What Mena Trott’s mom can teach us about marketing copy Matt 02 Nov 2005

27 comments Latest by Robert Gremillion

Back in the day, we used to sell our services by saying we made interfaces “easy enough for our moms to use.” Well, Mena Trott of Six Apart actually brought out her mom to demo the company’s product Comet at a recent conference.

Definitely warm/fuzzy. But more than that it also demonstrates something about tone. It shows the power of using an intimate, personal tone — something a small company can do with ease that big companies can’t do at all.

[Note: There were some recent 6A/37s debate about big vs. small teams (Mena’s take, Jason’s take). But for the sake of this discussion, I’m still considering Six Apart a small company. You know, compared to, say, Microsoft.]

Let’s compare/contrast the copy at the actual Project Comet site with that of the blog post. There’s nothing extra bad about the marketing site’s copy but it’s just a bit bland (unless you get all juiced up by terms like community aggregation, multiple streams, and advanced weblogging technology platform).

Project Comet is focused on creating an advanced weblogging technology platform combining the best elements of all our products, giving people the ability to easily stake out, build and share their own place on the web.

Meanwhile, the blog post (which 6A wisely links to from the Comet site) has a warm, personal tone and actually tells a genuine story. The whole thing is a lot more readable.

So then I brought out my mother and I began asking her why she didn’t have the motivation to maintain her own blog. Her three major reasons?

She feels like she doesn’t have anything to say.
She doesn’t want the world to see what she writes.
She doesn’t have the time to keep up with blogs.

We went through all her concerns and showed how “Comet” addresses them.

It’s a small example but it brings up a larger point. When you’re a small company, you can use familiar language instead of corporate speak. Your site and your product can have a human voice instead of sounding like a corporate drone. You can bring out your mom to demo your product and then blog about it afterwards. Let’s see bigco.com do that.

Small teams sometimes feel like they need to sound big and ultra-professional all the time. Almost like a business version of the Napoleon Complex. Don’t sweat sounding small. Revel in the fact that you can talk to customers like a friend.

27 comments (comments are closed)

Michael 02 Nov 05

I like that last paragraph about small teams trying to look big. We had a client who was a one-man team who wanted to overcomplicate things on his site to seem like a big company. For example, he used four email addresses which went to just him.

Steve Akers 02 Nov 05

If you want to see bigco.com do this then how about watching Mark Fussell of Microsoft demonstrate WSE 3.0 with his mother. Not sure if SVN allows html in its comments or I would post the link. If you really are interested go to MS download center and search for “Overview of Web Services Enhancements (WSE) 3.0”.

Jamie Tibbetts 02 Nov 05

Your site and your product can have a human voice instead of sounding like a corporate drone.

Amen. The biggest problem when your small team consists of just you, yourself, and you is choosing between using “we/us” and “I” in copy. Using “I” seems a bit too revealing about the size of your company, but using “we/us” seems a bit weird too. I have yet to find a nice comfortable middle ground between the two.

Mark 02 Nov 05

Moreso than having bigco start trotting out their collective moms, I appreciate it when they can show a bit of self-deprecating humor. Brainfuel has a link to a great example from Microsoft -

http://www.brainfuel.tv/new-microsoft-program

Kathy Sierra 02 Nov 05

Jamie: that’s what pets are for. As long as I have a dog (who, while unable to type code because of the whole no opposable thumb thing, is still a key part of the team), I can justify using “we.”

I also want to point out that personal, conversational, non-droning, non market-buzzspeak doesn’t have to be warm and fuzzy… it just has to be real. If you wouldn’t say it like that out loud while talking to friends, it’s probably crap.

Another great post Matt!

Jamie 02 Nov 05

Here’s a link to the video of the presentation:

http://www.demo.com/demonstrators/demo2005fall/55065.html

Youch.

JF 02 Nov 05

I also want to point out that personal, conversational, non-droning, non market-buzzspeak doesn’t have to be warm and fuzzy… it just has to be real.

Bingo!

Dan Boland 02 Nov 05

I second that bingo. My motto when writing anything is “write like you talk.”

Christopher Fahey 02 Nov 05

Word. If you can’t read your own written sentence without sounding like you’re just talkin’, then you’ve written a bad sentence. If you can’t read your own paragraph without feeling a sense of pride that you’ve gotten something interesting off your chest, that you’re saying something meaningful, then you’ve written a bad paragraph.

The way I see it is that you basically have to write almost everything as if you’re going to have to stand up in front of people and actually read it.

That said, however, I think that a lot of bad writing is directly related to bad thinking. If you don’t actually have something to say, or if you don’t really understand the stuff you need to say, or if you don’t understand whats going on inside the heads of the people you’re talking to, then you’re going to have a really hard time writing anything meaningful. “Write like you talk” isn’t going to help in this type of situation.

The best way to write is to use the voice in your head to say the idea you want to communicate, write it down, then edit it to make it even clearer (not to make it fancier or to add more buzzwords). “Write like you talk” shouldn’t mean that you shouldn’t heavily edit what you write.

Most people write like this: they jot down a bunch of small ideas and sound bites and then string them together in prose form. They don’t begin with a burning desire to communicate an idea. Without a clear idea, there’s no way the end result will make any sense, much less be a pleasure to read.

And of course, Steve Krug’s improvement on Strunk & White is the best: Omit needless words.

Christopher Fahey 02 Nov 05

Um, except that the word “needless” was supposed to have HTML strikethrough formatting.

jtnt 02 Nov 05

“Write like you talk” is easier said than done (ha!). I find it helps to tell people to “write copy like you write emails.” We’ve all learned how to communicate easily and in a personal way via email. Sit down and write copy like you’re just describing something to a friend in an email. It’s like buttah!

Steve Akers 02 Nov 05

Christopher: You are right on the money. Additionally, if “I no good talker” then writing like I speak will do no one any good. If I have nothing important to say, or no clear objective, then writing like I speak will still waste the reader’s time.

Another great Steve Krug quote from “Don’t Make Me Think”: “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.”

amine 02 Nov 05

Using “I” seems a bit too revealing about the size of your company, but using “we/us” seems a bit weird too.
As a consumer or a service provider “I” does not sound good, “I”, means or feels like your services are limited as a consumer i will skip..
“we/us” isn’t that weird after all, whatever service you provide, you must have third party partners or even contractors, friends who somewhat help you provide your services on some level…

Don Wilson 02 Nov 05

Would you suggest that using the creators who can’t speak in front of a crowd for anything is a good thing as well?

brad 02 Nov 05

Would you suggest that using the creators who can’t speak in front of a crowd for anything is a good thing as well?

That’s a bit of a low blow. Look, I can speak comfortably in front of an audience, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to create a tool like Comet or how to run a company like Six Apart. In this case the message seems more important than how it was delivered, although I agree that it could have been delivered more effectively. Some people get stage fright, it happens.

Michael Martine 02 Nov 05

I wrote about the same thing back in September. It is interesting how the article about her mom was better than the official copy on the Comet site. Not only that, but it’s about freakin’ time more people begin thinking this way: easy enough for you mom to use. More importantly, though: she would want to.

Mena Trott 02 Nov 05

Wow, Don. That sort of comment is really unkind. I haven’t yet mastered the art of doing 6 minute product demos in front of 500 influential journalists and industry leaders and that’s fine because I’m getting better.

When I saw this comment, I walked over to a group of people at the office and basically said “WTF? Why are people such asses?” We can use blogging in such positive ways, but no matter how great the medium is being used, you’ll always find the sort of people who actually feel joy from making others feel bad. I’ve gotten used to it over the years as I’ve become more prominent but every once in a while I see a comment like yours and just think wow, people really can be jerks sometimes.

Regardless, I appreciate comments like Brad’s and posts like Matt’s because there is a larger, greater message to be had.

It’s about having the power to create and give people the tools to give them a voice — even if they have to put up with the noise every now and then.

I like having a Kottke moment every now and then.

Steve Akers 02 Nov 05

Mena: I’m glad you let it be known that this one sentence in the comments of a blog post was hurtful. Communication on the web can sometimes feel so unpersonal. And for some reason this makes some people feel like they can say anything without any consequences. If I could change just one thing about blogs it would be to eliminate all the hateful criticism.

JF 02 Nov 05

It’s sad but true: the shield of anonymity brings out the worst in people. Distance also encourages people to criticize far more harshly than they would if they were sitting across the table with you. But, hey, that’s the price of admission these days — leaders have to be able to take the criticism no matter how harsh (and often wrong) it is.

Chin up, Mena! Don’t worry about these jokers.

Don Wilson 02 Nov 05

Wow, I didn’t really mean to sound so harsh, I was just stating the facts. Had I produced such a great product, as Mena has, I would definately be nervous too. ;) By that account, I’m very sorry.

brad 03 Nov 05

Mena, recommended reading: A Soprano on Her Head, by Eloise Ristad. It was written to help singers and instrumentalists deal with performance anxiety, but much of it applies to public speaking as well. You have to wade through some New Age mumbo-jumbo, but there’s a lot of solid advice, techniques, and encouragement to be had in this book. Performance anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s just a matter of learning how to use that nervous energy, sort of like judo where instead of trying to use force against an attacker you use the attacker’s own force against him or her.

Robert Gremillion 03 Nov 05

Wow, I have to stick up for Don here. From a business perspective, his question is legit. Should your most polished speakers do the presenting? Instead of assuming someone’s jerk maybe you should consider the message and ask questions about how the presentation could be improved. Not everyone can be a Steve Jobs, I know, but everyone has room for improvement.

Paul 03 Nov 05

When I watched the video, I was initially really concerned about the stumbling - but that happens. Ultimately I think the presentation came through nicely and the entire Mom Angle (patent pending) was used effectively. It gave me warm fuzzies about Comet and - more importantly - I felt like Six Apart was Ben & Mena again.

That said, I wonder where the dividing line is for companies using this type of language/presentation. Apple can get away with it (Jobs is an incredible salesman), but could say Oracle? Wal-Mart? At what point does the BS meter come on?

Eddie 03 Nov 05

I don’t agree with Don- but Robert has some good points. I mean- I would trust them to be able to do the job for me- but the problem is, you may not be able to convey that to everyone when you present.

The last thing you want people to pay attention to when you are pitching a new product is the presenter. If at any time your audience is thinking about what you are doing instead of what you are saying- you are making less of an impact than I’m sure you intended.

I say you should field your best speaker out there. You probably would have done well with Ben up there standing closer instead of behind the computer (have some else do the keyboard jocky-ing). He probably could have played off you better and smoothed it all out.

Sharif 03 Nov 05

Back the the I/We debate… I’m a one-person outfit, and all my clients know that, but in emails I still find myself typing “we.”

Thinking about it, I realize that an email full of “I,I,I” just sounds bad: a bit pretentious and perhaps even demanding. By using “we,” I involve them in the discussion and hopefully get them in the process.

Just my $0.02… or should I say our $0.02?

Mena Trott 03 Nov 05

Don, thanks for the apology. It is appreciated.

Robert, I believe the question of polished speaking best representing the product is a legitimate one but it could have been asked in a more constructive way. And, considering the nature of the post and thread, didn’t exactly fit.

That said, I am constantly trying to improve my public speaking skills (I’ll check out that book, Brad) and feedback is a good way to start. For what it’s worth, though, people in the audience told me that once I stumbled, they were rooting for us to succeed and could identify with us on a personal level. While I’m certainly not going to choke deliberately, I do not think it particularly harmed us.

And my mom won a DEMOgod award. :)

Robert Gremillion 03 Nov 05

One of the problems with the web is that the written word doesn’t come with “a voice”. So someone can write something that sounds innocent in their mind, but sounds harsh to others.

In regards to public speaking, I HIGHLY recommend Toastmasters.