The Do’s and Don’ts of Online Copywriting – How to Write Effective Website Content

November 5, 2013 · 24 comments

by kayross

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Good design in websites is important; I don’t deny that. But I’m a marketing consultant, editor and copywriter (that means I write the words of marketing messages). So this article is about website content – my focus is on sharing some simple tips and best-practice guidelines for writing website text that’s effective from a marketing point of view (although I do make some comments about website design, because the words and the design have to work together seamlessly).

If you follow these tips and guidelines, I’m confident your website will attract more traffic and you’ll increase your click-through and conversion rates.

These are a few of my least-favourite things

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Photo credit: Kenneth Lim

First, from a website user’s point of view, I’d like to tell you about a few of my least-favourite things in websites (and I know I’m not alone):

  • flash intros
  • Home pages that don’t tell me quickly what the company is/does
  • vague/ambiguous/meaningless/non-intuitive icon names
  • confusing navigation
  • not being able to find what I want quickly
  • boastful PR fluff (e.g., “We’re proud of our commitment to customer service”)
  • pages that don’t have “Home” and “Contact Us” buttons
  • sites that talk about some vague, amorphous, anonymous group of customers out there, but aren’t directed at ME
  • having to scroll lots
  • long, dense blocks of text
  • distracting, moving images
  • pages where a soundtrack starts playing automatically as soon as I land there
  • bland stock photos of groups of busy, smiling, multicultural executives
  • hyperlinks that aren’t clearly, obviously hyperlinks
  • illegible text (e.g., text that’s too small, or coloured text on a coloured background, or text with a confusing jumble of different typefaces)
  • sites that don’t tell me how to contact an actual person
  • “Contact Us” pages that offer only a form to send a message but don’t tell me the company’s e-mail address, street address or telephone number
  • registration forms that demand a ZIP code (we don’t have ZIP codes in Hong Kong)
  • error messages that put the blame on me (e.g., “Bad Request”)

What you need to know about your visitors

In many ways, writing effective content for your website is the same as writing offline material – the same basic principles of marketing and good writing apply. But people don’t read website text and hard-copy text the same way, so you need to use a different style of writing.

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Research suggests that website users:

  • Visit a site with a specific task in mind, and leave quickly if they can’t find what they want.
  • Scan pages and headlines rather than reading every word.
  • Want to feel that they’re doing something active (e.g., clicking) rather than just passively reading.
  • Switch quickly from page to page, extracting only the most relevant information on each page.
  • Want to feel involved.
  • Have a shorter attention span than when reading hard-copy text. They’re impatient!
  • Have limited tolerance for scrolling up and down, and hate scrolling left and right.
  • Skip flash intros.
  • Don’t necessarily enter your site via your homepage.
  • Navigate around your site in ways you didn’t expect and can’t control.

And wait! Before you write a single word, you need to be clear about the purpose of your site. Who is it aimed at? What are their perceptions/motivations/expectations/goals/needs? What do you want people to DO and FEEL when they visit your site? What is the image and personality that you want your brand to project? What are the most important tasks that visitors come to your site to accomplish (that means important to THEM, not you)? What information do THEY want/need?

My best-practice tips for writing better website content

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Now that you’re clear about all that, here are my tips about how to write effective website content:

  • Use the word “you” (i.e., addressing the reader directly) much more than “I” or “we” or “customers”.
  • Write informally, the way you speak – use active verbs and use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs rather than dense blocks of text.
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms, ambiguity and abbreviations.
  • Communicate the results and the emotional benefits of using the product/service, not the features. Answer people’s “So what?” and “What’s in it for me?” questions.
  • Tell stories, use testimonials, and appeal to the emotions and all the senses.
  • Write so that people can scan pages quickly – highlight key words; use bullet points and numbering; use sub-headings to entice people to keep reading; link brief summaries to longer, downloadable files.
  • Explicitly tell your readers what you want them to do next: order, buy, subscribe, enquire, join, visit, apply, donate… (that’s “the call to action”).
  • Make your site interactive – invite your readers to order products, subscribe to your newsletter, enquire, comment, tell a friend, enter a competition, click on a link…
  • Use plain English, the kind of words people actually use when they’re searching.
  • Make the names of your buttons and links intuitively meaningful to the reader (rather than yourself).
  • Keep your site up-to-date – give your readers a reason to return.
  • Delete content that’s irrelevant to the user’s task (no matter how interesting or important you think the information is).
  • Don’t write “You can…” or “Customers can…” – just get straight to the point with a strong verb: “Find more information at…” or “Order today…”.
  • Make it as easy as possible for people to buy/subscribe/unsubscribe/download.
  • Include “Home” and “Contact Us” buttons on every page.
  • On the “Contact Us” page, include actual contact details (address, phone, fax), not just an e-mail form. Ideally, list people’s names/titles.
  • Offer free content: articles, tips, surveys, demos, case studies, a newsletter, tools, resources, your blog…
  • Choose your house style (e.g. British or American spelling; the way you write dates, times, telephone/fax numbers, place names…), then use that style consistently throughout your site.
  • Use consistent terminology for icon names, concepts, products, services…
  • Use consistent layout, look/feel, fonts and colours, and make the text easily legible.
  • Don’t write ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS (it’s hard to read, and it’s considered rude).
  • Make your error messages helpful, not accusatory.
  • Communicate only one idea per paragraph, and keep each page short.
  • Always make it clear where on the site the reader is.
  • Get to the point – put the most important points/conclusions upfront.
  • Make factual statements (kill the meaningless PR fluff and the exaggerated hype).
  • Credit your sources.
  • Provide helpful links to other relevant sites and resources.
  • Print out your text and edit it in hard copy – you’ll always pick up more mistakes that way.
  • Put your marketing staff, not your IT staff, in charge of developing and managing your website content.
  • Ask your copywriter/editor/proofreader to check your text for: spelling, grammar, consistency, style, tone…
  • And finally, please please please involve your copywriter from the very earliest stages of planning and building your site – don’t call her/him in at the last minute.

Author : Kay Ross

Kay Ross is a Hong Kong-based Australian marketing consultant, copywriter and editor who helps her clients craft compelling marketing messages that attract more of the right kind of clients. She’s also a stand-up comedian and comedy improvisation performer, and she’s passionate about personal and spiritual development. Visit her website at http://www.kayross.com, check out her blog (“Spotlight on Marketing”) at http://www.kayross.com/blog/ and tweet her nicely at http://twitter.com/kayross.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Anders November 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Hi Kate
Sorry. This was a mistake. We have removed the link and the reference to Traffic Travis.
Kind regards
Anders

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Rowan Ford December 14, 2012 at 11:29 am

Hi Kay my name is Rowan Ford and I am student at South Devon College in Paignton Devon UK, and I am studying a course called emerge which is a course half studying performing arts half studying technical theatre, and within the course we are studying on how to make a website and we are starting to create our own websites for blogging to eventually start making money through people downloading and buying our products, which we have been designing in our music tech sessions which are great fun because we get to play with a piece of software called logic and we have used logic quite allot now and we have now started our website module and I came across your website the other day and i thought this looks quite interesting so I came onto your website and I found very helpful with my studying and that’s why I am leaving you this comment
:)
Many thanks
Rowan Ford

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jack ridlington December 14, 2012 at 11:12 am

very good article well informed and defininately of use, especialy the part on how to write your website content. i am currently doing a course on creating my own website and many of the tips here will definately make it onto my projects and any future sites i may choose to create. also as i intend to create an online business it was especially useful to have the user activity tips, i feel they are the most crucial pieces of information here and vital for any business goals to be attained.

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Rowan Ford December 14, 2012 at 11:26 am

good response mate

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Survey Crest October 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Interesting tips for online copywriting. The material you write has a great influence on your audience so it is important to pay attention on the content on your website.

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daan August 16, 2012 at 9:36 pm

This is terrible information. What is a house style, you are using a wrong translation of the dutch words ‘huis stijl’.
I aint perfect but this is bad.

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Andy August 18, 2012 at 11:39 am

Thanks for sharing your opinion. We are always interested in improving our skills and we seek to create quality articles. We will look at your feedback a.s.a.p.

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Kay Ross September 8, 2012 at 7:18 am

Daan, “house style” is correct in English. It means the standard way that a publication or company spells words (for example “color” or “colour” and “Mr.” with a full stop or “Mr” without a full stop), and the way it writes dates, times, telephone numbers… Whichever style you choose, you should use it consistently in all your marketing material. Whenever I write or edit text for a client, I have to ask them whether they have a house style. Many organisations have a “style guide” – a list that specifies what style they use.
Kay

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Chris July 4, 2012 at 3:45 am

Kay, I loved your article. I’m putting together my first business web page & was lost as to what to do. I knew copy was important. I just didn’t know how to steer away from the useless fluff that I see so many others in my field write on their sites (I’m a portrait photographer). I put your article in one pane & typed into a second pane & kept them side-by-side as I wrote. I’m not the greatest writer but I really saw it come together the way I had imagined it in my head; strong, concise, focused on a goal, client oriented and me to the core. I think when my clients read my copy and then contact me they will already have a connection with me because my personality came through so clearly on my site, sans all the fluff. Thanks for the guidance!!!

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Kay Ross September 8, 2012 at 7:06 am

Thanks Chris! I’m glad to hear that you found my article useful, and that you’ve put the ideas into practice.
Kay

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El June 1, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Nice article with a lot of good points

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An observer May 3, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Good article. Sound tracks that start playing when I havent asked for it is THE most irritating thing someone can put on there site, along with those videos that pop up and start playing, like a person telling you about the site.

I think the most important things are 1) Usability – easy navigation etc and 2) A good design, which IMO your site is actually missing.

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Ozio Media March 11, 2011 at 8:12 am

You’ve provided your readers with great advice and hopefully they will use it in their copywriting or website design venture. Another point to consider is slow loading graphics, which most people find annoying. Not many people will stick around waiting for pictures and graphics to load, especially if they can not reach the information they are after. It’s always a good idea to constantly browse your own website and read it’s content to make sure everything is in working order.

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Lars March 11, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Ozio, thaks for your input. I agree about the slow graphics, really important to get right!

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CodeMyConcept March 8, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I have to agree with 99% of your post. Well researched and explained. I do however have to point out a couple of “distracting, moving banners right here” and also we don’t have zip codes where I live either.

Contact forms only are annoying, but even more annoying is when you click “Contact” and it takes you to Outlook or similar, not everyone uses those.

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Lars March 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Really good points thanks!

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Kay Ross March 2, 2011 at 9:37 am

Thanks everyone for your comments.
@Mark – I’m certainly not saying that the tone/style has to be the same on every website. My point in the paragraph starting “And wait!” is that you have to understand your target market, and choose a style that suits them (even if it doesn’t suit everyone else) and communicates the personality of your brand. But even lawyers are human, with human emotions. So “informal” doesn’t mean writing in the style of Facebook status updates or text messages; it means writing the way you speak, in plain English (or French or whatever). I don’t think that way of communicating will ever “burn out”.
And yes, my original title included the phrase “Website Content That Grabs Attention and Increases Conversions”, but unfortunately we had to cut that because the whole title was too long.

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Mark "Chief Alchemist" Simchock March 2, 2011 at 1:48 am

I like this list. For the most part I think it’s a good list and worth reading.

That said, I can’t help but wonder if these rules are tailored (and dummied down?) to writing to “everyone”, when in fact each brands’ customer sweet spot is different. Where does brand style, differentiation, and expectations – e.g., do I want my lawyer to be as informal as recommend here? – come in? Or go?

It would also help to separate the UX type stuff (e.g., no caps, contact page with proper details, etc.) from the actual tips on writing copy. Either that or change the headline to something about increasing conversions. My point being, the headline seems to be about Kay (knida?), not about me and what I got based on the expectation it set :)

Finally, maybe it’s just me but I’m growing a bit tired of the “keep it informal” recommendation that is obviously influenced by UGC. At some point the appeal of that style is going to burn out, or at least not be taken seriously, no? I mean when everything reads like a Facebook status update how is the brain going to know the wheat when it consumes it?

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David Radovanovic February 28, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Nice lists. Now if I can put them to practice.

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Lars February 28, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Thanks for your feedback David. I agree there are many and it will be quite a task to implement all in one go ;)

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Deepetch February 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm

@Kay–Wow amazing words from you..All the designers has to follow the stuff which you have included..In this competitive world designers should be updated with happening and want to delivery wonderful work. That was great stuff…thanks for sharing.

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Lars February 28, 2011 at 7:42 am

Kay, Thanks a lot for this article and for sharing your valuable experience in the copywriting space!

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