Ready for “Risky” Conversations?

Last month, HubSpot released some great news for me: a blog post titled “Calling All Content Creators: Marketers Spending More on Content in 2010.”

But the Great Content Proliferation of 2010 could prove problematic for businesses, and here’s why: now more than ever, what you say and how you say it matters. Yes, those two things have always mattered, but considering how fast The People can rebroadcast your messages via Twitter, Facebook, texts, and other social media, there’s A LOT of pressure on your words.

From my perspective, this means that “corporate speak” is a dying strategy when it comes to creating content, even in notoriously corporate industries. Stuffy, aloof, third-person, passive “Mistakes were made” ways of talking to customers won’t work when there are too many other CEOs who blog, tweet, text, and post status updates on fan pages in a conversational and familiar tone.

In other words: only real, authentic copy and messaging will rise above the endless chatter, not the platypus copy that results from well-meaning, but out-of-touch folks who red-line every natural phrase, who remove every bit of Chunky Monkey personality from the copy, who turn the copy into safe vanilla because it’s well, safe, even though it just won’t work in such a competitive vanilla-filled landscape.

You need to take risks with your copy, with your conversations, if you want your business to stand out in 2010.

But let me be clear about one other important point: the only thing risky about these conversations is the fear I guarantee 80 percent of my readers are experiencing right now. What I’d really like to call this newsletter is “Ready for REAL Conversation?” But we’re not there. Yet.

So let’s forget the adjectives and focus on the word conversation. The following addresses many of the questions I get from clients and onlookers alike regarding this pesky word.

1. What is conversation?
If you look it up, the keyword phrase you’ll see in most definitions is this: “informal discussion.” The very definition of the word gives you permission to have an informal tone.

2. Why should my tone with customers be informal?
Conversational, how I love thee! Let me count the ways! Informal methods (active voice, contractions, shorter words, shorter sentences) make your message easier to understand and retain. The formal method (no contractions, passive voice, $5 vocabulary words, longer complex sentences) involves more time and thinking. Need another reason? How ’bout this: because The People are accustomed to it now more than ever, thanks to 140-character texts and tweets. More? Okay, I saved the best for last: because it works.

3. So you’re advocating the dumbing down of society?
Not at all. I advocate that people read widely (fiction and nonfiction) and that they read balanced arguments about issues. But b2b and b2c copywriting should not sound like Proust. Why? Because reading Proust takes time. Ask yourself this: how much time does your audience have to read, understand, and remember your message? Not much, since they’re busy working, going to meetings, cooking, shuttling kids to soccer practice, working a second job, paying bills, shopping, sporting, and reading Proust. (Okay, I doubt most of your customers are reading Proust. Which should tell you something. But they’re likely doing those other things.)

4. I don’t believe you.
That’s okay. The proof is in the conversions. The best thing you could do is a split test (also known as A/B testing). Sending out a sales letter? Have two versions–a “professional” version and a “completely conversational” version. See which one converts better. My money is on the conversational one. You can do the same testing with email newsletters (start by testing subject lines) and website landing pages.

5. But conversational isn’t my style!
So what is your style? Pedantic? I doubt it. Listen, there are different levels of conversational (and the level you opt for will depend more on who your audience is rather than who YOU are). You don’t need to go the full monty the first time out of the gate. I understand–and accept–that not everyone, nor every business, can get away with using a well-placed “horse shit” in their copy. But a bunch of businesses can. And the ones who can’t could still have clean fun with “horse manure.” (Face it: “manure” is a funny and memorable word, especially when used in business writing.)

6. Okay, I’m not pedantic. But how can I do this conversation thing in my copy?
Listen to me: you already do. You just don’t know it. The absolute best thing you can do is this: record yourself having a conversation with someone about your business. Do not secretly record the conversation a la Linda Tripp, since this would be illegal. Ask permission and then record yourself talking to your marketing person, business advisor, co-worker, spouse, dog, whomever. (The dog is the last on the list because you really do need someone who can respond to you in order for this to qualify as a conversation. And if your dog talks back to you, there are other things we need to discuss first.)

Record yourself long enough so that you forget you’re recording. Just talk. Relax. Enjoy the conversation. Listen to what the other person is saying. Then respond. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Here’s what I’m betting you’ll notice when you listen back: how natural you sound. How authentic. How–holy crap!–conversational. You’ll be using contractions, colloquialisms, and short sentences. You might even start sentences with “and” or “but,” no doubt causing your poor sixth-grade English teacher to roll over in her grave. And guess what? The stuff you’re talking about will probably be interesting, specific, and concrete as opposed to the vanilla “expected” copy so many business websites succumb to. Your conversation will have personality.

Now do this: transcribe the conversation. YOU do it–don’t hire someone. I want you to feel the words as you type them out on your keyboard. I want you to see how they look on the page. I want you to envision how certain phrases and paragraphs would look and sound in your sales letter, on your web page, and in a marketing brochure.

Then ask yourself this: what risk is there in that?

(Note: I suggest doing the above exercise even if you use a conversational copywriter like me.)

7. But there IS risk! What if someone reading it thinks I’m an unprofessional moron?
Contractions won’t make you look like a moron. Neither will starting an occasional sentence with “but.” What will make you and your company look like an unprofessional moron? Misspellings and typos. Amateurish design. Unsubstantiated claims. Navigation that leads to the tenth circle of hell. Generalizations that waste my time. Hiding your contact info. Forms that don’t work. Sites that are blander than the vanilla ice cream that’s been sitting in my mom’s freezer since the Bush administration. The first one.

8. You say all this, but show me copy that works.
Okay. Check out these sites (includes b2b and b2c):

Got any favorite examples of conversational copy? I’d love to hear about them. Email me your thoughts: robyn@etrobbins.com.

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