When I was an intern at a literary agency in New York, one of my jobs was to thin out the slush pile, the constantly growing heap of unopened query letters.
With every stack of 60 letters, I sent form rejection letters to 57 authors. Just three authors would receive an invitation to send in a sample of their work for review. For the writers, the odds were terrible, but it was important that I didn’t waste the agent’s time with manuscripts that didn’t have a chance of succeeding. I had to make a snap decision based on a single-page letter. What I did learn was that you could tell a lot about a writer from that little bit of writing.
For the writer, the key to success was to meet expectations while doing things differently enough to stand out.
As a web writer, you face the same situation. Website visitors are just as quick to judge as I had to be when sifting through query letters. And your key to success is the same as all those hopeful writers … give your visitors what they expect and make yourself stand out. Your content has to conform to expectations, but your voice should be absolutely unique.
During my time as an intern, I started to recognize a pattern. The query letters I sent through to the agent consistently did five things. Do these same things on your website — or for your clients — and you’ll pass your visitors’ screen test, too.
5 Lessons From Rejection That Web Writers Can Use To Improve a Website
My most common reason for rejecting query letters was that they weren’t clear.
Reading some letters felt like I was trudging through complex legalese, the writing was so unnecessarily complicated.
Whenever I picked up a letter that made it feel like someone was talking directly to me, one that was easy to read with clearly expressed ideas … that always got my immediate attention.
When you write a page of web copy — especially a page that people come in to your site on — you want to be sure the message of that page is clear. You can use a program like Google Analytics to find out which pages are popular entry points on your website. Then take extra time to fine-tune those pages.
In retrospect, the successful letters were written with a low Flesch-Kinkaid score. (Flesch-Kincaid measures the readability of a document, and outputs the results as an FK score.) The fastest way to lower your FK score is to replace long words with short words and break up long sentences and paragraphs. Reading your writing out loud is also a great way to show yourself where your writing needs work. Do this with your most popular entry pages and you’ll hold on to more visitors.
Your reader doesn’t have a lot of time — Unless, of course, she’s interested
With query letters, I could tell within 30 seconds if the answer was going to be no.
If the answer was a possible yes, the manuscript was read and discussed by everyone in the office.
Website visitors will treat your site the same way, bouncing away within seconds if they aren’t interested or acting like they have all the time in the world if they are.
You need to make sure you grab the full attention of anyone that is interested … in other words, write to your target audience. You need to write a headline that grabs their attention and interest in a few seconds before they click away.
The fastest way to grab a website visitor’s attention is to write something that lines up with what they are thinking. Nick Usborne put it this way in AWAI’s Copywriting 2.0 program, “Whatever the web page, close your eyes, imagine your visitor, and quickly write down the thoughts in that visitor’s mind as he arrives at the page for the first time.”
In other words, visitors are asking a question or seeking a solution when they arrive at a website. Your headline should speak to that need.
Let the reader know you understand his interests
In the book-publishing industry, authors get noticed when they clearly acknowledge a specific reason for writing to a particular agent. Writers who compared their writing to a current client, mentioned a mutual friend, or even said something about the website, showed they had done their research. Agents like that. It lets them know that the writer has taken the time and made the effort to bring them a manuscript that will be a good fit.
As a web writer, you can use the same technique to make a connection with your target audience. Website visitors are task oriented and focused on a specific outcome. One of the first questions they ask is, “Is this web page for me?” If the answer is no, they’ll leave.
Just like how authors have to craft individualized query letters, web writers need to write individualized web pages targeted to each type of client.
For example, a company that sells sporting goods online should never attempt to address all the different types of athletes at the same time. When you do that, you end up writing vague phrases like, “we meet all your sporting needs,” and not impressing anyone.
Instead, divide the audience into distinct groups so it will be possible to write about one sporting need at a time. Cyclists, swimmers, runners, and skiers all have different ways of talking, and you should use their lingo as much as possible. Within those groups, divide them into smaller specific groups so you can talk about interests with more specificity. A seasoned marathoner will have different needs than a beginner who is just trying to lose some weight and wants a comfy shoe.
The good news is that there are a lot of tools available that will help you learn what your visitors are looking for so you can immediately make a connection. You can use analytics to find out where your website visitors are coming from and what keywords they used to find the site. You can even ask the website owner for more information on what problems the customers are facing.
Flash your credentials conversationally
Smart writers include their credentials in their query letter. It’s necessary because an author needs to establish that they can deliver a manuscript that will sell. But many authors lose sight of the fact that they are writing to a human being when listing their credentials. When that happens, the section turns into gobbledygook.
The authors who stood out found a way to tell me about their education and background in a way that got me excited about them as a person. People who told me in a conversational manner about their brand-new MFA, or how they sold every copy of their self-published book of poems by hanging out in coffee shops, or how much they enjoy the offbeat hobby that inspired their book usually succeeded in getting my attention.
As a web writer, you need to offer web visitors reassurance that they can trust the site owner with their email address or credit card information. Weave the evidence of credibility — like testimonials, statistics, and awards — into the copy in the same way that you would explain to an acquaintance.
If all of your credentials are jammed into one dense block paragraph, think about it from the customer’s perspective, and revise it. What will reassure customers and lead to a sale free of anxiety?
Plant Seeds of Affinity
I noticed that my boss, a 50-something businesswoman, had a soft spot for books written by women like her. In the long run, she could sell more books when she was enthusiastic about them, and she was enthusiastic about books written by people or about people who she could relate to.
There is no logical way to explain the way people automatically trust and like people who are like them. But most people are like this, and web writers should capitalize on it every day.
Here are a few examples of how people immediately search for things in common:
The other day I walked into a sporting goods store with a ski tag on the zipper of my jacket and quickly struck up a conversation with the owner, because she recognized me as someone who skis, like her.
I told my doctor that my maiden name was Audette, and he said, “No way, my third grade teacher was an Audette!”
When groups of parents meet, they immediately compare the ages of their children. If the ages are a match, they can start swapping stories and arranging play dates.
Make a point to sell and market to people who you (or your client) naturally connect with. Make sure those people can see the connection. For example, if your ideal customer and most frequent visitor is a dentist, include a testimonial from a dentist.
Also, realizing that people are looking for connecting tidbits, make sure to include them in the web copy you write.
Dan Kennedy explains how this works for him in No B.S. Trust Based Marketing. For years when he gave speeches (and sold his $277 Magnetic Marketing® System afterwards), he would mention facts like he stuttered as a kid and that he had gone through bankruptcy. He said, “In every city without exception, people lugging the bag of my stuff bought at the back of the arena tables, were waiting in line to tell me they or their child stuttered or that they’d been through bankruptcy like me … I can’t prove that they bought because of that, but I’m certain that little bit of affinity — that they heard while thousands of others listening never noticed it — helped.”
You can’t always predict what will resonate with web visitors, but telling your story is a magnetic way to gain interest and build trust.
Face it — people want to click away
They have their hand on the mouse and are ready to click away any second. It’s your job to write something that will overcome their urge to go somewhere else. It can be done as long as you
- Write clearly,
- Use attention-grabbing headlines,
- Address your different customers separately,
- Show your credentials in a conversational way,
- And tell your story so readers can find common ground.
Follow these five techniques and you’ll give your visitors what they expect, but do it in a way that makes you or your client stand out. And that really is the recipe for success.