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.

Find good quality, legal images for your website

I love creating lovely images for my website. I have developed my own brand style guide so that fonts and colours I use on images are consistent throughout. I've personally invested a lot of money in tools like Adobe Creative Cloud and a subscription to Adobe Stock because I take on occasional graphic design projects for clients, in addition to doing all of my own design work. 

That said, I don't know many business owners that want to buy and use Adobe design tools, because there's a fairly heavy learning curve and it's expensive when design isn't your genius work. 

So, I've compiled a list of just a few of the places you can look for good quality images that you can use with or without attribution. This list is pretty comprehensive and contains image sites that you may find don't work as well for your particular business.  

One quick note before we get into the photo resources - It's always important to check the license available on any image that's free or paid. The least restrictive license for commercial use is Creative Commons Zero, which allows for personal/commercial use without attribution - other licenses are more restrictive so read carefully or choose selectively to ensure your use is permitted. CC0 doesn't waive all rights, but it is the least restrictive.

Free photo pack subscriptions 

I've started to subscribe to sites that send me free pictures and I've developed a pretty extensive library of beautiful stock photos that I have rights to use. There are many photos that I may never need for my own site, but that doesn't mean my clients won't ever need them!

Search free image sites

If you're used to going on to stock image sites and doing searches instead of sifting through your own library of photos, you may prefer these sites for finding images. They are all free, so once again, check the licensing. Note that all of the photo pack subscription sites have various degrees of search function as well. 

The free image sites I use most

Morguefile - Truthfully, I use this one a lot less lately because I can find better quality images elsewhere, but don't discount it entirely. There have been many times it's the only place I can find the right image. 

FreeImages.com - This was my go-to replacement for Morguefile when I realized I wasn't finding good images as often. 

Stock Up - I start on Stock Up these days. The site aggregates search results from a number of different sources and when you hover over pictures, you can see the license. It's just really handy and the quality is excellent.

Pixabay - Even though Pixabay results often show up in Stock Up, I still do a search there separately because I get lucky from time to time. I've been really happy with the quality of the results there too.

Gratisography - This is a searchable photo collection that is ever-growing and has quite a mix of content. Some is very artsy. Some is weird. All of it is high quality. I don't think I've used more than one or two images so far, but I made sure to donate so they don't go away. :)

Other free sites I occasionally use

These are but a few sites that are out there. In fact, a fellow WBN member posted this list of the best free stock photo sites recently and I haven't had a chance to check out the ones that I'm not already using just yet. 

A little side note to promote that friend a wee bit more, because it's apropos of this post! Rachela, the owner of Butter and Honey Design is a talented graphic designer who is teaching so much about DIY graphic design. You can join her group on Facebook to get a taste and then be sure to check out her courses which I hear great things about!

Paid stock options

Of course free is easier to fit in the budget, but sometimes it's harder to find what you want or need for free. That's why I suggest you start with Canva if you have to go paid. Canva stock images are $1 each. If you want an image without any other design elements, just pick a layout size, then find an image you want in their library and download the image without adding text/design elements. Just be mindful of the license.

A new comparable Canva alternative is Desygner. For now, it's free and the images available are also free to use. But that never lasts, because they'll need money to keep going eventually. The image library is linked to Wikimedia, which can be limiting in terms of useful images, particularly if you need larger sizes.

I mentioned Adobe Stock above, but I also like Shutterstock for paid stock because of the way they structure payment compared to other paid stock sites. 1 credit = 1 image, regardless of size/file type. They also have pay as you go plans. They tend to cost more per image than a subscription, but if you don't need lots of images regularly, it's cheaper to pay as you go.

I need more images more regularly now, which is why I now have a 10 credits/month subscription at Adobe Stock. Shutterstock became my paid stock site of choice after using iStockBig StockDreamstime, and a few others. They have transparent pricing so I know exactly what to expect. And since I often buy large image sizes and vector graphics, the others cost me more.

Design bundle sites

Last, but not least (IMHO), is membership sites and package deal sites. If you aren't a designer, these will have limited value for you, so skip this section if you're not interested! 

Design Cuts - I stumbled upon Design Cuts sometime last year and I'm addicted. I've bought quite a few of the monthly bundles and now they've launched a marketplace where you can build your own bundles and save a ton of money. The quality has been amazing. The amount of design elements I have is overwhelming, but I have also invested in a couple of bundles that included photo packs. And they're gorgeous. I've used quite a few in blog posts. 

Mighty Deals - Like Design Cuts, this is a site that offers design bundles. They seem to have more photo packs than DC does, though, and I've grabbed a few from them as well. Just be careful if you buy multiple photo pack bundles. I've found some overlap, so vet them carefully, even if you buy from different bundle sites.

As you can see, there are many, many resources to find affordable images to use on your website to maintain a high-quality look. You don't need to use google image search and worry about copyright infringement or the hit and miss caliber of the graphics. 

If you have a favourite photo site that I haven't listed, add it in the comments! 

The human side of personal brands

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The discussion of personal branding has a spectrum of beliefs that go from "you are who you are, people should just accept it no matter what", to "you need to be cognizant of how every little thing you do is perceived every moment of every day". 

The problem with one end of the spectrum is that even people who feel that way see things in others they disagree with and they make judgements about that person. Because - and this relates to the problem with the other end - we're all human. Imperfect. Capable of making mistakes, or having differing beliefs. The problem with the other end of the spectrum is that it relies on having the ability to control others' perceptions.

I ran across an article on personal branding recently that showed so clearly that we are all being judged by a variety of standards. From what we wear, to what we say, to who we associate with, to whether we have decent grammar or spelling skills, even what we think and believe. We hold each other to pretty high standards.

Unfortunately, being humans, the standard we hold others to is usually heavily influenced by our personal beliefs and values. Sometimes we have weird standards that are really silly and frivolous, but deeply ingrained nonetheless.

For example, it took me years to accept that one's belt doesn't actually have to match one's shoes. There was just something so nice about the matchy, matchy accessories. Did I judge people for not matching their accessories? Sadly, I think I did. Fortunately, I tended to think that the perpetrator either did not know what I knew about matching belt and shoes, or they couldn't find matching shoes and belt (a ridiculously common problem with navy and brown, right?), or they simply didn't care. 

(I told you some people have weird standards.)

Your brand is so much more than how you look

Discussions I've had around branding often start with the visual. The logo, colours, fonts, style - those are all small, superficial (though not unimportant) details that only go skin deep.

Your brand is what you say, how you say it, what you do, why you do it, and on and on. Have you ever met someone who was so well put together on the outside, but as you got to know them you came to realize that they had well-hidden messiness? On the flip side, discounting someone who appears to be an unorganized train wreck could mean grossly underestimating a worthy opponent. (Think Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni on The Good Wife. Her character is one of my all-time favourites.) 

Don't hide your genuine self online

How easy is it to show your best face online? You can choose the picture you set up on profiles, you can share only the good or not-mistake-ridden stories of life, you can white wash every last byte of information you share. But should you?

Being selective about what you say or don't say is completely fine. We all have different levels of comfort with sharing. You can be authentic without being transparent. A willingness to share every intimate detail of your life isn't a prerequisite to being active on social media. We can show we're human through personable updates just as effectively as we can through personal updates.

Personal: I've had quite a day. Went to drop off my kid at school and got a flat tire, which caused me to use some unfortunate words in front of said kid. It was fun getting a call from the teacher right after a meeting in which my boss told me I better get my act together. Nothing like motivation to pay bills to get me working in this job I hate.

Though it's 100% fake and lacks any identifying details of the child, the teacher, the boss, or the company, this update makes me cringe a little - It makes me uncomfortable.

Personable: Got a flat tire on my way to drop off my kid. That kinda set the tone for the day. Calgon, take me away!

Both are genuine. Both are authentic. Both are transparent. The personable update just leaves out some details, but the reader will still get the message that it's been a rough day - and we can all relate to that.

Know when to walk away

It's practically impossible to get online these days and not encounter someone's opinion or an issue that we disagree with. There's nothing wrong with conversing about any topic you want to, but when the heat turns up, or there's immediate shutting down of ideas, those are my cues to walk away before the discourse goes off course. How you respond to controversy or confrontation can say a lot about you to anyone watching.

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Think before you post, then t.h.i.n.k. again

One of the most disturbing trends I've seen online ever is the tendency to use public shaming as a tactic. I cringe to think of individuals who are targeted by groups that set out to make them an example. I love this acronym - I first saw it hanging in my son's daycare several years ago. Recently, it's been shared a lot online and I think that's great. It's a valuable reminder that every one of us can use from time to time. 

T - is it true?

H - is it helpful?

I - is it inspiring?

N - is it necessary?

K - is it kind?

What we say - whether it comes from our mouth or our fingers - matters. 

We're all human

Mistakes happen. None of us is immune. We have faults and we do things we shouldn't sometimes. Remembering to be kind to ourselves, remembering to be kind to others means that little by little we can each have an impact on the Internet mobs and maybe make the world in general a better place. And when we focus on that, it leaves a positive impression that would help any personal brand.

Personal vs. personable and the benefits of opening up

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I've given a lot of talks about online privacy and what I've learned through these sessions is that there is a lot of FUD - fear, uncertainty, and doubt - floating around. Generally, there are two things that generate the FUD:

  1. Limited knowledge of how the Internet works.

  2. Lack of forethought about boundaries.

I'm not sure what the answer to the problem is, but I do know there is a problem. In one session I did, a parent said to me, "I'm not interested in social media or Facebook. I don't want an account and I don't have time."

I get that. I really do. I replied with something like this:

If, as a parent, you are concerned about your child(ren) being online and what may happen, then gaining knowledge about social media and the internet is no longer about your individual participation - it's about knowing how to teach and protect your child(ren).

Every generation of parents has had its fair share of newfangled ideas and technology that they had to navigate and learn. However, never before have those changes created an actual NEED to be so vigilant. Thanks to the internet, which I think is a wonderful, wonderful thing, we are now in the position of "need to know". Awareness isn't enough. 

Many attendees have commented that they don't want to share information about their personal lives at all. This discussion is where I introduce the difference between personal and personable, as well as the idea of setting personal boundaries.

I used to refer to my comfort zone/personal boundaries filter as the mom-filter. If my mom would be disappointed to see what I shared, then I wouldn't share it. Over the years, my filter has gotten more refined to each individual role. I may talk about my parents, my brothers, my husband, son, and in-laws, but I generally don't refer to them by name without permission. (My husband and I have talked about what we feel is appropriate/inappropriate to share about each other.) I may write in vague terms about conversations that I have with people, but I make an effort to ensure that even the person I was speaking with can't be totally certain it's them I am referring to. I'm not perfect, but I try my very best to avoid sharing judgemental thoughts. (There's more than enough of that online already.) There are certain topics - in particular politics, and religion, and some of the debates around autism - that I avoid. The few times I have waded in, I hated the outcome.

That said, I've experienced huge benefits from opening up and sharing my struggles. The most notable experience was when I broke down and wrote for the first time about my son and the fact that we were waiting to get him in for an assessment to determine whether he had autism (he does). I wrote that just over three years ago. It was a frustrating time for our family and putting it out there was uncomfortable for me. I felt vulnerable - I worried that I was putting Brandon in a vulnerable position without him knowing. The truth is, I still worry a little about that, but I also want him to see autism as one part of who he is - like his blonde hair and blue eyes and his love for technology. If I can't treat it that way, then neither will he.

Inevitably, the topic of "oversharing" comes up in these sessions. I expect it and I'm prepared for it. I had the very great pleasure of seeing Jeff Jarvis speak at an event here in Ottawa a few years ago when he was touring to promote his book, Public Parts. Jeff wrote the book after he blogged and spoke openly online about his treatment for prostate cancer and the effects it had on him physically (urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction). Like me, Jeff found that opening up led to finding support and building a community that supported each other.

In his talk, Jeff brought up the topic of oversharing and gave the perspective that I have since adopted and share with anyone who will listen, with the very small addition of my own insights. Essentially, this is what I believe about oversharing:

Oversharing does not exist except in the context of personal regret over something personally shared. Only the individual who has shared something can decide if they have overshared. If Person A looks at content shared by Person B and feels it is oversharing, it's really about the Person A not being comfortable with what Person B has said. 

To me, this is a critical distinction because we all have different comfort levels. I may see the possible ramifications of what someone else shares and decide I couldn't share that kind of information because it's out of my comfort zone. But the ramifications may not exist for the other person in the same way, or that person may not be bothered by them. Oversharing isn't about the sharer - it's about the person who is taking in what's shared. 

Sheryl Sandberg recently opened up in a post that is real, raw, beautiful, and heartbreaking about the death of her husband. Given how I've been impacted personally by what Sheryl has shared, I can only attempt to imagine what anyone who has lost such a beloved spouse that is reading it would feel. The amazing thing to watch is how many people have shared their own stories, or offered support and compassion for Ms. Sandberg and her family. This is a topic that is associated with many people's worst fears - death of a loved one. Talking about it is scary and uncomfortable, even though we all experience it. 

Opening up online can leave you feeling vulnerable and unsure, but the effects can be positive and uplifting, with an outpouring of understanding, support, and empathy. There are often practical benefits, such as the development of relationships and people living a similar experience offering advice and wisdom. 

The bottom line is that we're all human and we all experience ups and downs, and are afflicted with individual faults that make up part of who we are. Each of us has the right to decide how much we share of our human experience, but being open to opening up can help you and others living your situation as well.

What are some of your concerns about being more open online?