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.