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Improving copy; an easy way to increase user interaction August 5, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, copy, interaction, Internet, usability, viral, viral marketing, web 2.0.

Wired’s August edition has a good article about how newspapers are putting their readers to work which is worth reading. But one section that jumped out at me has broader applicability:

A GetPublished! button features prominently on many Enquirer Web pages, and the submissions land in Parker’s queue. They almost never resemble anything commonly considered journalism.

“It used to read, ‘Be a Citizen Journalist,'” Parker says. “And no one ever clicked on it. Then we called it ‘Neighbor to Neighbor,’ and still nothing. For some reason, ‘Get Published’ was the magic phrase.”

Changing copy can make a huge difference in your level of user interaction.

Direct marketers have known about the importance of good copy for years. Good email marketers constantly test and refine subject lines to improve open rates. Many best practices in email marketing subject lines have evolved that are often directly applicable to other areas. The same is true of the best lead generation businesses who are constantly tweaking their landing page copy and form-fill flow to maximize the completion rate.

Copy can improve interaction rates in media businesses as well as these more transactional examples. Another example is in social media optimization (an element of search engine optimization). For example, this list of the top 101 advertising headlines ever written (top 10 excerpted here):

1. They laughed when I sat down at the piano – but when I started to play!
2. They grinned when the waiter spoke to me in French – but their laughter changed to amazement
at my reply.
3. Do you make these mistakes in English?
4. Can You Spot These 10 Decorating Sins?
5. How a “fool stunt” made me a star salesman
6. How a strange accident saved me from baldness
7. Who else wants a screen star figure?
8. Who else wants a lighter cake – in half the mixing time?
9. Free to brides – $2 to others
10. Free to high school teachers – $6 to others

may seem dated, but many of them follow the same rules for headlines that help your article get Dugg today.

Email virality and other forms of viral marketing can also often be tuned and improved through better copy. When dealing with email invitations from friends, more social messages may be more effective than the hard-sell/call-to-action type copy of the examples linked to above. For example, Flixster (a Lightspeed portfolio company) asks in the email subject:

Do we like the same movies?

while Tagged‘s subject line is

[Friend] has Tagged you 🙂

In both cases the actual copy is important, but more important is the fact that the companies constantly A:B test their copy to optimize and improve their conversion rates.

The takeaway here is that, although technology startups full of top notch engineers often look to improving the product to improve user interaction rates, sometimes something as simple as a change in words can have much the same result.

I’d like to hear from readers of examples of how small changes in copy improved their user interaction rates. [Note the call to action!]

The Prisoner’s Dilemma in online advertising August 1, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in ad networks, advertising, Consumer internet, economics, video, web 2.0, widgets.

I posted previously about how increased innovation in online advertising is driving up costs. Online media companies would generally prefer more standarization and less customization in online advertising; this makes their processes more scalable and keeps their costs down. However, they face a prisoner’s dilemma situation that has made it hard to drive standardization as an industry.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a staple of game theory classes. Wikipedia summarizes the problem as follows:

Two suspects, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both stay silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. So this dilemma poses the question: How should the prisoners act?

Classic game theory predicts that in a single instance of the game, the dominant strategy is to betray your accomplice. However, if the game is repeated, the best strategy for rational players repeatedly interacting for indefinitely long games can lead to sustaining the cooperative outcome.

The Wikipedia article cites several real world examples of the prisoner’s dilemma, including one involving cigarette advertising.

When cigarette advertising [on TV and radio] was legal in the United States, competing cigarette manufacturers had to decide how much money to spend on advertising … cigarette manufacturers endorsed the creation of laws banning cigarette advertising [on TV and radio], understanding that this would reduce costs and increase profits across the industry.

While not advocating that we use cigarette companies as a role model, I believe that the online advertising industry currently faces a similar opportunity to reduce costs and increase profits over the issue of increasing customization in online advertising that I posted about last week.

So how does this relate to the prisoners dilemma? Rather than the police asking suspects to confess, advertisers are asking online media companies for costly custom advertising. If one media company is willing to customize and its competitor isn’t, then the customizing company is more likely to win the deal.

But if both companies customize then creative and production costs go up while the size of the ad spend does not. More money is spent on creating the campaign, and less goes to buying media. Thus both media companies suffer.

If neither company customizes, then less money is spent on creative and more goes to buying media and filling the online media companies’ coffers.

To make this situation more complicated, there aren’t just two prisoners who need to cooperate, but rather many online media companies. With many players, it can be very hard to drive towards a cooperative outcome.

For media companies, the “cooperation” case means adhering to a set of standards in creative format. While this doesn’t eliminate the costs of creative, it does at least set boundaries to help control creative costs.

While these standards exist in banner advertising, (728×90, 300x 250, 160×600 etc), they do not yet exist in other, newer forms of online advertising (including social media marketing, widget marketing, online video marketing, and casual immersive world marketing). But through the IAB, we saw standards eventually emerge in banner advertising, and hopefully we will see the IAB and other standards bodies (perhaps the newly formed Widget Marketing Association?) help set standards within the newer forms of online advertising as well.

This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the industry to converge to a stable “cooperative” equilibrium in this version of the prisoner’s dilemma. I’ve campaigned for standards in social network advertising before.

What else do readers think can be done to promote cooperation?