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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How to Improve B2B Marketing Materials Already Blessed with a B2C Feel

Overview

Our first tune-up of September 2006 analyzes a product description for The Palm® Treo™ 700w and 700wx smartphones.

Companies like Palm, Apple, and WebEx are known for their extraordinary branding prowess. Part of what makes their B2B Marketing material so impressive is a consistent, benefits-oriented, B2C feeling in all their literature.

More specifically, they know to use the second-person voice. They avoid passive sentences at all costs. Verbs are always close by. They’re clear, direct, and polished too. No question, these companies know the value of great copy and it shows.

Taking on the product description for Palm’s flagship smartphone is a challenge. It took some time to find room for improvement, but it’s there if we look hard enough.

Full disclosure before going further – I spent 1999 working at Palm as a developer of classroom and web-based training for their technical support staff. I left in December of that year to evangelize e-learning standards with Saba.

Break with Tradition to Find Room for Improvement

In reviewing Palm and similar sites, a pattern emerged. For a given product, it’s common to find mention of a technology the product incorporates without a clear explanation of how said technology will benefit the customer. It’s as if there was some urgent need to include a reference to the technology or lose face to a competitor guilty of the same awkward convention.

To break with this “tradition,” I state a benefit for any technology the product description mentions in passing. This lengthens the description but the extra clarity is justified especially when an additional product benefit enters the foreground.

Accept the Challenge – Assume Your Audience is Ignorant and Lazy

At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I assume the reader of this product description is, in effect, ignorant and lazy. I do this for a virtuous reason – it places an even greater challenge on the writer to satisfy the reader’s need for clear and complete ideas.

While I don’t know the guiding assumptions the original writer used to gauge the audience, here are mine. The reader:

  • Wants to gain a working understanding of the product
  • Is unfamiliar with the specific technologies mentioned in this description
  • Does not want to leave the page to learn more about any particular aspect of the product - if possible

Copywriting Tune-up

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

  • Rely less on links and more on inline copy
  • Easier to read and understand
  • Retain its classy tone and enticing quality

Before
After

The Palm® Treo™ 700w and 700wx smartphones deliver everything you need without compromise. They combine a smarter phone with broadband-like speeds, wireless email, including Windows Mobile® Direct Push Technology, and rich-media capabilities, all in one—bringing Palm's world-class ease of use to the Windows Mobile platform.

Connect with people in multiple ways—by voice, email or SMS. Your contacts are always reachable, from any application. Access email, the web, and corporate networks on one of the fastest networks available in the U.S. Or relax and play your favorite music and videos right on your device. With these easy-to-use productivity devices in hand, you can stay connected on your terms.

Make no compromises. Boost your productivity with The Palm® Treo™ 700w and 700wx smartphones. Use your smarter phone to retrieve wireless email at near broadband speed. Your contacts data stays in-sync with Windows Mobile® Direct Push Technology. Take in rich audio and video. Enjoy all these capabilities with the world-class ease-of-use of Palm delivered for the first time on a Windows Mobile platform.

Connect with people several ways—by voice, email, or SMS. Access your contacts anytime from any application. Read email, surf the web, and log on to corporate networks using one of the fastest networks available in the U.S. Or relax and play your favorite music and videos right on your smartphone. With all these user-friendly resources at your fingertips, your smartphone lets you stay connected on your terms.

Readability Statistics

The ease of reading index improves by a hard-earned 24%. Note how the grade level needed to follow the passage comfortably drops by more than 2 years.

More sentences of shorter length in the After snippet go a long way towards improving the ease of reading index and reducing the grade level.

Unlike previous tune-ups, the After snippet uses more words and characters. This derives from the need to explain unfamiliar technical terms or at least mention the benefit they deliver – i.e., the “break with tradition” mentioned above and discussed at greater length below.

It’s Not About You and Me. It’s About Me and Me Only - The Reader

The first sentence of the Before snippet opens with the company name and product. Because it’s a technical product and it’s assumed, I, the reader, know nothing about it, I’m forced to think before I can even see what’s in it for me. When the sentence ends, I have some vague idea the product won’t skimp on any of its features but what it means to me remains unclear.

The After snippet opens with a 3 word sentence beginning with an action verb. Already we know we won’t be skimping on features and we haven’t even mentioned the company or product name yet. Even before the second sentence mentions the company and product name, we clearly understand what’s in it for me – boosting my productivity.

Turn Features into Benefits with Action Verbs

Sure, maybe I’m being extreme to assume the reader doesn’t know what wireless email is, but it’s not so obvious with some of the other features like “Windows Mobile® Direct Push Technology” or “rich-media capabilities.” The Before snippet lists these features as straight-up nouns tied to the pronoun, “They.” This makes it harder for me, as a reader, to picture myself enjoying the product because the passage directs me to contemplate “what” this is as opposed to “how” using it will make my life easier.

The After snippet breaks up the very long second sentence into several shorter ones. Each feature is preceded by a verb, which transforms it into a benefit. The third sentence makes it clear I can retrieve wireless email quickly (benefit) as opposed to the device having “the ability to do so” (feature).

Supply a Benefit for Every Technology Important Enough to Mention

The Before snippet slips in a reference to “Windows Mobile® Direct Push Technology” without explaining why the reader should care. I can understand the need to list it especially if competing products also incorporate this technology. So, let’s go one up on the competition and let the reader know how this technology enhances their experience.

To make good on this directive, I had to do some research about “Windows Mobile® Direct Push Technology.” The data sheets for these Palm smartphones don’t mention this technology in any explicit way. I went to Microsoft’s site to get the low-down.

Armed with this understanding of the technology, it remains fuzzy as to how these smartphones apply it to make the user more productive. Because the technology requires Microsoft Exchange Server, I figure it has to do with email applications. Also, the Before snippet states, “Your contacts are always reachable…”

Based on these inputs, I make the educated guess this technology makes certain I have the most up-to-date contact information for whomever I’m trying to reach at any given moment.

If I’ve got this wrong or the benefits extend beyond managing contact information, someone from Palm is welcome to comment.

Cancel Corporate Speak at Every Opportunity

The Before snippet, as many similar web sites do, uses the term, “rich-media capabilities.” Perhaps, by now, the market understands what this means, but in the interest of engaging the reader fully, we can transform this conceptual noun into a concrete verb by saying, “Take in rich audio and video.” “Take in” works well because it has positive connotations about fulfilling our senses. Breaking out “rich media” into “rich audio and video” reinforces this conversion of a feature into a benefit by eliminating ambiguity.

Don’t Let an Unclear Subject-Verb Connection Diminish a Benefit

The Before snippet closes the last sentence of the first paragraph with a hyphen followed by a clause starting with the verb, “bringing… ” It takes some study to see the subject of this verb is “They” at the very beginning of this long sentence. “ They” and “bringing” is a mismatch fueled by the list of features inserted between these two words.

Ah, but grammar is not the issue here. The net effect is to make “Palm’s world-class ease of use” merely incidental to the other features and benefits as if such ease-of-use would not be there without them.

The After snippet closes out the paragraph by making it clear “ease-of-use” is consciously “baked into” everything about the product.

Exalt Yourself - When it Really is about You

In our last tune-up, we explained how using your company name in the possessive form is like having a movie camera tilted down at its subject. It makes the subject appear less important because the viewer can “look down” upon it. This is what happens when we use the phrase, “Palm’s world-class ease of use.”

Instead, we can write, “the world-class ease-of-use of Palm.” In this form, it’s as if a movie camera were titled up at its subject. It makes the subject appear exalted because the viewer must “look up” at it.

Better still, this little change alone improved the ease of reading index by a half-point.

Choose Simpler Adjectives and Verbs for Greater Impact

In the first sentence of the second paragraph, the Before snippet uses the term “multiple ways” where the After snippet opts for “several ways.” The former is more conceptual and less friendly to those who wish to forget math class.

The next sentence is fine as is though “reachable” is a bit abstract. The After snippet opens with an action verb and follows it with “anytime from any application” to keep the meaning clear and simple.

The third sentence opens with an action verb and lists noun features afterwards. This is fine though preceding each feature with a verb would strengthen them individually and collectively. The After snippet uses this technique to give the reader a sense of empowerment with each one.

Use Jargon When it’s Already Defined and Generic Words Add No Value

In the second to last sentence, the Before snippet ends with the phrase, “right on your device.” The Before snippet never used “device” previously, so it could prompt some slight confusion. The After snippet uses “smartphone” instead because this term is prominent in the previous paragraph and it reinforces the value proposition of higher productivity for the reader.

Avoid Lengthy Adjectives Especially Before Generic References to Your Product

The final sentence of the Before snippet begins, “With these easy-to-use productivity devices…” A four-word adjective would dilute “smartphone,” let alone “device.”

Reinforce Benefits with Strong Second Person Voice for a Powerful Finale

The final sentence of the Before snippet does nothing to reinforce the benefits already listed. The final sentence of the After snippet refers to them collectively as “user-friendly resources at your fingertips.” This is concrete and easy-to-understand.

While the second person voice is evident in the final sentence of the Before snippet, it’s not obvious until the second clause. In the first clause, it’s not clear whether “in hand” refers to the reader or a third party.

The After snippet goes for a strong finish by using “your” in both clauses plus “you” in the second one. Finally, we get added oomph using “smartphone” instead of “device.”

Wrap-up

An extra line or two of copy can make all the difference between reasonably clear and abundantly clear. Better to err on the side of “abundant” when we want to ensure the reader comes away with:

  • Working understanding of the product
  • A clear idea of how it will make him or her more productive

Adding this extra copy helped us shave 2 years off the minimum reading skill needed to understand the value proposition. This broadens the field of potential buyers.

We maintained the sleek, B2C feel of the original while placing even greater emphasis on benefits over features. This alone is likely to boost the conversion rate on these impressive smartphones.

To your marketing success,

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

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