How Users Read on the Web is an article from 1997 on writing style, formatting and language – and research on what worked best for websites. It’s old, but I’d still put stock in it, just from how tired I still get after reading hyped, flashy, marketing copy.
Here are some highlights:
People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.
[W]e found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.
Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links.
Users detested “marketese”; the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims (“hottest ever”) that currently is prevalent on the Web. Web users are busy: they want to get the straight facts. Also, credibility suffers when users clearly see that the site exaggerates.
Check out the table with test results for how changing writing style improved usability. Their theory of why it happened hit home for me:
Our conjecture to explain this finding is that promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts “Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,” their first reaction is no, it’s not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site.
Much of the time, we take a pragmatic approach to communicating with our users – as in: “Here’s a situation. Here’s what they need to know. Let’s tell them.” And much of the time, our circumstances are so simple, we get away with not fussing more.
Other times, it pays to consider a user’s emotions and mindset in a given situation, particularly when the stakes are high, a subject is touchy, a topic is complicated, or if the brand we represent is less than trusted.
The company who run MailChimp (a diy email newsletter service) run an interactive handbook of common communication scenarios, what users are feeling in those scenarios, and simple tactics for adapting your language to address those feelings.
All the examples are relative to email marketing, but skimming a few will give you a feel for good ways to cater to your audience’s mood.
When we promoted a product to Chinese audiences in Australia, we were careful to use red (where we’d normally use black) in our marketing material. In Chinese culture, red symbolises life and all sorts of good things – and being the enterprising capitalists we are, we wanted to cash in on some of that.
I hope we were also careful to omit the number 4 from any of our listings, since the word for 4 sounds a lot like the word for death – is thus considered bad luck.
All this languagey-cross-culturey stuff reminds me of the Pajero thing – here, have something to read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brand_blunder