How To Write More Powerful Online Text
Although there are significant differences among the various types of online communication, there all have one critical thing in common - they're read off a screen. There are substantial benefits, too, in that while your message is on someone's screen usually it has their undivided attention. You are genuinely "one-to-one" with them and that's something you must respect - you are literally "in their face" and encroaching on very personal territory. The bad news about online communications is that your message can be "disappeared" faster from a screen than with any other medium.
There are a few more stark facts about online communications that significantly influence how your message is received. One, according to the world-acclaimed web expert Dr Jakob Nielsen, is that 79% of online readers don't read - they scan. That's a little like the way people browse through brochures. What it means is that your message must be delivered in a way that allows key points - and benefits, of course - to be picked up at the same speed as readers scroll and scan.
Secondly, Dr Nielsen has also calculated that when people read from a screen they do so at a rate 25% slower than they read print on a paper page. That's because, despite high-resolution screens and all the other technological wizardry, on-screen text is harder to read. For this reason your messages have to be very much more concise than they do for printed media - some experts say screen text should be just half the length of its paper equivalent. In my view, therefore, there are two very important things you have to remember if you're going to get the best out of online text.
Firstly, go with the flow of the physical restrictions and write so you minimize their effect. Also, create your text so it works well for scanners (human scanners that is) by highlighting key points in bold - not italics or underline because people think those are links. That way people get the gist of your message while scrolling, although of course they will stop and read more carefully when an emboldened section really does catch their eye.
Secondly, bear in mind that even in its short little life the internet has already started to put its early folklore on a nostalgic pedestal and this plays a key role in determining what works online now. Having begun its days as an electronic kaffée klatch for individual tekkies the net has developed a very personal informality and straight-talking ethos that, miraculously, is being preserved and perpetuated with considerable success. And that's all the more astounding when you consider the vast commercialism that's replaced the early net's endearing woolly-sweater-and-sandals innocence, naïvety and honesty.
Never mind, though. There are other good reasons why brief, straight, plain - even blunt - speaking is a sensible style to maximize the success of your online text. Obviously it helps overcome the physical restrictions (see above) and also works well in such a personal, one-to-one medium that is, literally, in your face.
Today you only have to think how emotional people get over the issue of receiving "spam," to understand just how firmly the PC or PDA or other forms of electronic screens have established themselves as part of their users' personal space. "You don't just use a computer," my late mother used to shout when she came by my office to see if I was still breathing, "you wear it."
Well, although I don't exactly read it a story and kiss it goodnight I'm bound to feel pretty close to my computer (and the messages it displays) especially as I often spend more hours a day with it than I do with my family. The moral? When you're writing online text, in fact online anything, respect the close relationship people have with their screens. Knock before entering, then be the perfect guest. Be direct, don't waste their time, but remember to say please and thank you. Then leave before you've worn out your welcome. That's the way to ensure not only that you make a good impression, but also that you'll get invited back.
The one huge problem nobody seems to have solved yet, as I see it, is how to handle the vast amount of e-mails that most of us receive every day. Even I, as a humble one-person-band little business employing no-one other than myself and my two rescued dogs who spend most of the day asleep under the desks in my office, receive between 50 and 100 e-mails per weekday. Some clients of mine receive double that. No doubt busy business people I don't know receive even more. How do you prioritize those? How do you decide which ones to read now, which ones to read later, and which ones not to read but to dump?
Ah, ah, I hear you say, what's that got to do with writing? Let me tell you. If you're writing a personal e-mail to a friend there's no problem, particularly as you're more likely to send it to their personal e-mail address than their business addy. But what about business e-mails that you want the recipient to take notice of? How do you make the best of the medium when your e-mail is likely to be surrounded by at least 49 others all shouting for the same person's attention?
In the earlier days of the internet, if you were smart and could write a snappy short phrase you could attract attention in the subject line, perhaps including the words "relax, this is not spam." Now though, the spammers have cottoned on to that one and if you see a subject line in your e-mailbox saying "not spam" it almost certainly is - to the extent that this is the first thing looked for by most of the spam filters you can get.
Spam filters will also choke out all the obvious spammy words like "free" and "opportunity" and "give away." And you can't be believed if you write something really homely and innocent sounding like "message from your cousin Marianne" because that's what all the porno spammers do. So what's the answer?
Or, so what's the problem? If the recipient of your e-mail is likely to know you and knows that what you have to say is usually interesting, they'll open it and probably sooner rather than later. It's when they think your message is not likely to be of use, relevance or interest to them; that's when you're relegated to the delete tab.
So what's the most efficient way of ensuring people open your e-mails? You have to be interesting. That's what's in it for them, and their previous experience of your being interesting provides them with the incentive to read your new e-mail.
It's also a good idea to confirm the fact that you're interesting by getting over "what's in it for you" in the first few lines of the text. If you don't readers are often tempted to move on without going further, especially if they have 27 other e-mails to read. However here we risk straying into pure online marketing areas and once again, there is an impressive selection of reading matter available that goes into chapter and verse about that. But I do want to emphasize this point about being interesting.
Whereas the e-mail marketers might be agonising over how to write subject lines that get through the filters and get people to open the e-mail, a fair few of them may be missing the point that it's not the subject line that matters so much as the name of the sender. If the recipient doesn't know the sender it doesn't matter how cuddly the subject line is, they won't open the e-mail for fear of being sold some ugly garden furniture or pornography or even a virus. If they do know the sender but also know that he/she/they never have anything interesting to offer, they won't open that e-mail either.
Do I hear the ringing of bells in terms of the quality of message? In online communication probably more than any other kind we have a tendency to forget that all the electronic gizmos are just enabling devices, and that at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is the message, not the means of delivering it. If the recipients of your e-mails know that you usually communicate interesting messages with something worthwhile in it for them, they'll open yours even if the subject line is "more boring BS from Bobby."
As we progress further down the route of wireless, mobile communications, happily the boffins are busy finding ways to increase the screen sizes so we can use slightly less strangled abbreviations on the screens. But text-based comms for marketing are probably the most miniaturized challenge for copywriters since the old subliminal advertising scandals of the 1950s and 1960s. (They had to keep the messages short and powerful then too.)
If you're tempted to use texting for marketing purposes, do please consult a professional, and a professional copywriter, not a professional telecommunications guru. Despite only working in half words and soundalikes, text ads are difficult to get right, because of the fact that there is so little to play with and so little room for manoeuvre.
This is the Big One. This is the topic that has given birth to more experts than there are websites, and that runs into the muchomillons. Everyone you meet has their very own views on what makes the perfect site and that varies from the all-singing, all-dancing variety that looks great on a fearfully expensive turbo-charged computer but takes ages to load into most people's cooking PCs ... to the belts-and-braces merchant who believes a website should load faster than he can sneeze and has to give him all the info he needs within the first three bullet points. Are they all wrong, or are they all right?
At the risk of sounding boring and repetitive, once again the answer lies in researching your audience. The bad news, though, is that very often websites have to do not one but several jobs to do for not one but several audiences. Unlike offline print media whose audiences tend to be easier to define, many websites are expected to work as advertizements, brochures, catalogues, shops, customer service centres and technical support bureaux all rolled into one.
This does not make life any easier for those of us who work at creating and writing websites. And although we all have our pet theories there is no single, simple answer to the question "how do you make a website that works as powerfully for audience Z as it does for audience A?"
Probably the most sensible way to define and manage the variants of your site's audience is to split it into two broad groups - new visitors and re-visitors - and ensure that home/landing pages give a clear, simple direction for either group to follow. In the early stages of a website that's probably as much as you can do, but there are ways in which online audiences can be researched and website traffic tracked which will give you clear indications of how to develop the site in the future. However that's something you should discuss with specialist internet and e-commerce experts - it's not a writing issue.
It helps to compare your website with an offline business or other organization, even down to size and proportion - from small boutique to huge department store. At the small end it's obviously much easier to map a site using common sense. At the large end common sense works too, if you take the analogy to the limit. When planning a commercial or otherwise interactive website think of an offline equivalent that works well for its customers or users, and translate its key good points for online use. The sort of offline equivalents you might use for the analogy are:
¨Shopping mall or department store
¨Large public library or government department
¨Bank, insurance bureau, travel agency, real estate agency
¨Bookshop, giftshop, etc
If your website is not a trading site as such but is to act more as an online showcase, then think your way through your organization's most successful capabilities overview presentation. If the approach and content work face-to-face, they're likely to work on a website too.
Of course you can't control the order of presentation on the site in as disciplined a way as you can live. But if you invite site visitors to look at your credentials in a logical and appealing (to them) order, there's a good chance many of them will follow your suggestions and not necessarily jump about in non-linear grasshopper fashion. That's especially true if your content holds their attention equally well at each stage of the progression - there's nothing like sudden boredom to make grasshoppers take a huge sideways leap.
Many internet purists are going to shout abuse at me for comparing websites with offline media, saying that online comms are completely different. But please hush for a moment, folks, while I explain further. I do not advocate trying to squash and squeeze offline material into online manifestations like podgy feet being squelched into shoes 3 sizes too small.
What I advocate is to use the logic from an offline application if you know it works well with people, because the people who look at your organization's website are people - and what's more, it's likely they're from the same or similar audiences as those of your offline comms.
If you know that the thought process behind your offline business communication works very well, why on earth should you consider rethinking your whole strategy and taking a completely different approach for the website? Remember that old line, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it?" In the same way, if a strategy works and you can't foresee any reason why it should stop working in the near future then don't change it. People are people wherever and however they receive your message.
Obviously the way you implement the logic, and what you hang off it in terms of text and other written material, yes, all that will be different online. Websites involve many considerations which do not enter into the offline picture - for example, writing text with one eye on Search Engine Optimization, which is a specialized discipline in itself.
Another very important consideration is for the writer to work very closely with the technical developers and maintainers of a website, because what and how you write is very closely linked with the way the site is structured and how visitors use it. All in all, if you're undertaking anything other than a fairly simple and uncomplicated website it's safer and more effective to use professional specialists all round, writers included.
But do not let anyone try to persuade you that creating a website requires you to undergo a brain transplant. By all means show respect for the technical expertise required to make a good website work well, but equally be aware that at the end of the day all that really matters is how well your website helps you communicate with your audience, not how to calculate the square root of its exponential gigafactor.
Okay, so now we've got the logic right, what do we say? Let's look at some key issues connected specifically with websites.
Obviously you need to create a skeleton structure first of all, and usually that needs to be done in close cahoots with the web designer. The primary objective when putting together the skeleton structure is to make the site work as well as possible for visitors and not, as some designers would have you believe, how many fancy animations and galloping gargoyles can be incorporated and to hell with how long they take to load on old systems using dialup access.
Please don't forget that some people - your customers, perhaps - are still using dial-up access and not only can that be expensive (in the UK at least) but also it's slow and often dependent on the foibles and vagaries of ordinary telephone lines. Assuming that many countries will continue to depend on dialup access for some years to come, slow-loading websites are not going to be very successful in markets outside of the mainstream industrialized nations.
That's one of the reasons why I believe simple, uncluttered websites work far better. Another of those reasons is because I think they're stronger and more effective anyway!
As for the text itself, shorter is sweeter. I normally set about both my offline and online work with hedge clippers several times before I submit it to clients and/or for publication, and when I wrote the text for my own website I took an axe to it over and over again before I was happy. As I've said earlier, it's as hard if not harder to write concisely than it is to waffle on, so writing text for websites is no picnic.
One useful tip, though, is to write down your thoughts in as much detail as you want, and then ask yourself "okay, now what is it that I'm really trying to say?" Often you'll find that you come up with a vastly simplified, shortened version of all those words and you can express your thoughts in a fraction of the space.
A good example of this happened years ago when I co-wrote a book about jewellery with Antwerp-based gemmologist Norbert Streep and we agonized for weeks over a suitable title. At the end of our fourth or fifth brainstorming session I said to Norbert, "how have we been referring to it all this time?"
"As the Jewellery Book," replied Norbert.
"Then that's our title," I said, and it was, too. The publishers loved it.
As with all online text, short, straight, simple and to the point is preferable for any form of website text, even if there is pressure from elsewhere to write it in the "corporate voice." If you do get pressurized it's worth reminding the pressurizer that no matter how big and important the corporation is, its website gets stuck straight into the faces of visitors via their screens and with that level of physical intimacy we really do have to speak to them as one human being to another.
Business website-speak should be as natural and informal as the way you would speak to someone across a table in a meeting - not as informal as chit-chat over a beer at the golf club, but certainly not as pompous and stuffy as the Chairman's Statement in the Annual Report and Accounts. And now if the pressurizer asks "why" you can say, because that's how the culture of the internet has developed since the 1980s and if we go against the grain, we are unlikely to maximize our online business opportunities. (That one works especially well with Financial VPs/Directors - remember to squint meaningfully at them while saying the words.)
One thing I must point out here is that although your website should be written in a way that's crisp, short and to the point, this does not mean that you should keep the range and variety of information to a minimum. On the contrary; one of the beauties of a website is that it can offer a great deal of information to visitors who want to read it all, but unlike with a brochure, if site visitors don't want the lengthy detail it stays tucked tidily out of sight and out of their way.
In people's understandable efforts to keep websites short and sweet they sometimes avoid including background information, archived material, back issues, related articles, etc. Yet some visitors are likely to find that stuff quite useful. And apart from the relatively small cost consideration of website size, there's no need to exclude such material - all you have to do is make sure it's sectioned off in an appropriate part of the site.
Anyway, a great many excellent books and other publications on how to create a good website exist at the time I'm writing this. In the main their advice will be excellent, but do please remember to see the wood from the trees. In the gushing welter of information you'll find about the subject you, in your role as writer, must keep your eyes focused on your audience, "what's in it for them," and how to communicate "what's in it for them" via the most direct and effective route.
Canadian-born Suzan St Maur is an international business writer and author based in the United Kingdom. In addition to her consultancy work for clients in Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia, she contributes articles to more than 150 business websites and publications worldwide, and has written eleven published books. Her latest eBooks, "The MAMBA Way To Make Your Words Sell" and "Get Yourself Published" and available as PDF downloads from BookShaker.com.
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(c) Suzan St Maur 2003 - 2005