Clarity in copywriting: Stop confusing your customers

Every touch point you have with a customer is an opportunity to market your value to them. And why should you market to customers? Because they've already bought from you and they're the most likely to buy more or upgrade. You already have a relationship with customers, but there's a certain level of trust that you're still trying to build with the people you haven't sold to yet. 

Unfortunately, I see businesses - especially in the software subscription area (*cough* money-related stuff *cough*) - make their help files so confusing you just want to bang your head against...something. For businesses that aren't in the software space, there are many examples of confusing copy - in physical locations and on the web.

When help files don't help, how long do you think people will keep using a service when there are other options available that can meet their needs?

It's a great time to be in business in some ways because the number of options we have is staggering. But it costs time and money to switch. It also costs time and money and stress to be aggravated by confusing copy all the time. That's why it's so important to make sure what you're saying is clear. 

A friend of mine recently shared some copy from a vendor site where they were doing research to get answers for a client who used that particular vendor. I can't tell you how bad I wanted to paste that copy in here to share with you, but it's the web and you can trace it back to them, so I resisted.

Instead, I decided to share a little advice that will hopefully filter its way back to some of the people who have sites with the confusing copy. If I can make a difference for anyone on this, I've succeeded.

Before you hit the button that sends that help copy out into the ether, remember these things:

1) The people using your software aren't experts in your software.

If you use specialized terminology for everything in your software, you can't expect people to know what you're talking about, especially if they're hiring a third-party or only occasionally access the system. Think about all the different ways your software is used and the complexity of the information. If it's Facebook-level, your copy is going to be pretty easy to make understandable. But if you're talking about bookkeeping/tax software, for example, that's far more complex. It's going to be hard work to make sure that users can understand and still cover all the legal bases that are inevitable in highly regulated spaces.

It's worth the effort. Remember, the better your users understand, the more you're differentiated from your competitors. We marketers like differentiation - especially when it comes to those regular touch points with customers.

2) Step-by-step screenshots are essential for complex UI.

I'm gonna brag on a company I've been using for almost 9 years. This website you're looking at right now is built on Squarespace (and if it isn't, someone has scraped my content - shame on them). I use a separate domain registrar that has a confusing-as-heck domain manager. Actually, that might be a requirement of domain registrars - making the DNS settings user interface (UI) illogical and incomprehensible. Then they change their UI every 6-12 months to keep you on your toes.

I've built many Squarespace websites and, without fail, I can go to a page dedicated to my (major) registrar that has step-by-step instructions with up-to-date screenshots of everything I need to change to connect my domain. Squarespace help is one of the many reasons I stay with them year after year. They make painful processes easy to navigate. That, my friend, is truly helpful. Because I don't have time for complicated explanations and neither do you.

3) Every piece of copy about your product leaves an impression.

Don't you want that impression to be a good one? If your copy inspires an experienced, knowledgeable professional to post it to social media because it's so incomprehensible, you're missing the mark. Your bad copy is literally costing time and money. In this instance, research time that - if it wasn't being billed back to the client (quite possible) - was actually costing a small business owner money. Do you really want to be known for that?

There's a simple solution, but it takes a commitment from you - the software maker - to spend the extra time it takes to clean up your copy. Microsoft learned this lesson back in the late 90s when they overhauled all of their MS Office help files and people noticed the difference. 

Build checks and balances into the process

You've got teams of really smart people, all with varying expertise. The product people know the product intimately, but they may be too close to it to edit themselves when it comes to producing help content that's easy to read and understand. For that, you have to tap into people who aren't experts on the product or the nuts and bolts of the regulations.

Ideally, find writers who can dig in and ask the right questions so your highly technical explanations can be simplified. And don't confuse "simplified" with "dumbed down." They aren't the same thing. Simplifying content is about taking out jargon, industry-specific terminology, and fluff. What's left behind is useful, to-the-point, and easy to digest.

Stop confusing your customers and start taking the extra time to help them instead.

Content creation for highly regulated industries

The most common industries that come to mind with challenges to creating content are those that have strict rules handed down by regulatory bodies, usually because they handle highly confidential, sensitive information: lawyers, accountants and other financial services, government contractors, etc.

I think we can all agree that there are few more regulated entities than the United States White House, right? Look at what President Obama has had to go through to sort of be able to use a Blackberry

It's impressive (if you have an interest in such things like I do) to see how much Obama has embraced and used technology and the internet to connect with the world.  

If the man who is considered the leader of the free world (and keeper of the ominous buttons we hope never get pressed) can have a successful, useful, engaging social media presence, why can't lawyers, accountants, bankers, investment advisors, government contractors, and others do the same?

Think differently

Some might think it's a trite and overused phrase, but it's what's required! Too often organizations focus entirely on what they're selling, pushing out all kinds of sales-y posts that offer little to no real value for readers. 

Here's a quick truth bomb for you (and I may have to do these more often): No one cares about your product and service offerings enough to connect with you and only ever hear about your product and service offerings. Remember the saying "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? The bottom line of this truth bomb is that all sales and no value (or entertainment) makes you boring, irrelevant, and less likely to be followed. 

Instead of focusing on selling what you do as content (the act of telling), share stories about your industry, give followers a glimpse of your human side and the culture of your workplace, educate them about related industry topics that your target audience would be interested in.

Bust myths

Highly regulated industries, particularly government and professional services, give the world a lot of fodder for erroneous beliefs. We've all heard so many jokes about doctors and lawyers - often around the fees associated with going to one or the taxes we pay. (Well, maybe not so much doctors in Canada.) While the beliefs may be based in factual experiences of some, it's not a given that they apply to all.

How can you combat myths? Within reason, within the bounds of confidentiality and regulation, share the truth of what you do and what goes into your work.

  • Re-certification and ongoing licensing requirements
  • Insurance
  • Professional associations
  • Pro bono activities
  • Continuing education

No doubt every highly regulated industry has a laundry list of mythical stories floating around about how they operate. Where you can, share the truth in a way that educates - defensiveness not required.

Be helpful

Seriously, above all else, be helpful.

There are probably hundreds of topics that elected representatives can create content that educates followers. Besides education pieces, public service announcements, and useful information that apply to your audience are all valuable content that helps. 

People who work in regulated industries get all kinds of questions ALL. THE. TIME. You have to answer them when they come in, so take the ones that you can use to help the masses and use them...to help the masses.