Stop tying yourself up in knots – start thinking like a fish

Ever find yourself stuck doing the mental gymnastics of trying to please everybody with your website? You've talked to everybody who has a stake in the project, from the CEO to the cleaner. You've gathered a very long list of all their ideas and requests. And you can tell that every one of them has a slightly different mental picture of what they really want.

I've been there. I worked in a busy web agency for 8 years and then freelance for many more. And I kept finding myself there, project after project.

Until one day, when a switch flipped in my head and I instantly knew: there's a much simpler way.

That simpler way includes one century-old marketing secret and a simple framework that will make your website 10 times easier to create and 50 times more effective.

* * *

But before we get to that, please answer these two questions as simply as you can:

  1. Why do you have a website?
  2. Who is your website for?

Done? Here are two answers that apply to almost all websites:

  1. We have a website to get <visitors> to <do something that achieves our business goals>
  2. Therefore, our website is for our visitors.

Exactly what your website gets your visitors to do differs, but the principle is universal. Yes, your website is also 'for' your stakeholders, but they're the people who will be reaping the rewards when step 1 works. Usually, they're not the people who'll be actually using the site.

So the very first thing we need to do is:

Identify your critical visitors

  • Business sites want visitors to become customers
  • Charity sites want visitors to donate time or money
  • Blogs want visitors to register for updates
  • Affiliate marketing sites want visitors to click through and buy their affiliated products
  • Advertising-driven sites want visitors to see and/or click adverts

For most websites, there are just one or two critical visitor types. These are the people that actually pay your bills. Either they pay you money or their actions cause you to be paid. They're the people you're in business for – the ones that help you to achieve your business goals.

If you have two critical visitor types, as you'd find on a marketplace website, include both. For instance, eBay wants shoppers to bid in auctions and sellers to post items for auction. But Amazon depends on visitors buying stuff.

Now you have a broad idea of who your critical visitors might be, here's the century-old secret, as shared by advertising legend Gary Bencivenga: [testimonial]Think like the fish, not like the fisherman[/testimonial] If you're a fisherman, you probably don't enjoy eating worms or flies; but the fish do. If you're a fisherman, you'd like to sit at the most comfortable spot on the riverbank; but the fish are finding the most comfortable spot in the water. If you choose bait and location based on your own preferences, you'll catch nothing. You have to work to understand the fish deeply. The more you understand them, and the more you act on that understanding, the more you'll catch. Almost effortlessly.

This means that the only people you need to please are your fish: your critical website visitors.

You're a fisherman. Your CEO's a fisherman. Your marketing department? Fishermen. Everyone in your company wants to catch more fish, but they probably think like fishermen.

Understand the fish

Now we're going to identify some different types of fish that are going to swim past your website. Take a clean sheet of paper or open a new spreadsheet on your computer. In one minute, write down all the website visitors you can think of on the left of the sheet.

Did you write them down? You'll probably have some of these:

  • returning customers
  • new prospects with their wallets open
  • future prospects (too early in the buying cycle to convert today)
  • people looking for the knowledge that we share
  • people who want to contact us
  • prospective employees
  • journalists
  • people who are here by mistake (and will never buy)
  • people who want to complain

So you've got a list now, right? It doesn't have to be comprehensive, but you need to write it down, so if you haven't done it yet, do it now.

Notice that those critical visitors you identified earlier can be divided up by which stage of the buying cycle they're in:

  • researching/considering
  • ready to buy (wallet open)
  • returning to buy again.

Highlight these. They're your critical visitors at different times. Put everyone else in a big jumble underneath (for now at least.) You’re not forgetting them forever, you’re just focusing on the most valuable visitors first.

Get inside your visitors' heads

Now, in a column to to the right of the critical visitors you highlighted, write down what's going on in their heads. What are their intentions? What are they looking for when they come to the website? What do they like? What do they hate? What are they concerned about?

For instance, new prospects often have some of these sorts of intentions:

  • I want to buy a widget for next month / this Wednesday / right now
  • I want to be confident that this company is real and not a scam
  • I want to make sure this company is the best choice for me right now
  • I want to justify my choice to buy from this company (so there's no chance I'll get in trouble with my boss if it turns out to be a mistake)
  • I want to make this purchase easily, with the minimum fuss

Here's a mind-hack to help you get into their heads: think of a related site that you don't know so much about. For instance, if you run an Italy-focused travel site and you're an expert on Italy, try booking a trip somewhere you know nothing about: Spain, China or Suriname. That'll get you much closer to understanding what's going through your visitors' heads. As you make a booking, notice:

  • What did you need to know? 
  • What were your biggest concerns? 
  • What were your expectations? 
  • What excited or intrigued you? 
  • What made you want to close the browser?

Demographics is dead! Long live Psychographics!

Now you've catalogued the intentions of your most important visitors, you'll probably find that a bunch of them overlap. You may even find that groups of customers that you previously thought were completely different are actually similar for the purposes of your website.

I recently worked with a friend who had two disparate demographics to deal with: mothers of autistic children and law-enforcement officials. These two groups are incredibly different, with hugely different lifestyles, very different habits and routines, different age ranges, etc. Everyone on the project assumed that these groups would need separate pages, with some way of separating them at the beginning. But here's the rub: the point of the website was a system of tracking autistic children. In reality, both the mothers and the sheriffs had exactly the same main intention: to monitor and find autistic children who'd got lost. These two demographics that couldn't be more different had a big overlapping zone of sameness in their mindset.

We're throwing away the hoary old tool of demographics and entering the world of psychographics. I'm not talking about the poster for the famous Hitchcock movie. All it means is that we're grouping website visitors by what's going on in their heads, rather than where they live or what year they were born in.

So now you'll probably have 10-15 key intentions. Remember, we're still dealing with only your most important visitors. Remain focused on them.

Plan how you're going to meet their intentions

Start another column to the right of the list of intentions. Brainstorm all your thoughts on how you can meet those intentions. How are you going to answer their questions? What do you need to say or show to inspire confidence? What actions do you need to make really easy?

E.g. for the intention, "I want to be confident that this company is real and not a scam", you might write down some ideas like these:

  • show our address and phone number so they know we're real
  • invite them to phone us up so we can prove we're real!
  • get a Verisign seal or a similar authentication
  • get testimonials from our customers
  • add logos of our well-known customers
  • show that we've been around for a long time and aren't going anywhere
  • ...

Don't Make Them Think

This process will give you lots of ideas for things to include on your site. But you should find that you can leave out a bunch of things you thought you needed. Find this liberating! Let go of all the niggling worries about your non-critical visitors, for now at least. Remember, you’re not forgetting them forever, you’re just focusing on the most valuable people first.

Everything you add to your website that doesn't directly help your critical visitors is getting in their way. Every extra link or navigation item that you include makes your visitors work a little bit harder. [testimonial]Aim to make it easier for your critical visitors to become customers than to leave.[/testimonial] So you're going to take your big list of ideas and prioritise the top 20. Value the low hanging fruit first: the ideas that are going to address the intentions with the least work.

For instance, writing a book demonstrates great authority… but it's going to take a year to do. Whereas you could add your phone number and an invitation to call you to prove you're genuine in under 10 minutes.

Keep all your other ideas in the form of a wish list. You want to remember them so you can try them later. And you want to capture more ideas as they occur to you.

Now it's time to start writing. Take your list of intentions and your list of ideas and close everything on your computer except the simplest text editor you can find.

Hack your way to being human

Most websites seem to be written by business robots. They broadcast lots of buzzwords and gobbledegook but actually wind up saying nothing much. They treat their visitors as a faceless crowd and seem to think we'll be impressed by dispassionate, "professional" writing.

There's a little exercise I've had my clients do for many years now. If you're feeling strong enough, try it with your site now:

  1. Pick up the phone and imagine a prospect has just called you up and asked you, "So, what is it that you do, exactly?"
  2. Now, open up your website and reply only by reading your content out loud into the phone.

Most people I've tried this with are too embarrassed to read very much out loud...

There are actually sound scientific reasons why it's hard for people to write like humans. More on that another time. But fortunately, there are some simple mental hacks you can use to trick your brain into writing more like you speak.

Here's a powerful mind hack I learned from Karl Blanks during my time as a consultant with Conversion Rate Experts. Close your text editor and open your email client. Open the one you use when you email your friends. Choose a friend or family member to write to. If you can, choose one who fits the psychographics of your visitors. Now write a personal email to them that addresses your list of intentions. You're not allowed to add a note explaining the email – just start writing, exactly as if they've asked you who you are, what you do and why they should care.

Once you're done, you hit send. Phone your friend up later and ask them to tell you what they thought. Tell them to be brutally honest. If you find this scary, you're not alone. You're going to be tempted not to hit send. But then you're going to remember this:

If it's bad news, better to hear it right now from a friend than to find out in a few months' time, after missing the mark with thousands of website visitors.

Another handy trick, which is great for people who are better conversationalists than they are writers (lots of salespeople tend to be like this.) It might sound weird, but you can role-play the conversation with a friend or colleague. Ask them to interview you, taking their questions from your intention list. How do you explain what you offer? How do you gently but confidently assuage their concerns?

Record the conversation and get a transcript done. This forms the raw material for your website copy. It's so much easier to take a natural, human conversation and edit it than it is to start with the infamous blank sheet of paper.

It's even better if you can record your top salespeople's calls with customers and pick out the key parts of those conversations.

By the end of this process, you'll have a lot of copy that applies directly to your customers, written from their perspective with their psychographics in mind.

So how do you structure what you've written?

Help your visitors to follow their noses

The common mistake many companies make is to think about their website navigation from the company's own perspective. Your company is organised with an org chart that makes perfect sense to everyone who works there. You have internal language for different roles and departments. I guarantee your visitors will not think in your structure and language.

Take a leap and let go of your perspective. Step into your visitors' heads. Your visitors see your company as a black box with a screen and a phone handset attached. They want to interact with the black box to get the stuff that they want.

Lay a powerful scent trail

Your visitor's end goal is like a big juicy cartoon steak emitting a wisp of aroma. The aroma winds through the hallways of your website like Theseus' string in the minotaur's labyrinth. When it finds the visitor's nose, it's going to grab on and physically drag them to that steak.

Dive once more into your visitors' minds. How do your customers talk about you? What are the trigger words they're looking for? These will show you the scent trails you need to build into your navigation structure.

This is best illustrated with an example. Take an entrepreneurial agency with two products and two services.

  • A product that manages your customers' mailing lists
  • A product that tracks their interactions with clients over time (CRM)
  • A service building mailing lists through content marketing
  • A service designing landing pages

Within the company, the teams that build each product are largely separate from the teams that fulfil the services. They start off by following so many online websites and arrange their navigation like this:

  • Home
  • Products
  • Services
  • About Us
  • Contact Us

There are hundreds of sites like this online. It makes perfect sense internally. But it has very little information scent.

Now think about it from the customer's perspective. How much more it says about what your business can do for them to use navigation headings like these:

  • Home
  • Optimise your landing pages
  • Grow your mailing list
  • Faster CRM for entrepreneurs
  • About Us
  • Contact Us

It takes 50% more space, but it says 1,000% more about you. Your new visitors don't care HOW you're going to solve all their problems, they just want to know that you understand their problems and that you CAN solve them.

Clue: you can make these headings stronger by promising actual results and then backing up those promises. How bold can you be?

Let your navigation tell your story

Your logo, strap line, landing page title and navigation headings are the first things most of your visitors will see. They're the only things some of your visitors will ever see. If a visitor were to scan only those elements, make sure they're going to know what you do and why you're different.

Then make sure that when they click on one of those navigation links, the page they see delivers everything they're hoping for and more besides.

This approach applies throughout your navigation. A classic rule of thumb for headlines is to spend 80% of your time on the headline and 20% on the content. There's a similar split for navigation.

Services are really products

Here's the secret to selling services. Your customer sees them as products. Here's how we see your company:

  1. We want something
  2. Stuff happens (in your offices or server rooms – we don't care)
  3. We get something (hopefully something that surprises and delights us)  

If you offer me a landing page design service, I don't care if I get 2 concepts, 3 iterations and 2 user tests. I don't care that you use Word, Paint or Photoshop. I don't even care exactly how you test and validate it. I just want the end product: enough extra customers that I get a positive return on the investment I made when I hired you.

Think about a plumber. Do you ultimately care how many sprockets, washers or pipe sections the plumber fits? Or whether she uses a plumber's wrench, a blowtorch or a specially trained ferret to do the work? All you care about is the end product: the system that reliably and effortlessly delivers hot and cold water on demand to all the places you need it.

Exactly as many clicks as needed

You've probably heard the old rule that it should take only 3 clicks for your visitors to get to what they want. But extensive research has shown that this is nonsense. The number of clicks is much less important than the strength of the information scent. [testimonial]Five clicks that each move tangibly closer to the goal beat any single mystery click.[/testimonial] [headline]A simple formula for structuring most sites[/headline]

  1. Put yourself in the mind of a critical customer.
  2. Home/Landing Page: grab their attention and tell them your story: what you do, who you do it for and why anyone should care. This guides them into…
  3. More about what you do, structured based on how your customers think. In each section, explain what benefits your customers will get from working with you.
  4. Give strong calls-to-action to help them get what they want – and what you want. This might be registering on your site, buying your product, donating money or downloading a free guide. At the very least, you want to capture their email addresses.
  5. Add contact details including your phone number. Make it easy for customers and prospects to talk to you. Add directions if they need to find your physical store.

And with that, you have a first draft of your website content and structure.

Note that we haven't yet coloured a single pixel or written a single line of HTML code. We haven't even sketched a screen wireframe. That all comes a little later.

Testing will always tell

If you've followed this process, your first draft is probably already better than a lot of the website copy that's out there. But that's not going to be enough. I want your website to be the best it can be.

So now you're going to hone your copy with the whetstone of testing.

Take what you've written and get it in front of real people. People from outside of your company. This can be scary, but it's the single most valuable thing you can do. I'm serious. There's no activity that will bring you more insights per minute.

Three ideas for how to do this right now:

  1. Skype video call with screen-sharing
  2. While you're on the phone with someone, share it as a Google Doc and edit it in front of their eyes
  3. Sit down with someone with your work on your laptop, tablet or print out. You can grab friends at home or strangers in a coffee shop.

The key is that you want real time feedback. Don't just fire off an email and ask for comments. You want to pay attention as they're reading.

Ask your victim volunteer to read it aloud and also to share their thoughts as they go. Look out for sentences they find confusing. Get them to tell you every time their bullshit alarm sounds. And also what they found most convincing or persuasive. Make sure they let you know when they'd stop reading if you weren't sat with them. And what questions they have remaining. Watch out for unsaid cues too – do they sit up or slump? Do their eyes glow or do they glaze over? Especially look for everything you can cut away, while leaving the key information intact.

All these clues will help to guide you as you edit and iterate.

Make notes straight after the test. Every customer you speak to gives you a chance to edit and refine your assumptions. Go back and amend your visitors' intentions list. Add any new ideas for handling the intentions and cross off ideas that don't work.

Repeat until head falls off.

Summary

In case you haven't followed this through step-by-step, here's a quick run down of the 7 steps:

  1. Identify your critical visitors – the ones that bring you money
  2. Understand their intentions and psychographics (think like the fish)
  3. Prioritise how you're going to meet their intentions
  4. Hack your way to writing like a human
  5. Structure the information so your visitors can follow their noses
  6. Let your navigation tell your story
  7. Test your draft… and then keep iterating and improving

If you haven't done it yet, give it a try. It sounds like a lot of work but, in my experience, you can bash out a first draft in short order and it will save you weeks of mucking about and soul-searching later down the line. The last place you want to be on launch day is tearing your hair out in front of a blank screen, trying to write content to fill empty pages.

Try setting a timer for 25 minutes each morning. For those 25 minutes you're going to work through the 7 steps like you're on fire. Don't have 25 minutes? Do it for 15. Do it for 5. Just do it.

Super-summary

OK, if you take nothing else away from this, I want you to leave with these three ideas. Three ideas that will change your life:

1. Think like the fish, not like the fisherman 2. Hack your way to writing like a human 3. Invest in testing for the best returns

Thanks for reading! Please let me know how you got on with this in the comments.