How to create a hook through effective messaging and website design

The US consumer is bombarded with marketing messages every day. If you’ve been to the US, you’ve probably watched ads on television of smiling salespeople from pharma companies conveying a grim message. Even as they smile, they tell you that death due to cancer/heart attack/other grievous ailments is inevitable if you don’t consume their pills. 

These companies want to sell their products to the US consumer. At any given point in time on various channels, whether Facebook, television, etc., consumers are constantly accosted for money.  

The US is a company with an army where the entire nation’s focus is to make more money, generate more wealth, and consolidate power.

It is a capitalistic society. 

Whereas in India and it may be due to the remanence of the Raj, we look up to our politicians in a big way. It’s difficult for us to understand a capitalistic mindset in its entirety, but at a basic level, it is about getting the consumer to buy more. 

How do you do that? 

Well, it’s through winning trust because people have limited money. An average US citizen will have at least $400 in their bank account at any given point in time, and you want them to pay for your product. The consumer has multiple choices (the US functions like a corporate) and brands are always vying for critical mindshare. 

The first thing that you need to keep in mind is how to win trust.

You win trust through subtle cues on how you present your company.

 Positioning your brand for the US consumer

Unfortunately, in America, if you don’t come across as a fellow Texan or as someone from San Francisco, or a company run by whites, your sales will be lower and the kind of audience you’d get would be the price-conscious ones. You’d also most likely struggle to win market share in your category. 

How do you appear more American in the American consumer’s mind?

You appear more American through design. And design is not about throwing in a bunch of illustrations, but subtle cues. For instance, the way your logo is designed, the typeface you use, and the quality of your graphics w.r.t. retina display compatibility. These are some prominent cues among a host of others. 

Once you appear more “white-washed” and you have cracked the design, it’s time to get down to the brass tacks. Many people are focused on illustrations and how their logo appears, but in reality, 80% of design is text. And people make a mistake here without realizing the importance of the text. 

Many companies that I advise, draft their headlines during the day which is a terrible mistake because that text is your marketing base – the way you draft copy. Everything else is secondary. Drafting your headline needs substantial focus and should be done in an environment with no disturbance whatsoever.

Positioning: Categories & Differentiation

You can’t get too creative with your category    

When categories become commoditized, differentiation is hard. 

People now tend to go to G2 for category search and even Google has made life difficult. When you search for a category, you are directed to a G2 or Capterra. When someone has a bottom-of-the-funnel need or a trigger, they land on these directories which display the entire competition. Then, they compare and evaluate the competition. 

Even with a Facebook ad, where you get direct traffic from an ad that you have pushed, consumers will still search for alternatives just to make sure they are making the right choice. Many people make a mistake and I have made this mistake as well – creating differentiation by being too creative with the category.  

Let me share my experience. 

The Helpdesk market is fairly commoditized, and a very difficult market to create a differentiation. For Kayako, we got creative and decided to call it a ‘Customer Experience platform’ and we re-labeled it on the website. There was no reference to helpdesk software, ticketing system, or customer service. It was all about customer experience. 

This is how we thought about it – what’s superior to customer service is customer experience, so let’s highlight customer experience. It was a disaster. Prospects that came on the website said, “Oh, but I was looking for a ticketing system…which you are not”. This perception adversely impacted sales. There were similar comments from a few trial customers who didn’t convert – “I was looking for a helpdesk software and you are not a helpdesk software. So, I will go with Zendesk/Freshdesk.” 

These comments stung – but drove home the point!

It was a revelation and too costly a mistake. If you are in a commoditized category and differentiation is hard, don’t try to be something that you are not. Embrace the category

When you embrace a category, the adjacent possibilities are all you have. The way to imagine adjacent possibilities is through a grid like this where you see a map location marker that says: you are here.

Based on your capability assessment (ref: the illustration), you can position yourself as – I am an Inbound marketing platform / ABM marketing platform / Outbound Marketing platform. 

This is all you get when it comes to categories. 

When you jump one level beyond, it’s usually very difficult to make it work. You have a product and already have an audience who are coming to you to buy something, and then you decide to jump a block or two in your brand’s positioning. It’s usually very difficult to get it right and win trust. Unless of course, the need is very strong, and the supply side is still playing catch-up which is rarely the case in a commoditized market.   

Once you have identified an adjacent possibility, your product needs to be aligned 

You can’t say ‘I am an Inbound Marketing platform/product’ and not be true to what you are claiming. If you want to be a dominant player in that adjacent category, then your product has to be aligned with that category. And you need a roadmap to get there. 

For instance, with Wingman, the point of differentiation was real-time. Now “real-time” is a generic word, and they don’t make great USPs. It’s not even a category so we changed the category to ‘Actionable Conversational Intelligence’. We picked Conversational Intelligence as a category and said this is what the product is aligned with. And of course, we had to be what we claimed! 

The falling dominos: Understanding needs

I’d like to address growth with the example of falling dominos. Not the pizza variety but the game Domino where you may have seen that if you trigger one domino fall, the entire series falls. 

When a prospect lands on your website they are a part of this journey and during this journey, subconsciously, a series of dominos keeps falling. Each falling domino can be seen as earning a vote of trust (on certain criteria) from a prospect. 

  • You can solve their problem – right, a domino falls. 
  • You can solve it at the right price point – great, another domino falls. 
  • You’ve established an emotional connection – awesome, yet another domino falls.

All of this when combined in a prospect’s journey, leads to free trial which leads to another set of falling dominoes before prospects become clients and eventually your advocate. At every step, you have to earn the vote of trust. 

A series of dominoes will have to fall before moving from one stage to another. Our job while designing the web page is to see that we have addressed these key dominos in the best possible American manner, get prospects to sign up for a free trial, get them to buy your product, and eventually, get them to be an advocate. 

We need to understand the primary role of marketing – i.e., driving a need

Often, marketing is seen as getting leads and most of our marketing drives are demand gen-led; it’s around increasing pay-per-click, creating content, maximizing SEO, SEM, etc. But the primary job of marketing, i.e., the way it works in America, and they are the Gods of marketing, is driving need. 

FMCG and white goods marketing are great use cases for how this works. 

We go shopping and we don’t understand how we’ve been played. For instance, soap is a category and it’s crowded – the P&Gs and the Unilevers of the world want to dominate. The targeted messaging aimed at driving needs starts with: 

  • Why should you put soap on your face, they say – it’s not good for you. Use a face wash instead. 
  • Similarly, you shouldn’t be applying soap on your hair, so they have shampoo. 
  • A soap bar is so old school – you should be using liquid soap. 
  • Then shower gels and then further categorization – for men, for dry hair, for frizzy hair, for dandruff. 
  • Soap for specific needs –  for anti-aging, for acne, etc. 

The list is endless, and as categories become overcrowded, newer ones get created to drive yet another specific need. 

This crowding of categories is fascinating if you depict all of these in a tree structure. And consumers get played all the time. 

Otrivin is another example from pharma. They’ve marketed it as a daily nasal wash. Their messaging is as follows – just as you brush your teeth, you need to ‘brush’ your nose as well, to breathe easily. Due to the obvious health hazards posed by COVID-19, a lot of people bought into this messaging, and a need was created. 

The Value Prop Canvas – Identifying needs

The value of identifying these needs is huge, and we tend to underestimate it. One half of the Value Prop Canvas is about identifying all the problems that your consumers have and that should be independent of your product. The other half is whether you can execute and solve some of these problems, as they get mapped to your product features. We did this for Wingman, independent of the product. For them, we identified all the problems a VP of Sales in their category could likely face and this was not about whether the product on offer could solve all the problems.  

From there comes your gold – the gold is your headline. Gold is also your feature name. 

When you identify a need, it’s like a puzzle piece. This domino has two parts – a customer pain point and how you solve it. The two come together and you position it in your marketing message, yet another the domino falls. 

That’s why the Value Prop Canvas is so incredibly powerful! 

The first fold layout initiates the story   

I am going to use PipeCandy and Wingman as examples – we changed the first fold design. There’s a standard way the first fold design is made. I have invested in 7 YC companies and I am fascinated by the way they have designed their website. And there’s a standard way of doing it – You show your product either on the right side, the left side, or at the bottom. You should have a catchy headline and you need to answer a bunch of questions (this is also your hook). 

The messaging structure

It has to be in plain English and you can’t get too creative with this. The “I” mentioned below, is the prospect visiting your website. 

  1. What is this I am looking at?
  2. How can I use it? 
  3. Does it help me?

These 3 questions need to be answered in the first-fold layout for the American audience, and it has to be in Americanized English. This is very important from a US consumer standpoint who is bombarded with messaging all the time. 

You can’t use exclamation marks in your copy. Many Indian websites use exclamation marks which is a no-no. The American audience gets put off by grammatical errors and their first reaction could be to assume that this is probably an immigrant-led business that has cheaper products or are struggling SMB mom-and-pop business.

If you see some of these brochures from similar companies, you will see exclamation marks, grammatical mistakes, and bad copy design. That’s why this has become a mental trigger in the American consumer’s mind.

Be wary of how you use English – Americanized English.

So, coming back to the example, what is PipeCandy? You answer that in plain English; and what can you use PipeCandy for; how does it help me? The combination answers those 3 questions:

  1. The eCommerce & D2C brand encyclopedia. 
  2. PipeCandy is a market intelligence platform with insights on millions of online retailers. 
  3. Use PipeCandy to build lead lists, research companies, enrich your data, and benchmark against the competition. 

This exercise was done for Wingman as well. The idea is to have your hook which is generally used to weave the story. 

  1. Wingman: Your Revenue Accelerator – hook to weave the story (answers question 1) 
  1. Wingman is an actionable Conversation Intelligence platform that unlocks intelligence from every sales interaction (answers question 2). We used the category name here because many prospects come with the category name in mind, and if you don’t address that category name in the sub-heading, they generally get confused about whether this is what they are looking for. 
  1. Use Wingman to record your calls, review deals, scale coaching and build a repeatable sales machine (answers question 3). The ending is a polished marketing message. 

First fold layout – building trust through messaging with a hook-based headline.

The book ‘Breakthrough Advertising’, talks about the 60s – the job of the first headline is to make you read the second headline. The job of the second headline is to make you read the third headline. 

People don’t have time so you can’t just put a message in the headline and expect that people will read it.

The only way they are going to read your second headline is when your first headline is witty, metaphorical, and triggers pattern interrupts. This creates a hook, and they are pushed into reading the second headline. 

The greatest example is Apple, which has mastered Marketing. Observe the messaging: 

  • Mac Mini – New Guts More Glory
  • Small Chip. Giant Leap..Apple M1 …playing on “Giant Leap for mankind”    
  • The best for the brightest – Macbook Pro 
  • Pro Display XDR – believing is seeing. They have interrupted your thinking – “Seeing is believing”. They have a hook and then they pitch you the marketing message 
  • XDR- dynamic range to extreme 
  • It’s a leap year iPhone 12 Pro 
  • Apple Air – An all-screen design with a stunning Retina Display 

Your first headline should have this Apple-esque hook which is metaphorical and pattern interruptive – which influences prospects to read the second headline which in turn should make them read the third headline. 

And what was true in the 1960s is also true today, but more so on websites. 

Ads from the 1960s were text-heavy. Texts have been reduced today because people have less time, but the headline hook concept still exists. 

  • Once you have your first hook this should ideally weave into a story. For instance, in PipeCandy the word “encyclopedia” is metaphorical, and we used it to name the USP – Commercepedia.
  • For Wingman, the much-liked word “Accelerator” led to the Sales Acceleration stack, a product feature.  It also led to pricing plans – the primary plan is called the Accelerator plan. In addition, they have a Startup plan, a Team plan, and an Enterprise plan. 

This story starts from your first fold layout and the messaging structure – your first and second headlines. 

 Appear like a platform

It’s like a falling domino that wins trust. 

You have to appear like a mature platform that people can trust, and there are subtle cues to appear like a platform. To be seen as a platform, the product features should appear as a part of the story, the narrative. The platform perception should reflect in the naming conventions across navigation or how the menu is displayed. If you open or Klenty, you will see what I am talking about. 

Other important website design considerations

Positioning your brand against the incumbent or the primary competition is the second job of the homepage. You have a hook, you explain what you do, you have your social media outreach proofs in place, and now the next block should always be the USP. 

If you are not the category leader, then your USP has to be prominently displayed. Prospects shouldn’t miss it on the homepage. 

  • With PipeCandy we brought the product out in the front and gave the USP a name – Commercepedia. 
  • We re-positioned the brand with the competition. We kept the competition on the left – they were generic databases and Commercepedia on the right – commerce databases. We pitched PipeCandy’s USP (unique selling proposition) against the competition – PipeCandy’s Commercepedia vs Non-commerce databases.  This way we also managed to reposition the competition. 

Naming product features is an art – a key part of the story 

Let’s look at some examples. Brands that established an emotive connect and some others, perhaps not.  

Samsung – named a feature, the AI Eco Bubble Washer – the next-gen laundry experience. The second part is too generic, anyone can make such a claim; there’s no pattern interrupt or anything witty about it. Similarly, the message, “Gentle on fabric” lacks emotive connect. Branding is not only in your logo or the typeface. It’s also the emotive connect that gets triggered in the prospect.

Vodafone came up with ZooZoos and it immediately had an emotive connect which others tried to copy and due to over-use, the idea ran out of potency.  Amazon’s “Apni Dukan” could establish the emotive connect by showcasing a girl buying an expensive phone and being chastised by her dad. She promptly gifted him the phone. Running this ad campaign during Diwali established a powerful emotive connect.   

You don’t get that feeling with words like AI EcoBubble or QuickDrive –  words we are likely to forget. 

But I can tell you the product managers must have been very proud of these creations – the words were trademarked. 

Look at Apple on the other hand. They take an existing metaphorical word, and use it as a feature, rather than use some invented feature names like six DD, Video Live, Intelli Video, etc. Metaphorical words in the case of Apple are reused as feature attributes.

Similarly, with Tesla cars. They use the word “Autopilot.” People know what autopilot is and have a recall. 

For features, they use “Summon” which instantly evokes a master-servant connotation. Another feature “Autopark – parallel perpendicular parking with a single touch.” Product feature names are a part of the core story.

When you combine all of this into your messaging it’s called blocks. Blocks are how you display certain group features as part of your marketing message. If you open some of the best SaaS marketing websites, you will see how the messaging is done in Blocks. How the story flows from left to right.   

  • You can create a design library (designs picked from the best-in-class SaaS players) and use it as a Playbook. You save a lot of time because you aren’t recreating the wheel. 
  • The text will come from the Value Prop Canvas, a metaphorical witty analogous headline that you describe in your sub-text. 
  • When all of this comes together, your narrative is woven, the homepage feels mature, and platform-like which is solving those specific problems and each feature has its page(s). 

Picking Fonts, images & illustrations

I was a designer for four years before I became an engineer.

Something to note is that each font has a personality. A brand’s personality is conveyed through the font. Its great significance in conveying a brand’s personality is a level above logos and color schemes. 

For instance, the Serif font generally conveys trust and maturity. Or the Burberry font conveys luxury. If calligraphed, it conveys old-school luxury. Each font has its character, and you need to research well before you use them – what is it that your brand wants to convey?

There’s an abuse of illustrations usage and it’s a mistake. They dilute the humanness in brands. To the extent possible, it should be about human western-attired humans. You have to be very careful if you want to convey diversity – a sari-clad woman may not work well for an American audience.   

The dominos have fallen, the need has been created (even if latently), demand-gen done right, channels have been leveraged, and you can expect leads will come in to convert to customers and eventually, advocates. When you combine these actions with product marketing strategies, pricing, and packaging, it generally has a 50% impact on revenue.

You just need to go through this process.

This article is based on an online session by Varun Shoor on ‘Designing Effective Websites’. To the extent possible his words and point-of-view have been retained, but to enhance readability, necessary and minor edits were made. We’ve ensured that this does not compromise the messaging content. 

About the author

SaaSBoomi Editorial Team

Editor, SaaSBoomi
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