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3 Lessons From the Online News Community

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Like many strategic Twitter users, I organize my TweetDeck columns by topics I want to follow. Recently, I noticed tweets from the Block by Block News Summit (#bxb11), an annual gathering of online news publishers, editors and other staff. I attended the conference last year when I was working at a community news organization.

As I followed these tweets, I thought about the similarities among local, independent news organizations and many non-media businesses. Despite a fundamental difference in vision, both groups aim to tell compelling stories, gain trust and grow their loyal customer base. Here are three themes that emerged from the #bxb11 tweets, lessons that could be useful for any business.

1. Watch your language.

This tweet came from a session about selling ads, but it applies to web copy, too. Yes, we want users to submit their information. We want them to commit. So what’s wrong with using these words in your calls to action and other copy?

They give potential customers a chance to reconsider. While you want to convey a sense of urgency with bold, straightforward calls to action, you have to consider what kind of language might turn people off; for example, copy that:

  • appears to threaten their control over the transaction
  • conveys a lack of security or safety
  • indicates they’re not getting a good value

User-centered copy considers what’s in it for the customer (why should they fill out the form, click the button?), reduces anxiety (“money-back guarantee,” “no obligation”) and signals what will happen when they click the button. So instead of “Submit,” consider a more strategic call to action like “Join Now,” “Review Order,” “Download Now” or “Get Your Free Quote.”

Of course, because factors like size, color and placement can affect conversion, always test to find out what works for you. Twitter, after all, abandoned “Let me in” and “Give it a try” for the standard “Sign In,” which suggests that clever copy isn’t always the way to go.

2. Get personal.

In the age of automated confirmations and standard-message replies, it’s easy to forget that behind all businesses are people. Remind them by adding some warmth to the correspondence. Personalizing an email can be as simple as including dynamic first and last name fields in the opening or a first name in the subject line, but there are opportunities beyond that.

Junior Copywriter Jamie Least was impressed recently when she received a handwritten note included with an item she bought on eBay. Donate to Thistle Farms and you’ll get a thank you note signed by the program’s participants. These gestures do more than show the names behind the brand; they acknowledge the individuality of each customer.

Such personal attention isn’t always feasible, but treating your customers like humans is. Some ways to do this: Write with personality, use language that’s accessible and stay away from marketing-speak.

3. Mobile isn’t coming — it’s here.

According to Google, more than half of all Americans will have a smartphone by the end of this year. And in a few short years, according to the IDC, most people accessing the Internet will do so from a mobile device.

Media consultant Amy Gahran, who gave a presentation on mobile media at Block by Block, explained that mobile devices aren’t just lightweight laptops.

We may not know exactly what the future of mobile will look like, but we do know that people’s expectations of and interaction with mobile websites and apps are evolving. Services and information become more integrated with our routine when they can be accessed anywhere, anytime

As Gahran says on her blog, “Ultimately, you want your news/info to be woven into the fabric of [readers’] lives, accessible wherever they are.” For news and non-media businesses, this is an opportunity to become a part of your customer’s daily habits.

Companies can take a note from online news organizations. While legacy media has generally been stuck in their ways about how things are supposed to be done, local online publishers have no such institutional memory — which means they can build with a mobile-first mindset.

So, what could online news organizations learn from us?

It seems they’re on the right track.