A typical copywriting mistake in a tech startup site.

 I’ve looked at a lot of startup sites and one common flaw is that they can’t bring themselves to tell you what they are starting up.

The intensity of  their passion is so huge and overwhelming that it doesn’t occur to them that visitors might not already be aware of it.

I looked at the site of one of the entrepreneurs I met at a recent Lean Startup Circle meeting.  It has pictures of a drop of water and light bulbs dangling from wires. “Water & Energy Monitoring,” its says in dark type against a dark blue background. Under the company name is a subhead: Saving Water, Saving Energy, Saving Money.

This is the first text block on the site:

Here’s a little quiz: what was envisioned? What are these guys selling?

After reading this, the visitor still has no idea what the startup is offering. And in this case, you can search the site and never find out what they were doing in the garage for all those years. It’s an app and a gadget, but in order to find that out, you have to look at three repetitive videos totaling 13 minutes, and you have to be paying very close attention.

But the site gives you no information that would give you an incentive to devote that much time to it.

It’s common for startups to want to first impress you with the long laborious period of development that led to the disruptive innovation.  They also want to  virtue-signal about their motives.

When trying to write about themselves, they stiffen up and  write pedantically. In my site analyses, I use the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease index, which scores their introductory text block at Grade 18, Ease 15, which is terrible–about as easy to read as the footnotes in a post-graduate statistical analysis textbook. Not what you want for your marketing campaign.

And if visitors do trudge through this paragraph, they’re rewarded by learning nothing whatsoever about whatever it is that you’re offering.

If you’re offering something new, start with your best benefit–not with a generic abstract preamble.

The technology of text

Greece was just another grubby little kingdom until King Cadmus imported the Phoenician alphabet. In an accident of fate, Phoenician used five more letters than the Greeks needed for their language. Cadmus made the huge technological advance of using those extra letters as vowels.

Writing had been a secret reserved for kings and priests and tax collectors, a code of letters without vowels–an unending stream of acronyms. DSRPTV SLTNS was easy enough to read if you were already one of the cool kids, but by inserting vowels, suddenly everybody could read “disruptive solutions.”

Inserting vowels instantly made the alphabet a killer app that converted  text into speech, and vice versa. Text became easy to read. Text suddenly became a flowing transcription of human speech that anybody could decode simply by speaking it aloud.

Instead of its former role as a means of secret communications within a cabal, writing became a massive new channel of sharing.

“Apes could start using a primitive language today if their motivation to keep secrets gave way to a motivation to share knowledge.”
–Edmund Blair Bolles, BABEL’S DAWN.

When information became easy to share, the accumulation of knowledge turned asymptotic. Within a few generations Greece became the foundation of Western thought and literature. Socrates worried that making literacy easily available to all would result in the destruction of human powers of memory. He was right. Why bother to memorize the ILIAD when you can just look up any passage in a hard-copy print version. Write-once, read-many.

Over the centuries, further improvements made text easier and easier to read. Instead of one long line of letters, spaces were inserted to show where individual words started and stopped. Punctuation was another late invention. The pace of improvement increased after moveable type made mass printing available.

And now, corporate culture is abandoning the technology of text. They are reverting text to the role of protective camouflage, a deflective shield to prevent sharing of information. Text is old and outdated, it can’t compete against YouTube and music.

Companies display text to comply with regulations, without regard for the fact that text is a technology that requires an operator: a person who actively extracts the thought and meaning behind the words.

Typography bears much resemblance to cinema, just as the reading of print puts the reader in the role of movie projector.
–Marshall McLuhan

Amid the worldwide media glut, companies no longer care if people read their text: their goal is merely to plunk the text into your view-space. With the right magic SEO dust inserted into the text, the robots will deliver your text directly to your most highly qualified leads. But will they read it?

Companies fret that their story is not getting out, but at the same time they publish text that leaves readers feeling they are wading through tar. And if that isn’t enough to prevent the sharing of their information, they present it in ways that visually block the message.

Here’s some kind of internet-of-things headline. The search bots can read it easily. How about you?

This text that you visually cannot read  has a Reading Ease score of negative 12 and a Grade Level of 22, according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index. If you battle your way through this illegible text, you learn–nothing. The sentence is an assemblage of vague abstractions. It can only leave readers impatient and irritated at having wasted their time.

The first goal of effective text should be to reward the reader’s time. We have the technology! Why won’t companies use it?

Who is Colin Campbell?

I’m colin@colin.org, a domain I have maintained for 24 years. (I asked for colin.com back in 1995 but they gave me colin.org.)

I mention this only to let you know that I’ve been around for a while. I was already an experienced copywriter, creative director, and graphic designer when the Personal Computer era began.

 Bought my first personal computer with the check I got from the UCSB Computer Engineering Department for writing a recruitment brochure for them. A few years later I became entranced with the graphics capabilities of the second generation of Macintosh computers and bought a Mac SE and a LaserWriter. The vector of my life changed as I learned Pagemaker and Word and Illustrator and Photoshop. I moved to Silicon Valley and did a lot of digital graphic production gigs  through Mac Temps in the Quark/Photoshop/Illustrator segment.

I became immersed in the upsurge of Silicon Valley. I published one of the first online e-zines (https://www.swagazine.com/issues.html) and hung out with other e-ziners, and with hackers who coalesced into The Cult of the Dead Cow.

I bought my domain in 1995 and learned HTML to make my own websites, and then learned CSS. I became an early adopter on the web and virtually everything I’ve done since then has been on the web. I became Webmaster for a Silicon Valley electronic tool company, as a contractor, and wrote tons of content for Walmart.com, besides freelance work for many other clients.

Now I’m semi-retired in Santa Barbara. I wander around on the web and  see lots of technical and industrial sites that could benefit from some professional copywriting.

Reality In Tech Advertising

Reeves believed the purpose of advertising is to sell. He insisted that an advertisement or commercial should show off the value or unique selling proposition, (or USP) of a product, not the cleverness or humor of a copywriter.
His ads were focused around what he called the Unique Selling Proposition, the one reason the product needed to be bought or was better than its competitors.
Reeves pointed out that to work, advertising had to be honest. He insisted the product being sold actually be superior, and argued that no amount of advertising could move inferior goods.

My theory of copywriting is to present information that’s true.

My theory is nothing new. I’m following the lead of Rosser Reeves, who published REALITY IN ADVERTISING sixty years ago. He pioneered the idea of the Unique Sales Proposition (USP).

The best way to sell a product is to present the truth about it. For a lot of major products, the truth is they’re just about the same as the next guy, so they make ads about something else. This can be effective but expensive. Geico spends two billion dollars a year to keep their animated gecko spokescritter in your face.

I’ve been looking at the sites of smaller technical and industrial companies who don’t have two bill in their marketing budget. They often want to keep their information to themselves. They have an attitude of security and secrecy and NDA agreements. Then, when it is time to advertise, when it’s time to spread the word, that attitude impedes them.

It always amazes me when I see strong young companies that mask their virtues on their Web sites by using the same set of buzzwords everybody else is using to self-inflate themselves. Instead of strong, active, concrete information, they use passive abstractions. By removing one or two industry-specific words from their text, it becomes indistinguishable from the text used in a myriad of different industries.

I have an imaginary worst-practices client, Akronim Corporation. Here’s their elevator pitch:

Akronim solutions have been widely deployed on a variety of demanding applications by multiple users across commercial and industrial markets. Our core brands include the Akronim 1, Akronim 2 and Akronim 3 product families.

By examining Akronim’s site and reading their text, you cannot discover what it is that they actually do–only that they’re the best, in fact they’re the world leader! Instead of offering information, they offer their own opinions of themselves.

Luckily, Akronim is imaginary. But many real companies emulate them. They  prefer to sound big and mysterious. Their web designers will insert whatever text they are given into an industry standard template, and the site becomes indistinguishable.

What can a copywriter do for you.

My usual methodology is to study you and your technology and learn what your strengths are. I examine what your competitors are doing. I develop a clear logical description of what your company does. This usually takes several drafts, as corrected by your engineering staff. I condense your information into the shortest, most effective presentation of the facts, written so that anybody can understand it.

Santa Barbara Magazine was a startup when I became Associate Editor

They also expected me to copywrite ads. Free.
We were already ill-paid, but we all pitched in where needed. We’d do anything to help the startup get going. If an advertiser bought a full-page ad but needed text, no problem! And many of the articles I wrote for the magazine were already de facto PR pieces for advertisers.

Some of the advertisers were willing to pay extra for me and the art director to create brochures for them on the side. I wrote them like magazine articles about the company. That made them stand out in the ocean of competitors’ stuff written in standard ad twaddle.

I studied the best textbooks about copywriting and applied their precepts. My theory is that copywriting is writing, and the same standards apply. You create clear, vibrant text by using active verbs and concrete nouns, not the passive abstractions of business jargon. My goal was to present persuasive facts in an interesting way.

Eventually I was writing a lot more brochures than magazine articles. I became known among the local Santa Barbara art directors because they won awards with the ads and brochures that were based on my copywriting.

I worked with art director John Alexander and wrote a catalog and magazine ads for a mail-order stereo retailer in San Luis Obispo. The campaign turned around their sales and won a Gold Mailbox award from the Direct Marketing Association.
Santa Barbara Magazine also won Maggie awards for Best Regional/City Magazine two years in a row.

While visiting family in Detroit I heard about an opening at BBDO, the fourth largest ad agency in the world. I presented my portfolio and was hired immediately. They were impressed by a brochure I had written and creative-directed for a California manufacturer of a new limited-production automobile.

I wrote hundreds of standard print ads and radio and TV commercials for Dodge, but BBDO was not interested in the kind of personal and interesting ads I wanted to do.

I left after a couple years and went back to California and produced my first major hit of a campaign: a brochure and a series of ads for guitar pickups made by Seymour Duncan.

Seymour was well known in the rock-star community for his custom pickups, but his mom & pop business operation couldn’t survive on sales to rock stars. He needed to reach the mass market.

I studied the competition and saw that they were all using rock-star endorsements, with no information about the guitar pickups themselves. Nobody was explaining why you should put a new pickup in your guitar.

Working with art director Mark Oliver, I proposed that we do a brochure focusing on the pickups themselves, with commentary from Seymour explaining why each one was different from the others.

I interviewed Seymour extensively and wrote the brochure in first person, as though Seymour himself were telling the story.

The brochure was introduced at the National Association of Music Manufacturer’s convention, and was an instant hit, catapulting Seymour Duncan into industry leadership. And it’s now in the permanent collection of the American Institute for the Graphic Arts.

Should tech startup sites be easy to read?

I’ve been attending meetings of the Lean Startup Circle since I arrived in Santa Barbara a few months ago, meeting entrepreneurs and looking at their sites. Being “easy to read” is not in the Top 10 of their wish lists.

I’ve worked for sixty tech outfits, so I’ve seen the marketing trends in a lot of different silos. And a thing that I continue to see is companies that shrug about it if their site is hard to read. They equate their complexity with the superiority of their product.

I’m more of a “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” kind of a guy–especially when you’re trying to introduce an innovation. If you have something new, you have to talk about it clearly. If it’s new, it won’t be anything people are accustomed to looking at, right?

If a startup has something truly new, then by definition you won’t be able to google for it.

“Alexa, give me an example of something that has never been thought of before.”

Alexa will not have an answer for you.

I’ve been startled to find out that hardly any of the Startup Circle attendees have ever heard the term “copywriter.” “What, you’re a lawyer?” said one start-up entrepreneur. He thought I was talking about “copyright.”

Maybe I’m a little resentful. Back in the old days when I started, copywriters were the apex of the ad agency food chain. Copywriters were the mainstay of their business.

I’ve been looking around the Santa Barbara scene and contacting web shops, because that’s what almost all former ad agencies have evolved into.

I’ve inspected the OUR TEAM pages of 61 web design shops in Santa Barbara, and hardly any of them have a copywriter. Out of 227 listed employees, only four have the title “copywriter.” There are ten dogs on-staff.

The web shop staffs are filled with graphics people and coders and web developers and video producers, and copywriters are virtually nonexistent. Web shops don’t have a guy like me on staff.

If your product or service is new or different, you need a copywriter to assemble the information into a clear explanation that’s easy to understand. First of all, make it easy for people to see what your offer is.

I’ve worked on marketing projects for these technology companies as a freelancer/contractor:

Abex Aerospace
Hydraulic control systems

Big Data Analytics

Downhole composite tubulars

American Institutes for Research
Courtroom presentations

Anxiety and Panic Disorders Clinic of Santa Barbara

Aplin, Uno & Chibana
Apple Computer product guides

Digital radiographic and computed tomography systems

Austin Kerr Marcoccia
Collateral for NEC’s Comdex Show

Transparent Conductive Films

CAT Scientific
Botanical post-processing equipment

Internet of Things

Cox-Uphoff Silicone
Medical implants

Robotic pipe welding systems

DNAX Research
Biotech presentations

Impact Testing Machines

Thin Film disk technology

Ernst & Young
Year 2000 projects

Essex Technologies
Keyless entry systems

Finnegan Corporation
Mass spectrograph seminar presentation

Forensics Technology
Courtroom presentations

Ultra-bright LED LCD displays

GDA Technology Advertising
Trade show collateral for QuickLogic

Hayes Marketing
Motorola brochures

Image Casting
Lost wax casting

Interlink Electronics
Force-sensing resistors

KPMG Peat Marwick

Kush Cottage
Fully Automated Light Deprivation Greenhouses

Lamina Bronze
Precision wear plates

Lazarus Medical Hypnosis
Blog posts

Ads & Packaging for Freehand, Director

Marcom Solutions
Hewlett Packard brochure

Media Corps
Farallon product guide

Pharmaceutical chromatography

Bone paste surgery documentation

Pearson Communications
Brochures & spec sheets for HP

Optical Photothermal Infrared Spectroscopy

Optical encoders

Industrial air bearings

San Luis Obispo Archaeology Society

San Jose Business Journal
Newspaper ads and graphics; retouching and collage

Santa Ynez Valley Solar
Solar photovoltaic installers

Security Mentor
Security awareness training

Seymour Duncan
Electric guitar pickups

Silego Technology
Configurable mixed-signal ICs

Silicon Valley Chest & Sleep Medicine

Central Coast software and technology association

Tangent Audio
Audio mixing equipment

Travel technology experts

Inmac Unix catalogs

Triad Speakers
Consumer audio

High-vacuum lubricants

UCSB Computer & Electrical Engineering Department
Recruitment brochure

API firewall as a service


VLSI Technologies
Presentations for sales meeting

Weidlinger & Associates
Presentations of simulated blast damage for Nuclear Defense Agency

Winston Advertising
Packaging for Philips modem, TV card, CD-ROM

Wyatt Technology

Depth-sensing construction hand tools

Technical copywriting

Proposed new landing page for TorrLube

I’m a technical copywriter–an adbiz guy, not a technical writer. My job is to learn your strengths and innovations and make a straightforward explanation in plain English.

Technical writers create instruction manuals and specifications and technical reference documents. That’s not me. Technical writing is aimed at people who have already bought the product.

The intent of technical copywriting is to persuade people to buy.

As a technical copywriter, I explain your products to people who may not already know all about you. I make it simple for them to understand the advantages of your product.

My methodology is to interview your engineers about their technical subjects and write a first draft. Then the engineers point out all my bone-headed errors and I rewrite until it is not only technically correct but also accessible to non-engineers.

After 25 years in Silicon Valley,
I have returned to Santa Barbara

I was Associate Editor of Santa Barbara Magazine in its first few years

I started out as a writer/editor at Santa Barbara Magazine in its earliest days. Now I write text for websites and brochures and ads the same way I wrote articles: as an informational conversation with a human reader. A copywriter assembles all the information about your company and refines it to bring the most important parts to the front.

I’ve written for many technical and scientific companies. I enjoy learning about companies who have  innovative offerings. I interview subject-matter experts and transform their information into a smooth presentation of the most
important facts to convey their enthusiasm with fresh persuasive text.

If you want people to read it, make it easy to read.

Most people seem to think “readability” is a foo-foo add-on, or catering to imbeciles. We’re too serious to worry about readability, see. Or, this ain’t school, we aren’t chained by your archaic “rules of grammar” that were made by old white men before there was even an internet.

As a freelance copywriter, I’m always looking for work. When I see “marketing” in the job titles the headhunter apps send me, I look at the sites of the companies that are doing the hiring, if they’re in the technical or industrial sectors, and I check their text for verbal readability using the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Index. I also inspect their visual readability: the typographic presentation of their text.

I’m not sure why readability is held in such low regard by technical and industrial companies, but it’s clear to see when you look at their sites.

For some, their website is a protective barrier, a moat to keep the looky-loos out. Glassdoor told me BEGA North America is looking for a Digital Marketing Specialist who has “a working knowledge of BEGAs identity, products, and market goals.”

You have to probe deep into BEGA’s site to find out anything about the company and what it does. The landing page has only 21 words. None of them tell you what BEGA does, nor a hint of a whisper about their identity, products, and market goals.

The entire BEGA landing page.







If you click on the PRODUCTS menubar item, you are taken to a page with no text except for  one-or-two-word captions. BEGA. Limburg Collection. BEGA home & garden collection. BOOM collection. BEGA New Products. LIMBURG catalog 5. LIMBURG New Products.

If you press in further you can find lists and specifications of products, yes. This company is telling us that they’re doing fine, they don’t need no stinking text. Their 210-page catalog uses the same text for every product.

If people know they need a 1/2″ I.P.S. pole coupler, and they know the product number, they can find it on the BEGA site without being bothered by much interfering text. And when they get to the page, all it says is that it’s a pole coupler that can be easily installed to poles. As if our target audience didn’t already know that!