Using the right language to keep online buyers interested

You’ve got your customers where you want them: at the checkout and ready to part with their cash. Game over, right? Or could the language you use put them off at the final hurdle?

The online shopping journey has changed radically since the mid-1990s, when the very thought of entering our credit card details online would have thrown most of us into a tailspin, let alone the idea of a device remembering what we had been looking for a few days ago.

The fact we now refer to this process as a journey is telling enough in itself. And the language we use to speak to customers during the journey has evolved, too.

“Microcopy (the snippets of text we use to guide a customer through our website) is a key consideration at every stage,” says Paul Williams, associate director of marketing and digital at Jelf Small Business, “but none more so than at the point of payment. Having worked hard to get the visitor to the site in the first place to choose a product, it’s vital that you look after the final part of your customer experience. Failing to do so could see you lose them and with it all of your effort.”

With this in mind, Williams adds: “We try to make the words we use work hard all the way throughout our site. We signpost the next steps with as few words as possible while being clear and obvious on what will happen next. And we test our approach over and over again, always striving to find a better way to communicate while reinforcing our brand and style. Testing variations in the way you communicate, like using ‘Get started’ instead of ‘Quote now’, and ‘Make a payment’ instead of ‘Pay now’, is something you should always try to do.”

Steve Gatto, managing partner of customer experience agency Rosetta, says: “We are seeing an increase in the same consistent brand language on e-commerce sites.” He adds: “But there are some terms unique to e-commerce, such as exclusivity, loyalty and promotional content. You also see a sense of urgency and things are time-based and often seasonal.”
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There are certainly no-nos to avoid, says Gatto: “Historically, people have pigeon-holed service after the sale, but now we are reinforcing this through all stages of the customer purchasing life cycle.” Terms around service are reinforced early on and words such as ‘commitment’ are avoided.”

Limitation terms are reinforced at the end of the checkout process, if at all. Jonathan Lovatt-Young, head of service and experience design at Tribal Worldwide, London, agrees. He says: “A test I have run several times with significant UK and European retailers is switching the words ‘Buy now’ to ‘Start my order’. The hypothesis is to reduce the barrier to entry and feel like the process can be part-completed.”

There are some great examples of companies who do the language of e-commerce very well, says Gatto. “The Luxottica group, a premium fashion, luxury and sports eyewear company [which owns the likes of Oakley], for example. Sunglasses are lifestyle choices so the same brand terminology relating to image and lifestyle is used. But what you see with them is language that reflects the brand as an extension of the person’s lifestyle. They are also big fans of the word ‘always’; ‘always free returns’, ‘always free fittings’, all things that make it easy for the buyer.”

He also commends the VF Corporation [which owns Timberland and Vans], which uses a lot of branded content relating to the younger demographic and personalises its content effectively, including whole sections dedicated to imagining you lived in an entirely different city and wore different clothes, and when you get to the checkout, it reminds you that you’re checking out securely.

Similarly, US site Moosejaw uses funny and informal language to create a bond with the user. This is from its returns policy: “If you aren’t thrilled with your purchase, you can return it at any time as long as it’s still in ‘sellable condition’ which means that the item should be unworn (aside from trying it on), unwashed, and devoid of any stains, scuffs, tears or mysterious smells.”

It’s an area that is starting to fascinate academics. Dr Diane Nelson is a senior lecturer in linguistics at Leeds University. She says: “In face-to-face interaction with strangers we are maximally polite to avoid people losing face but in a context with no face-to-face interaction, there are certain registers where brusqueness is appropriate, for example road signage, where communication needs to be maximally efficient but not polite.” She says a good example of this is cookbooks, which are written in the (relatively rude) imperative mood, “but users expect to be bossed around a bit so we don’t take offence from the cookbook author”.

But in the case of e-commerce, says Nelson, the fact that there is buying and selling going on means that politeness is appropriate again and you will tend to find commands such as “No, thank you” and “Please proceed” in checkout situations. Nelson adds: “However, excessive politeness really doesn’t work in an e-commerce transaction and I think the most successful companies are the ones who tailor it to their demographic.”
Do

• Personalise your language.
• Keep your e-language consistent with your overall brand communication.
• Keep it short and snappy.
• Use terms that indicate a journey or a next step to allow the user to feel they can opt out at any time.
• Use words that indicate you are helping customers.
• Use words that indicate community and trust.
Don’t

• Use commitment-laden terms.
• Use words that indicate finality unless absolutely necessary (and the process is over).
• Use passive constructions if you can help it.
• Be afraid to be funny.

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