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Cardinal Sins of Writing for the Web

Cardinal Sins of Writing for the Web

Even online the written word is the fundamental tool to inform and persuade. Here are some tips and resources to help advisors improve their prose.

Think you know how to write for the web? Believe your LinkedIn profile passes muster? Few know how to write copy that sings from the start. We’re all guilty of committing some of basic writing sins. Here’s how to trim, shape and smarten up your prose.


Cardinal Sin #1—You’re Boring

Nothing’s worse than putting some careful thought into new copy for a web site, only to have compliance red-pen the life out of it. Bounce and color come back dry and dusty—and, you’re told, there’s nothing you can do. Not so, says Nicole Volpe Miller, chief content officer of the Portland, OR-based Deke Digital, who says it’s completely fine to go back to the legal gurus and ask why they drained your words of any life.

“It’s important to ask if they’re editing for legal reasons, or for editorial reasons,” says Miller, whose firm works specifically with financial services companies.

Miller says that while everyone can use a good editor—and compliance people can often help correct grammatical mistakes or fix phrasing that sounds off—having copy end up sounding lawyerly is a sure way to turn eyes away. After making sure an edit is not based on compliance concerns, feel free to re-craft and make it sound better to your, and a reader’s ear.

“Boring will make people actively dislike you,” says Miller. “It’s better to do nothing at all.”


Cardinal Sin #2—When It’s All About You

Trent Dyrsmid, founder and CEO at Boise, ID-based Groove Digital Marketing, is fond of doing web-site audits. His goal? To discover when clients devote excess space talking about themselves. Dyrsmid, who spent 10 years working in financial services, has a surprise for his clients.

“People don’t care about you,” he says. “If I’m your prospect, all I care about is me. If you can show me you care and understand me, I will listen.”

Sharing a bit about yourself can be helpful—but not initially. First prospects want to know what you can do for them, how you can help them plan for contingencies, build an estate and prepare for retirement. Talking about yourself is the fastest way to turn a prospect permanently away.

“If you go on a date, and someone just tells you about them, without asking about you, will you go out with them again?” asks Dyrsmid. “Probably not.”


Cardinal Sin #3—You Obfuscate

Confused? Then so is your reader. While advisors consider themselves experts in financial planning—and many are—they forget that their potential clients may not understand what “institutional portfolio management” or “tax-efficient investing” means. But helping them achieve their financial goals? That’s pretty clear.

“Keep your audience in mind and visualize the person you’re writing to,” says Neil Rhein, principal of the Boston, MA-based Bull’s-eye Financial Communication. “You don’t need to dumb it down, but you do have to make sure a prospect understands.”

If your clientele actually are sophisticated investors, then by all means start discussing asset allocation from the start. But if they’re younger or just starting out, it may be better to keep the writing a bit more conversational and at a comprehension level everyone can understand.

“You might want to take a step back from your writing,” he says. “You want to know everyone is on board.”


Cardinal Sin #4—You’re a Salesperson

Anyone trying to grow a business should leave his or her inner-Andrew Carnegie at home. Authentic, interesting content is going to leave a better impression with this audience—and a better chance of winning their attention.

 “Content that is designed to sell services is an epic fail,” says Jeff Fromm, president of the Kansas City, MO-based marketing firm FutureCast and author of Marketing to Millennials. “You need to inform, inspire and engage.”

Fromm, who has worked with financial services clients, believes advisors should understand what their clients are interested in reading. How to tell? Do a little research. Fromm recently posted a status update on Facebook asking for title ideas. Yes, some were tongue in cheek. But some were helpful.

Advisors can do this too, crowdsourcing ideas and then crafting posts, articles or social media blurbs that engage a potential prospect—without ever once pitching their business. If you’re interesting, they’ll figure out a way to get your contact information.

“People are smart enough to find you,” he says. “They’ve heard of this thing called The Google. They will find you.”

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