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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Give Your B2B Marketing Materials a SMOG Test and Find Out if They Read like Newsweek or The IRS Tax Code (Part One)


Sometimes, a piece of B2B marketing literature defies conventional wisdom when it comes to measuring its ease of reading. The one we look at this time scored a zero on the Flesch Reading Ease and for me, alarm bells went off. After all, no piece is completely unreadable, right?

Nevertheless, I want to make it clear I'm doing everything humanly possible to give this piece a fair shake.

To eliminate Microsoft Word's implementation of Flesch Reading Ease as a factor, we look at several alternative tools for calculating Flesch Reading Ease. To eliminate the Flesch Reading Ease as an unreliable metric, we use an additional measure called SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook).

Loosely speaking, SMOG complements Flesch Reading Ease because it measures how difficult it is to read a passage whereas Flesch Reading Ease calculates how easy it is to read. The SMOG level depends on the proportion of words with 3 or more syllables. The higher the SMOG level, the more difficult it is to read the passage. The SMOG level helps equate a passage with other well-known reading materials of similar complexity. This is how references to The IRS Tax Code and Newsweek made it into the title of this post.

So, this edition of Copywriting Tune-ups is Part One and it focuses on my efforts to arrive at a genuine assessment of how easy or difficult it is to read the B2B marketing piece we discuss below. In Part Two, we'll do the usual deconstruction of how the tune-up transforms the piece into a new and improved sales tool.

Those of you only interested in Part Two may find Part One useful because it relies on the tune-up to tell its story. Originally, I hoped to write a self-contained, one-part tune-up emphasizing the value of using bullet points. Along the way, I discovered how the After snippet readings fluctuated wildly depending on whether periods followed the bullets.

In particular, bullet points without periods greatly influences the results we get with both Flesch Reading Ease and SMOG. For this reason, we'll see the Before and After snippets in Part One and Part Two.

For the balance of Part One, we:

  • Set up the makeover
  • Show the Before and After snippets side-by-side with the usual Microsoft Word screenshots of Flesch Reading Ease
  • Explain the methodology and findings I used to eliminate the Flesch Reading Ease metric and the various Flesch Reading Ease calculation tools as factors in the B2B marketing piece's zero score on Flesch Reading Ease

Call Out Your Benefits - Just Don't Lose Them in SMOG

Since converting features to benefits has been a prevalent theme in recent tune-ups, let's review the Challenge and Benefits webpage of an enterprise software company, IQNavigator of Denver . IQNavigator technology helps large organizations manage all of the services they outsource to other companies.

Clearly, IQNavigator has the right idea dedicating a webpage to call-out their benefits. Still, as we've seen with other enterprise software companies, they write in third person voice and use passive sentences. This makes it harder for anyone to read and understand no matter how well-educated.

IQNavigator wisely uses bullet points to enumerate their benefits; however, each bullet makes for long and dense reading.

Copywriting Tune-up

So, the challenge for this tune-up is to:

  • Inject the second person voice
  • Eliminate passive sentences
  • Maintain an appropriate corporate tone
  • Make the benefits easier to understand
  • Convert each lengthy bullet into several shorter ones which are easier to read



Fast cost savings, Ongoing investment

Enterprises in diverse industries have found that sustainable cost savings and process improvements can be achieved through implementation of an end-to-end services procurement and optimization solution. IQNavigator's market-leading solution provides several bottom-line benefits:

  • Cost reduction: Reduce costs by 10-35% by implementing best -practices for sourcing services, eliminating manual invoice reconciliation, gaining consistent terms and renegotiating with more accurate spending and performance information, and enforcing approvals for all spending, contract extensions and exceptions.
  • Process efficiencies: Automate the procurement and payment processes to reduce cycle time and cost over 70% while improving the resulting services quality, contract terms, and payment speed and accuracy.
  • Manage compliance risks: Ensure compliance with company policies, supplier contract terms and government regulations through configurable compliance rules and approval requirements, and enforcement of contract terms and rates. Financial compliance is also achieved through spending approval requirements and process controls, auditability, and accurate invoicing and cost allocation.
  • Optimization: Improve the business results achieved through outside services by aligning services spending with business priorities and initiatives, continually improving deliverable quality and value, and linking purchased services to internal key business measures. IQNavigator's distinctive business intelligence capabilities provide visibility and analysis capabilities into spending, supplier performance, and business results.


Gain Control over the Service Procurement Life Cycle


Join the companies in every sector who have reduced their costs and streamlined their processes with a complete solution to manage the services they procure and the quality of the services performed.

Address this challenge head-on and you can:

  • Lower your costs by 10 - 35%.
  • Adopt the best practices to procure services.
  • Stop reconciling invoices manually.
  • Standardize the terms in your contracts.
  • Renegotiate your contracts using more accurate spending and performance information.
  • Enforce approvals for all your spending, contract extensions, and exceptions.

When you automate your procurement and payment processes, you will:

  • Reduce cycle time and related costs by 70%.
  • Improve the quality of the services performed.
  • Gain better control over contract terms, accuracy, and speed of payment.

Setup compliance rules so you can:

  • Ensure your company complies with its own policies, suppliers' contract terms and government regulations.
  • Meet your financial compliance goals with approval requirements, process controls, audit specifications, and accurate invoicing and cost allocations.

Enjoy better performance from your service providers when you:

  • Match your spending with your business priorities.
  • Link the services you purchase to your key business metrics.
  • Improve the quality and value of the specifications you give to your service providers.

See the relationships among spending, supplier performance, and business results when you apply the unique business intelligence capabilities of IQNavigator.

Ensuring a Balanced Comparison of Before and After

As mentioned above, we need to adjust for bullet points without periods. To ensure a balanced comparison between the Before and After snippets, the After snippet mimics the Before snippet by placing a period at the end of each of its own bullets.

How Bullet Points without Periods affects the After Snippet

Remove all bullet periods and the Flesch Reading Ease result for the After snippet is 22.6. In my opinion, this dramatically understates the ease of reading we feel intuitively when we read it. Place a period at the end of the last bullet in each group and Flesch Reading Ease rises to 27.1 – still too low - based on my experience with previous tune-ups.

Eliminating Different Implementations of Flesch Reading Ease as Unfair to the Before Snippet

Now, let's look at the Before snippet. At first, I thought the Microsoft Word implementation of the Flesch Reading Ease index may be unduly stern with the Before snippet. After all, it defies common sense to say it's completely unreadable.

I calculated the Flesch Reading Ease myself in a spreadsheet and came out with a slightly negative number. In search of a more satisfying sanity check, I downloaded a free Java application called Flesh and came away with these Before and After results:




Well, Flesch Reading Ease at 0.0 across 3 measuring tools is hard to dismiss.

No doubt, the After snippet grade level looks inflated and its Flesch Ease of Reading, understated. Whether we can accept the grade level figures of Flesh at face value is beyond the scope of this posting.

Eliminating the Flesch Reading Ease Metric as Unfair to the Before Snippet

Still, I felt a nagging sense, Flesch Reading Ease was treating the Before snippet unfairly. Perhaps, something other than Flesch Reading Ease would provide reasonable results. Enter the SMOG Calculator of G. Harry McLaughlin, founder of the SMOG:




With a SMOG reading of 18.49, the Before snippet verges on the same reading level as The IRS Tax Code. Unfortunately, like Flesh and Word, the lack of periods following bullets leads to a highly skewed reading for the After snippet - a higher SMOG level than the Before snippet! When we add in periods as shown in the After snippet above, the SMOG level falls between Newsweek and Sports Illustrated:

One Last Attempt to Second-guess both Flesch Reading Ease and SMOG

If SMOG equates the Before snippet with the IRS Tax Code, I can accept it, but it still seems unfair to give it a Flesch Reading Ease of zero. Enter Aella Lei's Writing Sample Analyzer .

Like Flesh and Word, Writing Sample Analyzer is vulnerable to bullet points without periods but the most interesting thing about Writing Sample Analyzer is its calculation of Flesch Reading Ease:




Instead of zero, Writing Sample Analyzer returns 11.05. Why? I don't know yet but once I hear back from Aella Lei, I'll let you know. While a jump from 0.0 to 11.05 is considerable and raises questions about this implementation of Flesch Reading Ease, 11.05 still makes for difficult reading.

Also note, the Fog Scale really is the exact same thing as SMOG. It looks reasonable for the Before snippet. The Before snippet's grade level also falls in-line with expectations. On the other hand, its results for the After snippet are out-of-whack across-the-board due to periods following only the last bullet point in each bullet point group.

When we add periods to each After snippet bullet, Writing Sample Analyzer responds with:

The Flesch Reading Ease looks about right but the Fog and Grade Level seem too high. Even so, comparing the Before and After snippets for Flesch Reading Ease, SMOG, and Grade Level all seem reasonable on a relative basis.

So, this B2B Marketing Piece Really is Hard to Read

All in all, both Flesch Reading Ease and SMOG support one another. In addition, while various tools for calculating Flesch Reading Ease give slightly different results, we can safely assert none of them are skewing the results to the point of denying this B2B Marketing piece a fair shake.


To be completely even-handed with a B2B marketing piece scoring zero on the Flesch Reading Ease index, we looked at several implementations of the index. This helped eliminate quirks with any given tool as a contributing factor.

To eliminate Flesch Reading Ease itself as an unreliable barometer, we introduced a measure of reading difficulty called SMOG. SMOG gave us the most intuitive sense of how hard this literature is to read because it equates the piece with other well-known publications in the same SMOG range. On this basis, the piece ranks with The Harvard Business Review at the low end and The IRS Tax Code at the high end.

All of the tools used were susceptible to a lack of periods following bullet points because:

  • they rely on periods to determine the number of sentences in a passage and
  • number of sentences is an input to further calculations.

Since the After snippet breaks out the 4 long bullets of the Before snippet into 14 shorter ones, the After snippet figures improved most dramatically when we added periods to every bullet. It's reasonable to do this because the mind processes bullets as if they were separate sentences or ideas.

Also, adding bullets to the end of each bullet makes for a fair comparison since the Before snippet ends each bullet with a period as well.

In Part Two, we will:

  • use composite figures for both the Before and After snippets
  • rely on those figures to gauge the improvements the tune-up demonstrates

Finally, in Part Two, we'll deconstruct the Before and After snippets to address the challenges we set forth for this tune-up.


To your marketing success,

Eric Rosen
Strategic Marketing Writer
eric.rosen AT
Clear Crisp Communications
Easier to Read Means More Sales and Leads


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