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Just before the New Year, I was having lunch with my good friend, a restaurateur; I'll call him Chef M. We were eating at one of Chef M's two highly regarded, very successful neighborhood bistros in Portland, OR. My rockfish was a gorgeous plate of buttery, flaky goodness. Across the table, his duck confit looked scary delicious.

We were meeting to discuss some Web site/blog/social media ideas for his soon-to-be-launched third restaurant, scheduled to open this spring. (Yes, notwithstanding the end of capitalism as we know it, he is opening a third restaurant.)

The food was delicious, but the lessons were even better. The choreography of the dining room staff—all alert anticipation—coupled with Chef M's insights into how successful restaurants work, provided invaluable lessons that I thought were applicable elsewhere. The whole vibe was thought-provoking and terrific.

If the walls could talk, they would have said, "We like what we're doing here, we do it well and we like sharing it with our customers."

As I listened to Chef M talk, I became convinced that the fragile nature of the restaurant business has more than a few things in common with the fragile nature of doing business on the Web.

What Is the Menu Telling You?

A restaurant is either clean and bright... or it's not, yes? It is either tastefully laid out, welcoming and warm, or is too slick and clever for its own good or perhaps it's dumpy and stuck in a time warp. It serves fresh food or not. Maybe it serves processed, poorly prepared dreck. Through menu, wine list, service, décor, and value, a restaurant reflects a keen understanding (and respect) of its core customers. Or, it does not.

I'm sure that each of us, from personal experience, can point to any number of examples all along the good-experience/bad-experience continuum in dining. What comes to mind for me is a long-ago disaster in Albuquerque that involved an uncooked cheeseburger. If only I could forget.

One of the morsels of insight from Chef M that day was that any restaurant—most especially those not run by world-famous chefs—has to maximize every possible opportunity to win people over and to persuade them to return. The Gordon Ramsays, Mario Batalis, and Thomas Kellers of the world can afford to make a few mistakes (although they make far fewer than most) because their brand is so strong and they're so widely known. The margin of error for them is just a bit wider.

But that place in your neighborhood? They can't afford mistakes. While they might have less-discerning customers than the big dogs, they still have to treat every customer like gold, because the brand and reputation they own is less powerful and thus more fragile. They are much more dependent on a collection of positive individual experiences, good restaurant reviews... and word-of-mouth: "Hey, have you been to River Bistro? You have to go, it's fabulous."

Your Homepage: An Appealing Appetizer of Possibility

So let's consider the moment when someone lands on your Web site. Just as in the restaurant, your Web site is either clean or cluttered. It is welcoming or not, packed with everything you can think to throw up there... or laid out with just the right information—an appealing appetizer of possibility.

The visitor feels understood and knows what to do because the design and the copy help her understand all of that and more. And, just like a well-regarded, high-functioning restaurant, the site reflects a keen understanding of, and respect for, its core customers. Visitors enjoy their stay and they come back often. They tell their friends. All that is true of course only if your site treats each visitor like gold—as if your entire business depends on each visit... because, in a way, it does.

Restaurant goers and Web site visitors are trying to accomplish something: They want to feel good about their decision, and they want value. Most people don't want to be intimidated. They want to be informed and educated in an informal and respectful way. Who can blame them?

Good restaurants and good Web sites do one thing well—they present clear, organized, and attractive choices. They don't overwhelm you.

A Good Restaurant Is About More Than the Food

One of the more interesting things I learned at lunch that day was that, as a general rule, service trumps food.

The food is important, no question, but the best food in the world is going to have a heck of a time overcoming poor service, poor presentation, and a disorganized dining room. Conversely, decent presentation, good service, and an organized dining room will take at least some of the sting out of sitting down to a mediocre meal. Context is everything.

So how does this translate to your online business?

Good Writing on the Web Is About More Than the Words

In my work as a copywriter, one of the biggest challenges I face with clients has to do with the idea of thinking only about the words. Or maybe it's more precise to say that words and copy are seen in isolation: Too often, the perception of the problem is very narrowly focused—"If we can just get the words right, if we can nail down the language, everything will be good."

That would be great if it were true, but it isn't.

That's the same sort of thinking that says, "If our food is beyond reproach, then all will be well." Well, sure: If you have a restaurant, you have to nail down the food. But can you get the dish to the table hot? Can your staff pair the dish with the right wine? Can you handle complaints? Can you deliver your core product quickly and efficiently again and again, day in and day out? Can you deliver what your client wants even before your client knows what he wants?

When an online business simply focuses on one thing (the words) to the exclusion of all else (design, functionality, layout, and presentation)—it's a recipe for failure.

My Meat-and-Potatoes Advice for 2009

In the same way that good food cannot survive crummy service, the best copy out there cannot survive a poorly designed Web site. Good copy cannot survive poor delivery, lack of styling, low functionality, and lousy execution and presentation. It is a totality of experience that people are craving. Mark my words. Give your customers a full meal and they'll keep coming back for more.

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image of Richard Pelletier

Richard Pelletier is a writer for business. He's from the East Coast but now lives in Seattle. He is principal conductor at Lucid Content. He is one charming cat living with two sometimes difficult kitties.

LinkedIn: Richard Pelletier

Twitter: @lucidcontent