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Pump Up Your Verbs

Remember how, a while back, we talked about the benefits of using active verbs in your copy (
Think Active!)? You must have got some benefit from that discussion - it's one of my most popular articles ever. So I think it's time we played Fun With Grammar again (if only your 9th grade English class had been so application-oriented).

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If you buy that the passive voice is death to persuasive writing (which was the point of that other little piece), then I'd like you to consider that you pack persuasive punch not with adjectives and adverbs, but with verbs. You want your copy to capture, delight, motivate and excite your visitors, don't you? You want your copy to be the next best thing to a live person eloquently speaking in their ears, right? Then let me introduce you to the under-used, over-looked but infinitely versatile verb.

The goal of your online endeavor is to get your visitors to take action. One of the cornerstones of your site is your copy - all the words communicating not only your message but the entire realm of possibility you offer. Your copy works to persuade and fill the minds of your visitors with images that make them eager for what you offer. Your copy engages, compels and provides momentum so your visitors move through your conversion process to the close and beyond. But screen space is at a premium, and good copy doesn't come cheap. Every word costs you something, so you want to make the most of every word you use.

My good friend, Professor Chris Maddock, from the Wizard Academy offers the following comparison. The first sample paints its picture with adjectives and adverbs (in red), the second with verbs and verb forms (also in red).

Sample 1

I went slowly along the sandy shore. The small, cold waves lazily came on in long, thin fingers of white foam. The sky was slate-gray and blew a thin, humid wind reticently toward the dark beach. (36 words)

Sample 2

I crept close to the shore. The waves limped in and collapsed in dying fingers of foam. The sky brooded, darkened, then persuaded the reticent wind toward the beach. (29 words)

Now read the two samples aloud. Listen to how your voice sounds as you read them. Feel a difference? Do you think one delivers more punch? I sure do! Sample 1 feels slow, dull and plodding … too many modifiers. Sample 2 is crisper, more compelling, more exciting. Not only do verbs and their associated forms (gerunds and participles) generate motion, they also convey character: creeping, limping, collapsing, dying … all create a strong mental image and mood - mandatory for effective copy. Sample 1 created its mood with ten adjectives and three adverbs; Sample 2 used only two adjectives (and one of those a verb form) and no adverbs, yet achieved a more powerful result.

"The verb is the heartthrob of a sentence," says Karen Elizabeth Gordon in The Transitive Vampire, while Strunk and White, in Elements of Style (I'm told it's the Grammar Gospel) instruct, " Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place [yours truly adds the same can be said of adverbs for verbs]. … it is nouns and verbs that give to good writing its toughness and character."

The cool thing about verbs is they can do so much for you and take up less space doing it! Here are some ideas:

Mood

Verbs can help communicate meaning and quality in a sentence without bogging down the language with unnecessary modifiers.

I go to the store.

I trudge to the store.

In both sentences, I'll arrive at the same place (and in the same number of words), but the second example gives you a much better idea of how I'll get there and what mood I'm in.

Verbs as Adjectives

Folks have grammar nightmares when someone mentions participles, but a participle is nothing more than a verb used as an adjective (a word that modifies a noun).

Vanquished by his foe, the commander knelt on the ground. (vanquished commander)

Dripping with rain, the mouse scurried under a toadstool. (dripping mouse)

The surrendered document lay on the table. (surrendered document)

Verbs as Nouns

Ditto the nightmare stuff when it comes to gerunds, but gerunds are just verbs with -ing endings that work as nouns.

Giving is better than receiving.

His fear is losing control.

She adores listening to bagpipes.

Verbs, in all their incarnations, breathe essence and vitality into your writing. By their very nature, they are action-oriented and quickly draw your reader into a powerful mental universe of activity, sound and feeling. They also pull your reader through the text. Verbs are like seductresses with come-hither gestures! Use them well, and your reader will stay hooked.

Want more colorful, engaging, concise, persuasive copy? Then, the next time you go to your library of word books, check out a good verb!


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Hey Everyone,

Meet Jeff Eisenberg, CEO of Future Now and a totally cool dude (and I am not just saying that 'cause he signs my pay checks), on 10/29/2001 at the 84th Annual DMA Conference & Exhibition. His workshop will be "Top 25 Creative Tactics for E-mail Marketing". I've seen what he is presenting and all I can say is it is out of this world.  
The GROK

 

Picture This

My loyal readers are going to think my brain has back-fired. I'm usually going on about how ponderous downloads are death to your web efforts and how, if you have to make a choice between strong text versus snappy graphics, you should opt in favor of quality text every time. Well, that’s all true, but sometimes a picture literally is worth a thousand words.

I've been spending time lately comparing hard-copy catalog product presentations to their online equivalents. At the speeds most of your customers access the web, there’s no way lush, multi-meg pictures are a viable option these days. But for lots of products, the visual aspect helps convert your prospect into a customer. So what's an e-tailer to do?

There are times when your visitors are willing to be more patient when it comes to download times. That’s usually when you've already captured their attention and brilliantly demonstrated the value in sticking around to do business with you. But let me say this up front: don't even think of abusing their gifts of patience. Understand they are only going to be patient for so long. Layer upon layer of slow-loading graphics eventually will wear them out. Online shopping is not catalog shopping. Your visitors might browse catalogs in the privacy of their bathrooms, but they are not going to while away the hours browsing your site.

And one more thing: using pictures doesn't mean you can ignore your text. Pair great pictures with great text. Your customers may have to wait a few seconds more for the image, but they can at least start in on the description, which helps them feel the wait isn't a waste of their time. Actually, engaging them with great copy reduces their awareness that the graphic is taking a while to load, so they think your site is loading faster than it really does!

Before you think about a single image, though, make sure you have been vigilant about employing the 5-step professional sales process (see Do the 5-Step...And Dance Your Way To Higher Sales!). Pay attention to the critical elements of AIDAS (see Hey, Its Music to MY Ears!), and be certain your site offers a conversion process that sings with ease and efficiency. Gorgeous images will never salvage an inferior site or make up for weak or sloppy text.

(Almost) always present the product image first as a thumbnail -a small version of the image that loads quickly and that your prospect can click on to bring up a larger version. The larger version then either reconfigures their entire screen or, even better, appears in a pop-up. Here's where pop-ups do have an advantage: your visitors can view the image while at the same time staying visually in touch with the source page, which helps them remember where they are in the navigation scheme. Thumbnails are especially useful if you are presenting a series of product pages that include multiple images (possible exception: thumbnails are not necessarily a good thing to include on search results pages - it depends on your product). In general, thumbnails allow you to get product images to your visitors much faster. They allow your visitors to scan your offerings quickly and bypass slow downloads of images for products that don’t interest them. Your visitors can decide for themselves what they want to look at more closely, and having done that, are naturally going to be more patient as a larger image loads.

To get a feel for who’s doing a good job using images on the web, I shopped REI for "footwear." REI has small product images that load up super fast - actually, all their images load up super fast - and give you a great idea of what a particular shoe looks like from all angles. Okay, it took me 4 clicks from the home page to get up close and personal with a big product image, which is on the high side, but I really wanted to see what the tread looked like (humans tell me tread is a big deal when it comes to sporting shoes), and REI made that possible for me, at my option.

I was also shopping for luggage not so long ago (you guys need to learn about teleportation!) and encountered sites offering pop-up windows that showed me all views of the item. Cool, 'cause if I'm going to buy luggage on the Internet, I want to get a feel for the size (just knowing the dimensions usually doesn't help me), and I want to see where ALL the pockets and zippers are. A few sites gave me this information in pop-up animations, which were much slower to download than pop-up static images. These far exceeded my patience threshold without giving me any appreciable added value. Seller beware: just 'cause technology makes it possible doesn't mean you should do it!

Print catalogs are very good at also offering pictures of small details. But lots of e-tailers don't bother with this. Pity. How many times have you wanted to know the texture of a fabric, or see a close-up of a button or clasp? So many times product details can influence a buying decision: grain, shine, stitching, hardware, controls, relative size, and so forth. They deserve some consideration. As in all things, think like your prospect - and test with your prospects - to find out what you should add and what you can ignore.

Sometimes a big image on a product page does work wonders - but only if you do it correctly. Choose a robust, powerful picture that evokes lots of emotion. Lands End and The Sharper Image prominently display a big image of a top-selling product on their home page and other landing pages, mate it with appealing text and also change the picture often, so returning visitors experience the delight of variety. This really helps their conversion rates! The technique works best when you have a strong brand identity and/or really motivated traffic.

When not to bother with graphic gusto? Beyond wanting to avoid making your prospect wait eons for the images to load, you should avoid using images "just because." Your screen real estate is a precious commodity. Make sure everything you put on it earns its keep! If you're selling something that’s a “visual commodity” (everybody knows what they look like) you really don't have to go overboard with the graphics. Ditto anything where the visual aspect of the product isn’t a big driver in the ultimate purchase decision. MAYBE a small visual, but here's where compelling and comprehensive copy is likely to be more than sufficient.

At the end of the day, think about the value of any picture to your prospects - think about what would be important to YOU as a prospect. And think about the trade off between image size and load time. Images can be powerful elements in your conversion process, or they can just bog it down or even stop it cold. Make sure you use them intelligently, and only when they aid your goal of communicating value to your visitors, value that helps convert them from “just” visitors to paying customers!

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GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledge and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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