Friday, March 30, 2012

Informational Tea Articles On A Commercial Tea Website

This post, continuing my series on best practices for tea company websites, explores the question of whether or not, and how, to include informational articles about tea on your website.

This screenshot shows informational articles about tea on RateTea. There are already many websites, including tea company websites, blogs, and strictly informational sites, offering articles about tea, so it is important to have good reasons for deciding to write articles for your site.

There are many different reasons that tea companies choose to include informational articles on their site. These include:

  • Answering specific questions that your customers may have about your teas, or providing more information directly relevant to your customers.
  • Helping to generally raise the knowledge level both of your customers, and of people in general.
  • To convey an impression of authority or expertise, thus making a favorable impression on people and increasing the likelihood that they buy your teas.
  • To draw in traffic from search engines and other sources.

Of these purposes, I would say that the first is the most important, and the last (drawing in traffic) is a mindset that is best avoided, for reasons I explain below. My recommendations for the best practices in how to include articles on your site are as follows:

  • Share your unique expertise and knowledge, which leads into the next point:
  • Write in detail about your particular teas and their origins.
  • Avoid writing general informational / educational material about tea unless you are confident that you can write accurate articles, and that you have something unique to offer. If you aren't confident in these respects, you would do better to search and locate the best resources and link to them from your site.
  • Avoid using articles to draw in traffic to your site unless you really know what you're doing.

I am going to go into more detail on some of these points.

Sharing your unique expertise and knowledge:

If you have unique or specialized knowledge about tea that is not easily available anywhere else on the internet, this unique knowledge is probably your best material to write about. Examples of such unique knowledge include experiential accounts like the detailed descriptions of remote areas of Yunnan province that you can find in The Tea Urchin, or the discussion of Chinese green teas that you can find on the Life in Teacup Blog. Another great example is Bearsblog, which offers a level of depth of knowledge about Pu-erh that can be hard to find.

For some examples of tea companies whose information I like, I find that Upton Tea Imports offers some engaging takes on the history of the tea industry in the West, in their Upton Tea Quarterly. For a completely different sort of information, check out Norbu Tea; I find their descriptions of each tea to be highly informative, offering information that is not available elsewhere, and written with a personal touch that offers opinions and perceptions without making universal claims about how the customer will experience the tea. Another company with information about their teas that leaves a very good impression on me is Red Blossom Tea.

If you read this blog, you'll notice that I'm not as knowledgeable about tea as a lot of other tea people, who have been in the industry for years, who have travelled extensively to tea producing regions, or who have tried much more tea than me. My unique strengths lie in thinking holistically, and integrating discussion of tea with discussion of ecology, food culture, culture in general, business, and health. In any one of these areas, I have little unique knowledge to offer, but I think that the breadth of my knowledge stands out, and I have a knack for relating things to each other, so I choose to focus on writing articles that integrate subjects in unusual or novel ways.

Write in detail about your particular teas and their origins:

If your company is selling tea, you want to write first and foremost about the tea that you sell. You can write about the regions your tea comes from, how the tea is produced, its characteristics of flavor, aroma, and appearance, how to brew the tea, the history or origins of the tea, or any cultural practices surrounding the tea, and anything else that makes your teas stand out from the offerings of other companies.

Here are some examples of the following sorts of articles and pages:

All of these pages explain topics that are likely to be unfamiliar to a majority of tea drinkers. The pages on aracha and biodynamic tea are longer, whereas the page on the Kangra region is very brief. But all of these pages provide useful background information while highlighting something unique about the teas sold by these particular companies.

Be cautious about writing general informational or educational material about tea:

My advice, if you're going to write general informational articles about tea, is to actually do thorough research before writing them. If you don't want to do the research, don't write them. Having inaccurate articles on your site, besides spreading misinformation, can make a bad impression on potential customers (or on bloggers or webmasters who are considering linking to or helping promote your company), or, in extreme cases, even open you up to potential lawsuits.

As an example of such misinformation, here is a screenshot from an article hosted on the Republic of Tea website. I am bringing attention to this tea company, as always, because I like them as a company, and I'd like to see them update their articles to be more accurate, both because it is in their best interest, and because I want to help promote truthful and accurate information about tea.

The biggest claim that I take issue with in this article is the claim that white tea contains "virtually no caffeine". I've researched this topic extensively, citing the best scientific studies I could find, and summarized it on RateTea's page on the caffeine content of tea. What I found was that it is not possible to generalize about the caffeine content of tea based on type, and that white teas cover the full range of caffeine content from very low to very high (among teas). Furthermore, white teas made exclusively of buds, like those described here by Republic of Tea, are among the teas highest in caffeine. Unless Republic of Tea has tested their particular teas and established that their particular offerings are low in caffeine, this information is outright wrong, and even if their particular white teas all happen to be low in caffeine, the general statement made on the informational page is untrue.

This is the sort of information that, at best, makes a bad impression, and at worst, alienates customers or even opens a company up to lawsuits. As an example of how this sort of misinformation could open a company up to legal liability, even if the error made were in reality an innocent one, it would be easy to argue in court that Republic of Tea is using the claim about low caffeine to make white tea seem more appealing, and thus, to profit by making sales; the company emphasizes the claim of there being "virtually no caffeine", and presents this claim in the context of a claim that white tea is healthy. And can the false idea that white tea contains "virtually no caffeine" cause damages? Absolutely:

I once had a nasty drug interaction between an antibiotic that I was taking, and caffeine from white tea. While the interaction was not dangerous, it was extremely unpleasant, and there are other cases in which caffeine can pose dangerous and even life-threatening risks to people. In my case, I knew that white tea was not necessarily low in caffeine, and I simply under-estimated the effect that the drug I was taking had on my rate of caffeine metabolism. However, in the case that someone drank white tea thinking it had, as this article quotes, "virtually no caffeine", and the person had a dangerous reaction to the caffeine, I can imagine this sort of published misinformation opening the door to some potentially ruinous litigation. I'm not a particularly litigous person; I think lawsuits are overused, but it's a fact of American society that there are large segments of the population that are "sue happy". In the case of lawsuits, it often doesn't matter if a person wins a case, or even if they are theoretically able to win. Even the most frivolous lawsuits can be a costly headache for everyone involved, and I think as a general rule, if you run a business, you want to avoid doing anything that would make anyone even consider suing you.

I've brought the claims about caffeine content to the attention of Republic of Tea in the past, well over a year ago, and the claims still have not been taken down. This company is playing with fire by leaving an article like this, with an egregiously false claim about a topic of medical importance, up on their site. They're also missing out on the free promotion that they'd get from people who might have promoted their company through word of mouth, but who, like me, were put off by the bogus claims about white tea.

My advice to tea companies in general is that if you don't want to put in the large investment of time necessary to create accurate informational articles, you can search for and link to the best and most relevant articles. However, as with hosting your own articles, linking to articles with misinformation can also make you look bad. If you don't know how to identify accurate sources and want to learn how to do so, Wikipedia's guidelines on identifying reliable sources might be a good place to start.

Even if you don't ever want to write informational articles, I think that improving your ability to distinguish truth from falsehood is a worthwhile endeavor for everyone to undertake. You'll be developing a critical life skill that can benefit not only your business, but virtually every aspect of your life, including your health, finances, social relationships, hobbies, competence as a parent, etc.

Avoid using articles to draw in traffic to your site:

Some people may be tempted to add articles on tea to their website selling tea as a way of drawing in new customers, through people who search for general information on tea. As someone who runs an informational tea website, I have a lot of data about people's behavior when arriving to websites through web search. There are two reasons that the information business is unlikely to pay off for online tea retailers: one, it is extremely competitive, and two, it does not reach the users most interested in buying tea.

On competitiveness, ranking high in internet searches for informational searches related to tea put you into competition with big-name sites like Wikipedia, and, for health-related topics, sites like Mayo Clinic and WebMD, all three of which your tea company is unlikely to ever outrank. Occasionally, high-quality pages from NIH or well-known universities will also show up; your articles are unlikely to ever outrank these articles in searches as well. Slightly less authoritative sites like also have extensive articles on tea, and these sites are still hard to outrank, especially for smaller companies whose websites are unlikely to have much clout.

On the second point, the intention of a web user, while hard to directly measure, is of critical importance in any sort of website. As an example, RateTea receives a tremendous amount of traffic to its informational articles; however, these users are extremely unlikely to explore (let alone use) the rating and review feature of the website. One of the big draws to RateTea is the article on the caffeine content of tea. However, users who enter the site through this article rarely explore the site. The users more likely to participate actively on the site are those who arrive by typing terms like "tea ratings" into search engines.

From the perspective of a tea company, people who search for informational content related to tea are much less likely to buy tea than people who search for tea to buy. There may be a way to make the business model of drawing in customers through informational articles work, but it is highly unpredictable and requires exceptional cleverness, so it is not a strategy you can rely on.

In summary:

A lot of what I said in this post can be summarized by the guideline to write about the topics most directly related to what your company does, and the topics you know the most about, rather than just writing about tea in general. Informational articles can both help or harm your business, and which of these happens depends on whether you write from your area of expertise or whether you venture too far outside it.

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