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Why We Have To Dumb Down Our Technical Writing When We’re Trying To Sell. ( A Y Combinator Website Marketing Tune-up.

by Paul Montreal. Average Reading Time: about 12 minutes.

Website Marketing Tune-up

This week I’m looking at Fred’s website He’s part of a Y-Combinator start-up, helping companies test their websites and apps to avoid embarrassing bugs. What I love about these guys, is that while I’m making my notes (and before I could do screenshots), they’re already running experiments with better copy. So, I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about one particular idea that comes up in a lot of tech start-ups…

Rainforest QA Y-Combinator Website Teardown.

Click for full size image of homepage.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The first thing I noticed when I scanned the homepage was the level of technical language, and the number of acronyms vs the number of human faces.

We often overestimate the value of technical terms and industry jargon. But they can really damage our sales, and in this situation, selling is what we’re trying to do.

There’s a big difference between “kind of understanding” what something means and really comprehending what it means.

And further than that, there’s a difference between comprehending what something means and really feeling it on an emotional level. Feeling it enough to take action.

We make a number of mistakes when it comes to using jargon.

First of all, we presume that the person scanning our sales material will instantly understand the phrases that we spent days or weeks pouring over. Meanwhile, there’s a good chance they’ve never even heard of the technology or method that we’re trying to explain.

We presume that the person we’re trying to sell our technology to, is a lifelong master at the job he or she is doing. “Of course they will understand all these acronyms, they’re common in our industry”. But most people are not cruising through life as dedicated masters of their chosen profession. Most people are actually muddling along. (Even the smart folk, even the folk at the top.)

Most people are not certain at all about half the industry terms they hear. Terms being thrown around by the press, writers, consultants and talking heads.

Half the stuff we’re talking about today didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Consider this – half the people you’re trying to sell to, didn’t hold the position they have 3 years ago. They are working in companies that hadn’t been started 5 years ago. Often in industries that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

And even if you do really understand your customer – the engineer or expert who lives and breathes your technical language – they aren’t going to be the only ones who have to approve your sale. There’s a good chance that their manager or CEO will be more people-focused and less technical in outlook.

There may be several people who are part of the decision-making process. People who will want to scan your pitch, and quickly understand its value.

For 20, 30, 40 years those human beings – the people reading your pitch – will have been using a certain number of simple words every single day. They comprehend those simple words on a deep level. But then, when it comes to selling our products, we often pull out the “Sunday Best Words”. The fancy words we use when the Vicar comes for tea. The words we think make us sound smarter. Or worst of all, the words we just invented to sound like we’re so smart that we can invent our own words!

But our job isn’t to sound so smart that our customers get left behind. Our job is to sell.

And that means our job is to communicate a problem and a solution. In such simple terms that not only do they comprehended it, but they feel it. They feel it in their gut and that feeling creates action.

So what do we need to remember when writing our copy?

  • It’s not a competition to prove how smart we are, it’s a competition to understand our customer deeply and tap into existing feelings.
  • We should make our user feel more intelligent in our presence, not less intelligent.
  • We have to presume our user has just landed in their job position and our role is to help them excel at it.

Always start a conversation with the most basic definitions.

For example, I’m a marketing guy. I work with people from around the world. Many of them consider themselves to be life-long marketing experts. Many of them are famous marketing teachers. But despite all that experience and expertise, they all use completely different definitions for the word “marketing” itself!

So, whenever I sit down with someone (whoever they are, and however long they’ve been in the industry), I define for them what I mean by the most basic terms I’m going to use. Starting with “marketing”. And I tell them why THEY should give a damn about it.

It never fails to create more clarity, trust and a deeper understanding of how we can work together.

Always dig down until you find the relevant emotion.

Especially when you’re selling technology, it’s easy to think that you’re in the technology game. But you aren’t in the technology game. You’re in the problem-solving game. And if you dig down beyond the abstract terms like “Quality Assurance” and “Continuous Development”, then you’ll find a human problem. And with human problems come human emotions.

A “negative” emotion is the brain’s way of shoring up an inadequate skill set. Wherever you find the emotion, you’ll find the opportunity to help. The opportunity to create value. The opportunity to make a sale.

In this case, the real motivation – the feeling that will actually drive people to act – is likely something closer to avoiding the embarrassment that comes from making mistakes. Now, don’t take my word for this, because I haven’t done the work to understand your customers on a deep level, but this might help illustrate the process that you can follow yourself.

People do “quality assurance” so that they don’t release sites full of “bugs” … which customers will “complain about” … which will make them feel “less skilled” and “less valuable in the community” … which causes the sense of “embarrassment”, a mild form of “shame”.

Make no mistake, you’re in the “avoiding embarrassment business” not just the “quality assurance business”.

And whenever there’s an emotion that some people will be driven to avoid, you’ll also find a mirror emotion, that other people will be drawn towards. Most people avoid pain, some move towards pleasure. But it really depends on the product, the market and the type of customer.

Either way, the technology is really just a way for them to feel an emotion. So, you have to really know what those emotions are and you have to put them upfront.


Ease into the acronyms.

Imagine that our customer is a super smart engineer at the top of their game. But that engineer has to get their CEO to sign-off on our technology.

Our goal is to have that CEO feel the need for our solution on a deep level. Not to make him think, not to make him feel dumb.

So, if you must use jargon, educate him as you go.

I’d say something like…

“You know that Quality Assurance (QA) is really all about catching the bugs before you launch. We all want to be proud of the products we’re producing and avoid the embarrassment that comes with breaking the website…”

Now, that copy isn’t going to win any awards, I’m just trying to illustrate the idea. Instead of diving into just using the acronym “QA”, we’re reminding them that “QA” actually stands for “Quality Assurance”. AND we’re reminding them why they should care about Quality Assurance. On a deep, personal, emotional level.

Personally, I’d try to avoid all but the most basic acronyms entirely. They almost always add a level of abstraction to your sales copy that’s going to hurt. But if you must use them, remind your reader, two or three times, what the acronym really means, before using just the abbreviation.

Let’s look at this emotional stuff in a bit more detail.

We have to remember to link the features of our technologies, to the very human benefits that people are going to experience.

Don’t forget it’s people who buy stuff from other people. And they buy stuff because they want personal benefits. They want their boss to pat them on the back and increase the value of their share options. So they can buy a better house for their wife and kids, and feel like they finally proved their value to Mom and Pop.

Your customers do not lie awake at night worrying about things like “QA-as-a-service API’s”.

They worry about their ability to execute their job because it gives them a sense of value. They worry about their standing within their family. They worry about what the neighbours think. They worry about their position in the wider community. They feel like they’re constantly having to make decisions about things they only half understand.

So, help them. Be their friend. Be their ally.

We have to go really deep into understanding who each of our customers is, and what their personal motivations are. We have to go all the way to the murky, emotional bottom. I know that we often think they are intelligent, educated professionals, who make logical decisions based on rational thought. But they are, in fact, human beings.

Copy tweaks.

Let’s look at a copy example that ties some of these ideas together.

Here’s the original headline and sub-header of the homepage as I made my initial notes…

Fast and simple QA
We automate your functional and integration testing with our QA-as-a-Service API. Human testing at the speed of automation.

Here’s the direction I’d start testing in…

Rainforest makes it easier to launch bug-free websites and apps.
Tap into 50,000 sets of human eyes. Catch bugs early, launch proud and avoid embarrassing mistakes. It’s Quality Assurance in plain English.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, before I got a chance to do my screenshots, Rainforest (without any communication with me) changed their homepage headline and title. That’s great. It’s shows they’re continuously testing. And I think their new test, which may be one of many, is a step in the right direction. (But is still going for short and clever over long and clear). It currently reads..

Deploy faster without breaking things
On-demand, human testing at the speed of automation.

OK, let’s point out a few things I think Rainforest are doing well, with minor adjustments to make them even better…

Website Environmentalism.

I love that there’s a real picture of an actual customer alongside the testimonial on the homepage. I’d love to see more of those. A lot more.

Every time you remove an acronym or a jargony word, you improve the environment a little bit. But to make it flourish you have to also plant lots of faces. Faces are like blossoming trees in the desert.

It’s interesting that even in testimonials, people increase the technical nature of their language, unless you encourage them to do otherwise.

Testimonial collection is a serious business. But when asked to sit down and write something, especially when we know it’s related to selling, we often start using those “Sunday Best Words” again.

Encourage people to tell you “in plain English” what they think of your product and the benefits they’ve received. You’ll not only get more natural sounding testimonials, but you’ll get an insight into what people really value.

Secret Squirrel Stuff
to view this part of the content. (It is the best bit! Muhahaha).

Summary: What comes next?

A lot of the technologies win because they’re first to market. But that’s rarely an advantage that lasts for long.

It’s always worth thinking about the long-term plan as well. What else have we got? When the polish has worn off and there are a half-dozen competitors in the same space, why will people stick with us?

That’s usually a human element. A matter of personality, of character. Trust. Support. A deep understanding of the customer and their individual needs. And that is something which has to be developed, practiced and most of all experienced by your customers over time. So, it should be baked in there from the start.

I don’t quite feel that yet. I see an understanding of a technology and a process. But I don’t see or feel an understanding of the people who will be using it on the other end.

Knowing your customers deeply is hard work. But it’s really the only long-term game.

Owning a place in your customer’s mind requires a deep appreciation of who they are, and the struggles they face. Only then can we make products that really change their lives and help them achieve their very personal, very non-technical life goals.

That’s what marketing is really all about for me.

This one was all about the details. Overall, I really respect what these guys are doing. They’re testing, adapting and actively seeking solutions, so I’m excited to see how they develop.

Until next week, stay the course, see it through, make your mark!

More Y-Combinator Tune-ups…

What’s At The Heart Of Your Website? A Technology, Or The People Who Will Use It? (

It’s All About The Feels. A Website Marketing Tune-Up To Hack The Housing Market. (

Website not giving you the results you expected? How about some non-judgemental feedback from a fresh set of eyes? Apply for an online marketing tune-up with Paul Montreal

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