A Freelancer’s Guide To Writing Effective Online Messaging
Writing for delivery via the web, whether to a desktop or a mobile device, requires a different approach compared to traditional marketing copy. Attention spans are different and constant exposure to messaging means visitors read and consume information differently on the web. There are a number of best practices that can be applied to any online messaging from site content to blogging. There are also significant reasons to apply these standards to traditional documents like white papers and cases studies delivered digitally. This guide looks at these practices and gives you a framework for assessing the effectiveness of your site content.
Note: These practices, though applicable to any online content, are presented in the context of business or organizational sites that have specific marketing goals. Generating leads, producing sales, convincing a constituency, informing those doing research…all of these desired outcomes can be optimized through a consistent content strategy.
Why Do Visitors Come To Your Site?
Imagine you have been tasked by a superior to evaluate your organization’s options for a purchasing decision. You do background research to build a set of relevant questions, do discovery to see what solutions are available, and then try to determine which options are best for you. You visit sites, read reviews, looks for feedback from other users of the product, and read industry media.
This research is unlikely to be done by a person who is directly making the buying decision. Typically they are a staffer tasked with doing basic discovery and presenting their findings to decision-makers with a value proposition for each option. In the process they are likely to become, at least at this stage, the internal expert on the subject. And they are aware that a failure to do a good job can be costly, while offering up truly useful information can be a career enhancer.
You’ll note that in the scenario, the process does not include contacting the company offering the product. Increasingly, buyers are self-qualifying before reaching out and initiating a sales process. To be blunt, they do not want to be on your radar until they have already done their homework. And they wish to avoid the still ubiquitous sales mentality that believes their job is to cajole a buyer into buying (yes folks, these people are still out there!).
Knowing this, we should understand that it is the quality and accessibility of the information you provide online that makes it useful to a person in a discovery stage. Their time is valuable and wading through hype and exaggerated claims, or mindless business-speak, will waste that time. And you are likely to lose them.
Characteristics of Quality Content
What defines quality content?
- Relevance. I have questions and need specific answers.
- Accessibility. I don’t want to have to dig around to find top-level facts or to understand what it is you actually do or offer (hiding this information is often mistakenly thought to encourage a call or other contact).
- Digestibility. How hard is this to understand? Are they assuming knowledge on my part that I may not have? Do they understand the world I work in?
- Point of View. I have a specific problem I am tasked with solving. The solution must have a measurable value to me that I can compare to other options. How do others users of the product or service gain advantage from its use?
- Primary Value Proposition. Most products and services offer more than one benefit to the user. Some offer many. However, trying to convey the payoff for each and every feature or use case is not a good idea. There should be a core benefit that your copy focuses on that illustrates the other possible rewards associated with the product. This core value proposition should offer clear, measurable proof of its value in monetary, time, or emotional currency.
Usability and Readability Guidelines
These are some of the more strategic considerations in developing a content strategy. On a practical level there are number of usability guidelines that should be considered when delivering content online:
Note: These same standards are exactly what needs to be done to enhance Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for the site. This not some kind of secret SEO sauce offered by social media agencies and ‘experts’. Better content, formatted correctly, is the secret to SEO.
- Text content on a site page is read in the following order: Headline, Picture Captions, Subheads, and finally, Body Text.
- People scan, so these hierarchal bits of information should tell the story in a snapshot, without them having to read through the entire thing.
- Break up blocks of text with bullet points. Keep paragraphs short- they should only address one subject. Every rambling long sentence can, and should, be broken into shorter ones or replaced with one short sentence.
- Use Active Voice. Don’t say ‘You might consider…’, say ‘Consider this:’. The active voice is dynamic and moves the subject forward, the Passive Voice waters it down.
- Brief and concise top-level information on the Home page, more in-depth information on sub-pages and in formats conducive to downloading and sharing. These include spec sheets, white papers, case studies, and industry research papers from third parties.
- Images should reinforce text messaging. Generic stock images may be pretty but they seldom help the visitor understand what you offer.
- Short explainer videos (under two minutes) are powerful ways for a visitor to share concepts across a team. Make sure they are shareable and not delivered in formats like Flash that require players. Never autoplay audio. Never.
- Your marketing should have a unified voice, the ‘personality’ of your company or organization. Perhaps the best example of this is found in Apple’s marketing. They always speak in the same voice, keep things direct, and never get down into the technological weeds (though that is there if you dig). Most important, the voice is friendly, helpful, and minimal in hype (though their principal strategy is to get you excited about advanced technology).
How Are We Doing? The Importance of a Third Party Assessment
Assessing the effectiveness of your site content is difficult for internal teams to do on your own. For people tasked with creating content, stepping back and critiquing their own work is challenging. For this reason you should consider working with an expert outside resource. For those with deeper pockets, having usability studies done can be very enlightening. For smaller businesses, working with a web content writer, with a track record and usability experience can result in a greatly improved messaging strategy whose performance is measurable. This resource should work with your management, your marketing team, and your agency(s) if you use them.
The Principal Value, For You, of These Best Practices
In my opinion, based on extensive experience marketing complex B-B technology products and services, the overriding benefit of an organized content strategy is clarity. It gives your team a focal point that is relevant to management, marketing, sales, product development, even human resources. Having a company ‘personality’ is a unifier.
Note: I write frequently about the business of freelance writing. You can see a list of the articles here.
For information on conducting usability studies: https://www.nngroup.com
Examples of Active Voice: http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-active-and-passive-voice.html
Building a Value Propsition: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelskok/2013/06/14/4-steps-to-building-a-compelling-value-proposition/#1df9d2284695
Why Brevity is Important: http://have-a-word.com/why-brevity-is-important/