Break at your own risk: Genre conventions and why we need them

My attention has been side-tracked recently by two real estate signs that break conventions. Both left me wondering what the agency was trying to achieve. Are they clever attention grabbers or misguided mistakes?

The Watch this Space sign featured outside a neighbour’s house for almost two weeks. Each time I passed Watch this Space, I wondered whether it was a For Sale sign with a rather-too-clever play on words for Space Agency. Or was it something else? Perhaps the house was not yet on the market but was about to be? Perhaps the house was about to be renovated? Perhaps a development application was about to be displayed? Eventually Watch this Space was replaced with a standard For Sale sign. That’s when I understood that Watch this Space was simply there to let people know the house was about to go on the market.

Going, Going … is a sticker attached to a traditional For Sale sign. The traditional sign was in place for a few weeks before the sticker appeared. Is the sticker there to create a sense of urgency? Has the price been dropped? Is the house under offer? Does it have any meaning?

For me, the problem with both Watch this Space and Going, Going … is that I don’t understand how to ‘read’ these signs. Their meaning isn’t quickly clear for me. And this means they run the risk of creating confusion rather than communicating a message.

Both signs break the genre conventions for real estate signs, presumably in an effort to stand out from the crowd. But if I’m in the market for a house, I don’t want signs that stand out from the crowd. I want a simple sign that identifies whether a house is for sale and helps me to narrow my search. If I’m a house-buyer, genre conventions tell me where to look and what to expect.

House-buyers are intensely interested in all real estate signs. But they don’t want clever communication and cryptic messages. They don’t want real estate agents who play with words. They want simple messages that identify houses for sale.

Genre conventions are like unwritten, informal agreements between writers and readers. They tell writers how to structure their message and what format to use: they tell readers what to expect and how to read.

Genre conventions enable fast communication. They’re particularly helpful in environments where readers know exactly what they’re looking for and don’t want to be diverted by unnecessary information.

Genre conventions work as a type of shortcut: they help people to communicate quickly because they make use of shared understanding. For real estate signs, the genre conventions allow for three categories of property (sale, auction or rent) and two standard types (generic or tailored). Generic signs identify only the property category and the agent’s details. Tailored signs add to this with basic details, marketing copy and photographs. Sign variations are minimal – the size might vary a bit, different agents use different colours, and some agents include a personal photograph. Real estate signs are all pretty much the same – and for good reason. They enable speedy communication of the key message.

Writers who break genre conventions are taking a risk. If the risk pays off, their message is noticed and they may have more success than their competitors. But if the risk backfires, they confuse their readers and fail to communicate.

I suggest that writers need to think about the risks involved in breaking genre conventions. Is the potential risk of confusing some readers worth the payoff of making others take notice? Is there a true benefit in breaking the conventions?

In a cluttered environment, with great competition for readers’ attention, stretching the genre conventions might make sense. But if your readers are already interested in your message, and if they’re actively seeking to compare information from multiple sources, then genre conventions might just be your best friend. In real estate, the task of the sign is to draw attention to the house, not to the sign itself. Maybe real estate agents should focus their attention on strong marketing copy, not on breaking the genre of signs.