Taking a Content First Approach
My mother always said, “think before you speak” to stop me from talking so much. Though, I never stoped talking, the lesson stuck. Before you design or write content for your website, organize your thinking, understand your purpose (or mission) and define your message.
When you start your website with a clear understanding of your audience, offer and message, you’ll avoid late-in-the-day guesswork that can lead to costly revisions.
Start Planning Your Website by Asking the Right Questions
Whether writing for yourself or a client, put on your journalist’s hat. Ask who, what, where, why and how:
- Who is my audience?
- Where are they located?
- How can I best reach them?
- What do I want them to do?
- And why?
Next think like a marketer:
- What am I offering of value?
- What is my message, offer or promise to my audience?
- How is it different or better from the competition?
Finally, put yourself in your users’ shoes. Thinking like a customer, ask yourself:
- What turns me on about this offer?
- What turns me off?
- What information do I need before acting on this offer?
- What information gets in my way of acting on this offer?
Write for Your Audience, Not Yourself
“What gets in the way?” is a crucial question. You need to distinguish between what you want to say and what your audience wants or needs to hear. They are rarely the same.
Always write for your audience first. Resist the temptation to show off your knowledge by sharing too much unnecessary information.
Educate and Entertain
In addition to information, most audiences are seeking an enjoyable user experience. They want to be informed (or educated) and entertained. Very few appreciate a hard sell. The most successful websites offer roughly equal servings of education, entertainment and soft promotion. (Educating consumers about product or service benefits can be an effective way to soft sell.)
Prioritize Your Messaging
The most effective sites have a single primary message: “Save the children.” “End hunger.” “Shop now.” “Join today.” “Lose weight.” “Subscribe.”
What is yours? If you can’t express a clear message in a few words, your visitors will be confused, possibly frustrated, and quickly leave your site.
Use Words and Images to Tell a Story
Once you have a good idea of what to say, you need to determine the best what to say it.
Because websites are primarily visual media, I recommend using a combination of words, images and even sounds to tell your story.
Think of your website as a movie. What happens when you’re watching a movie and you turn off the sound? It stops making sense. What happens when you’re listening from the next room and can’t see the screen? It may be understandable, but not 100%. You need both audio and visual for the full effect.
The same is true of successful website design. You need both words and images to tell a complete story. Due to short attention spans, you can’t rely on words alone. Who’s going to take the time to read?
A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words
Remember the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words?” A well-chosen image can express in shorthand several paragraphs of written content. A picture of a hungry child above the caption “End World Hunger” communicates your message at a glance and evokes an emotional response from your users. Some may even contribute money to your cause.
Set the Tone
Are you selling weddings or funerals? McDonalds or fine cuisine? The Wisconsin Dells or the French Rivera?
Use language, graphics and sound to establish the appropriate tone. You may choose pale colors, soft focused images and respectful language for a funeral site in contrast to bright colors, crisp images and fun language for a tourism site.
Use humor, when appropriate, but always respect your primary audience, unless of course, your intent is to agitate or disrupt.
Be Concise and Precise
Due to shortened attention spans and the small screen size of handheld devices, say as much as you can in as few words as possible. Be concise and precise by stripping out every extra word.
While you may think it’s easier to write short than long, think how much harder it is to write a poem than a page or prose. Mark Twain once said, “I wrote a long letter because I didn’t have the time to write a short one.” In other words, he had time to ramble, but not enough time to distill his thoughts into a few well-chosen words.
Learn from Twain and make the time to craft short messages that hit their mark.
When questioning a friend about a fact, how often has he or she responded, “I read it on the Internet“? We all know if you read it on the Internet, it must be true. Not!
Protect your integrity and that of your site, by checking the facts before you publish. Too much incredible information will sink your site like a lead balloon.
Avoid Unsubstantiated Superlatives
Boost your creditability by keeping it real. People are naturally suspicious of inflated claims and promises.
Draw in users and engage their interest by asking questions. Rather than saying “it’s remarkable,” you may want to ask “isn’t it remarkable?” The meaning is the same, but by turning a statement into a question, you force the reader to stop and think.
Avoid the Third Person
Make your writing more personal and the user experience more immediate by using the first and second person. Rather than writing, “who is their audience?” you may write “who is your audience?” or even “who is my audience?” – as I did at the top of this article — which places the reader into an active first person position.
Use the Active Voice
A good rule of thumb is to use the active voice. “The dog bit the boy” is more direct and impactful than “the boy was bitten by the dog.”
Include a Call to Action
Always include a call to action. What do you want users to do? Buy, subscribe, register, like, share, etc.
Be clear; don’t leave it to their imaginations. Just to be sure there’s no confusion, prompt or ask them to act. There’s a much better chance you’ll get the results you’re after, when you ask.
Keeping in mind that websites are visual, write your content as poster rather than book copy:
- Avoid run-on sentences and large paragraph blocks.
- Use simple sentence structure and short paragraphs.
- Use headlines, sub-heads and bullets to organize and present content.
- Surround your content with lots of white (or empty) space.
Final Content Checklist
- Is your message clear?
- Is the tone appropriate?
- Are your writing for your audience (yes) or yourself (no)?
- Are you precise and concise?
- Are you accurate?
- Are you using words and images to convey your message?
- Is there a clear call to action?
- Does your user know what to do?
When you answer “yes” to all of the above, you’re writing great website content that benefits your users.
In the next post, I’ll discuss how to visually organize content to optimize your user’s experience, hold their attention, and encourage them to act.