Mel Henson has had a twenty year career in writing copy for direct marketing, including printed catalogues in the early days, and then many "e-tail" websites as the online economy has taken off, and she has illustrated her book with numerous examples of both, mostly, I imagine, from her clients. Copy writing may be her core skill, but she's also pretty clear on the commercial objectives of her writing, a perfect example of that old description of effective advertising copy, "salesmanship in print".
The first two chapters of the book deal with the way successful websites and web pages are structured. As she does throughout the book, she looks at the psychology that's involved - the psychology involved in reading a page, of looking at pictures and in picking key phrases out, and the psychology in actually making the purchase - or of changing your mind at the last minute. Her style is clear, concise and authoritative. It may be that fellow experts in the area may disagree with some of her recommendations, but she's certainly convinced me of the right way to organise the navigation (never from the right hand side, as it happens, so I must change my own site!) how to arrange tabs (up to three tiers), where to put the logo (top left), the elements that should be included on a home page (e.g., half a dozen of your most popular products) and other pages. She introduces the reader to some website jargon and explains the underlying concepts.
The following two chapters follow a similar structure for printed catalogues. While I've rather less experience of designing catalogues than web pages (in fact, absolutely none!) it all seems to make sense, and Ms Henson explains the reasons why things are done differently on the printed page and on a web page, as well as the ways that catalogues have changed now that most of them can be supported by websites as well.
After a short chapter on branding, she turns her attention to copywriting, first covering the general principles, and then in the different aspects of writing online and "offline" copy. The web section covers that vital aspect of website design that risks getting in the way of good copy - the need to incorporate the best keywords. Her advice under the heading of "cheap tricks" will probably repay the book's cover price many times over for anyone trying to sell online at other than the lowest possible price!
In the final chapter, Testing and Research, she reminds us how easy websites make the tracking of customer response rates, and how you go about doing it. Google Analytics are important, of course, and she also recommends more traditional, paper copy "guard books" to record the effectiveness of different marketing campaigns and their variations. I'd heard of A/B testing before, but now I really understand it. Having explained how to track the changes she covers the sorts of things that you should change - headlines, offers, colours, captions, featured benefits - so you can test the effect and maximise your return on investment. Lastly, she considers the role of market research in the online age, for example to assess the usability of a website.
This is one of the best written, illustrated and typeset books I've seen in a long time - although I must caveat that by saying that I've read the electronic version and haven't yet seen it on paper. Mel's style is clear, concise and interesting - as a good copywriter, I suspect that she went through it many times to cut out superfluous words. The illustrations - screen shots, adverts, illustrations, diagrams, tables and even the occasional cartoon - are all well chosen the illustrate the points in hand. Bullet points are used effectively - there are lots of good lists. I'd even like to add that the lines and paragraphs are spaced just right - I hate it when it's too densely packed because it's difficult to read, and I feel short-changed if there's too much white space. Mel and her editor have got this one just right.
There's always something more that you can ask for, of course. I would have found it interesting to have had some data on the KPIs (key performance indicators) for different types of successful websites - stats for bounce rates and time on page and similar data that you get from Google Analytics, but which is hard to assess if you don't have the author's depth of experience. While Mel was explicitly focussing on sites that actually make sales online, I would have appreciated a section devoted to those websites - for professional and personal services, for example - where a sale is not actually possible, and some other call to action is appropriate. These are two very minor quibbles, however - if you are selling through a website (and especially if you are involved in multi-channel sales involving catalogues too) then this is a book that you really should read.
I should add, in full compliance with Amazon's rules on the subject, that Mel kindly sent me a review copy of this book when I responded to a posting about it on LinkedIn. I'm very much looking forward to getting a paper copy when it comes out next week.