Web marketers face special challenges when they are writing headlines and copy – not only do they have to deal with all of the concerns that print writers contend with in trying to create copy that sells, but they have to worry about search performance, too. In order to maximize site traffic, or sometimes just to be found at all, web copy writers must uses words and phrases that people interested in their product might type into Google. A print writer can use creative substitutions and clever turns of phrase, while web writers often must use popular, lowest-common-denominator terms.
At first glance, Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear wouldn’t seem to have much to offer web marketers. After all, author Frank Luntz earned his reputation by identifying new terms for old ideas. His research showed, for example, that people didn’t like the idea of “oil drilling” in pristine wilderness, but that “energy exploration” was far more acceptable. Nobody cares much for taxes of any variety, but ending the “death tax” was found to be much more palatable than killing the “estate tax.” In fact, there’s plenty of wisdom in this volume for all marketers, including those who write for the Web.
One of the things that Web marketers will appreciate about Luntz’s ideas is that they are almost all based on hard research. All too many business book authors start with a fact or two and build elaborate theories on top of them. Luntz, by comparison, emphasizes what his research for an extensive list of business and political clients has revealed about how people react to words. Phrases that mean exactly the same thing produce dramatically different results – people oppose “welfare” but value “assistance to the poor,” for example. The profound effect of word choice on the perception of the reader will surprise some marketers and have them paying a lot more attention to phrasing details.
While web marketers may not be able to completely escape the tyranny of search engine constraints in the near future, they can certainly benefit from some of the concepts described in Words that Work – seemingly minor copy tweaks could have a big impact. One area that is particularly interesting is a section titled, “Twenty-one Words and Phrases for the Twenty-first Century.” In it, Luntz highlights words that testing and experience show are particularly effective at this point in time. Here are a few of our favorites:
- hassle-free – Americans prefer a “hassle-free” product to a “less expensive” one by a quite amazing 62% to 38%, making both the phrase and the broader concept very appealing.
- investment – both in politics and marketing, “investment” tests significantly better than “spending,” “cost,” etc. Luntz says a proprosed program will get a 10% improvement in support just by that substitution. “Investment” implies lasting value, while “buying” is for now.
- casual elegance – for dining, lodging, apparel, and many other areas, “casual elegance” is a potent term since it builds in part of our vision of what we want to be. The term beats others, like “sophistication.”
- certified – in an environment of declining trust in others “certified” and “certification” imply a written and specific commitment to performance, and can be a powerful enhancement to a mere promise.
There are many more of these hot-button words listed and their benefits are described in detail. Of course, some of these terms are already seeing over-use, and their impact will no doubt suffer over time. Still, they can be a good standard to use while trying to punch up ad copy, benefit lists, and so on – even if you don’t end up using one or more of them, it’s likely that the final wording will be better for the scrutiny.
Years ago, marketers thought a lot about words. Web marketers, though, can be distracted by the plethora of tools the have – Flash animation, behavioral targeting, near-infinite amounts of Web analytics data… Words That Work is quick and entertaining read that will help one to get back to basics and start writing better copy again.