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Send in the Clones

Mom University

Recently I was in a restaurant watching a mother having a tough time with her two kids. I heard her using phrases—"Wait till I tell your father," "Don't make me tell you again," "As long as you're under my roof, you live by my rules"—that my mother used when was a kid, and I'm not going to tell you how long ago that was. And I've heard them many times in the interim. I wondered if there wasn't some secret "mom school" somewhere where this stuff was taught.

And you would think they teach a secret class somewhere when it comes to business websites, too. They all look and sound so much the same. Especially "sound." Even when the graphics are creative and the Flash is flashin' a plenty (and a surprising number of sites still use Flash), the words all sound the same.

Why is that?

In an age where businesses are vying for online attention, the world of web content has witnessed a curious phenomenon - the near-complete convergence of writing styles on modern business websites. You would think companies would want their websites to be as distinctive as possible, their voices to be as unique as possible. But no, they don't. Send in the clones.

Homogeneity is to the striking similarity in tone, language, and structure across various online platforms. This phenomenon isn't confined to a single industry by any means, but is notably prominent in the tech sector. And worse than that, most often all this homogeneity is simply because the company buying that airtime, that ad space, that website, those pop-down or pop-up ads, doesn't actually want to say anything. Yet he wants to take up lots of space saying it.

Why Does This Happen?

Why do most websites look like they come out of the same cookie-cutter mold? Mainly because they come out of the same cookie-cutter mold. But I'm not just talking about the designs; even if you are using the same company for your website as The Next Guy, there are easy ways to customize yours and one is with killer words that jump out and make it just impossible for a casual glancer to move on, because his finger will be frozen as he stares at your compelling message.

Yet it rarely happens. So many are a festival of cliches, meaningless dribbles of content with some expected jargony blather or super superlatives. A short while back I posted about the awful advertisement for a major electric carmaker, Polestar. Clearly they have a big budget and can command just about any copywriter and any copy they want. Yet this, word for word, is the mush that got approved:

"If you set out to build an electric car that’s all it will ever be, an electric car. But the Polestar 2 is something more. Every detail designed to be quietly distinctive. Polestar 2, the way electric cars are supposed to be."

Wow, that's a nothingburger with extra mayo on the side, hold the pickle. "Every detail [is] designed to be quietly distinctive." a few? "Polestar 2, the way electric cars are supposed to be." Why? How? You give no information other than to say We're the Best...cuz we say we are.

Public Service Announcements on public radio are better-written.

Several factors contribute to this unfortunate phenomenon:

1. SEO Practices: One of the driving forces behind this trend is the emphasis on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Businesses want to rank high on search engine results pages, so it's follow...if not the leader, at least what they think the leader is doing. Or should be doing. This includes the use of specific keywords and phrases, so everyone serves up the same verbal salad with very little word-mixing and no croutons whatsoever! And what the heck is the point of a salad without croutons?

2. Industry Jargon: Tech companies often rely on complex industry jargon to communicate effectively with their target audience. Consequently, this jargon becomes a common thread in their content, furthering the feeling of similarity. Furthermore, they often don't explain the damned jargon, so you feel like I did when I came back to school after spending three weeks home with mono.

3. Market Competition: Fierce competition within the tech industry means that companies are closely monitoring their rivals. They tend to emulate successful writing styles to tap into the same market segments. Ditto visual styles, logo styles, packaging styles, advertising styles, and so on.

4. Consumer Expectations: If you don't talk the talk, people fear you can't walk the walk. So you have to be like Big Brother. (Big Brother is the brand that's ahead of you.)

The Downside

Ever wonder why people rarely turn out enthusiastically for elections? People say in poll after poll it's because politicians speak from the same half dozen talking points and look and dress and act the same, right down to the bold-colored polyester suits and American flag lapel pin. (I don't see this flag fetish in other countries so much.) This leads to the same things in brand recognition that it does in elections:

1. Loss of Distinctiveness: Businesses risk losing their distinctiveness when their websites all sound alike. This can make it challenging for consumers to differentiate between brands and can lead to a lack of brand loyalty.

2. Content Fatigue: When users encounter similar writing styles repeatedly, they tend to become disengaged. This can result in reduced user interaction and conversion rates when everything sounds alike. To quote the immortal Elaine Bennes, Yada yada yada...

3. Innovation Suppression: A uniform approach to content can stifle innovation in communication. Companies might hesitate to experiment with different styles for fear of deviating from the norm. This isn't just a "words thing." After all, form dictates content: Lack of innovation on the webpage can equal lack of education in the boardroom, the marketplace, the factory floor.

4. Difficulty in Standing Out: The very purpose of a website—and the rest of your corporate communication—is to stand out and attract attention. Let me say that again: The very purpose of a website—and the rest of your corporate communication—is to stand out and attract attention. Seems like I can never stress that enough. Why do you want to make the same promises your enemies are? Why do you want to be confused for them? "We're better!" I hear you cry, but when pressed why, so often I hear the same pledges of vague excellence that the competition makes.

So, is there a way for tech businesses to break free from this homogeneity in writing styles while still meeting their goals? The answer lies in finding a balance. You don't want to be Weird Al, but you don't want to be the Osmonds either. (Apologies to the Osmonds. I've met them and they seem to be very nice people.)

1. Keyword Variation: While SEO will always be a thing (and someday I am going to write a piece about why I think about 85.7 percent of SEO is crap, and then I'll lose all my clients en masse), I think it strangles and dictates too much what is okay and what is not. Companies need to experiment with a broader range of keywords and phrases to maintain uniqueness. After all, if you try through SEO to be like "X," and X is the leader and has been around longer, the search engine is just as likely to throw you to X.

2. Audience-Centric Content: Understanding the unique needs and preferences of their target audience can help businesses tailor their content to be engaging and informative without sounding like everyone else. So, know thy prospects. They may not be quite the same as the leader you're chasing.

3. Storytelling: This is a big one, and one reason you need a novelist writing your material: Incorporating storytelling elements into content can add a personal touch and create an emotional connection with the audience.

4. Visual Content: Combining written content with visuals can set a website apart from competitors and enhance the user experience. (Info)Graphics are great, too.

Break Away From the Mold

Breaking away from the mold is possible through innovative approaches that consider audience needs, storytelling, and visual content. And just thinking about why you are around in the first place. Every company has a story to tell. Okay, not every company, but most do. They just bury it. I remember doing copywriting for a local award-winning television station that had so much to tell about itself, a station that back then was, as Sarah Palin would say, mavericky. But their in-house writers wrote the same non-content content. I did some research into the remarkable people who worked there and found an angle to the best of my knowledge no one had used before. I won the business. "How'd you think of that?" one of their reporters later asked. Easy: I tried something different.

It's that simple. And that difficult. But that's what you should be doing if you want to be more than a swipe under someone's index finger.

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