Writing a company profile that’s not awful (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Photo: Dean Franklin via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Dr. Wobs

Company profiles are some of the most boring pieces of content. How can they be improved? 

— Alessandra

Dear Alessandra: A typical company profile — often shown on the “About us” section of a Web site — is a political exercise that makes everyone at the company unhappy, even as it mystifies customers. Let’s look at how to do them better.

Why company profiles suck

Here’s a company profile from NextGen Healthcare:

NextGen Healthcare helps ambulatory care organizations transition to value-based care by empowering them to nurture measurably healthier patient communities at a lower cost. Our solutions, optimized by physicians, developed with input from our 90,000 providers, and based on almost 25 years of ambulatory expertise, help ease the burdens of HIT and enable practices to improve individual outcomes and nurture a healthier population.

Got it? What’s your impression of this company and what it does? We know it produces “solutions”. We know it helps “ambulatory care organizations.” And we know it helps ease the heavy, heavy burdens of HIT, whatever HIT is. But what do they do?

Gibberish like this doesn’t happen by accident. It’s worse at technology companies, large companies, and diversified companies. Here’s are a few things that companies do badly that lead to descriptions like this:

  • Don’t get everybody in a room. A statement like this should be this vision of the founder or CEO and the head of marketing, with a little help from a PR person or a brilliant copywriter. Otherwise, you’ll end up muddled as you try to gather everyone’s input and satisfy everyone.
  • Don’t go nuts with buzzwords. Buzzwords pervade organizations as a shorthand for talking about the work they do every day. That’s unavoidable. But they’ve got no place in a description like this. “Ambulatory expertise” sounds like you’re a wizard at walking around. Write for an intelligent customer in the language they use every day.
  • Don’t crowdsource. When you invite everyone to comment, they do. Then there’s pressure to make everyone happy. So you tweak, and tweak some more. A clear description slowly, one step at a time, ends up encrusted with exceptions and enhancements. If your objective is to make everyone happy, you will end up making everyone slightly unhappy. Better to figure out who matters — like customers — and serve their needs.
  • Don’t pack sentences to bursting. This is related to the number of people trying to tweak things. I’m certain that somebody at NextGen insisted that the description had to include “value-based care,” “healthier patient communities,” “optimized,” and “25 years of ambulatory experience.” Individually, those phrases might be helpful. Collectively, they make sentences unwieldy. Sentences are not minivans.

Do this instead

Ask these simple questions:

  • Who is our customer? How would I explain it to somebody that’s not an expert in what we do?
  • What do we do? You know, as a company, what do we actually accomplish?
  • How do we help the customer? How are they better off?
  • What differentiates us? What makes our company better than the rest?

With this focus on clarity, you end with descriptions like these:

Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses. [A little earthy-crunchy, but it gets at the company’s personality.]

Hello, we’re Salesforce. We help make your customers love you.

Founded in August of 2008 and based in San Francisco, California, Airbnb is a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world — online or from a mobile phone or tablet.

If you have trouble with writing a simple description like this, your problem may be that the people in your company don’t agree on what it actually does. That’s more than a language problem. But working on a single profile for the company can often help clarify what you actually do and focus your company.

I’m taking this to heart in my own small company. Here’s what I do:

WOBS LLC helps business writers express themselves boldly and clearly.

Any questions?

But you left so much out!

Actually, that’s the point. You can’t get to this level of clarity unless you leave out everything except what really matters.

But I sense that Alessandra may want more. Because it’s not just about a mission statement. A mission statement is the tip of the pyramid — what’s one level down? If you create a company information page or information sheet, what goes on there?

That’s where you get to talk about the different groups of customers you have and what you do for them.

That’s where you get to talk about different products and how they work.

It’s where you get to talk about the unique qualities that set your organization apart.

If you stick to jargon-free, active-voice descriptions, you can restore the pieces that your crowd of collaborators said was missing — but in a deliberate way, rather than trying to cram it into the existing sentences.

If you get to go into detail — say, on subsidiary Web pages — then focus on some customer case studies. There’s no better way to show what you do than to show how you helped a customer.

One last thing

Don’t talk about shareholders or investors. We know you try to serve their needs by being profitable. They’ll love you for being clear and successful, not for calling them out in the mission statement.

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  1. Even Airbnb’s statement is too long:

    Founded in August of 2008 and based in San Francisco, California, Airbnb is a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world — online or from a mobile phone or tablet.

    >>Founded in August of 2008 and based in San Francisco, California
    Who cares?

    >>online or from a mobile phone or tablet.
    Really! You specifically have to tell us this?

    Airbnb is a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world.

    It’s stronger already isn’t it?