I’ve read Where Stellar Messages Come From and perhaps because I’m on holiday in a small village with a poor internet connection right now, it occurred to me that not all of the exercises that I want to do in order to better understand the competitive environment have to be done by me.

One interesting exercise from the book is to review the kind of content that the people visiting my site are likely to expect, based on industry norms. That’s hardly to say that I should strive to match industry norms, but it’s a useful starting point. You can’t creatively break rules unless you know what the rules are.

Of course I know the competition. I could recognize any of their websites from ten meters away. In most cases, I know the founders personally. I know their marketing strategies and their target audiences. I know their feature sets and I know what aspects of their products I envy and which aspects I feel smugly superior about. But now I’m supposed to be focussed on copy, and aside from their names, I can’t recall a thing about how they write about themselves. And yet I’m told, not only by copywriters but by companies like 37Signals, that copy is what sells above all else. Words are what the internet is all about.

A couple of months ago I was persuaded to try an offshore personal assistant service, lured by a free offer. Now that I’ve given them my credit card, they’re taking $26 a month from me and I frequently forget that they owe me services for it. Unlike other similar services, they let you roll overpayments to future months, so nothing’s lost as long as you eventually need their help. Well, here’s my chance to get some value from that decision.

So I sent them the following task:

Here’s my first attempt at describing a task that would be very helpful for me.
Please go to http://limitedwipsociety.ning.com/page/tools where you’ll find a list of all of many online products that compete with mine.

Visit each of their websites and create a table with the following information:
company name
landing page URL
Main headline
Sub-headline (if there is one)
Text on the main call to action button
Text near the main call to action button

For example this is from the first site on the list:
Company Name: AgileZen
URL: agilezen.com
Headline: Simple, visual and collaborative project management software.
Sub-headline: AgileZen helps you and your team get things done quickly, efficiently, and effectively.
Button Text: Choose your plan
Supporting Button text: none (I did not include “Take the Tour” because it’s not supporting text related to the button. If it said something like “30-day free trial” or “no credit card required” then I would include it. If you’re unsure whether a text is relevant, just include it and I’ll decide if it’s useful for me.)

If it takes less than an hour, that’s great. If it takes more than an hour, just do as many as you can, starting at the top, and stop after an hour.

Then I went to bed, because waiting for a response from an offshore virtual assistant service can be nerve-wracking. It’s so much more pleasant to make the request in the evening and then be surprised to find the work all done in your sleep, like the Elves and the Shoemaker.

Here’s what I found in the morning:

Competitor Copy

Download the PDF

I found it very interesting to have all of this text in one place. It’s surprising to see how similar all of the various kanban applications look when you compare the headlines and button texts which are, probably (note to self: this is a testable assumption), all that most visitors read before clicking through for a free trial.

That’s hardly enough information to base my own copy decisions upon, but it does suggest that as I’m testing headlines, calls to action, and supporting texts there is a pretty common baseline for comparison. I can now begin to test whether all of the product in my category have figured out the magic formula for conversion-maximizing copy, or if they’re all stuck in rut that I can take advantage of to differentiate my product in the market.