Writing for the Web

By • November 5, 2012

Do your members fully utilize your website, read your e-newsletter and take advantage of your mobile apps? If not, it may be time to examine how you’re writing content for your digital products. Chances are you could be making your writing more user-friendly for a digital audience.

  • Provide information that is useful and easy to find.
  • Keep it short.
  • Adapt information to the life cycle and context in which it is being used.
  • Provide info that saves time, but also fills time.

Online marketing experts Katie Atkinson and Amy Hissrich say your member communications should always be useful, easy to find, concise, relevant, timely and time saving. Here are some tips they shared with us last month at an ASAE Technology Conference & Expo in Washington, DC, during their session, “Writing for Web, Smartphone & Tablet:”

Four keys to more effective Web content

1. Provide information that is useful, and easy to find.

Sounds obvious enough, but do you know what pages or sections of your website, newsletter or digital magazine your members read the most? Do you know which sections they rarely bother to peruse?

Conduct a survey and find out. Analyze your website’s traffic by content. Talk to members, exhibitors, potential members and other industry professionals who may  use your information. Do they like  visiting your website? Can they consistently find the information they need without having to wade through bogs of filler text? There’s always room for improvement. Ask your end users how you can make their time on your sites more satisfying.

The writers behind the website for Flipboard, a social magazine app, have mastered the art of cutting out unnecessary text and presenting only what the average Internet surfer passing through needs to know about their product.

2. Keep it short.

This principle of writing for digital media cannot be stressed enough. People reading from computer screens tend to skim text and pay attention only to certain keywords and phrases, and people reading from mobile devices have a smaller screen from which to glean needed information, sometimes in a hurry.

Minimize their impatience and make them stumble across the truly important details of your copy by breaking up large paragraphs, using bullets and only writing what’s really necessary. For mobile, format your text larger than you would for print media or a full website, limit your use of images and leave plenty of space around links for easy tapping.

Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen recommends writing no more than 50 percent of the text you would have used in a hard copy publication. (Note that his post is from March 1997. Effective writing style is timeless.) Need some inspiration for packing as much
as you can into as few characters as possible? Look to the lyrics of rap musician, Marshall Mathers, a.k.a Eminem. While you may disagree with the content, he successfully stuffs multiple messages into tightly woven, organized and memorable musical packages. When writing or organizing new content, it may be easier to write for mobile devices first, then expand your content to tablet format and finally, to the full Web.

3. Adapt information to the life cycle and context in which it is being used.

We need specific information at specific times, in both our professional and personal lives.

Imagine you’re considering whether or not to attend a conference. As you make your decision, you need to know the conference’s theme, location, dates and cost. You might have a brochure about the event, but you’ll probably want to visit the event’s website
on your desktop computer for more extensive information about general sessions, exhibitors and accommodations.

You decide to attend, so now you need to know how to register and pay. You might complete this task at your office computer, or you might remember to do it while relaxing at home with your tablet. You probably want to browse the session topics and speakers so you can begin assembling your personal conference agenda as well.

Once you arrive in the host city, you realize you forgot to print directions to the conference location from the airport. You’re not at your desk, so you’ll want to use your smartphone or tablet for fast information.

As you leave the venue, you’ll take out your phone or tablet again to look up the names and locations of nearby restaurants. Once you are back at your hotel, you might revisit the conference’s website or Twitter page to read the day’s conference-related tweets, look at the day’s photos or double-check the following day’s schedule on your personal device, laptop or hotel desktop computer.

Notice how much of a variety of information is needed to successfully navigate one event? And the variety of devices on which information should be available when it is needed most?

Smart organizations will provide all this information (even restaurant recommendations—keep your members on your website/app) in a format that is easy to use on every device its attendees and exhibitors are likely using. Once members pay for a membership or event, give them every bit of information they will need to have an enjoyable experience.

While your organization will likely include everything on the full website, you don’t have to cram it all on a mobile app or mobile version—just the items they are likely to need while on the go.

4. Provide info that saves time, but also fills time.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 35 percent of Americans own a smart phone. Eight percent own a tablet. Mobile users often use their devices to save time (look up a phone number while on a break) but also to fill time (look at photos on Facebook while waiting for the bus).

Occasionally, saving time means you have extra time to fill—you found the phone number you wanted, called and left a message, and now you’re looking at photos while waiting for a call back.

Write for your Web properties in a way that will help your members find the phone numbers, directions or industry news they want in a flash. At the same time, provide fun stuff such as photos, feature stories or member profiles in a digital location that will engage them further with your organization when they’re looking for a five-minute break on a Friday afternoon.

Lather, rinse, repeat

Concise writing for the Web takes practice and a little trial and error. Before publishing something, ask yourself if you’d want to read what you’ve written on a desktop or mobile device. If the answer is “No,” grab your red pen and start editing. Continually ask your members what type of information they want and in what format. If you constantly evolve and refine your digital writing, a more engaged and satisfied audience will soon follow.

Kelly Donovan is an online marketing specialist with Naylor, LLC. This article is based on information shared by Katie Atkinson, Amy Hissrich and Kim Kishbaugh at the 2011 ASAE Technology Conference & Expo.