Friday, September 26, 2003

Creating the 'Persuasion Architecture' of Sites

Sometimes you'll come across a word or a phrase or perhaps even an entire sentence that's so crisp and resonant and descriptive, so good at distilling down to a small bite some larger themes & ideas, that you find yourself either smiling or thinking, aha. I've been fortunate to have come across a couple of these lately.

The first came via our colleague Don Iannone, who, in commenting on a gassho riff on the importance of focusing on personal strengths rather than weaknesses, observed that "so much of life is a blessing in disguise." On the surface that hardly seems a remarkable arrangement of words. It might well touch on a familiar notion, even (like life is what happens when we're making other plans). But there was something about the economy of his expression and the deeper emotional truth of the thought that really grabbed me at that moment. It got my brain's synapses firing.

Later that day, I stumbled upon a phrase even richer with meaning, because it touches even more directly on all the intersections of my work with words and the web: "persuasion architecture." In this interesting piece from the marketing newsletter Grokdotcom, which grew out of the late, great Industry Standard Magazine, this writer plumbs the rich depths of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory in discussing how those insights can be used to create "the persuasion architecture of your Web site." We won't go into an online tutorial on Maslow here, but suffice to say that the highest need in that hierarchy is for self-actualization, and this piece explores how visitors/readers emotions and a company's values can connect to make magic. And what's the main tool in making that connection? Generic corporate speak first produced by writing-phobic marketing people before being passed along for further dumbing down by factotums from legal, operations and upper management? Probably not (and if it somehow does, I hereby offer to write a case study for The Miracle Network). The magic connection comes quite simply from the right content, to use a largely discarded late-90s word. Or copy, to use another (only slightly less attractive term). Or, to call it simply what it is: good writing. Which is composed of words. And (full disclosure here) you're at a place called Working With Words. So don't say you haven't been warned about our embedded biases.

It's taken nearly a decade into the Internet age, but from where I sit at least, we've finally arrived at where the web always needed to go in the first place--largely serving as a static-free transmission belt for the written word. I've always been inspired by Project Gutenberg, an impossibly ambitious attempt to webify every book written in human history (copyright be damned). I think I especially love how it skillfully chose that centrally evocative word, Gutenberg, the world's first printing press, as a bridge to the electronic printing press, the web.

Of course, it's not simply former Industry Standard columnists turned "conversion-rate marketing" newsletter writers who are increasingly coming around to understanding the crucial role of skillful writing on the web, either. I'm heartened by how many of my colleagues are skillfully and forcefully making the case in a thousand small fires being set all over. This writer, a hospital p.r. person by vocation and a sensitive online writing columnist for the ClickZ network by avocation, complains about how boring most commercial websites have become, simply because they've gotten away from good writing, rendering the rest of their persuasion architecture useless. "Is anyone having a good time with the web anymore?" she asks, before later answering her own question. "It's been suggested blogs are the only place on the Web where there's originality. I'm beginning to subscribe to this school of thought."

As my colleague Barbara Payne has understood as well as anyone in Cleveland, and earlier, the real fun and challenge for web professionals in the next few years will be marrying the spontaneity, authenticity and vibrant voice of personal publishing (blogs) to the mostly deadly dull, inert wet rags that are most corporate/organizational websites. Visit her commercial site periodically to keep track of her increasingly rich exploration and action on that powerful idea.

And nationally, I'll nominate a hard-working guy who may be the top guru in this field of bringing human voice to the web, something of a Bill Zinsser for the online world: Nick Usborne. A longtime copy/content columnist for ClickZ, which has been losing much of its energy in recent months because of a change in ownership, he has more recently migrated to a similar site which now captures much of the energy of ClickZ during its glory days, Marketing Profs. In this piece, he recently preached about the central importance of words in any hopes of touching off viral marketing. "This is the net--and if the words aren't interesting, they won't spread...If your sales copy and content is interesting enough--really interesting--then people will notice it. They'll laugh, smile and be offended or amazed. And remember, they are networked."

By all evidence, through these channels, his own widely distributed email newsletter , his moderated discussion list and now a blog and a book, his gospel is increasingly being heard. The best proof: He's even being invited to those dreaded "usability" conferences, which used to be dominated by the deadly, almost souless geek dronings of usability guru Jakob Nielsen, whom I think of as the longtime leading voice of what I hope is the now-discredited idea that websites are more science than art. Nick replaces that approach with a simple proposition: sites can have human voices, and visitors, readers and customers prefer the warmth of art to the brittleness of pseudo-science (real scientists understand that science and art are merely two sides of the same coin). It's really pretty simple. Try this exercise, for instance: spend 10 minutes reading through Nielsen's work and another 10 on Usborne's, and then decide whom you'd rather have lunch with.

In a couple of weeks Nick is speaking in Boston on "How great copy can transform the online experience for your customers and your company." He notes in the promo material, for instance, that "a lot of companies, when creating their websites, invest 99.99% of their effort into technology that delivers the messages, but only .01% in the messages themselves." (sound familiar to anyone?). I say amen to that. And keep evangelizing, Nick. Your message is getting through. Stay tuned about our efforts here at Working With Words to get Nick to come to Cleveland to further spread his powerful ideas.


Post a Comment

<< Home