Words write a thousand pictures

11 Oct 2011

Gareth Dunlop

The web is becoming a richer medium with every passing day; as browsers improve, monitors get larger and access speeds increase, so audio, video and larger images are becoming a greater part of our web experience. But don’t be fooled into thinking these media types are superior to, or should replace, words.

Think this is the fanciful speculation of someone who is stuck in a bygone age? Go and speak to those in Google, those who run the world’s largest media platform, which gets the majority of its revenues from what? Text-based adverts!

The key difference between the worlds of online and offline marketing is that the majority of offline marketing is presentational whereas online marketing is universally interactive. In the presentational world, an organisation prepares a message, targets its audience, and in full control of that message delivers it to a passive potential customer base. Interactive marketing turns that on its head, as an organisation prepares its message in a way which enables its potential customers to interact with it any way they wish.  Therefore, on a website, a customer will quickly establish what matters to them, not what matters to you, and will go in search of it.

Linking and searching

The two tools of interactivity are linking and searching. What they both have in common is that they are driven by words. Once we recognise that words are what drives everything online it allows us to make much better decisions about the importance we place on them; it also frees us up to ensure that all of our design decisions, technical decisions and CMS decisions are subservient to them.

In virtually every online study I have ever read about, a text link as part of a menu system will outperform a button or banner advert to the same part of the website; customers expect to engage with text menus, because they want to be in control. Text-based calls to action at the bottom of a page of prose are typically the best-performing links on a page. Customers don’t want to be sold to, but they want to buy.

Words are the driving force of the web, and other forms of media supplement and complement them. The largest video website in the world is also the second most popular search engine in the world. YouTube knows it delivers video on demand, and that words are the currency by which it works.

People want to know your price. Your value proposition. Your product specification. Your speed of delivery. Your terms and conditions. Your returns policy. The CVs of your senior people. Your case studies and track record. What your customers think of you. And so on.

If your price is too expensive no amount of technology, design or dancing girls is going to win you the sale. If you haven’t bothered to put your senior people’s CV online and your competitors have, you run the risk of not making the agency shortlist. If your returns policy is harsh, people will go elsewhere.

To understand to centrality of words is to embrace the discipline of structuring content to thrive in this interactive marketing environment. People DO read websites. If your content is well structured and correctly prioritised, they WILL engage with what you say. They will read your menus and they will read the content they are served when they click on your menus.

Every word counts

So put your most important information, in the form of carefully crafted words, onto the most important areas of your homepage.  Think carefully about what you call your menu systems. Ensure your site search is smart and intuitive, not bland and generic. And work hard with copywriters to draft copy which is based on clarity and fact, not persuasion and marketing waffle.

How did Net a Porter use words to double the number of people buying its handbags online? By adding the length of the strap to its product display page.

How did Pioneer increase the number of people going to its website goal page from the product page? By changing two words.  Rewording the call to action from “Locate my nearest dealer” to “Find my nearest shop”.

On the web and off the web, words change the world.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop has been fixated by the internet since 1996 and has extensive commercial experience advising the senior management teams of blue chip organisations in Ireland, UK and Europe on internet strategy, usability and best practice. His specialist areas include digital strategy development, usability and user journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Confetti, Irish Internet Association, WeddingsOnline.ie, Enterprise Ireland and the Digital Marketing Institute.

Read more by Gareth Dunlop: 

Why Michael O’Leary should run your website

Websites; you used to be cool, man

Clear Facebook success trends starting to emerge

Bonnets and beeswax – your business’ reputation

Learning to say no

Enough of your patronising social media heroics, please

Online crimes of passion

New Media Opinion: Online reputation optimisation

Offline marketing isn’t dead …

The unaffordable cost of irrelevancy

Urgent need for new online metrics   

Electricity and the gold rush

The real reason the recession is good for marketing

The class of 2009 wants your job!

Firms need to be customer zealots, not technology zealots

Firms need to put aside their fears and embrace the web

Online advertising overtakes TV advertising

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.