Choose Your Own Adventure: Create Better Websites With These Two Writing Rules


Think back to when you were in grade school. Do you remember the types of writing assignments you were given? There were research papers, book reports, project reports, maybe a little poetry, and then there was creative writing. If you look at the different types of writing styles you learned, you’ll see that there really were only two predominant ways you learned to write in school: Research and creative writing.

The Writing Spectrum

I like to think of writing styles on a spectrum. On the one side you have incredible
objectivity for things like academic papers, literary critiques, or anything that's research based. When you write in this style you are employing literary techniques and writing in the third person or passive voice.

On the other end of the spectrum you have creative writing. Creative writing has the most flexibility when it comes to technique and employs more of a narrative because it tends to be written in first or third person.

In school, you learned how to write from both sides of the spectrum and only in first or third person. It’s only natural that when you sit down to write copy for your website, you default to one of these two. Unfortunately, those writing styles are not effective for website copy (or sales copy in general). There is one type of book however you most likely read as a child that you should model your website content after: a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

What Are All These Voices You Speak Of?

The type of voice you write in can have a huge impact on your readers. Without trying to make this seem like a grammar lesson, here’s a short refresher on the different voices.

When you write in the first person, you are writing as yourself. The narrator and main character of your story is you. “I went to the store” rather than “The woman went to the store.” For first person, use the pronouns “I” and “we”.

When you write in the second person, you are addressing the reader. Second person should be written as if the reader were a part of your story because you are talking to them. This entire blog post is written in second person. See how I’m writing to you? Second person uses the pronouns “you”, “your”, and “yours”.

When you write in the third person, you are writing objectively. You, as the narrator are not part of the story. Instead of “I went to the store” you would write “She went to the store”. Pronouns used in the third person are “he”, “she”, or “it”.

When you write in the passive voice, you use the form of the verb “have” or “to be” in your sentence structure. In the passive voice, you make the object of the action the subject of the sentence. For example, the sentence “The fox ate the mouse” in the passive voice would be “The mouse was eaten by the fox.”

When you write in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. In the example above, the sentence “The fox ate the mouse” is in active voice.

The Secret to Writing Great Sales Copy

I know what you’re thinking and I promise I haven’t lost my mind! If you want your website to be more effective you need to do two things - the same two things used in Choose Your Own Adventure books:

  1. Write in the active voice.

  2. Write in second person.

That’s the secret to writing great sales copy.

I didn't know that until I became a copywriter. The definition of copywriting is: the use of words to promote a person, business, opinion, or idea. It’s “getting across the perfect message, with the perfect words.” ( In order to do that, you've got to put things in your reader’s point of view. Instead of talking about you, you need to set the scene up and talk about them. Think about the choose your own adventure books you read as a child. Why were they so exciting? Because you got to take an active role in the book. You were in control of the story - you were the story!

Your website should be the same way. It should be focused on the user. Like a choose your own adventure book, your website visitors should have an immersive experience as they dive down the rabbit hole of pages on your website.  

Setting Your Website Up Like A Choose Your Own Adventure Book

Here are three ways to set-up your website like a Choose Your Own Adventure book:

1. Take Them On A Journey

Navigating a Choose Your Own Adventure book would be confusing if there weren’t prompts to help you know where to go. You should do the same for your website. Every page should direct the reader to an action, but that action needs to be spelled out for them. What do you want them to do? Fill out a contact form? Call you? Sign up for your newsletter? It’s up to you to tell the reader what to do.

2. Make the Story About Them

Everything on your website (except your about page) should be written in the second person as if the reader was reading about themselves. You want them to be an active participant in discovering what you have to offer and how it will help them. This can only be accomplished if you write in the second person.

3. Decide How the Story Ends and Then Lead Them There

There are only a few different endings in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. What makes it so exciting is that the reader got to choose how they got to their ending. You’ve got to set up your website the same way. There may be several different paths that each user embarks upon, but you need to set an end goal where all points lead to a conversion. “Yes, I want more info” or “yes I want to make a donation”… whatever that conversion is for you, you need to make sure every visitor gets to it.

Why does this work? Because making it more about the user is that subtle change in perspective that will make world of difference!

If you want help writing your website's own adventure, join me for my class in Richmond. In my hands-on workshop, you will be given exercises and tools that will help you learn copywriting skills while you create content for your own website. If you don’t live in Richmond, consider making it a weekend trip. There are so many fun things to do here! In fact, Richmond was recently named a Frommer’s Top Destination for 2014 and The Next Great American Food City. If you’re coming in from out of town, just shoot me an email and I’d be happy to make suggestions for things to do over the weekend.

Register for my Copywriting Class Today!

50+ Non-Profit Mission Statements to Inspire Your Organization

A few weeks ago, I posted 50+ Mission Statements from businesses that get it right. Now, it's the non-profit sector's turn! So many non-profits have long drawn out mission statements that don't inspire anyone, and that's a shame because many of these organizations are doing such amazing work. Your mission statement isn't something you check off for your strategic plan — it's your rallying cry

Getting to a place where your mission statement is short and concise is no small task (if you're interested in learning how, check out this post.) It takes a lot of effort and politics, but the results are worth it. An inspiring mission statement helps donors connect with your purpose. It makes fundraising, engaging volunteers, and filling programs so much easier. And when we're all working on tighter budgets and deadlines than ever, every bit helps. 

Look through these non-profit mission statements that get it right. See how yours stacks up. Is yours dry and written by committee? Or does it actually do its job to rally people behind your organization? 

  1. "To build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke." -American Heart Association

  2. "To help resource-constrained communities and nations make positive, sustainable changes that improve accessibility to a broad range of high-quality healthcare services and preventive programs." -American International Health Alliance

  3. "To save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease." -American Lung Association

  4. "Prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors." -American Red Cross

  5. "Empower professionals to develop knowledge & skills successfully." -American Society for Training and Development

  6. "To provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States." -ASPCA

  7. "To change the future for all who struggle with autism spectrum disorders." -Autism Speaks

  8. "To be the leader in advancing marketplace trust." -Better Business Bureau

  9. "We help children realize their potential and build their futures. We nurture children and strengthen communities." -Big Brothers Big Sisters

  10. "Provides workforce development services to individuals and employers in Washington State." -Career Path Services

  11. "The world's largest petition platform, empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see."

  12. "Bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations." -Charity: Water

  13. "Improves the lives of young people by providing excellent clinical care with compassion and understanding, and by empowering families, schools, and communities." -Chicago Children's Clinic

  14. "Champion effective nonprofit marketing through pro bono marathons." -Createathon

  15. "To use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities." -D.C. Central Kitchen

  16. "To improve the health and quality of life of women with diabetes, and to advocate on their behalf." -Diabetes Sisters

  17. "To promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life." -Dress For Success

  18. "To promote the transition to a sustainable energy future by advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy." -Energy Foundation

  19. "To preserve the natural systems on which all life depends." -Environmental Defense Fund

  20. "To end hunger in New York City by organizing food, information and support for community survival and dignity." -Food Bank for New York City

  21. "Serves as a conduit for food, education, and awareness between donors, volunteers, agencies and people in need." -Food Finders

  22. "To preserve and enhance the park as a recreational resource for residents, workers, and visitors in the City of Boston." -Friends of Copley Square

  23. "Defends the environment and champions a healthy and just world." -Friends of the Earth

  24. "To enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families by helping people reach their full potential through education, skills training and the power of work." -Goodwill

  25. "We defend the natural world and promote peace by investigating, exposing and confronting environmental abuse, and championing environmentally responsible solutions." -Greenpeace

  26. "To put God’s love into action by bringing people together to build homes, communities and hope." -Habitat for Humanity

  27. "To help former gang members redirect their lives and become contributing members of their families and our community." -Homeboy Industries

  28. "Defends the rights of people worldwide." -Human Rights Watch

  29. "To connect people through lending to alleviate poverty." -Kiva

  30. "Dedicated to improving the quality of life for all people affected by lupus through programs of research, education and advocacy." -Lupus Foundation of America

  31. "To stop drunk driving, support the victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking." -MADD

  32. "To improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, infant mortality, and premature birth." -March of Dimes

  33. "To inspire hope and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education and research." -Mayo Clinic

  34. "Cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage." -National Park Service

  35. "Inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future." -National Wildlife Federation

  36. "Story by story, we bring you the world." -NPR

  37. "To equip and empower our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education and coordination of services.” -One Roof

  38. "To create a belief that college is an option for everyone, and that through the program, we can make this belief a reality." -Pathways to College

  39. "To create content that educates, informs and inspires." -PBS

  40. "The increase and diffusion of knowledge." -Smithsonian

  41. "To advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment." -St. Jude Children's Hospital Research

  42. "Growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education." -Teach for America

  43. "Leveraging the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves, their families, their communities, their countries and the world." -The Girl Effect

  44. "Celebrating Animals, Preventing Cruelty." -The Humane Society

  45. "To expand knowledge about marine mammals—their health and that of their ocean environment—and to inspire their global conservation." -The Marine Mammal Center

  46. "Empowers veterans facing the challenge of adjusting to life at home to find new missions." -The Mission Continues

  47. "To conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends."-The Nature Conservancy

  48. "To build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people." -The Open Society Foundations

  49. "To increase and organize investment in protecting and restoring the natural resources and communities of the Sierra Nevada." -The Sierra Fund

  50. "To promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access." -U.S. Department of Education

  51. "Create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community." -U.S. Department of State

  52. "To deliver the best value in real estate, acquisition, and technology services to government and the American people." -U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)

  53. "To honor and empower Wounded Warriors." -Wounded Warrior Project

  54. "To close the opportunity divide by providing urban young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education." -Year Up

Why Knowing Your Audience is So Important (And Not Knowing It is So Dangerous)

It seems like a no brainer. When you have a product to sell, you should know the audience you’re selling it to. As simple as this concept is, the process of defining and learning about an audience seems to fall through the cracks for some brands. As a content strategist, I can’t stress this point enough. But it’s hard to find real, tangible examples to show the detriment to your brand when you launch a campaign without knowing the audience you are trying to engage.

Enter Free People.

I was perusing Buzzfeed as I sometimes do (hey, no judgement!) and found this gem: This Is What a Real Dancer Looks Like. Looking further I saw that this is an excellent example of why really knowing your audience is so important. Here's the deal...

Free People is a clothing company that sells multiple clothing lines, but recently launched a new campaign to promote their "Movement” line. This line was designed for three very niche audiences: ballerinas, surfers, and women who do yoga. The article, and the Free People campaign for their ballerina line, are the perfect example of why knowing your audience is so important.

Here’s the Free People ad for their clothing line that targets ballerinas:

To the average person, there’s nothing wrong with this ad. To the ballerinas who watched it, everything about this ad was wrong. Why? Because the actress in the ad is not a trained ballerina. You wouldn’t know it, but to anyone who does ballet it’s glaringly obvious. So obvious, that several parodies surfaced in response to it.

Here are two gif’s side by side that show the difference between the Free People dancer (left) and a real ballerina (right).

 Image: YouTube/Free People

Image: YouTube/Free People

 Image: Vimeo/AKP Film & Media

Image: Vimeo/AKP Film & Media

As you can see, there is a huge difference. This ad enraged the very audience they were trying to engage, so much so that hundreds of comments were left under the ad on YouTube. Here are just a few:


Had Free People done their research on this segment of their audience, they would know how important the form, and the pointe shoes are to them. This is a great example of why you can’t just launch a campaign without having your foundational content in place.

What is Foundational Content?

Your foundational content is the content that aligns your organization, audience, and products into one clear brand voice. It is crucial to create this content before you do any marketing or write any copy. Just like you wouldn't build a house without first pouring the foundation, you shouldn't build a brand or content marketing plan without first having these elements in place. Here are the pieces of your foundational content:

Organizational Content

Content written to understand yourself.

Mission Statement: Describes what your business does and acts as the rally cry that makes you want to do what you do every day.

Vision Statement: A description of what the world looks like once your mission is achieved.

Core Values: Define your rules of engagement using 6-10 character traits your organization should abide by.

Personality Traits: What are 4-6 character traits that make your brand distinct?

Audience Content

Content written through research to deeply understand your audience and each segment you may have

Segmentation: Grouping your audience into broad categories.

Demographics: Character traits you can measure (age, income, etc.)

Psychographics: Character traits you can’t measure (lifestyle, beliefs, etc.)

Archetypes: Storytelling patterns that transcend time, geography and culture.

Personas: Descriptions of demographics, psychographics, and archetypes, written in paragraph form.

Ideal Customers: A real-life person who represents your persona.

Product/Service Content

Content written to properly define and describe your products and/or services

Features: Bulleted list of attributes that make your product or service distinct or useful.

Benefits: Why your features matter to your ideal customer.

Value Proposition: One sentence description of why your ideal customer should use your product or service.

Elevator Pitch: Script for starting a conversation about your product or service. Gets to the point quickly.

This is what a good foundation looks like. Free People failed to connect to their audience because they didn’t dig deep enough into that particular segment to learn and understand them. Instead, they treated them like the rest of their audience. This led to not only enraged ballerinas, but also to showing their audience that they didn’t understand them. How can a clothing company make clothing specifically for ballerinas when it’s so clear that they don’t understand them? While this may or may not be true, it’s the message Free People sent to this audience segment - who probably won’t be purchasing their clothing now because of it.

50+ Mission Statement Examples from Businesses That Get It Right

You know that having a mission statement is absolutely critical to your business. It's your rallying cry. It's the first step of your Foundational Content checklist. And it's essential if you want to scale your brand.

Mission statements need six elements to be effective. They should:

  • Be short and easy to repeat
  • Focus on a specific problem
  • Use in Plain Language
  • Put a stake in the ground by avoiding words like "help"
  • Set a big goal
  • Start with an action verb

That's a lot to ask from a little sentence, so we've compiled a list of companies that get it right. Not every mission statement listed here meets all six critera, but they come darn close. These are excellent examples for you to use as you write a mission statement for your business.

  1. "We strive to be the global leader in the sporting goods industry with brands built on a passion for sports and a sporting lifestyle!" -Adidas 

  2. "We seek to be Earth's most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators." -Amazon

  3. "To inspire and connect with women to put their best selves forward every day." -Ann Taylor

  4. "To connect people with their world, everywhere they live and work, and do it better than anyone else." -AT&T

  5. "To care for the world we live in, from the products we make to the ways in which we give back to society." -Aveda

  6. "The world’s leading provider of premium products and premium services for individual mobility." -BMW

  7. "To make people's lives better everyday - naturally." -Burt's Bees

  8. "To champion every client's goals with passion and integrity." -Charles Schwab

  9. "To be the leading brand of quality lifestyle accessories offering classic, modern American styling." -Coach

  10. "To refresh the world; to inspire moments of optimism and happiness; to create value and make a difference." -Coca-Cola

  11. "To be the preferred provider of targeted financial service in our communities based on strong customer relationships." -Commerce Bank

  12. "To help you savor the good life." -Cuisinart

  13. "To satisfy curiosity and make a difference in people's lives by providing the highest quality content, services and products that entertain, engage and enlighten." -Discovery Media

  14. "To passionately create innovation for our stakeholders at the intersection of chemistry, biology and physics." -Dow Chemical

  15. "To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." -Facebook

  16. "Turning moments into memories for our guests." -Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

  17. "To be the world's favorite for American Style." -Gap, Inc.

  18. "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." -Google

  19. "Makes the world a more caring place by helping people laugh, love, heal, say thanks, reach out and make meaningful connections with others." -Hallmark

  20. "To be the preeminent global hospitality company - the first choice of guests, team members, and owners alike." -Hilton Worldwide

  21. "To create and promote great-tasting, truly healthy, organic beverages." -Honest Tea 

  22. "We enable businesses to thrive and economies to prosper, helping people fulfill their hopes and dreams and realize their ambitions." -HSBC Bank

  23. "To make the world inbound. We want to transform how organizations do marketing." -HubSpot

  24. "To create a better everyday for all people impacted by our business." -IKEA

  25. "To provide superior service in every aspect of our customer's air travel experience." -Jet Blue Airways

  26. "To enrich and delight the world through foods and brands that matter." -Kellogg Company

  27. "Providing people with essentials for a better life by adding convenience to daily routines with some of the world's most recognized products." -Kimberly-Clark

  28. "To help customers improve and maintain their biggest asset- their home." -Lowe's

  29. "Making the whole planet feel better. One bottle at a time." -Naked Juice

  30. "To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world." -Nike

  31. "Committed to providing our customers with the best possible service—and to improving it every day." -Nordstrom

  32. "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis." -Patagonia

  33. "Provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world's consumers, now and for generations to come." -Proctor & Gamble

  34. "Helping pets live longer, happier and healthier lives through proper nutrition and care." -Purina

  35. "We make invention accessible." -Quirky

  36. "Delivers proven solutions that drive innovation and improve performance." -SAS

  37. "To inspire a consumer revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations." -Seventh Generation

  38. "Dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit." -Southwest Airlines

  39. "To inspire and nurture the human spirit - one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time." -Starbucks

  40. "Spread Ideas." -TED

  41. "To enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information." -The New York Times

  42. "We're in the business to help improve lives. With every product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need. One for one." -TOMS Shoes

  43. "To attract and attain customers with high-valued products and services and the most satisfying ownership experience in America." -Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

  44. "To be the World’s Greatest Kids’ Brand." -Toys "R" Us

  45. "To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers." -Twitter

  46. "To facilitate the financial security of its members, associates, and their families through provision of a full range of highly competitive financial products and services." -USAA

  47. "To embrace the human spirit and let it fly." -Virgin Atlantic

  48. "Helps people around the world save money and live better -- anytime and anywhere -- in retail stores, online and through their mobile devices." -Walmart

  49. "Makes the world's daily habits inspiring and entertaining." -Yahoo

  50. *"To rid the world of corporate babble, one concise sentence at a time."

  51. "To provide the best customer service possible." -Zappos

Tell us, what do you like about these mission statements? Are there businesses that should be on here? Let us know in the comments.

P.S. A big shout out to Becky for doing the research!

Content Strategy Lessons from Hollywood Costume Designers

 Image Credit: Bigstock/vclements

Image Credit: Bigstock/vclements

Take a minute and think about some of these iconic movie characters. 

Indiana Jones...

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz...

Harry Potter...

Go on. Close your eyes. Watch them come to life in your mind.

It's ok. I'll wait...

Now, what did you see? 

Chances are, you saw more than just a face. You saw the character in their full wardrobe. Did you see Indy's hat? Dorothy's shoes? Harry's cape and wand? Of course you did. Because, as I learned recently at the VMFA's Hollywood Costume exhibit, that's exactly how the costume designer planned it. 

As I strolled through the exhibit, looking at some of the most memorable costumes in cinema, I was struck by how familiar the role of the Costume Designer is in movie making to that of a Content Strategist in the business world. 

Research is the Key to Results

"I started by spending about a year researching the time period..." That sentence, in some form or another, was in just about all of the interviews that accompanied the costumes, whether it was the elaborate period pieces from Shakespeare in Love or the totally utilitarian ensemble worn by Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. Everything starts with research. It's much the same with content strategy. The key to getting it right is by researching the heck out of our client and their audience. We rely on audits and analytics to get our job done. 

Executing Someone Else's Vision

Directors, and business leaders, come in all different types. Some are easy going and collaborative. Others are controlling and reluctant to trust. Some are grandiose and gregarious. Others are subdued and reserved. But, at the end of the day, whatever their personality is, it's always their vision that needs to be portrayed, not our own. 

Authenticity Depends on Your Audience

Deborah Scott, the award winning costume designer of Titanic, described how when you're designing for periods in the past, it's still important to make sure your designs are attractive to a contemporary audience. If you adhere too tightly to the fashions of yesterday, your design won't feel authentic, even if it's more historically accurate. Brands need to think much the same way. Rather than strictly adhere to the "correct" way to create our content, we need to think about the context in which our audience will view it.   

Goals Are Different for Every Project

The Costume Designer may work on a fantastical action-adventure movie and then move on to an intimate dramatic love story. Marit Allen is a good example. In 2003, she was the costume designer for Hulk and in 2005 she worked on Brokeback Mountain. Both movies had very different stories they wanted to share, which meant the goals for Allen's designs changed dramatically from project to project. Just like no two movies are exactly alike, all businesses are different, too. This means that the Content Strategist needs to be adaptable and clearly understand the goals of their projects. 

Building Memorable Characters and Experiences

While it's true that Costume Designers and Content Strategists don't usually execute the final vision (that's left up to the talented actors and writers, respectively) our work still goes a long way in developing characters. During the exhibit, all the costumes were displayed on black mannequins, but the emotional connection to the character was still very real. The same is true with Content Strategists, we develop the overall voice and tone of a brand, create foundational content to give guidance, and audit to make sure ideas are executed properly, but the actual words are usually written by someone else.

Not Noticing Our Work is a Usually a Good Thing

For the Content Strategist, our medium is style guides, audits and editorial calendars. While they're not always visible to the final audience, they're critical to making sure the vision of the business leader is executed correctly. The same is true for Costume Designers. You want to get so lost in a world that you don't notice distinct costumes, regardless of how over-the-top or understated they are. 

We aren't in the front and center. You likely won't know us by name. But without us, the magnificent characters of film, and business, wouldn't exist. What are your thoughts? What would film be like without Costume Designers? Or business without Content Strategists? Let's keep the conversation going in the comments!

#SimplicityPays: Global Brand Simplicity Index

Simplicity consultants Siegel + Gale, the same folks who literally wrote the book on how simplicity has a positive impact on marketing,  just released their Global Brand Simplicity Index for 2013. The report is based on interviews of more than 10,000 consumers in 7 countries and measures the simplicity (and how that simplicity affects the bottom line) of over 500 brands.

The results will come as no surprise to experienced content marketers and strategists — having a simple message increases customer loyalty, employee innovation and revenue. But what's great about the Index is that it provides a solid link, with all the glorious numbers our clients love, to how an investment in content strategy can improve the bottom line. 

Here are some of the top findings: 

  • 75% of consumers are more likely to recommend a brand because it provides simpler experiences
  • People would pay up to 5.9% more for simpler experiences
  • Companies that articulate a purpose simply and make it a central focus for employees foster innovation 

What are your thoughts? Is this research helpful? Confusing? What are other resources you use to prove the value and ROI of good content? Leave your feedback in the comments below and let's geek out together. :)