Write now, I’m cooking with Chef-O-Matic

A fascinating look at Relly Annett-Baker‘s process of writing copy for CannyBill and finding its voice.

Do you remember at school going into an exam and opening the blank answer book and thinking Oh, help. Let me know the answers!. I have to admit that's how I feel every time I start a new piece of copy. Before I start I need to have done a lot of swotting up to feel comfortable enough to start writing. Unlike Mrs Granger's Religious Studies class, when writing for a client it isn't enough to bring out the biggest thesaurus you have and throw down some fancy words. You need to know your subject inside and out.

So, where to start? On the face of it CannyBill looks like a simple rework of some existing copy so it would be as well to start with that, as if sub-editing (correcting). This is what current customers have to learn about the product and its parent company so it might highlight any gaps and also any particular tone of voice that resonate with the target audience. Before that though, I have to think about who that audience is.

Andy described CannyBill to me as an online invoicing software targeting web-savvy freelancers and small enterprises, currently with a special interest in the tech market due to its clever blending with APIs. They want to target a general market — competitors would likely include Freshbooks, Blinksale, Harvest and similar— but it was perhaps a little tech heavy at present. That said, they do some original things with direct download sales and domain reselling that present a unique selling point.

It isn't often I get to write a piece with myself as a target audience but — having tried all of the above — I am a freelancer, who likes playing with APIs (that's playing not programming!), web-savvy but not technical. I seem a safe bet (just with a name change for sanity's sake). So, meet persona draft one :

Jenny, freelance writer, invoices exclusively online, uses Basecamp and has used Harvest for timekeeping and Blinksale for invoicing in the past. She invoices between 5–20 clients a month. It isn't her favourite part of the job by any means — she's a writer not an accountant, dammit — so she wants simple and efficient invoicing through a reliable service that isn't taking too big a chomp at her profits.

Perhaps though I am a little more tech-savvy than most potential users? I only play with APIs because I'm married to a geek after all. Who else bills their time and might use Basecamp or similar project management tools? Looking forward, Andy and I discuss who might be a user in the near future. He suggests a solicitor? I tumble this over in my head: perhaps doing property work, for a small firm, needs to track time spent on projects and be able to invoice accurately with proof of time spent. Persona draft two:

Daniel, junior solicitor working in a small department of a larger parent firm. Often has 5 or 6 clients to work for each day. Bills 20+ on a good month. Needs to track time accurately and bill simply. Shares an administrator with his colleagues but essentially keeps track of own workload once it has been given to him. Needs to show his working out.

If I can write copy that both these people can understand and give benefits they can appreciate then this will be a good draft.

Right, let's edit the existing piece and see how it stands up:

Original CannyBill site copy and notes

Original CannyBill site copy and notes

The current copy is just way too technical for Jenny and Daniel. Primarily they are looking to invoice out and get money in as quickly as possible so they don't end up either eating economy beans on toast or with a boss on their back at the next efficiency meeting. Jenny might sell a tutorial handbook in the future and Daniel likes how CannyBill talks to Basecamp but mostly they want to know how to give it a trial and how much it will cost (free, expensive?). Neither of them know what Enom is and Plesk sounds like something you need hospital treatment for. There is a lot to read and a lot of scary looking symbols.

When Andy called me onto the project he had started tackling the framework for the new design and put some placeholder text in to demonstrate what could be the basis of the new site. He recognised the current copy was far too technical for the broad audience CannyBill wanted and chopped up the order to get potential customers into the thick of the action. As a seasoned web pro, he has a natural sense for what sounds good on the web and what order prompts positive action which makes my job a lot easier. I like to come in early on a project and work alongside an Information Architect (or whoever is covering that role, in this case Andy) to shape the direction of the design so that the content becomes the real star.

I don't say this because I'm a content writer (well, okay, obviously I do but that isn't the main reason. You need to be saying the right things, in the right place — not just where there are boxes to fill. Lots of enlightened designers and developers agree with me!) but because if your content stinks then all the pretty design in the world won't save you. You will just be gilding the turd. Let's look at the framework and placeholder content in the redesign:

Andy Clarke's revised copy and Relly's notes

Andy Clarke's revised copy and Relly's notes

Andy Clarke's revised copy and Relly's notes

The new order of content is great, it has room to expand if necessary, and is pretty much where I would have put everything were I the one positioning the post-it notes and playing with sharpies, grids, pixels or whatever your wire framing tool of choice is. Valuable takeaway point coming up — content and copy aren't the same (although we do tend to use the terms interchangeably and most of the time that's okay). Content is everything, copy is the writing. The video tours on the page explain functions way faster and with more impact than I ever could. I mean, do you really want to read 500 words on how to create an invoice? The videos do that job admirably and I'm cool with that.

I'd rather use my words to paint a picture of how CannyBill making invoicing easy peasy is going to help them in other ways. I think very few people actively enjoy invoicing or book keeping, or even issuing SSL certificates and domain hosting. They like the money that happens after they do these things. The biggest benefit of CannyBill is that you can get these things out of the way, or even automate them, and move on. The current copy focuses on all the whizzy things the service does and not all the other things the service allows you to do, like finishing 20 minutes early on a Tuesday so you can go rollerbooting through the park with your dogs while eating an ice cream (name that reference?).

Here's a link to my second favourite infomercial ever, Chef-o-matic: I love the people doing all sorts of fun things, while Right Now, I’m cooking with Chef-O-Matic. Presumably all these people have ever wanted in life was to produce slightly plastic looking food while playing tennis alone, or while wobbling on a slow moving treadmill. The full length TV version runs to about 25 minutes and you wouldn't believe the wide variety of wholesome activities it is possible to engage in while cooking with Chef-O-Matic. Why do I love it so? Well, it Really Bangs The Point Home. Cooking is so stressful (did you see the woman throwing a hissy fit at her multiple pans?) and Chef-O-Matic takes over and lets you get right back to your hobbies. Subtle as a sledgehammer in a pixie's nut factory but there’s no messing.

Don't get me wrong. You aren't about to see me suggest we film a cheesy video with multiple creatives and web hosts and solicitors and people fiddling with chef-o-matics beaming into the camera lens and saying Right now, I'm making a metric butt-ton of money with my CannyBill direct download/invoicing/certificate issuing/Basecamp loving account! but what I do want is for potential customers to see, crucially, what it can do for their lives outside of asking people for money.

So, you've seen me pick apart what has gone before. Now I'm going to start working on finding that voice for CannyBill. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this post and what sort of person/thing/building/planet, etc, you think CannyBill is like?


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