Before you hit “publish”
To best serve your users, you have to know who they are. When you have a clear, memorable image of your typical users in your head, you can create a more consistent content throughout the site. To represent a significant portion of your users, you need to create a user persona.
Who’s There? Creating user personas
The purpose of user personas is to create a representation of your key audience segments. To be effective, they need to represent a major group of your users and focus on their biggest needs and expectations. Try to create as realistic a persona as possible, with real backgrounds, goals and values. Three of four different personas are usually enough.
Surveys and in-person interviews are a crucial part of getting to know your users. An interview script will ensure that you obtain the same information from everyone, so the data you gather is actually useful. Your goal is to gain a thorough understanding of your users. However, because your time is limited, try to ask and observe the most relevant questions and behavior. Take notes and capture audio (or even video) of the interviews to ensure accuracy. A user persona, when created in the right way, brings the voice of the user in the conversations you have with your team.
The exact questions you ask will vary (Shlomo Goltz has an amazing list of questions you can check out). You could start out with these:
- Personal: age, gender, level of education, hobbies, motives, location…
- Professional: professional background, work experience, why they come to the site, when and where they come to the site…
- Technical: what devices, software and applications do they use on a regular basis, where they primarily access your website, how much time do they spend on your site and on the web in general, where they read your content (are they sitting on their sofa at night or in commute)…
Keep in mind to ask primarily open-ended questions and, when possible, specific stories. Ask the participant to show, not tell, whenever possible. Show that you are eager to learn and want to understand: there are no stupid questions. You are not going to do a statistical analysis from your results so the amount of people to interview is not as important as truly understanding the attitudes and behaviors of your users. Instead of asking what people want, focus on what they do, what frustrates them and what gives them satisfaction.
Once you finish interviewing, list all of the behavioral variables of the interviewee. Most variables can be represented as ranges with two ends. There may also be demographic variables that might affect the behavior, such like age or technical skills. Then, put each interviewee against the appropriate set of variables. Look for people who clump together across multiple (6–8) variables. That way you can find a major behavior pattern to represent your persona. Give that pattern a brief description, such as “impulsive buyer”. For each pattern, adds details based on your data. These can be typical workday, current frustrations or their goals. Don’t get creative: every aspect has to be tied back to real data. The whole point of creating personas is to get past your personal opinions and presuppositions and understand who your users truly are and what they need.
When you have analyzed the results and noticed the similar patterns of different groups, the persona document will summarize your research data. With persona core poster you can create a one-page long user persona document. Hubspot also has a nice User Persona Generator you can use.
There are other sources you can use, too. From your site analytics, you can see where the visitors come from, what keywords they used to find you and how long they spent on your site. They’ll also tell when people read your site (in the morning, evening, weekends, lunchtime). Maybe there is a peak hour? Brainstorm with your team, especially with those who often interact with customers. If you have no user base yet, see what you can find out about the users of your competitors or of similar companies, products, and services.
People access the internet in different ways. Their access to internet might be limited depending on where they live. They also have different literacy levels and different native languages. They also have all kinds of disabilities you have to take into account, such as color blindness (check out Alex Bigman’s article about the subject), visual impairments, dyslexia and other difficulties processing written information and motoric disabilities.
All your users will benefit if you use simple and natural language, active and friendly voice, present tense and short sentences. A little trick that’ll help to make your writing flow is to read it out loud. This way you’ll see where you stumble. Do this until the writing is smooth. You can enhance your content with pictures (remember to use alt text to make them understandable for text-only readers), videos, audios, lists, tables, colors, diagrams and quotations. However, keep in mind the aforementioned disabilities and make sure your content is accessible for all.
The writing process
Should you find yourself needing for inspiration, there are few tools that can help you out. Hubspot’s Blog Topic Generator gives you several blog post titles based on the keywords you offer. Portent’s Content Idea Generator does the same — and the site is full of other, great resources. Content Row currently offers linkbait generator, word count tool and hashtag finder.
Or maybe you know the subject but, like me, struggle with a super-short attention span. There are plenty of focus boosters I have bookmarked over the years if you want to check them out. These are all free:
- Noisli — sounds of the world, with a timer and a beautiful background videos available.
- Hipster Sound — soundscapes of rainy terrace, street corner cafe, cosy fire place, and so on.
- You are listening to — traffic police radio from different cities with ambient background music. Oddly hypnotising.
- Sound City Project — listen to the soundscapes of cities around the world.
- Ambient Mixer — community-driven, open source website full of ambient atmospheres and sound effects. You can create your own sound mix and edit the audio templates to your own needs.
- Mynoise — a great variety of different sounds and soundscapes. By donating, you get access to even more sounds.
In addition to these, you can of course search for ambient, relaxing music from Soundcloud, Spotify, 8tracks, Youtube or other music service of your choice. If you willing to cough up a few bucks, you can subscribe to Focus@Will, which offers music scientifically proven to boost your attention. (I have a subscription myself and I have found it helpful, but I’m first to admit you can probably do just as fine with the free tools available.)
When you have figured out who your users are and what they want, check out the other materials the company uses: their advertisements, e-mails, text messages, booklets, etc. What is their tone and voice? You have to match that. For example, MailChimp has a very thorough Style Guide which, among other things, covers the tone and voice they use in their communications. As visitors interact with the content of your site, they should develop a clear picture of the organisation behind the site. Is it young or playful (most people like a little bit of humour here and there) or more conservative?
You have created the user personas. You know what kinds of people you’re talking to. But what is the persona of your brand? When a user reads your website, whose voice do you want them to hear? Who can they believe or relate to? Ryan LeClaire has a good idea of thinking your brand as a celebrity. Different celebrities personify different things and even if you can’t actually hire them to represent your brand, you can render their characteristics in your writing. For example, Judi Dench portrays age, wisdom and experience. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Cate Blanchett portray beauty and sophistication. Stephen Fry is smart, witty and tech-savvy. Jason Fried wrote a great piece (that you should totally read in full) called Why Is Business Writing So Awful. Here is an (often-quoted) excerpt:
When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and act like everyone else, you’re saying, “Our products are like everyone else’s, too.” Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet — the marketplace?
Many companies usually have a style guide but it usually tells only the basic graphic and typographic guidelines. If that is the case, you should ask about the style, tone and personality as well as the terminology and acronyms if they are used. Then you can document those guidelines for all content creators to use. When in doubt, ask more questions.
Before you write a single word, take a few moments to think what is the topic and purpose of the page you are creating and what keywords you should use to let people find it easily. Are you going to spice it up with some video or audio material? Cartoons, charts and graphs can both educate and entertain the reader but they have to talk the same language as the other content on the site. Remember this when choosing the pictures, as well. Stock photos are rarely a good idea (sometimes even the pictures of your actual workers and company might look like stock photos), but here you will find a list of sites that offer “not-so-sucky” stock photos. When the user has read your article, what would you like them to do next: click to the next article, buy a product, sign up for your newsletter? You can create a list, doodle a mindmap (good free tools are Mind42 and Mindmup, the latter offering integration with Google Drive) or draw an example page to help you out, whatever works best.
Next, think up keywords. What are the main points of your text? The keywords will help the user scan the content to see if there’s anything interesting to them. What words people might use when searching for this kind of content? Using keywords is part of search engine optimization (SEO). Use these keywords in the page title, page headline, in the content and in the page url. Using links and natural language are also part of search engine optimization. Unique content will make your site come on top in search results. You can use tools like Google Trends (to see how search queries change over time when people search for your keyword and compare different words or phrases) and Browseo (which shows you how a search engine sees your site, displaying only the relevant SEO information).
Speaking of search engines, they love content that is up to date (and users love it even more). So, check your content in 6–12 months rotation. You can break the site into section and go through them that way. Plan for the subjects and content for the future, too. An editorial calendar will help everyone to know who will write what, when and where it’ll be published. Planning for holidays, sales and other special dates becomes easier with a calendar. At the same time, remember to stay flexible: when opportunities arise, write them down while staying up-to-date and consistent with your communication. Showing up is big part of success: don’t let people forget your existence. You can use these free templates to get you started, or share a Google Calendar with your team, but there are also dedicated services to help you out. One of my favourite apps ever, Trello, is free and works beautifully as an editorial calendar.
Sometimes it’s beneficial to show small messages such as error notes, confirmations or warnings on your site. They are very short: a few words will usually do the trick. They answer to a very specific question people have and speak to their concerns right on the spot. In other words, they are extremely contextual and you have to pay attention to the positioning of your note. When writing these messages, remember that they have to follow the same tone and voice as all the other content on the site. Be nice to people and be understandable. Tell them what went wrong and how they can fix it, such as: “Your password was wrong. Try again? If you forgot your password, click here.”
These are some examples of small messages and microcopy:
- signing up for a newsletter: “you can unsubscribe anytime”
- people add their email: “we hate spam as much as you do”
- when storing customer’s information: “you can export your information at any time”
- offering optional account creation: “if you create an account, you will be able to track your package”
- choosing a subdomain name: “you can change this at any time”
- when selling a paid-for web application, be sure to let people know if you have a free trial.
These small messages assure people are not taken out from their comfort zone (which is super important if you ever want to sell them anything or assure them of something). They are especially useful when creating forms. I wrote a brief guide for forms and surveys you can check out but in a nutshell you should use use nice, short language, a good call-to-action and a short form. Always ask yourself what information is absolutely necessary for you to have. And never confuse people. For example, when asking for their address, make sure they know which one to provide as a shipping address and as a billing address, if there is a difference. The world is full of great survey tools you can choose. Typeform is my personal favorite but Surveymonkey is also a good and very popular choice.
The Winning Formula
In this blog post, which you should definitely check out, Kevan Lee introduces 27 (!) copywriting formulas. I picked five formulas which I felt suit to most situations:
- Before-After-Bridge: here’s your world -> imagine what it’d be like, having the problem solved -> here’s how to get there
- Features-Advantages-Benefits: what you or your product can do -> why this is helpful -> what it means for the person reading
- 5 basic objections (solve even one): 1) I don’t have enough time, 2) I don’t have enough money, 3) it won’t work for me, 4) I don’t believe you, 5) I don’t need it.
- 3 reasons why: Why are you the best? Why should I believe you? Why should I buy right now?
- Awareness-Comprehension-Conviction-Action: present the situation or problem -> help your reader understand how it affects them -> Explain that you have a solution -> Create a desire and conviction in your reader to use your solution -> Call to action
This is not the only time Lee has written about this subject. In this article, he introduces the anatomy of a perfect blog post and the 7 elements it contains:
- Headlines are usually the make or break moment. Readers tend to absorb the first three words and the last three words. So, it’s six words that truly count: so make them stand out. If you can squeeze your headline to six words, no more no less, you’re a champ! If not, focus on the six words that matter most. Jeff Goins even created a formula you can try: number (people like lists) or trigger word (how, why, when) + adjective (effortless, free, essential, strange) + keyword (secret, fact, reason) + promise (something audacious, something that dares the reader to click and read that article).
- Start by storytelling: it can be about a famous person or a personal anecdote. This hooks the reader to continue.
- Cut down characters per line at the start. The easiest way to do this is by placing an image at the top right/left of your post. The fewer the characters, the easier the text is to comprehend. Or, if you don’t want to use images all the time, boost the font size of your opening paragraph.
- Visuals rock! Use pictures, graphics or doodles to catch the reader’s attention.
- Use subheadings! Make your content digestible, scannable and easy to understand.
- There is not a perfect, set length. As Neil Patel points out, there are many factors affecting the post length. What is the substance? What is your style? How often do you post? What is your audience like? Are you posting a written article, a video, an infographic, an audio clip or some combination of these? However, Mike Sall did some math and noticed that the optimal post at Medium takes 7 minutes to read (which equals to about 1600 words). If you are interested, Kevan Lee also wrote an awesome article about the ideal length of everything online.
- Make your blog post quotable and offer some “tweetables” here and there in your post.
People scan the website following an F-shaped pattern. It helps to imagine the webpage as a flipped triangle:
- The most important part is the beginning. It has to answer the questions what, where, how, why and give a summary of the content. This is the point where most people decide if they want to read further.
- In the middle comes the extra info. It’s not as important but still interesting.
- At the bottom comes the interesting content, which is not important for the reader. Aim for a situation where this last part could be removed without damage.
Engage your audience with interactive content like infographics, quizzes, calculators, conversion tools or whatever makes sense to your users. For example, you could help people pick up the right plan for their needs. Asking for feedback, comments and suggestions can also provide very good facts about them. You can ask people to give thumbs up/down, ask for additional details, guide them to contact form or offer them an email. Make sure the articles are easy to bookmark to services like like Pocket. Instead of frequency and quantity, focus on quality and in-depth articles. If your article solves a problem or challenges people’s behavior, beliefs or belongings, they usually stay relevant for a long time. Highlight these older articles and showcase your archive.
You most obvious way to make your content shareable is to place the sharing links of different social media platforms to your article. But before anyone will click them, you have to give them a reason to do so. A study conducted by UCLA found out that people are biologically wired with a want to share information with other people. We seem to be constantly on the lookout for content someone else might find helpful, amusing or interesting. In other words, we share information because it lets us stay connected with others. Furthermore, when The New York Times Customer Insight Group studied online content sharing, 73% of respondents said that they shared information because it allowed them to connect with others who shared their interests. In the same study the respondents told that they feel better about themselves when people react positively to what they post on social media.
Jonah Berger and Katy Milkman researched (PDF) what makes content go viral. They noticed that positive content trumps negativity, and that content that evokes a high-arousal emotion (awe, anger, fear, sadness, humor, wonder…) does better. And, not surprisingly, practical and useful information wins. Solve a problem, take away the pain, show practical strategies! It goes a long way. A study (PDF) by Murray S. Davis from 1971 noticed that, in conclusion, interesting content denies certain assumptions of their audience, while non-interesting content affirms them. Aim for a surprise. A well-known example of this is the “The Tortoise and The Hare” fable. (Or the dozens of movies where the underdog, with unconventional training methods, comes out as a winner.) Consider commonly held beliefs in your industry and see if you can challenge them. Is there some order in the chaos? Is something that looks local actually more universal phenomenon? What looks bad but is actually good — or vice versa?
Before hitting “publish”, ask yourself if this content is the best you can do. Does it add any value to your reader? Why should someone care about this? In other words: so what? Publish the content when you know it will benefit someone. Audience of one is enough.
Web Copy That Sells: 9 Can’t-Fail Formulas by Karri Stover
Writing for the Web course by Frankie Madden at Open2Study
Marketing Personas: The Complete Beginner’s Guide by Kevan Lee
Personas by Usability.gov
Getting From Research to Personas by Kim Goodwin
Writing Microcopy by Joshua Porter
10 Content Strategies to Rapidly Build a Larger Audience by Jeremy DuVall
Cashing in With Content by David Meerman Scott
Web copy that sells by Maria Veloso
Brainfluence by Roger Dooley
Why We Love Having A Content Calendar (And Why You Will Do) by Brooke at MailChimp
Why Do People Share What They Do? by Mridu Khullar Relph
The Scientific Secrets of Shareable Content by Jeff Goins