Bad Copy: An Example in the Negative

We’ve talked often enough about the importance of communicating
your value proposition, not only on your home page, but on all your
landing pages. You want to give folks an up-front, concise idea why
they absolutely need to be doing business with you.

And we’ve talked about the importance of the message being meat,
whether you are penning the words to that value proposition or any
other piece of copy on your site.

Sometimes it helps to look at an example in the negative and
evaluate it by identifying what you should not do! Just like those
fashion DOs and DON’Ts columns. Most people who read that stuff tell
me they get a healthy idea of what they should do based on an
explicit presentation of what they should not do.

Read on for the full flavor of this great big DON’T. The copy is
word for word … only the name of the company has been changed to
protect its questionable innocence.

Home Page

Acme Software is a custom software development company
specializing in the rapid development of highly maintainable and
dynamic software to meet custom client software specifications. Acme
attains rapid delivery through active management and focused teamwork
coupled with the constant improvement of our internal processes and
development methodology. Acme’s highly cohesive team of individuals,
each with both a breadth and depth of experience can help you out of
nearly any software bind. Our custom software architects have been
seasoned by experience in technologies ranging from custom middleware
and wireless frameworks to client-server database clients. With this
diversity of experience, we can create complete custom applications
from scratch or convert legacy client-server systems to distributed
n-Tier applications with deployment on a variety of clients. Our
project management and in-house methodology enable us to quickly turn
our technical expertise into custom software solutions that deliver
value. Using our proprietary agile methodology, we deliver products
that closely follow the evolution of the environment in which they
will serve. By working closely with your existing development team,
with your IT management, or on a free-standing component to be
integrated as part of a parallel effort, we can decrease your time to
market, decrease your costs, and improve your chances for project

Let’s say you actually find yourself resonating with this garble,
so you want to know more about who these folks are (you certainly
aren’t going to satisfy that task on the home page). You click on
About Us in the only place you can find to take action, the global
nav at the top. There you get to read virtually the same thing yet
again, with one major revision:

About Us Page… Our software architects have been seasoned by
experience in technologies ranging from the nascent to mature. …

What’s so wrong with this? Let me count the ways!

Comprehensibility. Having read this really important copy –
remember it appears as the sole “active window” element on the home
page and is regurgitated almost word for word on the About Us page –
do you really understand what this company does? I figure any
intelligent lay-person (and I consider myself an intelligent
lay-Martian), after reading this, should be able to come up with a
concise, explanatory statement about a business’s character. I can’t.

Clarity. What the heck is a “proprietary agile methodology”
(elsewhere referred to as their variation of XP ‘Extreme
Programming’)? And by “nascent to mature technologies,” do they mean
some of their dudes work with laser devices while others use animal
bones and chipped stones?

Image. I figure it’s best if we say what we mean without dressing
it up too fancy. There’s a point when useful meaning starts to drown
in pomposity, and you find yourself in a head game rather than a
persuasive process. And in an image-conscious world, this is not the
sort of image or emotional reaction you want to cultivate.

Showing versus Telling. Anyone’s auntie can tell you she’ll deliver
value. Ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. The real key to winning the hearts of
folks is showing them you can deliver value.

We-We. The overwhelming level of insiderness here is appalling.
It’s not just that the copy waxes lofty about how wonderful Acme is.
Look at all the jargon (at least, I assume someone somewhere
acknowledges that this means something). That insider pretense pushes
most folks away. Its purpose is exclusionary.

Persuasiveness. Here’s the real problem. Having thoroughly confused
me, the copy then offers nothing in the least bit persuasive to
encourage me to stay engaged with this site. No embedded links. No
calls to action. It doesn’t speak to any emotional need I might have.
In fact, it doesn’t even seem to care about me, leaving me only with
a few bright technology-related images and a global navigation bar.
Believe me, I’m not persuaded.

The short of it is this: if I can’t make sense of why you think I
need you, then how in the world can I have any degree of confidence
in you? How will I believe you’ll be able to understand and work with
my needs?

The only way I’d allow any of you, my lovely readers, to put copy
like this on your Web site is if you told me you wanted to drive away
99.9% of your visitors to increase the odds you’ll be working with
that rare client who “gets” this sort of communication.

For the rest of us, perhaps a little hungrier and much happier to
appeal to a broad audience, this sort of copy is a negative filter.
Take it from me. If you have copy anywhere on your site that reads
even remotely like this, you are in serious trouble. And if you
feature it as the sole active-window element on your home page, I
predict dead-in-the-water status for you.

Personally, I think the best use for copy like this is to play MEGO
(My Eyes Glaze Over) games with your friends. Time them. See who
blanks out the fastest. Unlike my little exercise today, you don’t
even need to make a point with it!

With thanks to John Morana for bringing this item to our attention!

Future Now, Inc. is a marketing boutique focused on helping clients convert their website’s traffic into leads, customers and sales by applying persuasion architecture, copywriting, usability and web analytics to design, redesign and optimize websites and other online marketing efforts.