My language tips for web content

Gone are the days when companies shoe-horned as much content as they could onto a web page (thankfully) for fear of users not scrolling or clicking. Any afternoon spent watching users will show that people are increasingly confident in navigating their way around a website. This is 2016 after all.

However, an afternoon spent user testing will also show you just how much web users skim read, and therefore your words are as important as ever, both for navigation, and for visual signposting.

Of course it’s nothing new that users are best able to deal with small bite-sized chunks of information. But copywriters tend to like words, and therefore it can be tempting to use a lot of them. So here’s a few tips from me to reach the holy grail of content; clarity and simplicity.

Less is always more – unless we’re talking champagne

Don Draper said ‘Make it simple, but significant’, and this is always my content mantra. As my first job as a trainee reporter I had to write NIBS or ‘News in Briefs’, for a local newspaper. As with Twitter, the trick was to crystalise a news article into around 200 characters. It forces you to write, then rewrite, eliminating all unnecessary words. Practice this skill on Twitter, as a web writer it’s crucial to get this right.

Be direct but polite

Your web user needs to understand what to do next, so be clear in your direction. Using active not passive sentences can help with this, for example ‘Please follow us on Facebook for tips and advice’ is much more active than ‘If you like this, we have a Facebook page too!’.

Flattery will get you (almost) everywhere

Flatter your users, but be careful not to tell them what they think. How annoyed do you feel when you receive a brand Email with the subject line ‘We know how excited you are about the weekend/Christmas/Easter’….etc etc?
I recently clicked through to order something on a site and got the message ‘Sorry, out of stock, but we know another colour will look just as stunning on you.’ Call me shallow, but it worked for me. Don’t be afraid to inject a little personality to your copy.

Know your audience

It sounds obvious, but if you’re writing for a group of twenty-somethings, your tone of voice will be completely different than it would for an older audience. Younger audiences want something succint but you can be slightly more colloquial.

Older web users may need more direction and reassurance, so you might need to offer more detail.

This should all be taken into account in your brand’s tone of voice guidelines, if you have them, but it’s still work bearing in mind.

Cut the crap

Avoid jargon for any audience. Your copy should make sense to any user, even those not familiar with your subject matter. If in doubt do the ‘Mum test’, would your Mum know what you’re talking about? I once worked for a blue-chip organisation who banned any marketing jargon from business cases and presentations, even when presenting to the board. Plain English will suffice.

It’s not black tie

It’s tempting to try to adopt a more formal style when writing content for the web. There’s really no need.  Natural language is easier to understand, and keep your sentences short; as your sentence length increases, user understanding decreases.    Don’t try to substitute a short word with a longer one – why use ‘purchase’, when you could use ‘buy’?  Bearing in mind the average reading age of the UK is 11, aiming your copy towards a junior school pupil should help you to keep it simple.

Use your design and UX teams

Content-led design is indeed a luxury for many content writers.  But the great thing about starting with what you need to say – is that your UX and design colleagues will help shape the content into a page that really works for the user.  You can then iterate the copy as you see it brought to life.  Perhaps something that worked on paper doesn’t look quite so good on your web page, so don’t be afraid to modify as you go along, or cut down on copy.

Rachel McConnell is Head of Content at RSA.Digital