The Perfect Tagline: Starting Point or Destination?

How to find a tagline

Your tagline summarizes everything about your business or brand, by telling your audience why you best meet their needs.

Your tagline doesn’t have to be verbose, explanatory, or even direct. Indirect taglines can be powerful—like the classic “Just Do It,” which essentially says “Our products will motivate you.” However, direct taglines are exactly what some businesses need. The most important thing is your message.

What’s the right approach for finding your own tagline? The Web is full of advice about how to do this, but most of it assumes that you’re ready to get started …

Let me back up for a minute, and ask:

Is your business and brand established, or are you (re)establishing it?

I Dunno

If you don’t know, or if you’re (re)establishing your brand, you might want to ask whether you’re ready to write your tagline. It depends on how you see it.

Every brand needs a message. Do you want your tagline to be the seed from which your message will grow, or should your tagline be the distilled essence of your message?

The safest option is usually the “distilled essence” approach.

If you take the “tagline seed” approach, where you write your tagline first and plan to grow the rest of your message out of it, then there’s a danger your tagline won’t quite align with your final message. Imagine a tree leaning over to the right, making you wish you could move the trunk under it to balance it out.

If you take the “distilled essence” approach, then you start by determining your main message in long form. 

How do you determine your main message? You don’t. Your audience does.

Ask yourself: What appeals to my audience?

Don’t be afraid to spend a little time really getting inside your audience’s head, maybe talking with your clients, and separating “What you’re inclined to talk about” from “What they want to hear about.” This exercise will serve you well in many respects, if you haven’t already done it. Consider various input, like analytics for popular search terms, your own experience with clients, and some research on your competitors.

Once you have your main message (in long form) and your key points, shape it into an outline that covers everything in one consistent story. You might even find that your tagline (or most of it) is hidden there, among your most compelling main message text.

When you’ve established your main message, you can move on to the next phase…

I Am What I Am

When your brand has an established message, then there are some core things you can do to get your tagline generator chugging away. One of them is not to use an online tagline generator. You might think a site like that will stimulate some ideas, but from what I’ve seen they just generate distractions and bad advice…

So do this:

1. Focus on what appeals to your audience (see topic above).

You have a main message for your business or brand. So now let’s consider your name and market: What type of tagline matches? Should it lean toward clear, or clever?

Honestly, a small business in a local market might need a clear and simple description—especially if the business name doesn’t indicate what it does. For instance, if “The Harris Company” makes custom widgets for local distribution, they might get the best response out of “Exquisite Widgets for Portland.” It’s straightforward, and it targets the audience who will differentiate them from those big national Widget-makers. A national brand in a competitive market probably needs something more clever, which is where the creative team comes in…

2. Generate some options

Come up with a draft of options. This is where you consult a creative team, or read loads of online advice. Let your draft of options sit at least a day, then refine them. When you have your third draft, you have the first draft that’s worth showing to anyone else. You should have between 5 and 10 options in this draft.

3. Get outside feedback

Contact some sample clients—people who are as close to your customer’s mindset as possible—and run your draft of ideas past them. Resist the temptation to explain your reasoning behind ideas, because you won’t be there to explain it to other customers. Just let people read and respond.

4. Don’t be afraid to start over

If your sample clients are lukewarm about all of your options, don’t be afraid to start over. Be careful to listen to exactly what they say in their responses—what concepts or aspects they liked, and what they didn’t.

5. Chase the threads

Once you have some options that are on the right track, create variations that build upon their most popular traits. If people like the option that mentions “Flexibility,” then consider what’s attractive about that—can you use a more powerful word, or tie it more directly to a core concept? Or, did they like “Flexibility” because of the alliteration when it followed the word “Fast?”

6. Live with them

Once you have a final round narrowed down to two or three options, spend some quality time with them yourself. Imagine your typical client discussions, considering the themes you usually hit upon. Are those themes consistent with these taglines? Hold each tagline up against your competitors, or ask your sample clients to do so. Which one rises to the top, and sticks in your head?

To make this process more efficient and effective, you can (ahem) get a professional writer. The key thing is to keep the number of people on the creative side to an essential core—a meeting room filled with people trying to agree on a tagline is a recipe for jumbled leftovers. Ultimately, make sure there’s one decision-maker, and make sure the decision-maker picks the one that really nails it for him or her.

Because customers won’t choose a compromise.

If your content has 100 pages, and your user has 10 seconds…

How to structure content for people who already hate you

Nobody is going to read everything you write.

Nobody reads everything I write, except for my mom. When I wrote user’s guides for mobile phones, my mom once called to say that she had read the manual up to page 38, and now she had a question. Nobody else reads all of my content, but I hope that the right pieces are read by the right people.

That’s one of the reasons that structure is critical.

Structure is mostly about categorization and navigation. Let’s talk about the second one: Navigation is critical, because people often give you very little time to direct them to the information they need. I’ve watched user testing, and read user feedback, and I think people are limited by both patience and ego. If people get confused, they can start to feel stupid, which becomes “This product is stupid,” which becomes “How do I return this product?” People might spend more time returning the product than figuring it out, if the product makes them feel dumb. So your reader’s patience is probably counting down as soon as they start reading.

When we write content, we naturally structure it. But sometimes we let our perspective influence the structure, rather than matching it to our audience analysis.

You might be thinking of the structure from the bottom-up (“Here’s my content, how do I structure it?”), rather than the top-down—as your audience will see it (“How do I find the content I want?”). So it’s important to forget the content you have for a minute, and think about what your audience wants and expects when they arrive.

If your structure doesn’t send your audience to the information they want, then they never get a chance to see your lovely writing. That’s why we need to understand our audience—their terms, and their typical needs—then, structure information so that they can find what they want as quickly and easily as possible.

Of course, that also helps us ensure we’re covering all the topics we need to cover.

Here are some guidelines:

  1. Complete your audience analysis.
  2. Map out the content that your audience wants, focusing in on their expectations and their terms. Make sure the top questions are clear.
    Tip: Don’t call them “Top Questions,” because that’s structuring things from your perspective rather than the user’s. The user doesn’t know what the “top questions” are. Similarly, if you have an FAQ, make sure its info is available under the navigation as well.
  3. Test your category structure headings, and terms.

About number 3: User testing might not fit in your budget. But think: Is there a way you can spend even a little time spent watching and interviewing real users who are trying to use a draft of your document? Is there a way you can at least test your navigation (where users just find a topic), if you can’t test the content (where users read and follow a topic)? Even informal testing like that can offer some important discoveries.

Testing or no, make sure that you have some regular, real, live feedback from real, live users. Then, use that feedback. Make sure to adapt your structure and content as necessary, from the user’s perspective.

Most of all, always remember to back up and review your content structure from the top down. Even if you present all the information, it’s not really there if people can’t find it!