When I wrote articles for regional business newspapers back in the day (they were called business journals, i.e., Springfield Business Journal and Lincoln Business Journal), one criterion for the assignment was word count. I needed to stick to that number and get to the point before my word limit was up.
Every two months, my article would make the front page, and it needed to fit in the upper right section, starting above the newspaper’s fold.
Today, we don’t have to squeeze our words into printed newspapers’ limited space. The Internet offers freedom! And yet, as business-to-business companies, we’re still obsessed with word count.
In describing the project’s scope, a chief marketing officer often says, “I only want 500 words.” Why only 500 words?
There is disparity about how long content should be. In a blog post, Neil Patel breaks down the word count for each industry’s content. And he concludes no magic number exists.
“Word count is not a standalone ranking factor. Word count only has merit if the content quality is high!” says Neil Patel
So what do we need to pay attention to instead?
Our reader’s level of awareness.
Consider this report about visitors’ behavior when they go online:
“People are not likely to read your content completely or linearly. They just want to pick out the information that is most pertinent to their current needs.” How People Read Online: The Eyetracking Evidence report, 2nd edition
And according to Kate Moran, a User Experience expert for Nielson Norman Group:
“The #1 biggest mistake in writing for the web is not understanding the people who will be reading the content.”
The first question to ask yourself is:
Who is your reader?
And do you know the second question to ask?
Michael Masterson and John Forde, master copywriters, say this question is often unasked by marketers, yet makes the biggest difference in engagement and sales.
What does my prospect already know?
Asking this question at the start will help us avoid the curse of knowledge, a natural psychological tendency that happens when we assume everyone has the same level of knowledge as we do about a product and service.
Too much information confuses and overwhelms our reader. They stop reading and look for another company to help them.
“(We) should be giving you (the reader) just enough information to be useful, then a little more, then a little more,” write Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
And when we do this well, we’ll begin to chip away at the greatest challenge of business-to-business: being customer-focused.
“Gallup research shows that fewer than three in 10 customers (29%) across B2B industries are “fully engaged,” meaning they are emotionally and psychologically attached to the B2B companies they do business with.
The other customers are indifferent (60%), not caring about a company one way or the other, or they are actively disengaged (11%).” Gallup
Gene Schwartz’s 5 Stages of Awareness
We need to think about our goal. And our goal helps us decide what to say. It’s the foundation of writing messages readers will read and understand.
He described 5 primary stages, or states, of awareness that your visitors or prospects may have:
5 Stages of Awareness
- Completely Unaware
- Problem Aware / Pain Aware
- Solution Aware
- Product Aware
- Most Aware
My fellow business-to-business copywriter, Joel Klettke, summarizes the framework in his blog post.
“For each stage, you meet the prospect where they’re at and help them move along the stages of awareness before you can close the deal.”
How do the stages of awareness work in real life?
Let’s take an example. Imagine you are the owner of a local bike shop. A person called Mike lives in your town. He isn’t your customer (yet), but you would like him to be. Here are the stages Mike experiences on the journey to becoming your customer.
Stage 1: Completely Unaware. Clueless.
Prospect: “I don’t have a clue.”
The prospect is not aware of his need for your product or service. This is a cold prospect. As Melissa Bolton, copywriter, says:
“They don’t know who you are, what you sell, or even that they have a problem that needs solving.”
Mike hasn’t heard of your shop and doesn’t know he’s missing out on the benefits of bike riding. “What is a bicycle?” Mike asks. So talking about bikes – brand names, prices, or features — is a waste of words.
Stage 2: Problem Aware / Pain Aware. Painful.
Prospect: “I have a problem.”
Here, the prospect is becoming aware of his problems. He’s facing his pain. He recognizes he has a need. He hasn’t yet connected your product with resolving his pain, however. Ted Vrountas, content writer at Instapage wrote:
“Before your prospect can choose a solution, they must first realize they have a problem.”
Mike is pondering, I don’t have a car and I don’t want to ride public transportation. I’d like to be more physically fit, but I don’t want to jog to work. How will I get to work every day?
At this stage, Mike is expressing his needs for alternative transportation and better fitness. Your communication needs to center on his pain and problems.
Stage 3: Solution Aware. A solution exists.
Prospect: “I’m seeking a solution to solve my problem.”
Not only does the prospect know his problem, but he also realizes a solution exists to help him solve his problem. He knows the results he wants but is unaware that you or your product will deliver what he needs.
Mike is thinking to himself, Riding a bike is what I need to do. I can ride a bike to work, and I’ll get more fit doing so. What do I need to know to choose a bike? What do I need to ride a bike?
As this stage unfolds, Mike is seeking answers to his questions. Your goal is to provide resources that address his concerns, worries, and doubts.
Stage 4: Product Aware. A product fulfills my needs.
Prospect: “Which product or service is right for me?”
Gene Schwartz wrote:
“Here, your prospect isn’t completely aware of all your product does, or isn’t convinced of how well it does it, or hasn’t yet been told how much better it does it now.”
At this point, the prospect knows about competitive products, but he’s still gathering information. He’s learning more about the products available and what they deliver.
So Mike is weighing his options. He’s asking, “Which bicycle is right for me?” He’s discovered a hybrid (a mix between a road bike and a mountain bike) is good for commuting. After some research, he forms a wish list:
- Hybrid bike with flat handlebars
- Upright rider position
- Black metallic aluminum frame
- 21-speed drivetrain
- Mudguards, a rack and lights
“Most marketers believe prospects need more content to make a decision that they actually do,” according to Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer for Corporate Visions, Inc., in his compilation of 18 CMO.com exclusive insights that every marketer should know:
So be careful. You want to give prospects not only the right amount of information, but also the right message that helps them choose you. He says:
“You want to zero in on those areas where you do something that is important to the customer, and it is unique or advantaged capability – or you deliver it in a better way.
We call this finding your value wedge. In short, resist the instinct to pile on more information than your prospects and customers need.”
Stage 5: Most Aware. Hyperaware.
Prospect: “What’s the offer and when can I get it?”
Oh, hurray! The prospect is fully aware of your product or service. He is ready to buy. So give him the name of the product and the offer. Then, get out of his way, so he can choose you.
Mike knows what he wants. He comes into your store and says, “I’m buying a Giant Escape 3 flat bar hybrid bicycle.” Because you demonstrate excellent customer service, Mike becomes your bike shop’s biggest fan.
Concentrate on what your reader knows
Define your reader and focus on his state of awareness. Write the words you need to write to guide him along the 5 stages of awareness from being a clueless prospect to a happy customer. And remember…
“People don’t want to waste time or effort online. As long as we’re designing content that acknowledges that reality and helps to direct people to only the information they want, we’ll be on the right track.” Nielson Norman Group
What is a good example of content that fits your level of knowledge when you were seeking information online?
Image: Heads, a collage by Claire Downey