The Independent's Frontline

Communicating your value

Kevin Potts 27 February 2012

This is not isolated to people building websites. Scientists working on particle accelerators, predictive urban modelling, or DNA sequencing are commonly caught in a loop of their own lexicon. Architects, philosophers, politicians, analysts, CIOs too. From time to time, all are unable to distill complex analysis into words the common man can parse. The tendency to speak in technical jargon damages the marketing skills of you, the developer, designer or front-end engineer. It turns clients off.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before from a client:

“Can you build this new piece my CEO is asking for?”

The developer in the meeting promptly leaps into an introspective discussion of required schemas, and what libraries might be accessed, and if it will work on the development server, and if they can squeeze it into this sprint.

Or this …

“I have an idea for the design.”

The designer then trips through a tangle of colour requirements, the pain of kerning web fonts, the limitations of CSS, brand negotiation, manually aliasing imperfections out of vector assets, and how just, like, no one gets it ever.

Or …

“Why does the website look different in Internet Explorer 6?”

To which the front-end developer recoils in shock, conducts a liturgy about web standards and progressive enhancement, evangelises the holy light that is CSS3 and HTML5, stands up to rail against Microsoft’s broken DOM models, throws a chair through the window demanding recompense for years working inside a monopolistic web, and then slams every book ever written by Jeffrey Zeldman onto the table before walking out with the fury of a thousand double margin float bugs.

But …

The client just wants a “yes” or “no”. More accurately: can you do it, or do I need to hire someone else? Despite the explanations, excuses and sermons, this has not been communicated. Your value is lost.

Words do not equal communication

The problem with really smart technical people is that over time, they develop a habit to speak in a language of someone perpetually working through a problem. Instead of articulately summarising their internal dialogue, they outline and address, point by point, the entire exercise out loud.

This is not isolated to people building websites. Scientists working on particle accelerators, predictive urban modelling, or DNA sequencing are commonly caught in a loop of their own lexicon. Architects, philosophers, politicians, analysts, CIOs too. From time to time, all are unable to distill complex analysis into words the common man can parse.

The tendency to speak in technical jargon damages the marketing skills of you, the developer, designer or front-end engineer. It turns clients off.

You’re reading this article because you fall into the “website-builder” category and you’re either getting a freelance career fired up or have been in the game for years. You probably even have the chops to make some serious cheese. Awesome for you! But let’s be real: your experience with actually selling yourself is choppy at best, stormy at worst. And the problem, always, starts with content.

Start friendly

I’m assuming you have a website to promote your skills. If you’re like elevendybillion other freelance designers, you might have something like this plastered across the homepage in 48em Museo Slab

  • Standards-based web design.
  • We make user-friendly websites.
  • User-centric website design.
  • User experience and design services.
  • We design effective web experiences.
  • I am a user interaction designer and front-end developer.
  • UX and UID for applications.

Perfectly reasonable, you say. Says what I do in plain English, you say.

Except it’s not plain English. The tone and design are fine: short, simple, friendly. But the words are industry navel-gazing.

To certain audiences, what you’ve written resonates. Peers in the industry, technologists, maybe someone in a progressively thinking agency … they would all “get it”. To the one audience that counts—prospective clients (assuming your clients are usually not progressively thinking agencies)—it’s a foreign language.

This is what they actually read:

  • Standards-based web design.
  • We make user-friendly websites.
  • User-centric website design.
  • User experience and design services.
  • We design effective- web experiences.
  • I am a user interaction designer and front-end developer.
  • UX and UID for applications.

Think about the enquiries you get for new jobs, either from existing clients or new prospects. Inevitably, they almost all say the same thing:

“We’re looking for a website.”
“I need a website for my new business.”
“We need someone who can build websites.”
“Can you give me an estimate on a website?”
“We need to update our website.”
“I need to redesign my website.”
“I need a website where I can edit the pages myself.”
“I fired my last web designer and need someone who can finish the job.”

Also examine your analytics, especially the search terms people use to find you. For me, two key phrases dwarf all others:

“Kansas City web designer”
“Kansas City website design”

How many times have you seen a client ask for a “standards-based website”, or say they need a “UID”? Probably the same number of people searching for “Kansas City user-centric website”. So why would you clutter your lead message with cluttering word clutter?

You goal is not to impress peers, and no one likes anyone who calls themselves a “technologist” anyway. So start friendly: speak the language of the common folk.

Deeper in the funnel

Now that you have your homepage all nice and tidy, you’ve dropped all of the technical yap, and you’re raking in hordes of new eyeballs since rocketing to the top of search results for queries that real humans actually type in, you must give these visitors affirmation, proof and opportunity. I’ll get to those in a sec.

Step back for one second. Let’s quickly borrow the concept of “the funnel” from a traditional sales process.

Imagine a giant funnel. Above it floats the universe; a nebula of every possible client across all time and space. On the rim sit the prospects on your homepage. They’ve landed (awesome!), but will they explore further? In the middle of the funnel—those precipitous, downward-sloping sides—is the rest of your web content, designed to draw people to the bottom, where lies the opportunity for direct contact: a form, phone number, RFP instructions, etc. Once they reach out to make contact, they pass through the funnel and convert to a legit lead.

Focus on that middle tier. Assuming the visitor is in a “buy” phase (as opposed to “education” phase, also known as a “window shopping” phase) what content is going to encourage a visitor to reach out? Three things, in order:

  1. Affirmation of expected services
  2. Proof of experience via good work
  3. Opportunity to contact

Affirmation

We all have a page called “Services” or “What We Do” or whatever: something that succinctly summarises what goes on when we’re sitting in front of a 15” glowing laptop screen at 2 am. This page is the next logical destination for someone evaluating your services, and a critical piece of the funnel: it should repeat and affirm what they learned on the homepage. But in order to do that, the language has to be as clean and jargon-free as the message that initially piqued their interest and prompted a click into your site.

Forget the dense lexicon of a web nerd and focus on the benefits a client gets by working with you. Paint a picture of the final product. Use the word “you”—not “me” or “we”. Speak to them, not at them. This is the difference between talking to peers at a conference and selling your services to a prospect.

Table 1: Examples of plain dialogue to use in your website when addressing visitors.
Peers at a conference Prospective clients
Yes, I know Blackberry is a dying breed but it still strongly illustrates the point of “mobile business”.
“Have you seen that article by Marcotte? My shit is so responsive now.” “Your website will be built so it works on different screen sizes. This is especially important for people using your website on their iPhones, Blackberries and iPads.”
“We leverage JavaScript polyfills to bridge the holes left by inconsistent browser support of CSS3, HTML5 elements and new APIs, but provide elegant fallbacks for older clients.” “Your website will work across all browsers and devices.”
“Textpattern is a PHP-based CMS that allows users control of content and presentation independently, adopting the core philosophies of the web standards movement in its functional design.” “We provide you with a content management system that enables you to easily add, edit, or remove content yourself.”
“We build websites that adhere to accessibility best practices in both authoring tools and client-side display, ensuring compliance with federal regulations and WCAG 2.” “Many people require assistive technology to use the internet. Your website will be fully accessible to all visitors.”
“With CSS3, I can design right inside the browser. Seriously. Even the most arbitrarily complicated 13-step text shadows and sequenced 3D transforms are just a vendor prefix away.” “Your website will be a key extension of your brand, using the perfect colour and type combinations to convey your message.”
“Totally just read the new A Book Apart thing on HTML7 and the new tags like the ultra-meta-abstractive-triangulators beta-classes are going to completely revompulate how we build native cyclical-geo-smattering apps.” “Where possible, your website will use forthcoming technology to support new features.”

The mantra that was carved into sandstone a million years ago by Neanderthal ad men remains true to this day: “Write for your audience.”

Almost without exception, that audience does not care how something gets done; they only care about what they’ll get for their money. This is true in all aspects of life. When we visit the food market, we (well, most of us) do not care about how sausage gets made, or what kind of tractor harvested the broccoli, or the highway mileage of the truck that delivered the Doritos. We just want good products. We take all of the behind-the-scenes industry for granted, and most clients do the same for a website.

Proof

You also have a “Portfolio” or “Work” or a “What We’ve Done” page. This is the biggest slope on the inner funnel, because it transitions your message from a “tell” to a “show”.

There are different strategies when crafting a compelling portfolio page. Some people like to write detailed case studies with screenshots and sketches. Others simply have small blurbs describing the problem and their solution. Distilled further, some designers simply choose to have screenshots linking to the actual sites. All viable choices.

But here again lies the trap of jargon. When writing case studies, repeat the same value-oriented messages. No client has ever hired me because they needed a “Textpattern-driven, standards-compliant site using the smd_gallery plugin and Shadowbox for photos but also complied to Section 508”. What they have asked for, and what I would write in a case summary, is that they needed “A website that presented product photography elegantly and complied with US accessibility laws.” No code examples. No trying to talk over the audience’s head. No trying to sound like an expert. No technical bullshit.

Refer back to your discovery conversation with the client, and you will find a treasure trove of just the right words.

Opportunity

If a prospect has found their way to your contact page, consider your site a success. The pressure to write humanely slackens here, and we revert back to Good Simple Writing: make your form labels friendly and understandable, link to only the most appropriate social media channels, clearly explain your RFP process if you have one.

A forest burned is a forest reborn

Read your website from start to finish. You probably have not have done this in a while, and chances are good that you completely forgot what you wrote back in 2008.

Gather all of the industry jargon, the mealy non-words, the self-indulgent posturing, the technical overload … collect them into a pile, and burn them. What survives should be a skeleton of meaning and the seeds of a clear message. Build from that.

You have no value if your skills are not communicated. The tools and tactics that fuel the construction of a website—the APIs called, the plugins used, the frameworks deployed, the grids calculated, the admin theme customized—do not matter to the client. What does matter is the end result: your solution that accelerates their business.

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