Two things stand out for me about estate agent Kevin Henry.
Firstly, they have a genuine passion about Saffron Walden because they’re local and have lived there for years, unlike the corporate agents who open hollow branches everywhere.
Secondly, because of this authenticity and experience – and years of hard work – they are repeatedly the number one home-selling agent in the area. And they deserve it.
Their old web site was an uneven jumble of colours, components, microsites; tens of icons with no explanations, miscellaneous pages buried deep in the navigation. It was hard to know where to start, what to click on. Somehow along the way someone had forgotten to put a picture of a house on the front page. What was it that you do again?
People are looking for a home, not an estate agent. In terms of the content, this meant stripping away anything inessential to the single task of searching for houses straight away. No questions, no introductions: simply an easy search box next to a big map of the area showing lots of properties. Underneath we put a scrolling gallery of available homes to communicate activity and choice, and most of all to reinforce the message that Kevin Henry provides homes.
When it’s that easy for the buyer, the seller wants in too.
Company profile, contact details and the articulation of selling points are still vital, so we made them easy to find on the footer and top menu, but the best thing people can discover about an estate agent is that they have loads of homes, easy to find, with lots of details.
And of course people need to find the site in the first place. We set about boosting search rankings with our clandestine, rune-casting, voodoo process of … writing choice content in all the right places: content that makes sense to readers, appeals to search engines, and, don’t forget, appeals to the person reading the search results too. Even the witty strap line got sacrificed (it’s no good having a witty strap if no one ever finds it).
Kevin Henry are now first on Google for ‘saffron walden estate agents’. And it is gratifying that where other results say things like ‘longest established and best known’, ‘we have offices in Saffron Walden’ and ‘a wide range of property’ – that our client’s description says ‘Kevin Henry sell more houses each year in the Saffron Walden area than any other estate agent’.
Which one would you click on?
The challenge in the rest of the copy was to convey friendliness, even a little bit of cheek, while keeping the tone professional and the experience straightforward. Not everyone can write a business blog but for this client it is the perfect vehicle to display some personality and knowledge. When they started in the late 80s they used to send out humorous newsletters to a mailing list – the blog was simply starting this up again online.
Actually there is a third thing I love about Kevin Henry. As I got to know them, I discovered just how amazing their service is. I heard it from satisfied customers, and I saw the cupboard with bags of Waitrose goodies prepared as a surprise for moving day.
The joy of keeping a web site simple and focused is that customers will already love you for the ease with which they can find relevant information. You don’t need to blow every note on your trumpet from the start. Then, when all the extras of incredible service appear on top, you’ve not just got customers but excited fans.
If I told you there was a simple, proven way to be believed and appear intelligent while leaving people feeling good about themselves – would you believe me? Or would you exit hastily muttering something about snake oil?
What if I added that it was completely free, and that I would share this knowledge with you right now?
Ready to slam the back button?
Because these results have been measured by psychologists as the outcome of just one thing (and no, it’s not a deodorant).
It’s not something difficult or unnatural. It doesn’t involve parting with your sense, your shekels, or your soul.
In fact, it’s something that all good web professionals have been talking about for ages already.
It’s – are you ready for this?
Now you might be thinking that ‘fluency’ is going to turn out to be a complicated process involving qualifications, time or mental capacities that you haven’t got.
Far from it. Fluency is simply making tasks easy to accomplish.
New psychological research has found that when people find something easy to accomplish, they are more likely to believe it. In psychology this is called cognitive fluency.
Here’s the science bit: if people find something easy, it’s as though they have done it before. In other words, they find it familiar. To our cave-dwelling ancestors, familiar was a good thing, because in the words of late psychologist Robert Zajonc, ‘if it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet.’ So the familiar – the easy – is experienced by humans as more trustworthy, more believable, more true.
That wasn’t so painful, was it?
Drake Bennett, who reported the research findings for The Boston Globe, says:
… when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process … like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities.
Simply writing a statement on your web site in a more legible font, or repeating it or making it rhyme, can make readers not only believe it more, but think that you are smarter and that they are more capable.
That’s incredible. Easy equals true.
And here’s the other side of the coin: ‘disfluency’ (horrible word – fear for what the marketers will do with it) sets up a mental roadblock. When something is hard to read or understand, or information is difficult to find, people feel frustrated, confused and obstructed. They believe less what you have to say and start to question your intelligence.
For example, Bennett says that if you write in a font that is difficult to read, people ‘transfer that sense of difficulty onto the topic they’re reading about’.
If it’s hard to accomplish basic tasks on your web site, then I’m going to question your intelligence too. Web sites are all about simple tasks. Visitors arrive with little task lists, conscious and otherwise:
If you can make accomplishing those tasks easy, you have not only boosted the credibility of your business, you have made yourself seem more intelligent and made them feel good about themselves into the bargain.
But give a payment process twice as many steps as necessary – or crowd the front page with a bit of everything so that your core business gets overlooked – or create a cool design that leaves people uncertain where to click next – or ask unwanted questions of your potential customers in pop-ups – and you have just undermined the whole reason you set up a site in the first place.
‘Easy’ for the customer might mean more work for you in simplifying your web site. It certainly takes discipline to keep a site fluent. But if you want to be believed, esteemed and leave your customers feeling confident about your business – it’s the only way.
There is much more to be said about cognitive fluency, about how to make web sites – and in particular their content – more fluent. Also about when disfluency can be used to our advantage. All to be explored later on SmyWord.
Right now I’m curious about your stories of fluency – how you felt when a site wasn’t easy, or your experience when it was. What have you done to make your own site easier to use? Did you notice a difference?
– Nick, Red Gate
I’ve put together a 2-hour workshop called ‘How to write great blog posts’.
It’s designed to show non-writers how to turn out fantastic articles for their business blogs, consistently.
It’s not just a presentation (in one ear and out the other). Rather it’s sitting down with an experienced web writer and learning hands-on some of the simple (when you know them) techniques for:
During the 2 hours you’ll learn by practising on real content for your blog. So you’ll come away with both new techniques for writing and a load of material on paper that you can use straight away.
And we’ll have fun. The first time I did this it was for a team of financial advisers. They said thay they ‘really enjoyed it – albeit one of our team had to have a lie down.’
‘How to write great blog posts’ workshop costs £180.
Price does not include travel or VAT.
Let me make two things clear. Firstly, language is organic. It grows and changes. Words pass out of usage, or take on new meanings. New words are invented for new objects and concepts. People who want language to remain as it is, frozen at the point that they did their English degrees, are probably afraid of change or have large rods inserted in particular orifices.
Secondly, language is important. It is important because it is our main tool for communication. Not only to understand, love and conspire with each other but even to be able to think in the first place. It is very, very difficult to think something for which you do not have the words. Our abilities to think and to relate are bound to our grasp of language – and the integrity of the language that is available to us.
So it’s worth keeping an eye on our words.
Leverage is the advantage gained by the use of a lever. Imagine a big rock. You ram a crowbar underneath it, push down on the bar and the rock begins to rise. You now have leverage.
The word comes by adding the suffix -age to the verb lever. When you lever (verb) the rock, you get this:
lever + -age = leverage
We are used to this in language:
spill + -age = spillage
dote + -age = dotage
advance + -age = advantage
The suffix –age transforms these verbs into nouns. That’s what it is used for. You advance (verb) your army, to give yourself an advantage (noun).
So if you want to use further the advantage that you have gained, how do you do it? Let me tell you how you don’t do it. You don’t advantage your troops. That’s nonsensical. Because a verb transformed into a noun by adding –age can’t suddenly be a verb as well.
It sounds completely wrong.
And yet bloggers, especially those who would like to be Seth Godin, are doing this all the time.
They say that the way to capitalise on your position – is by leveraging it. In other words, to leverage (verb) your leverage (noun).
It is a crude bastardisation of language. It takes a verb, to lever, that has become a noun, leverage, and twists the word into another verb even though it ends with the noun-defining ending –age. The suffix –age is the linguistic equivalent of streaking across the live final of The X Factor wearing nothing but a banner proclaiming ‘I AM A NOUN’. You can’t get more noun-like than a word made into a noun by the suffix –age.
You can’t spillage me across the floor or dotage me into delirium for suggesting that language does not work this way.
Because if leverage was a verb then we could create leveragage by doing it. And that’s just getting silly.
In most cases, I think people mean one of two things:
1. They just mean ‘to lever’
‘if you leverage the content that you have already created, you will be able to squeeze out a bit more mileage’
If the writer (it would be unfair to identify him as so many people do it) means capitalising upon the work that you have already done, then the correct word is simply lever:
‘if you lever the content that you have already created…’
And if this sounds dumb, it is because it is. Leverage has become a buzzword, yet there are few situations where it is apt. A much better analogy for capitalising upon previous advantage gained would be advancing your troops further, or investing in new ventures having worked hard to create money in the first place, to name but two.
2. They mean ‘using the leverage you already have to your advantage’
‘The more you say leverage, the less you’ve probably thought about what you’re saying.’
It’s not just that it stomps all over obvious grammatical integrity. Using leverage as a verb is also confusing, because it means levering your leverage. That is not a simple concept to me.
Let me confess that there is a recorded use of leverage as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary. In finance, leveraging is using borrowed capital to make investments that will provide greater profit than the interest owed. Maybe that’s where some people derive it from.
I hope that the reasons not to emulate the financial world are evident without having to spell them out, particularly when it comes to language. Do we want to shape the world for the better with our ideas, or shut it out?
The writers who imposed the greatest number of new words upon the English language had the greatest grasp of existing words. When you can write like Shakespeare, by all means make up whatever words you like.
Until then, look after the words you’ve inherited. You might need them for something important one day.
Do you use leverage as a verb? Why? What do you mean by it? What metaphors could we use instead? Do you think this might be a British/US English thing?
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I want to give you money.
Imagine it. I want to give you money – by signing up to become a paying member on your web site. So I find your site and look for the quickest, easiest way to get to the sign up page.
But I can’t find it. Sometimes you’re talking about signing up, other times about registering. There are two links: one for becoming a member and the other one for joining. If they are different, I’m not sure which one I need. When I find a page called ‘How to sign up as a member’ it tells me both ‘Click the Apply for Membership tab’ and ‘Click here to proceed’.
Well, which one is it?
I take a risk, click one, and fill in the application form (even though the button says ‘register’, not apply). Then comes the most baffling part of the whole process. Your web site tells me:
You are already a member.
I am not already a member. I have never signed up or given you any money for membership before.
But just to make sure, I go back to your question ‘is your organisation already registered?’ and search for my company’s name. Nothing happens. You tell me neither that I am nor that I am not.
Am I going mad? Perhaps I am already a member? Perhaps your sales rep got me drunk one night and I signed up on the spot and Timothy Taylor erased the memory?
So I try to log in to find out. I get an error page.
Do I still want to give you money?
The point of this true story (I haven’t the heart to name the company here) is that I nearly posted on Twitter: ‘I am trying to give money to x. They make it very difficult.’ I realised that might seem a little unfair, and posted instead:
Can you spot the crucial difference? The first equates the web site with the company. They make it difficult to give money. The second gives them the benefit of the doubt. It’s just their web site that is at fault.
But guess which way your average consumer will describe it?
They make it hard to subscribe. They see your web site – as you.
As a prominent interface between your company and the public, your site represents your company to people so completely that it is you. It is who you are.
If that is true – how do you feel about what is on it? Does it really describe what you are like? Is the experience visitors have on it congruent with what you’d like them to think about you? Do your claims stand up?
Having given up on trying to register on the web site above, I checked out their About Us page. Amid talk of ‘technology-enabled enterprise’ and ‘raising Cambridge’s game’, was the claim that they achieved their commitments using ‘technology’.
Yeah, right. Forgive me for laughing.
If you claim one thing but the experience on your web site suggests another, people don’t think, ‘I’m sure they take a lot more care in the other areas of their business’. They think: liars.
If visitors to your site find broken tools and errors, they don’t assume, ‘never mind, technology gets the better of everyone occasionally.’ They assume: these people are rubbish.
If there is a spelling mistake on your web site, customers don’t say, ‘oh look, an error slipped through the spell check on this page’. They say: this company is stupid.
And maybe they’re right. After all, wouldn’t an honest, competent and smart company take care to have a web site that proved it?
To most consumers, your web site is the same thing as your company.
Is there anything you would like to change?
Happy new year everyone.
I have one goal for SmyWord this year: to blog more consistently.
Last year was great – launching SmyWord, having a couple of big content cheeses drop by in the comments, receiving positive feedback from customers. But if I could change one thing, I wish that I had upheld my promise to post a new article once a week.
Increasingly businesses I do content work for want blogs on their web sites. A real, honest blog by someone who loves their work is a wondrous thing (especially if they’re not meta-careerists). And one of the fundamental pieces of advice I give them – one of the make-or-break keys to successful blogging – is to blog consistently.
Why? Because people are more likely to subscribe to, stick with, and read blogs that have a predictable delivery of content. Whether it’s an inspirational thought once a day (like Seth Godin), or a double in-depth post by different authors twice a month ( as on A List Apart), consistency shows reliability to potential followers and convinces them that you are worth following. People want to know what they will be getting.
So 2010 has me looking in the mirror and quoting ‘physician, heal thyself’.
There is lots of good advice about for how to post consistently, including:
But I know that my biggest obstacle is not creating ideas, because I’ve got loads of them. I shouldn’t admit this but right now I’ve got 41 articles for SmyWord on my laptop which are at least half-written. If I just finished those off I’d have nearly a year’s supply of posts.
But it’s not the ideas that are the problem – it’s perfectionism. I want my posts to reflect my education at Trinity College, Cambridge. I want my boss to think they’re great. I want to imbue them with the finest literary qualities of which I am capable. I want them to be above the criticism of other bloggers. I want my Mum to like them (fat chance).
So here’s how I’m going to write in 2010: imperfectly. I’m going to value reasonable writing that gets published over theoretically astounding writing that does not. I’m going to be Enid Blyton not Gustave Flaubert. I will develop a thicker skin if criticised and acknowledge my mistakes. And I’m not going to show any of it to my mother.
Let’s tackle what stops us blogging consistently head on.
This work is certainly diverse. For example, I’ve just written a guide for a letting agent to help them to take better photographs of their properties. The catch was that their photographers are not professionals, but inexperienced office staff, using basic digital cameras.
Here are some highlights derived from the guide. If you ever shoot interiors – even if only at Christmas with a tree and your Aunty Mildreth in the foreground – these tips will help you raise your game. So put away the costly kit, grab a pocket-sized point-and-shoot, and get clicking.
The joy of digital. Take thousands of pictures from every conceivable angle, as you can just pick the best ones later and delete the rest. If this is for a property web site make sure that you cover the basics: people expect to see a shot of every room, otherwise they wonder what you’re hiding. Add to that some of the extra features, like a period fireplace or an atractive front door, and you will be starting to satisfy the consumer’s desire for lots and lots and lots and lots of pictures.
You know what’s ugly? You’re ugly – when reflected in a mirror or window. Clutter and mess is ugly, as are room corners in the middle of the frame. Mould, cracks, and cheap copies of paintings are ugly. Big sofa arms in your face are ugly and ceilings are ugly if you show too much of them.
Also, fine composition is not just removing ugly things but putting a bit of thought into composing the shot. Choose a creative angle, arrange the furniture how you want it, showed lived-in but not messy. If the room is empty stick a prop in, such as a chair, for a sense of scale.
Using wide angles to capture more of an interior is only partially effective. When Adam Kimmel directed the prison cell photography in Capote he used a wide angle lens. To make the cell look smaller. Seeing three walls of a tiny room emphasises how cramped it is.
In other words, wide angle doesn’t make a room appear bigger – it simply shows more. And you should only show people more if the more is worth seeing. By all means show just how long the elegant lounge is. But the meagre box room?
One of the biggest challenges in interior photography is the exposure. The light coming in through the window throws the camera off balance, so that the bit of the room that you want to see ends up in darkness. On a good camera this can be solved technically – but not on our budget point-and-shoot with a rubbish flash.
So here’s the tip: turn on the lights.
Reduce incoming light by drawing the curtains, or shooting at dusk. Boost the light inside by flicking every light switch you can, and even bringing some extra lamps for the dark corners. The result will not only be better exposed, but far more warm and inviting.
There are some things money can’t buy, like knowing how to use a proper flash on a decent camera. For everything else there’s mastercard. If you do need to use your horrible little built-in headlight (or can’t work out how to switch it off), whip your card out and angle it against the flash so that the light goes upwards towards the ceiling. The scene will still be illuminated, but less harshly, and from above. Ezra Stoller eat your heart out.
Taking every photo at eye level is like spending a cruise looking out of one porthole. Stand on a chair or a table, lie on the floor, crouch in the corner or peer through a gap – it’s amazing the difference an altered angle makes. In particular, get down low. Rooms often look more inviting at the reclining-in-lounger level.
Don’t forget to keep the camera level though. Tilting it will distort the straight lines, and people will think the house has got subsidence. Actually, they’ll just think you can’t take photos.
Have a look at other sites with photography that stands out. What have they done? See if you can recreate the effect. Imitation, flattery, all that. Just start experimenting and it won’t be long for your interior photos are a cut above the rest.