Ever been in a shop, cafe, restaurant, or car dealership and been addressed as ‘the customer’ or anything like that?
You: “Could I try this in a medium, please?”
Clothes-shop worker: “Of course. I’ll nip to the stockroom and be right back with the customer in just a moment.”
Hmm. Let’s try it out in another scenario...
You: “Please could I have a… er... gingerbread latte?”
Barista: “Absolutely! Would the customer like whipped cream and nutmeg on top?”
Nope. Just as weird.
You: “So which colours does this model come in?”
Car salesman: “We can paint the car any colour the customer would like.”
You get the picture. Or, rather, the reader gets the picture – right?
No. Not right.
Talking about the customer rather than to them would be an odd approach in face-to-face customer service, wouldn’t it? Yet this is the very approach that many companies’ websites go with in their written content.
An ecommerce retailer might say, “We offer our customers the best products.” A family attraction might boast, “We give our visitors unforgettable experiences.” A professional-services firm might claim, “We provide our clients with peace of mind.” These statements may be true, but there’s nothing aimed towards you in them. They’re not going to make you feel like the company cares about you specifically.
Let’s reimagine the classic Uncle Sam army-recruitment poster, if Uncle Sam were an indirect sort of guy…
What your customer cares about
It’s not a matter of selfishness or coldheartedness or arrogance; it’s just the nature of the customer – full stop. They’re the one who is parting with money for whatever it is that you’re offering, so you’re the one who needs to make all of the effort and do all of the sweet-talking.
Think about a good salesperson trying to sell something to you in real life. Whether it’s a packet of biscuits or a vintage Rolex Daytona, they will address you directly, telling you exactly how this purchase will benefit your life. The chocolate layer will melt in your mouth (not the eater’s); the watch will make you feel like Paul Newman (not the wearer).
Why do salespeople do it like this? Because they know that you only care about yourself when you’re the customer. And they probably know that because there are times when they themselves are customers, and they know what appeals to them.
All of that said, selling online is different from selling face-to-face. Unfortunately, the online copywriter has fewer tools at their disposal than the living and breathing salesperson does. As copywriter Andy Maslen points out in his tremendous book Write to Sell:
“When you’re talking to someone [in real life], it is very easy to keep their attention. You have eye contact, body language, the rise and fall of your voice and, most important of all, dialogue. That is, taking it in turns to ask and answer questions. With the written word, you are denied all of these techniques.”
So, online, everything rests on the strength of your writing alone, which means that its wording, its punctuation, its pacing, and its inflection all need to be spot-on. When you're selling online, you don’t have those non-verbal means of ingratiation to complement the words, which means that you need to address your online customer even more directly than you would address a face-to-face customer.
How a you/we dialogue will help you sell yourself online
Establishing a you/we dialogue with your online reader will allow you to at least partly simulate that classic face-to-face salesperson, who is personal, engaging, and persuasive. And the more help you can give yourself there, the better.
What is a you/we dialogue? It’s where you write in a way that addresses the customer directly and in the second person (“you”), while referring to your business in the first person (“we”) – just like you would in the flesh.
Upon reading content that is full of ‘you’s and ‘we’s, your customer is more likely to feel as though you want to serve them specifically, even though you’re actually talking to all hypothetical customers. Many readers will even be aware (on some level) that this is the case, but it doesn’t make the technique any less effective: they still want to read content that is written like it is speaking solely to them. In fact, the readers who do see exactly what you’re doing (such as marketers and people who have some understanding of psychological theory) will only be impressed and reassured by your doing it.
Importantly, each ‘we’ needs a ‘you’ to balance it out. A reference to yourself is vain and pointless if it doesn’t relate directly back to the reader.
“Our 20 years of experience enables us to develop truly market-leading software.”
Fair enough and good for you. But what does this mean for me, the prospective customer? Try again.
“We have developed this market-leading software to save you time.”
“We’ve been around for more than a decade, so we know what makes top-class student accommodation.”
Nice one. All about you, though, is it?
“You’ll get all of the above and more, because we know what makes top-class student accommodation.”
That’s more like it!
“We don’t speak jargon, because we believe in plain English.”
What, within your office or…?
“Jargon doesn’t help you, so we don’t speak it.”
Ah. Now you’re speaking my language (to me)!
Of course, the ‘we’ can come before the ‘you’ (and sometimes it needs to, in order for the copy to read smoothly and naturally), but you should make a point of addressing the customer first wherever possible, because it makes you sound more customer-focused if you start by acknowledging their issue and then explaining how you can solve it.
What does the rea– oh, er, what do you think to that?
So, rant over. It might seem like a small matter to base an entire article on, but it seems to be one of those well-everyone-else-is-doing-it-this-way-so-why-don’t-we things that has got so out of hand that we’ve stopped even noticing it now. I see it on plenty of websites on an almost daily basis – when I’m doing an audit here at work, and when I’m out there being a normal customer. It does nothing for me – what about you?
Let’s start talking to our customers like they’re real people, eh? If we do that, they’ll see that we’re real people too, and they’ll be more likely to trust us.
Indirect content is just something we don’t do here at theEword. Whenever we write content for a client – whether they’re a theme park or a manufacturer of defibrillators – we write it for the end customer, because that’s the person whose opinion matters. This is the outlook that any decent digital agency will have on the matter.
If you’re currently shopping around for new agencies, do take a look at the guide we’ve put together for you: How to choose a digital marketing agency. It lays out the main considerations and the things you need to bear in mind, so that you can ultimately pick an agency that is perfect for you. Enjoy!