Marketers often think their online writing is inviting. But to readers it can feel like falling into a hidden temple where the walls are spewing poison darts and they're being pursued by a big, bone-crushing boulder.

I'm talking about GDPR banners. Popups that show before the content. Misleading headlines. Email capture forms. Gates. Non sequiturs. Needless philosophizing. Language so maddeningly imprecise it says everything and nothing at once.

It's a struggle out there for the reader who was promised an answer and found the article or post booby-trapped.

There are many reasons the reader experience ends up that way.

Partly, it's too much distance between marketers and their audiences (58% don't talk to customers even when conducting customer marketing).

Teams also forget that readers are people, too, and they crank up the "monetization" dial beyond what's bearable.

And for the most egregious error, consider the example of food recipes you find when searching Google (more on this below). And the most unfortunate part? It's not uncommon in marketing content.

Off-Topic Intros

Let's start with that recipe example. Do you know what I don't want when searching for something as specific as a blood orange salmon recipe? A long, self-indulgent rant that insists I "need more color in my life." The offending article, like nearly every recipe I find via Google, begins with a page-long story about something I did not want, and buries what I did come for (the list of ingredients) at the end. And with an army of popup video ads halting your advance.

The contract between writers and readers is this: When I click, I expect to be told what I was promised I would be told. I will trust you if you do that. But to bait-and-switch is to cause me to remember your domain and avoid it.

To fix: Write introductions that relate to the title. When done, ask, Does this make things easier on the reader, or is it simply the first thing I came up with? Edit. Edit a lot.

As William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, notes, "Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting."

So Packed With Hyperbole I Could Die

The first time a restaurant owner (think "solution provider") tells you they have the best food, it's charming. But if they insist again, unprompted, it becomes alarming. You wonder, What must they know that I'm not seeing? You glance at other patrons. You poke the food. You make eyes at your date that say, "I'll run interference if you grab the check."

This is the situation marketers put readers into when they pack their writing with hyperbole like "so simple anyone with a pulse can figure it out," and exaggerated claims like "we're the only way to grow your business."

At a certain point (and not very far in), big and obviously unsupportable claims have the opposite effect. They telegraph that you're a bit of a cheat. And if you'll lie in small ways, what else would you do? To say you have no competitors is to look foolish when you do. To promise a cure-all is to encourage readers to look for third-party reviews. Tiny mistrusts snowball into skepticism.

To fix: For each point you make, ask, Is this strictly true? If an ungenerous competitor walked my reader through the article, would they find fault? If you can't support a claim, don't make it; at the very least, soften it.

Positively Laden With Sorrowful Adverbs and Adjectives

Most business writing is full of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs—qualifiers like "best," "seamlessly," and "insanely"—meant to dress up the writing. But it's baleful garnish, and readers will wonder what it conceals.

If a major goal of marketing writing is to speed readers along to their destination, too many adjectives are speed bumps and too many adverbs are potholes.

"Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty," writes William Zinsser, "and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons."

Overly written is cliché and forgettable.

And readers don't interpret complex grammatical constructions as a mark of intelligence. Just the opposite: they think the writer is too dense to explain it simply. It upsets them, and they move on to the next Google result.

To fix: Simplify your sentences as much as possible without losing their essential meaning. In the words of Strunk and White, "Omit needless words." If you can delete a word and the sentence's meaning remains the same, leave it out.

Passive-Aggressive Pop-Ups

Perhaps the most terrible trend of all is passive-aggressive UX writing.

I see it most in popups, where my option is to surrender my email or admit "I'm a mealy brained moron and want to pass up this deal because I don't know what's good for me."

Or something like that.

Nope, not ever. You have absolutely no clue what your reader or visitor is going through. The author comes across as spiteful when, too often, the trouble is his own inability to create something worth signing up for.

Not everyone signs up, and not all signups are good. Not everyone's a fit. I question the value of a subscriber who was coerced to join out of a desire not to be called names.

Far better to let the bad-fit visitors decline with dignity lest the good-fit ones, also feeling insulted, also leave.

* * *

Many marketers think their writing is inviting. But when your introductions veer off-topic, your message descends into hyperbole, your text whimpers under the weight of adverbs and adjectives, and your popups serve up passive-aggressive opt-outs... your readers feel as if they're being chased away by big, bone-crushing boulders.

And, when the back button is only a click away, you'd better believe they're running toward it.

Enter your email address to continue reading

Passive-Aggressive Popups and Other Acts of Marketing Self-Sabotage

Don't's free!

Already a member? Sign in now.

Sign in with your preferred account, below.

Did you like this article?
Know someone who would enjoy it too? Share with your friends, free of charge, no sign up required! Simply share this link, and they will get instant access…
  • Copy Link

  • Email

  • Twitter

  • Facebook

  • Pinterest

  • Linkedin

  • AI


image of Chris Gillespie

Chris Gillespie is CEO and editor-in-chief of Find A Way Media, a boutique writing shop that helps B2B brands ditch the jargon and grow by telling great stories.

LinkedIn: Chris Gillespie

Twitter: @cgillespie317