The Oban Blog

Multivariate Testing Testing the Power of Language

Have you ever wondered what effect your copy has on your website’s visitors? Would a different heading or call to action help you sell more? Do your website users appreciate your sense of humour? Do they tolerate your marketese? Here’s how you can find out!

For one thing, they may not read your website in the first place but are more likely to scan it and pick out the bits they find useful. Usability studies by Jakob Nielsen and many other usability researchers provide a lot of insight into the way people read website content and give advice on how to write for the web in order to get your message across successfully.

However, apart from the text length, paragraph structure, bullet points and highlighting of keywords, there is still a whole lot of uncovered ground left to your linguistic creativity and style, which may produce a quantifiable difference in your website’s success, i.e. the number of sales conversions or newsletter subscriptions etc.

Knowing that communication styles can vary from culture to culture, it would be only wise to assume that also the style of language in your website should be adapted to the audience you are trying to reach. And so, together with a colleague, we have recently brainstormed some ideas relating to the style of language used in online content which could be applied in cultural multivariate testing.

We came up with a list of contrasting styles of expression. Why not try if some of these approaches work better for your business in some cultural contexts you are trying to address?

• High-Context vs. Low-Context

Edward Hall found that different cultures communicate in different ways and one of these differences was represented as a high-context and low-context spectrum of cultures (Hall 1976). Context is what is required to understand the message. Some cultures more than others rely on the non-verbal, implicit context of the message, such as shared beliefs and common knowledge, intonation, body language etc, and are therefore high-context (e.g Chinese or Japanese). Low-context cultures tend to rely on explicit verbal messages (e.g Scandinavians or Germans) rather than context. This has implications for the style of writing as well as the balance between the use of text and other elements of the site.

Does your website take into account the high- and low-context communication styles of your audience?

• Formal & Indirect / Informal & Direct

Unlike English, many languages have their polite third person forms (Sie in German, Pan/Pani in Polish etc) and require the use of indirect language for a higher level of formality (where English often uses ‘you’). Admittedly, the netiquette may be much less rigorous than the rules of traditional communication, but certain conventions should not be broken (unless your target group specifically requires an informal style or use of jargon– i.e. teenagers, computer geeks etc).

Does your website respect the rules of politeness of the culture you are addressing?

• Collectivism vs. Individualism

This is one of the dimensions of culture defined by Geert Hofstede and it refers to the level of importance attached to being part of a group/organization, as opposed to loose ties between individuals. In website design, this would be reflected in the emphasis on personal vs. group achievement, consumerism vs. socio-political agendas and novelty vs. tradition.

Does your website benefit from appropriate differentiation between individualist and collectivist societies?

• Positive / Negative

Is your glass half full or half empty? Does your copy focus on the negative as it tries to convince the user to act (Is your house prone to burglaries? Are you afraid to be on your own? Neighbourhood Watch may be an answer to your fears!) or does it focus on the positive? (Ever since joining Neighbourhood Watch my life has changed for the better – I sleep much better at night knowing that.)

Would the positive or negative style of writing be more persuasive for your potential customers?

• Hard Sell vs. Soft Sell

BUY NOW!!! or “Because You Are Worth It” – both work when applied in the right place in the right way. This is particularly relevant when phrasing your call to action.

Are you applying the right selling approach?

• Humour vs. Dry

Humour definitely sells, but here, in particular, one has to be careful so as not to alienate your potential customers through a misjudged joke. Also, one must be aware of accessibility aspects such as using invented or unconventional words in your navigation which will only confuse your visitors.

Does your audience appreciate a bit of humour?

• Modest vs. Exaggerated

In some cultures, exaggeration and use of superlatives play an important role in selling, but in some, it may be a faux pas and a deterrent.

Which of approach would work best for your audience?

• Conventional vs. Unconventional

Would your readers appreciate something different? A bit of fun, surprise, playfulness or even a mystery? Or would they rather sail on safer waters and prefer things they know and have seen already? If you are in a business where being unconventional wins you more popularity, why not extend it to the communication style of your website and test the results. If your audience tends to be more conservative though – then better play safe and remain conventional.

The above are just examples, but they prove that there are many ways of communicating with your audience and not all of them will be equally effective across all cultures. By trying to understand your target audiences better, you can find out which methods are the most successful in which context. Multivariate testing can help you with this task.

Happy testing!


Hall, E. T. (1959). The Silent Language. Doubleday

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. New York: Doubleday

Hofstede, G. (1997). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, McGraw-Hill, New York