What would you do if someone walked in your front door, pierced you with a critical stare and said: “You’ve got 10 seconds to convince me that I shouldn’t make you disappear RIGHT NOW.”
That’s how long you have with a visitor who arrives on your digital doorstep. Usability analysts like the Nielsen Norman Group relish sharing this grim stat: the first 10 seconds of a page visit are critical for the user’s decision to stay or leave. That’s 10 seconds to show them you have what they need. To persuade them to stay and learn more. To convince them not to bounce to someone else’s digital doorstep and make you disappear.
Make that 10 seconds count with web content that gives your readers exactly what they need, and helps them accomplish what they’ve come for. These 8 guidelines will help you do just that.
1) Know your audience
Audience intel is essential. Are they young, old, middling? Are they busy? Lazy? What device(s) are they using? What language(s) do they speak?
Understanding as much as possible about your intended audience (known in the biz as the “target”) will help you craft web content that addresses their interests and concerns. It will tell you what word choices will resonate and what images will connect.
There are all sorts of ways to learn about your audience, many of which are free or low-cost. One enterprising content strategist at a US university, who had lots of good ideas and not a lot of budget, harvested email addresses from a willing accomplice in the admissions office and sent out an opt-in survey to prospective students. From this she recruited focus groups to learn what students and their parents look for on a university site, and ran usability tests to ensure the content design measured up.
NB: there is no audience named “everyone”.
2) Go for the goals
The best writing in the world is meaningless without a clear set of content goals.
Sometimes the goal is sparkly clear: you want your visitor to take a specific action (buy, join, sign up, download, follow). But many times Mr/Ms Target Audience Member has more complex needs and interests. Take those prospective university students. They’re definitely comparing programs at various institutions. They may be wondering what career they’re best suited to. Perhaps they’re interested in campus meal plans. Likely they’re pondering how on earth they will afford a college education.
The goals you define for your content blend what you know about your audience with your business objectives.
In The Content Strategy Toolkit, Brain Traffic’s Meghan Casey outlines a skookum process for defining your goals. First, create a core strategy statement, made up of four elements:
- Business goal(s)
- Content product
- User needs
At our fictitious university, this might turn out something like:
To increase the number of return visitors to our home page, we’ll offer students useful content to help them make informed decisions about their future.
This core strategy, tied to higher level business goals—return visitors often turn into enrolled students—is used as a lens to assess content types. Transit information: useful? Yes, but will it help students make decisions about their future? Not so much. On the other hand, what about a fun and insights-rich personality test linked to related career choices? Oooooh, yes! Plunk that puppy right on the home page.
3) Define your voice
Your voice is an expression of your organization’s personality. It’s also how you want to be perceived by your audience. How would you describe your company? Are you fun? Dynamic? Empathetic? Reliable? In defining your voice, it’s helpful to first choose qualities that best reflect your brand, and then contrast those with similar but different qualities that do not.
MailChimp’s Content Style Guide offers an example of the “we’re this, but not that” trope. They tell us they’re
- Fun but not silly
- Confident but not cocky
- Smart but not stodgy
- Informal but not sloppy
- Helpful but not overbearing
- Expert but not bossy
- Weird but not inappropriate
Defining your voice is a helpful way to zero in on how you want to appear to your audience—through the words and images you choose.
4) Create key messages
Go back to your core strategy statement; hold it up and give it a good shake. What should tumble from that as hailstones from thunder are your key messages. They articulate what you want your audience to feel, think, understand or be able to do when engaging with your site/app/tweet/chatbot, through your content.
For our university site, key messages might be:
- At U of X, we care about our students
- Move confidently into your future with all the tools and information you’ll need to make important decisions about programs, courses, financing, housing and careers
Key messages are simple statements of what your content should convey, and what your audience should experience.
5) Select key words
People search using the words they’re used to. So assuming you want them to find your content when they search, you need to include the words they use when they talk about your topic.
There’s a slew of SEO articles, webinars, ebooks and conferences to help out with this most fascinating of content concerns and here’s one to get you started from the content team at GOV.UK.
Place your key words in specific spots to catch the algorithmically attuned eyes of Mr. Google et al. Search engines look through the page title and meta description, H1 and first paragraph. After that, they tend to lose interest and wander off to the next enticing term. But there’s still value in using key words throughout your content, to tag for internal searches.
A caution though: make sure you don’t overdo it, or you’ll actually kill your SEO mojo. Maintain a natural voice to assuage the search engine gods.
6) Structure for scanning
The way you structure web content has an incredible impact on your user’s success in finding, learning or doing what they came for. And here I want to put in a plug for structure at the site level. For goodness sake, organize your content around your audience’s interests and needs, not the structure of your organization. It’s death to the user’s success rate to ask them to pick through your company’s departments to find the nugget of info they actually want.
At the page level, keep in mind that when online, people don’t sit down for a good read. They zip around your page in a cunning little F pattern, eyes bobbing like stones skipping through water. They have short attention spans and endless online offerings to skip away to, so you have to grab them and weave a spell with your content strong enough to help them be successful.
Here’s how you weave that spell.
Start with your main point (including an early call to action). No long-winded openings. Next, offer supporting info in the order of greatest relevance to the reader. Finish with details—background, history—if you must.
Include visual elements—photos, graphics, embedded video—to break up chunks of text.
In Scannability: Principle and Practice, UX Matters author Devon Goldstein lists features that make your content a joy to scan.
- Subheads act as signposts to keep those eyeballs skipping down the page.
- Numbered and bulleted lists help important points—like this—stand out. Use parallel phrasing. Keep lists down to 7 or fewer items.
- Bolding and italics, used sparingly, help to highlight key points.
- Block quotes and pull quotes break up the text.
- Links provide visual variety as well as having a practical purpose.
- Short paragraphs—no more than 6 lines—keep people moving through your content. Restrict sentences down to 20 words or fewer.
7) Make headings meaningful
Headings and subheads should be specific and useful. In her impressively detailed article on the lowly little headline (Headings Are Pick-Up Lines: 5 Tips for Writing Headlines That Convert ) Hoa Loringer from the Nielsen Norman Group tells us that “good headlines entice readers and are critical to the success of your website.”
A good headline should shout out the benefit the reader will enjoy if they plunge deeper into your content. Avoid generic or even clever headlines that offer what Loringer calls low “information scent,” i.e. few cues to suggest what the content is about. They should be understandable even out of context—can it stand on its own? Will the reader know what the content is likely to be without additional explanation?
Apply the same rigour to subheads. Subs help the reader scan down the page by providing clues about each chunk of content.
Pro tip for headlines and subheads:
- stay between 6 and 8 words
- start with your key words
8) Edit without mercy
Once you have a solid first draft, put it down. You need to get a little distance between yourself and your writing for a steely-eyed perspective on what stays and what goes. How much time to wait before editing depends on your deadline! Rule of thumb: at least an hour, not more than a week.
What to look for? In Everybody Writes, content maestro Ann Handley tells us to rev up the chainsaw and start with the big stuff. A few editing tips adapted from her book:
- Slash anything that doesn’t support your main point or further your argument.
- Make every paragraph count. Each one should make its own point.
- Make every sentence carry its own weight. If it’s a repeat of the one that went before, kill it.
Next, says Ann, turn off the chainsaw and get out the scalpel.
- Be concise. Here’s an example of this master move from Digital Gov (US):
Eliminate ALL unnecessary words.
- Shed the obvious, e.g. in this article, in this post, in regard to, I’m of the opinion that…
- Trim word bloat. Why use a phrase where a single word will do? Change when it comes to to when; continues to be to remains; despite the fact that to although.
- Replace weakling verbs with strong ones; they paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.
Last, you need a sculptor’s tools. As Ann says, the best writing flows from paragraph to paragraph, creating progression and cadence. Move paragraphs and sentences around to create that flow. Like a river, your ideas will pool here to delve into one idea, waterfall there with active language that drives from point to point, and move along on a current of logic that’s easy for the reader to follow.
And there you are. Just in time for that deadline, your reader-ready content is prepped and polished.