Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Suzanne Norman, director of brand at Emma, an email marketing and communications company.

The bot problem

Let’s face it: most companies write marketing copy for the web and email that reads like it was written by a robot.

And nobody likes bots. (See: spambots, twitbots, fembots, that 80s movie with Emilio Estevez where all the semi-trucks come to life.)

photo by davedehetre

I spot this kind of writing all the time in email marketing campaigns — that’s the realm I work in — but it’s just as rampant in every other digital medium.

“The objective of our organization is to provide best-in-class e-commerce solutions that facilitate bottom-line growth.”

Okay, fine, but don’t you just help people sell more stuff?

When we marketing-types talk about content, we talk a lot about relevance and architecture and SEO optimization, but we don’t talk much about voice — that intangible quality in writing that shows off your company’s personality.

And that’s a shame, because voice drives how people feel when they read what you write. And when you can evoke a feeling in your customer, you’re closer than ever to a sale.

A few organizations have parlayed a memorable voice into brand distinction that delights their customers. (Moosejaw, Innocent Drinks and 826 Valencia come to mind right away.) But anybody can strengthen their company’s voice with writing that’s simply more conversational.

Three ways to fix it

Think, then talk, then write.
Writers often mistakenly believe that writing is about writing. It’s not about writing.

(It’s not about caffeine, either. Most days, anyway.)

It’s mostly about thinking.

When I haven’t thought enough about a piece, I know it. I find overwrought sentences, rambling paragraphs, lazy word choices and ill-advised Dolph Lundgren jokes. Those writerly fits and starts add up to a stilted, distant voice that bores readers faster than the plot of Rocky V.

To fix it, I call a smart friend and talk through my idea. A living, breathing audience asks questions and checks assumptions better than a blank page, and the dialogue always helps distill and refine my main points.

Best of all, it tricks my brain into approaching the problem conversationally, so I end up writing the thing considering what my reader wants, when she hesitates and how she reasons.

Ditch the multisyllabicness.
In email marketing — and really, in any marketing channel — your words have a few seconds to grab and keep your readers’ attention. And even then, people don’t really read so much as scan.

So when you write multisyllabic words overwrought into convoluted sentences with which one requires assistance in comprehending (you see what I did there), you lose readers.

Use simple words instead, words you can read at a glance. It’s the surest way to copy that’s warm and friendly since it reflects how we actually talk.

It helps me to read my stuff out loud. Thesaurus-y words and convoluted phrases might sneak past my eye, but my ear will catch them every time. If I stumble over a phrase, I rework it. If a sentence stalls the whole paragraph, I rework it. If it’s another Dolph Lundgren joke, I rework it (begrudgingly).

Okay, two caveats. First, we web writers have to keep our copy keyword-rich and shiny for the Googles, so if your industry’s vernacular includes five-dollar words, try offsetting them with straightforward sentences and brief paragraphs.

And second, I’m not suggesting you dumb down your writing. Keep your sentences varied, your adjectives meaningful and your verbs brimming with life. Just put clarity and brevity before the fancy stuff, okay?

Have fun. Seriously.
Although the cats are giving us a run for it, I believe humans are the masters of humor.

Humor erodes our defenses. It makes us feel good. It puts us on the same team.

These qualities are wonderful for humanity and whatnot, but they also come in handy if you’re trying to sell something.

Humor isn’t right for every brand, but it shouldn’t be reserved only for the energy drinks and beer conglomerates of the world, either. Add simple, friendly asides to your writing or build your whole brand around a laugh-out-loud silliness — whatever seems in line with your company’s values and goals. Either way, readers will know that there’s another person behind the writing.

You know, talking about humor gets a little humorless, so I’ll point you to an essay I came across earlier this month by author, writing instructor and all-around badass Anne Lamott. Her style keeps you reading and makes you love her, but her humor never upstages her point.

What’s next?

It’ll take you fifteen minutes to apply some of these thoughts to your latest blog post or a landing page. Try it this week.

When you do, remember it’s not merely writing. It’s your company speaking. And your readers aren’t merely listening to what you’re saying. They’re reacting to how you say it.

Show no mercy to robotic words and phrases. Replace ‘em with words that show your humanity. Shape and refine your company’s voice, and your readers will respond.

You’ll boost your pageviews, I promise. You’ll sell more stuff.  And you’ll make the world a less robotic place.

Suzanne Norman works on all manner of brand-y things for Emma, an email marketing and communications company that serves more than 30,000 customers around the world. She lives in Nashville with her husband, son and inexhaustible supply of goat cheese.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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  • http://twitter.com/jay_zo Jay Acunzo

    This is a GREAT read and super relevant to my job. I work at a media company for Gen Y, CampusLIVE, and part of my role is managing the content team and creating content myself. Our media unit is not a text post – it’s short snippets of content – but what that means is the copy we write MUST be witty, or insightful, and above all – natural.

    I tell all my writers to be true to themselves and to use their voices – and to say things out loud. It helps SO much.

    Marketers ruin language with buzz words. When I worked at a big corporation (won’t say the name but it rhymes with Boogle), buzz words were like a new language. It’s gross.

    For CampusLIVE, we even write Twitter text that a user would send if they share the link – in the user’s voice. Not a marketing message! We’re pumped to see most don’t alter our prewritten text, because it SOUNDS LIKE THEM. What a novel concept ;)

    Jay
    http://www.socialsarcasm.com

    • http://twitter.com/suzannenorman Suzanne Norman

      Great stuff, Jay. It’s always nice to hear from someone else who’s trying to make the world a little less robotic.

  • http://www.brittanybotti.com/ Brittany Botti

    Great article Suzanne! Bot writing drives me nuts :)

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    Thanks for information.

  • Anonymous

    Great lessons, Suzanne! I stumbled through them when I began marketing…my team beat the corporate jargon and grammar snob out of me so that my writing no longer put anyone to sleep. I’m thankful for their tough love now, but at the time? Not so much.  :)

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