hasn't begun to understand its role as the glue that binds multi-channel marketing efforts online and offline. It is only beginning to understand the use and power of consumer-generated media and word of mouth.

Nope. We are neither mature nor established. We're just starting to open our eyes! The question is: What should you really be looking at with those newly opened eyes?

1 "5th Annual Merchant Survey, 1st Q 2006." e-tail detail: the merchants' voice. e-tailing Group, Inc. Get the full executive summary at http://www.e-tailing.com/research/merchantsurvey/index.html.

2Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?: Persuading Customers When They Ignore Marketing. Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg, with Lisa T. Davis. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. Forthcoming, June 13, 2006.

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You'll also want to keep an eye on our publications page.  We've been working on creating resources that will help you put many of our principles into practice more easily and more efficiently.  We're just about to release several of our newest products, including Which Sells Best?: A Quick Start Guide to Testing for Retailers and The Conversion Experts Handbook.

Persuasive Copywriting for Beginners (and Dummies!)

A few months ago, before I began working with Future Now - prior to any formal interview, even - they mailed me a copy of Persuasive Online Copywriting: How to Take Your Words to the Bank. Presumably, I was getting this book to preemptively further my copywriting expertise in case they hired me. They would have me learn a thing or twelve about their business by forcing me to read about something I've been doing on my own for years.

Did they mean to suggest I wasn't persuasive? Can you imagine the nerve!? Six years of national magazine and print journalism experience, and another two years as an online copywriter and marketer! Had they not seen my resume?

When the book arrived, my curiosity stirred. Who was this Martian on the cover, and what exactly did s/he want from me? The word "persuasive" stuck in my head-as did "bank," quite honestly. They'd hit a nerve.

I knew I was a good copywriter. (People kept hiring me, anyway.) Yet there was something different about online copywriting. Businesses trusted me to bridge the divide between them and their customers. But who were these confounded customers? What motivated them? How should I speak to them without seeming presumptuous or 'sales-y'?

This problem boiled over when a new, ultra-hip, high-end women's fashion boutique hired me to write their web copy and manage their site's development from the ground up. Aside from my uncanny sense of women's fashion-which we'll just call the "id"-I had precious little understanding of their soon-to-be customers. So, like many brave copywriters before me, I stereotyped their online visitors.

Stereotyping was a real time-saver. Everyone who came to their site would be a rich trophy wife-or soon-to-be trophy wife-who wanted clothes their rich trophy wife friends didn't have: the latest styles from semi-obscure up-and-coming designers from New York and LA. If I made an alluring pitch, material girls (platinum card in-hand) would flock to the 'Contact Us' page.

The result was a gorgeous site. My team completely over-delivered with an artful Flash intro, an interactive virtual walk-through of the entire store, beautiful photography, and the best copy I could muster. The client was thrilled.

Although the site was great eye candy and everyone was happy, I realized later there wasn't much of anything persuasive about it. People still love the site, but the problem is that new customers can't understand what's going on without some form of insider knowledge of this particular business. That leaves a lot of dresses on the rack.

So there I was, a year and a half later, reading about why all of my efforts amounted to essentially nothing-give or take a few sentences. As it happens, none of the web copy I'd ever written was persuasive.

After reading POC, I revisited every morsel of pixilated copy for which I'd cashed a check. It was all garbage; once powerful language now seemed painfully average. They offered me the job anyway, but I began privately hoping they hadn't dwelled on my resume. While I'd been stereotyping customers, these folks were writing for customer profiles and personas. For once, I had a lens from which to see online visitors as more than just a diverse cast of anthropomorphized lemmings. I quickly realized that persuasive copy isn't about genius writing; it's about having the right process.

Profile thyself lest ye be profiled ...

The best way to begin profiling others is to start at home. Admittedly, it's difficult to be honest with one's self in this situation. Our identities are the sum total of what we project onto the world. Still, the better we can approximate our own behavioral preferences, the better we are at empathizing with customers. In a perfect world, we'd all have the luxury of writing to customers as though they were three-dimensional personas. However, profiles shortcut the complexity of persona development.

During our recent Persuasive Online Copywriting seminar, The Grok administered a personality profile test for attendees. Much like high school, college, and the rest of life, some finished right away while others grappled with the questions in order to ensure they had the 'correct' answer. In the end, they were all right! The result only mattered in terms of what it said about the individual. Besides, profiles are nothing more than preferences, not black-and-white statements about who we are.  And these preferences are valuable because they help us understand the customer's buying decision process.

People were quickly identified as 'Humanistic,' 'Methodical,' 'Competitive,' and 'Spontaneous.' This did not go over well with some, especially once color-coded stickers were handed out. The natural reaction, of course, is to feel stereotyped. (After the initial shock, however, one realizes how this can be leveraged.)

As it happened, there was only one Methodical in the entire room. He was visibly uncomfortable and later mumbled something about how another profile type seemed to be described as "better" than his. He was the last person to finish the test-by a long-shot-and asked several questions about the test itself while taking it. Still, our Methodical friend was likely one of the smartest people in the room. In fact, he holds a very significant position at a top company. Why, then, was the test such a challenge? It wasn't. He simply needed his questions answered thoroughly. How the test was structured was his key concern.

(Methodical tip: They will be the last ones reading. They may even know your website better than you do. They'll also have the most questions about your products and services. Keep them happy by providing them with structured copy, bullet-point lists, and empirical data. The further down the page, the more methodical the copy.)

I knew where this was going and had to bite my tongue from demanding that we just give him a 'Methodical' sticker after his second question. Then again, I've recently found that I'm highly competitive. In fact, I skipped out on taking the test altogether because it seemed useless to me. I was certain that I was a Humanistic. After all, wasn't I paying such close attention to everyone else's type because I was interested in learning more about others? "My people care," I thought, "we're great writers, and doggone-it, people like us! Besides, I'm a Mac user at home-aren't we all Humanistic?"

(Humanistic tip: Humanistic-types are slow-paced and will take the time to decide who buys from you. They love testimonials. Your copy should have assurances from credible sources because they'll be investing their trust in you. Prove that you have integrity. They'll quickly spot and laugh at anything disingenuous, so don't turn them off with hype. They're also big gift-buyers, so don't shy away from making it personal in an up-sell situation. Like Methodicals, Humanistics will spend a good deal of time on your site, so give them plenty to read.)

Without realizing it, I'd rationalized an answer for the most typical of competitive questions: "What can this [test] do for me?" Since I'd already made up my mind, the answer was, "Not much, so why waste my time?" I was interested in everyone else's profile type primarily because I wanted to know what it said about them in relation to me. For evidence of this, just scroll up to the first paragraph of article.

(Competitive tip: Cut to the chase early on, and establish credibility. Quickly demonstrate your Unique Value Proposition on the homepage, and what it is that you offer. Competitive types want to know what gives them an edge. Comparative checklists between your services and your competitors' will help convince them you're the best.)

So, in the spirit of getting to the bottom line, let's forego the rest of this narrative, shall we? You get the point.

Spontaneous tip: This last tip doesn't need to be parenthetical. Most of those who suspected they're 'spontaneous' probably just caught the bolded text and skipped down here. They've already scrolled up and down, looking for relevance. This is way too far down to begin engaging the spontaneous. In order to please the spontaneous profile, quickly build rapport and usher them through your homepage. Give them opportunities to click around, but make it goal-oriented. Give them links, or risk losing them. They are fun-loving people - completely in the here-and-now - who care deeply about how others perceive them. Their identity is important, so let them know why they should buy from you. Offer them clear calls to action to peak their curiosity, and let them visit various points of resolution to give them instant gratification.

Now that you've profiled yourself to a degree, think about how you can write copy for scenarios that engage each of these profiles. Thankfully, we're not just sophisticated lemmings with credit cards-regardless of what the Competitive-types tell you.

Robert Gorell is with Future Now, Inc.

Volume 129: 5/1/06


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