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Monday, October 2, 2000

Content makes a site sticky

The Internet entrepreneurs are increasingly realising that creating a successful e-commerce site demands more than just attractive prices, well-stocked virtual shopping malls, and reliable ordering structures. They recognise that the magic ingredient is content and that it has the much sought-after power to inspire return visits. In other words, it makes sites "sticky". Not only that, it makes them sell.

One man who has long understood the selling power of content is Ken Evoy, a 46-year-old Internet entrepreneur from Quebec. His company, SiteSell.com, is a provider of e-commerce information and software and has proved a significant Internet success story. The company’s first publication, Make Your Site Sell! (MYSS!), written by Evoy himself, quickly went into sales overdrive and is now acknowledged Web-wide as the Bible of internet marketing.


How did Evoy manage to sell so many copies of the book? "Words - the right ones," he replies. "Of course, the words have to be backed up by great products, or you only end up with angry customers. But it’s words that get sales."

Many dotcom — especially the much-hyped ones — tend to think that technical pyrotechnics will make their sites sticky and encourage sales. But Evoy dismisses this as a loser’s game. "Technology does not sell products," he insists. "Nor do graphics or animated monkeys. Great products don’t even sell themselves. Words sell." Because of his belief in the power of words, Evoy teamed up with veteran advertising copywriter and Web-savvy author, Joe Robson, to write an e-book called Make Your Words Sell! (MYWS!) that was released earlier this year by SiteSell.com.

Robson is a Yorkshireman who writes Web copy that is generally considered to be unparalleled when it comes to selling e-products and services. Indeed, MYWS! that offers a wealth of practical advice on how to write sales copy for the Internet to your best advantage is a testament to just how compelling and persuasive language can be.

During the course of his work, Robson has done a lot of research into what does and doesn’t work on the Net. And, like Evoy, he is in no doubt that the Web sites, which are currently successful employ well-crafted copywriting. "Contrary to the popular opinion, there are persons on the Web making extremely good money, quietly" he reveals. "But their Web sites look more like Joe Bloggs in his bedroom. They’re not flash. Because they’re using good sales copy, they’re churning out products like there’s no tomorrow and really are making huge profits."

Growing numbers of dotcoms are waking up to this fact and are consequently looking to hire "content providers" (otherwise known as writers) in a big way. One London-based company that has recently added an extensive selection of content to its Internet site is Smarterwork.com — an "elance" site that enables freelance workers to bid on projects posted by businesses. For Pierre Reyland, content editor at Smarterwork, the job of bringing together a team of e-writers proved relatively straightforward. He selected them from the global pool of freelancers who used the Smarterwork site.

But he wasn’t just looking for good writers — he needed writers who could write specifically for the Web. "Writing for the Web is different from writing for newspapers and magazines," he says. "A monitor screen is not a very friendly interface to read from. So the writing has to be clearer and more concise. To make a point on the Web, you really have to hammer it home - using clear, simple language, highlighting important words, and splitting the text into small paragraphs, with headings and sub-headings, or using devices such as bullet-point lists, and so on."

Although the skills needed for writing for the Web are different from those for print media, a conventional publishing background can be helpful when embarking on an e-writing project. George Giokas, CEO of Staffwriters, a leading US writers’ agency, for instance, believes that journalists make excellent Web writers. "For one thing, they are highly skilled in embracing concepts and then relating them in simple form," he says. "But to be successful in writing content for a site, a journalist must also learn the tricks of direct mail, headline writing and advertising. I think a good Web writer needs all of the skills from journalism, marketing, graphics and copywriting."

One writer who has successfully integrated online and offline writing styles is Ann Logan, a freelance education writer from Warwickshire. She relishes the challenges of writing for the Internet but feels it requires more responsibility on the part of the writer. "Print publications have editors and sub-editors, but the Web doesn’t," she points out. "So there are fewer critical readers of your work. Because of that, it needs to be triple-checked before you submit it."

Ability and a conscientious attitude are key attributes to look for when hiring an e-writer. But how can the average Internet entrepreneur — who may have had little experience in dealing with writers — be sure that the person they are considering for a project really has what it takes to pen effective Web pages? One way is to hire a Web writer through Plain Words, a well-established writers’ agency based in Berkshire.

It tests candidates to ensure they can handle a given project. "We describe a scenario — fictitious Web entrepreneur and product/service — which is relevant to the sort of work they will be doing, and ask them how they would go about researching and writing the Web site," explains Peter Meherne, recruitment director at Plain Words. "We’d then ask them to produce some brief copy on a particular aspect of the product or service to test their writing skills."

While strong technical writing skills are essential for keeping readers glued to their VDUs, the cream of Web writers take it even further and employ the novelist’s technique of writing in "character" - in a specific voice. Joe Robson’s current Web project, The Newbie Club, which he co-runs with US computer wizard Tom Glander, is a case in point.

The site is aimed at new computer users and, although Robson and Glander have done little in the way of publicity, the site is proving a runaway success. Why? "Because we use a distinct voice in the copy," says Robson. "We get into the mindset of our ideal customer. That way, we can talk to them in their language and avoid falling into the trap of talking down to them, like many Web sites do. The mindset of the Newbies is that of frustration at the amount of technie talk in help files. So I speak very casually, using non-technical words like ‘computerish’ and ‘geekspeak’, which they relate to."

Such a strategy certainly seems to be paying off in terms of sales and the number of visitors to the site. "It’s just phenomenal," says Robson. "And it goes to prove that the big dotcoms who lavish obscene amounts of money on flash Web sites — and still don’t sell anything — must be doing something wrong. They’d save themselves a lot of money if they cut out the gadgets and gizmos and brought in some good copywriters."

 — By arrangement with The Guardian

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