Words – the last and best way to differentiate yourself online.

(December, 2000)

A little while back I spoke at the Clickz B2C e-mail conference. Andy Bourland had asked me to speak about copywriting online. As I prepared the talk – and then gave it – I was delighted to find that a lot of people in the audience really wanted to hear about how to write online.

I guess writing is a subject that doesn’t crop up too often at conferences.

Why not? Because writing is not one of the sexy things that happens online. Programming is sexy. Online design is sexy. The technology behind e-mail and e-commerce is sexy.

But not words. Heck, anyone can write words.

Go to your favorite web site, strip away the glamour of the design and technology and you’re left with words. And right now, most writing online is not of a caliber that would have you running home to show your mom.

This is unfortunate, because from where I’m sitting it looks like words are your last, best way to differentiate yourself online. You know, make yourself stand out. Give your site a unique voice.

There is a small irony here. At first sight you might imagine that technology would make you different. But it doesn’t. The technology that is applied to web sites makes everyone the same. It’s hard to really differentiate between one flash intro and another, or one streaming e-mail ad and another. Or even one shopping cart or search form and another.

The technology behind the function is available to everyone. If it’s new this week, it will become ubiquitous next week. We rush and run to offer the same features as everyone else. And in doing so we become the same.

While everyone is so busy mortgaging their futures, to raise the cash, to buy the technology, to look the same… nobody is investing in words.

The way in which we write is as unique as the way in which we speak.

We all have different ways of putting words together, and we put them together to say different things. These differences reflect our individual characters.

The same can be done online. Words can be used to express voice and character – to let people know and feel what is unique about yourself or your company.

But can you think of a single commercial site that truly differentiates itself through its use of words? I can’t. Words are the poor relation online and this state of affairs doesn’t look like getting better any time soon.

The solution? Run out and start hiring some great online writers. Oops, hang on. Where can you find these people? I’m not saying that there are no great writers working on commercial sites, but there are very few.

And the reason is simple. Nobody invests in writers. They’re not paid enough or respected enough.

Do you have a VP Writing in your organization? How senior is your best writer? How much influence does he or she have over the evolution of your site? How many options does she own?

If we don’t reward writers at the same level at which we reward designers and programmers, we won’t attract new and young talent. And we’ll keep on looking and sounding the same – through the miracle of modern technology.

Of course, all this is great news for the 0.001 percent of sites that really do take writing seriously. Because their customers will feel a great deal more loyal to a sincere voice they can trust than to a cold technology that they can’t.