Content and design. What's more important? Why does it matter to your business? It's definitely an interesting question. It's also a little controversial. As a digital copywriter, I've had this debate with designers and visual creatives time and time again. Without stepping on too many toes, I'm going to be blunt.
Social, social, social. Lets get social (don't click if you value your sanity). We're constantly barraged with the importance of social media - whether you're a writer, a small business owner or, well...a regular punter. Social media can be a pain. It can drive us insane - what with the opinionated tweets, banal Facebook posts, and narcissistic Instagram pages.
But in all honesty - social media has redefined how we write and communicate - for better or worse. If you're a wannabe Shakespeare, that might be a bad thing. But for the rest of us, it's great.
Now, our communications are more:
1. Clear and concise
3. Personalised and relevant
The thing is, 140 characters forces you to say what you want to say quickly, clearly and - in many cases - creatively. Not only is it training us to write accordingly, it's also training us to expect that level of communication from each other.
That means...lengthy, complex content, long-form posts and dry, impersonal 'business talk' is becoming more and more out of fashion. Consequently, we need to completely redefine our approach to online writing.
Applying The Tip
Write For An ADHD 8th-Grader
Yep. Social media has reduced our attention spans. Now, we spend less time on words, and more on more visually engaging stimuli (Netflix and chill....anyone?). That's why we need to write in a concise, simple, legible manner. Here's how:
1. Break content into short paragraphs interspersed with bullet-points, images, bolded/italic key phrases
2. Always use simple word variations (or...word choices!) - full list here
4. Cut unnecessary words, phrases, and keep everything simple - use the Hemingway Editor to get your writing to 8th grader level
Don't Just Talk - Create a Conversation
Social media is all about the conversation. It's allowing customers to directly interface and influence companies on a personal level for the very first time - and it's absolutely fascinating. Now, companies are finding much more success talking in a direct, friendly, no-nonsense manner. Take the likes of Apple, or Trello, or Innocent Smoothies.
1. Make it feel like you're a friend recommending a service/product - through social proof (testimonials, case studies, statistics)
2. Write like you're talking to one person - not thousands (individuals are reading, not crowds)
3. Use conversational language (contractions like ain't, casual phrases like 'funny business')
4. Mix super short, short and medium sentence lengths (just like a normal conversation)
5. Address the readers needs/problems - offer them helpful advice or ask them explicitly to engage
We can learn a ton from the world of social media. On cultural, psychological, and practical business levels. So, next time you write that intro email, web page or flier, are you going to talk at your audience, or with them? I'll leave that up to you.
Daily Writing Tips is where I share my expertise on web writing, content strategy, online business, creativity, and more.
"A writer's style should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous." - Ernest Hemingway
One of America's most renowned authors, Hemingway's unique, punchy, 'to-the-point' style was as influential as it was controversial.
Because he was trained to write for newspapers, the literary world found his clear, no-bullshit approach to be intimidating.
Know what? His writing is more relevant than it has ever been. Concise, direct and personal translate to web writing excellently.
Taking a figurative page from Hemingway's book could help improve your web writing immeasurably.
Applying the Tip
1. Use Short, Concise Sentences
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
When challenged to write the shortest story, Hemingway proved his prowess with the above quote. He also proved that short sentences can have a huge impact.
In the era of online - with attention spans dwindling - quickly capturing your reader's attention is a valuable skill. And writing short sentences is a great place to start.
Long, rambling sentences will quickly have your readers dropping off like flies. Short sentences won't. I promise.
2. Use Strong, Bullshit-Free Language
- Excessive adjectives (powerful, innovative, state-of-the-art)
- Superlatives (amazing, awesome, great)
- Industry Jargon (core-competency, cutting-edge, results-driven, paradigm-shifting)
- Simpler word alternatives (e.g. 'use' instead of 'utilise')
- Engage readers with emotional instead of intellectual language (e.g. 'finished' instead of 'completed' - full list here)
- Benefits-driven facts, statistics, quotes and testimonials
- Active instead of passive voice (e.g. 'every student failed the exam' instead of 'the exam was failed by every student')
- An honest, personal writing voice (learn more from Copyblogger)
3. Follow the 'Iceberg Theory'
Coining the 'iceberg theory', Hemingway described how only 10% of the plot was written on the page. The other 90% was unspoken. When you're writing content, keep this in mind.
You don't need to burden your readers with an excess of information to be effective. Choose the most powerful, impactful '10%'. The rest can be left unspoken.
While none of us will ever be as legendary as the man himself, we can learn from Hemingway's wisdom and, in doing so, take steps towards becoming more persuasive, effective writers as a whole.
Daily Writing Tips is where I share my expertise on web writing, content strategy, online business, creativity, and more.
You’re probably sitting there, thinking, “is…is my web content weak? Please let it not be so…” Well, I have some good news, and I have some bad news.
The bad news is…it’s likely your copy isn’t great. Copywriting – like any skill – takes years to master.
Don’t despair though, not yet. I have some good news.
You’re here. You’re here because you want to learn. And, like all things, bad copywriting can be remedied with the right answers.
Feel better? Here are a bunch of reasons why your web content sucks – and how you can fix it.
The Marketing Side of Things
1. Gibberish Sales Tone
Are you guilty of using words like ‘innovative’? ‘Forward-thinking?’ Perhaps…wait for it…even ‘synergetic’?
Folks, your readers are human. Speaking to them in a stilted, manipulative sales tone is the quickest shortcut to alienating them as much as possible. Using these vague clichés also indicates you don’t really know what you’re trying to say – at all.
Solution: Try to write conversationally. Imagine your ideal customer as you write your content. Read your content out loud. If it sounds ridiculous, edit it. Here are some great CopyBlogger tips. Always clarify exactly what you’re trying to say.
2. No ‘Call To Action’
Imagine a super-charismatic, informative salesperson gave you this amazing pitch. You’re practically begging them to take your credit card. And then…they just walk away. They cut the conversation short. Where are they going?!
If your content – be it a blog post, web copy, or sales email – has no ‘call to action’, this is what you’re doing to your readers. You’re stopping the conversation.
Solution: Think of your content from your customer’s perspective. They are attracted to your content (adverts, social media, catchy headline), then converted (benefits, testimonials, useful info) and then – finally – encouraged to take action (subscribe! Purchase! Contact!). You get the point. Your customer’s on a journey…walk with them (cringe). Learn more about actionable content from KISSMetrics.
3. You Write For A General Audience
People are often scared of alienating ‘demographics’. What do they do? They use a fearful, ‘catch-all’ method.
E.g. A feminine moisturising product. A catch-all method would look like “Femoisturiser is great for healthy skin for the whole family”.
Okay, okay, no one’s going to buy ‘Femoisturiser’ (another one of my dreams goes ‘poof’). But you get my point. Because of the above ‘scattershot’ approach, the key target audience (women aged 24-46) isn’t being engaged and – even worse – might feel alienated.
Solution: Know who you’re trying to speak to. Be fearless in speaking to them. Engaging with a smaller demographic on a deeper level is invaluable. Learn how to find your target market.
4. You Ain’t Done Your Research
Facts, statistics, information. Dry stuff. And yet, invaluable. Nothing puts your readers off more than unsubstantiated, weak, vague statements and thrown together content.
Solution: Ask the questions ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘Why? And ‘How?’ whenever you write your content. Who is this for? (audience). What is it exactly? (products/services). How will it help your audience? (benefits). Reinforce every claim with information, and use statistics/facts/quotes tactfully to improve your credibility.
5. You Focus On Robots (SEO) Over Humans
The golden era of SEO is over. Now, Google punishes you for stuffing keywords and spamming content. Now, focussing on SEO primarily is not only idiotic (because of said punishments), it also alienates the people that matter – your readers.
Solution: Stop it. Okay, you can use SEO a little. In fact, tactful keywords, well-constructed meta-descriptions and the likes can be really beneficial. Just please…speak like a human, because you’re talking to humans. Here’s some tips.
The Technical Side of Things
6. You Use Weak, Vague Language
Nothing will undermine your credibility like an excess of ‘amazing’! ‘Mind-blowing!’ and ‘awesome!’. Other examples include a reliance on the passive voice and a misuse of adjectives. Vague words like ‘stuff’, ‘things and ‘got’.
Solution: Try to translate these vague, meaningless terms into tangible benefits/values. ‘Mind-blowing device’ might turn into ‘The device that saves 2.5 hours a day’. Write like the great Ernest Hemingway with the Hemingway Editor app.
7. Your Writing is Lengthy/Complex
In the era of the web, long, rambling, complex sentences and paragraphs will result in your readers dropping off like flies (have I mentioned clichés, yet?). People have miniscule attention spans. Your writing needs to adapt to this.
Solution: Cut words that don’t add anything. Keep your sentences short, concise and punchy. Say what you need to say as quickly as possible – then reinforce it with quality, value-oriented content (show them the money!).
8. Lack of Proper Formatting
What will send your readers running to the hills even more? The dreaded wall of text. It’s a terrifying thing.
Truth is, good writers understand the value of aesthetics, form and design. The balance between content and white space. Between words and imagery. A wall of text is insulting to your readers – you don’t even have the time to spare to edit a little.
Solution: Easy - format. Your. Content. Keep paragraphs short. Use a readable font. Use a variety of fonts (paragraph, h2, h3, etc). Break content up with bullets, lists, images and columns – even white space. Here are some more ideas.
9. Your Content Is Too Short
Sometimes, being minimal is a bad thing. It becomes negative when it impairs your reader’s understanding of what you’re trying to say.
Solution: I like to – first – write a list of everything I need to say. I then create a longer first draft. I then edit this down to the perfect length. Create a checklist of things you want your copy to achieve. Tick them off as you achieve them.
10. Filled With Errors
Please use a spelchecker, seriuosly. Nothing (nothing!) undermines your credibility more than error-ridden content.
Solution: Carefully comb through your content for errors. Sometimes these won’t appear (e.g. flower and flour – these are called homonyms). In this case, you should probably call in your super detail-oriented buddy to help.
The Creative Side of Things
11. Overly Technical
Engineers, scientists, programmers…put down the keyboard. Sometimes – especially if you’re technically-minded – it can be difficult to avoid listing features, facts and statistics. However, this isn’t engaging for your audience.
Solution: Write out your ‘features’ or ‘facts’. Now, list the ‘benefits’ of each alongside. Use these benefits within your copy. You can tactfully use ‘features’ and ‘facts’ for credibility – see Apple for more.
Think of it like this – if you’re being descriptive, you’re adding work for your reader. They have to figure out why this matters to them. If you’re specific, you’re reducing their work. Pretty simple.
Solution: Stop being descriptive. Don’t say “we design websites and stuff”. Say “we create responsive, custom-built websites for your brand”. You get the idea. Make it easy for your audience, and be specific.
13. Too Generic
With the web, competition is ridiculous. Now, it’s even more important to distinguish yourself. Using generic descriptors, soundbites and bland tones simply won’t cut it.
Solution: Take time to develop a brand voice that speaks to your ideal customer. Take time to think about what you’re trying to say. Look at your competitors, and see how you can say it better. Can you add humour? Use interesting, ‘off-the-wall’ phrases? Perhaps you can simply highlight key differentiating factors that work in your favour. Entrepreneur tips for carving out a niche.
14. Not Compatible With Your Brand Voice
From the first email or advert, to your website, through to their interactions with you, your customer is on a journey. You want that process to be smooth and seamless. If your content clashes or contrasts significantly with previous content, at best, it can perturb your reader. At worst, it’ll send them running.
Solution: Look at your content holistically. If you have an established tone of voice, use examples of that (in existing content) as a touch-point in writing your web content. It doesn’t have to be identical…just don’t make awkward switches (e.g. from a quirky, humorous approach to a cold, corporate tone). Here’s how to develop a tone of voice guide.
15. You Write Too Quickly
This one might seem obvious, but – from the amount of websites that appear rushed – it clearly isn’t. There are very few masterpieces - in any context – that were rushed. Your web content matters. Take time with it.
Solution: Slow down. Your website content matters, and your web copy isn’t your latest journal entry. It demands respect, damnit!
16. You ‘Attempt’ To Be Funny
Okay, okay, humorous copy – when executed well – can be brilliant. However, there is nothing more cringe-worthy than try-hard, unfunny writing. In all honesty, writing humorously takes two things – skill, and a profound understanding of your audience.
Solution: Focus on being clear and concise. You can even add a little personality or quirk. If you’re truly set on trying to be ‘funny’, take your time, understand your audience, and get as many perspectives as possible before publishing.
The Mental Side of Things
17. You’re Boring Yourself
‘Industry front-runners’…yawn…’solutions-oriented business consultancy’…yawn. It seems obvious, but if you’re not being entertained by your own writing, your readers won’t, either.
Solution: Drop the industry gibberish. Stay clear and concise. Focus on your core message – and how you can communicate that quickly and confidently and – possibly – in an entertaining manner.
18. You Don’t Know What You’re Trying To Say
A muddled, confused message a muddled confused reader makes (confused?). If you have no idea what you’re trying to say, you won’t say very much at all.
Solution: Simplify. Have 3 take-away messages? Hone it down to one. Always plan out your content before-hand.
19. You Believe Design’s More Important Than Content
Unlike other forms of media, written content is more than a commodity. It’s your brand’s voice. It’s one of the sole methods in which you can speak to your audience.
Solution: Focus on your message – first and foremost. Good design should do one thing – reinforce this. Write your content first, then add the pretty parts later.
20. You’re Writing For You – Not the Customer
The amount of companies that have this issue…it’s unreal. I’ve found that creatives – designers, photographers, artists and the like – are particularly bad for this.
“We invest in our people, love what we do, and we focus on doing great work”.
We, we, we. Yes, the results of such writing truly are wee wee. If you fail to focus on your reader, why should they focus on you?
Solution: With each paragraph, sentence and word, ask yourself – “how is this relevant to my reader’s problems?”. Use direct language to address your readers – ‘you’ and your’. Avoid self-important, vague statements like “we love what we do”. No one or their granny – frankly – cares.
- Focus on the customer's perspective
- Importantly - know your ideal customer
- Write clearly and concisely - cut the sales spiel
- Write like a human, for humans
- Research and carefully craft/edit your copy
- Keep writing, testing and trying!
There you have it! 20 reasons. Remember – writing great content isn’t simple. But with time, thought and practice, it’s definitely achievable. And if it all gets too much – my schedule is open.