Awhile back, my friend Amy asked me to capture my thoughts on writing better web content by writing a guide. Though I haven’t gotten around to it yet, I do have preferences, strong preferences even. But what would the world writing be without misanthropes and curmudgeons?
When I write on behalf of clients, I follow certain guidelines. These guidelines aren’t incontrovertible dictates etched into stone tablets. My preferences aren’t that strong. No, I follow guidelines because, otherwise, my own desire to gambol about with words can work to a client’s detriment.
Going from a graduate creative writing program to a marketing firm required that I forget much of what I had just learned. The reason being, many of the rules and techniques at play in poetry or fiction—the dimensions of what makes good writing good in those genres—were either absent or dramatically altered in a business context.
What makes good fiction good would make a very bad poem indeed, and what makes a good poem good would make bad ad copy.
You will certainly find (and need) good storytelling and a well-turned phrase or two in your sales copy. You may find a lyrical quality in a strong headline or even a light sprinkling of rhyme and repetition in a product description. But most bets are off.
The goal of web content is to educate and persuade.
Instead of showcasing the writer’s style or virtuosic skill, instead of transporting the reader to a new world or couching a moral inside of a fairy tale, the words in an ad have a clear job to do. They must sell.
If the ad doesn’t sell, the ad fails.
Of course, as I already mentioned, effective sales copy may still have a pronounced sense of play or take advantage of the musicality of syllables, words, and phrases. But if the beauty of the craftsmanship gets in the way of selling effectively, then the piece fails. The writing fails because of its beauty.
We writers can be very selfish in that respect. We’re more interested in having fun and enjoying the work than truly serving our clients’ needs.
Surely some purists out there will declaim, “The web copy failed to convert? Good! And good riddance to marketing and advertising. That’s what writers get when they bastardize their talent in service of Mammon.”
Let me say that an elitist point-of-view—about worthy and unworthy uses of writing and art—almost always coexists with envy and jealousy aimed at writers who aren’t starving. If you are employing your ability to assemble words to earn a comfortable livelihood, then you are, by definition, a turncoat.
The art-versus-commerce conversation sets up a false dichotomy. We all need money to live. We honor no one by beggaring ourselves when we could earn a surplus and give it away. If God has put you in a position to support yourself while also enjoying your work, then support yourself and enjoy your work. Leave your critics and their paper-thin purity to the birds.
With that unpleasantness behind us, let’s return to the business at hand.
What are the attributes of strong web content anyway?
How do you know if you are headed in the right (or write) direction? VisibleThread is a software company that helps large organizations monitor content quality. They used Ad Age’s data to make a list of 162 of the top 200 national advertisers, based on spending. Then, they used their software to crawl those companies’ websites and scan at least 1,000 words of content. Then, with the help of their Clarity Index methodology, VisibleThread graded each company’s content on four international norms or standards:
- Readability – How intelligible is the content?
- Passive Language – What proportion of the sentences use passive voice?
- Long Sentences – What proportion of the sentences are long?
- Word Complexity Density – What percentage of the words are complex or “dense” relative to the total word count?
Then, in April 2017, they reported their findings.
Okay. What does VisibleThread’s report have to do with freelance writers?
I’m glad you asked. First off, according to the 2016 Ad Age report, the top 200 advertisers spent an estimated $142.5 billion, a number that exceeds the gross product of several states in the U.S.
Secondly, over half of this spend (54.7% ) happened in the digital space. These companies spend billions to drive traffic to their websites.
Does the quality of a company’s website content matter? Of course it does. Companies want (and need) to see a return on investment for their advertising spend, yet many of them, even the biggest ones, self-sabotage with crappy web content.
To put it another way, it’s hard to effectively convert visitors into prospects, and prospects into paying customers, with writing that is confusing. It’s hard to win a beauty pageant with a black eye.
The VisibleThread report shared another important insight: clear, straightforward content is even more important for companies that sell services (rather than tangible goods). Most people inherently understand the value of a charcoal grill, soft toilet paper, and cheap contact lenses, but they often need help understanding the benefits and relative value of different services. Should you sign up for Dish Network or cable? Why is one bank’s checking account better than the next?
VisibleThread has demonstrated that most providers of most services get low scores in the clarity department. Those prospects who decline to hire you because they are going to write it themselves? Even if they are otherwise competent writers, they are more likely to write crappy content than good content.
Why? Because they’re writing to sound smart and important instead of writing for clarity. They don’t have enough writing expertise to know that strong web content is counterintuitive: A smart writer communicates in clear terms that a middle school could understand and thereby increases the likelihood of an an adult or business owner 1) understanding and 2) taking action.
Whether we freelance writers like it or not, the web isn’t the place for long words, longer sentences, and complex paragraphs crammed with grammatical flourishes and whizzbangs. Here is the best rule of thumb for writing effective web content…
If you want to write better web content, dumb it down.
Even writing that makes me wince. Yet, it’s hard to deny that short sentences populated with simple, quickly intelligible words are easier to understand and therefore better able to sell a product or service.
But what measurable characteristics does GOOD web content have?
You can make web content more clear and intelligible in several ways:
Word Choice (“Diction”) – Using simple words instead of complex words helps your readers concentrate on your meaning, not your specific word choice. See http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/wordsuggestions/simplewords.cfm for the list.
Sentence Construction (“Syntax”) – Long sentences with multiple concepts are harder to comprehend. Splitting them up into shorter sentences—say, one for each concept—will bring clarity.
Verb Voice – Sentences with passive verbs put the subject acted upon before the verb—for example, “Quality is monitored.” Sentences with active verbs do the opposite: “We monitor quality.” Active voice makes the “actor” (We) and the action (“monitored”) crystal clear. Active verbs also increase the strength of the sentence by cutting out unnecessary words like “is” (in the first example), which doesn’t add meaning and dilutes the sentence as a whole.
Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner
If you want to see examples of content to which VisibleThread gave high clarity scores, then check out some of the winners:
- Dish Network won the top prize on VisibleThread’s Clear Writing index.
- Expedia.com ranked #2 overall and had the highest readability score.
- Mattel ranked #1 for having low usage of passive voice and relatively few long sentences. Mattel sells toys, so their target audience is children. Whoever wrote their content must have kept that in mind because only 1% of their content has long sentences. By comparison, 27% of Hasbro’s content contains long sentences. Oops.
Examples of Weak Web Content
This example from Merck’s website will show you what not to do:
“Moderna Therapeutics today announced a license and collaboration agreement with Merck, known as MSD outside the United States and Canada, through a subsidiary, for the discovery and development of vaccines and passive immunity treatments against viral diseases using modified messenger RNA (mRNA).”
Merck’s products are certainly more complex than Mattel’s, yet can they really make a case for the effectiveness of long sentences? No. They wouldn’t have the data to back it up.
And can you imagine the impact of a pharmaceuticals website with easy-to-read content? Doctors and consumers would rejoice.
This quote from the VisibleThread Top 200 Advertisers report says it all:
“No one has ever been turned off by a website because it is far too easy to read.”
(Ironically, an active verb would make that sentence stronger: “An easy to read website has never turned anyone off.” Even experts make mistakes! To be fair, I have probably ignored the advice I give in my post on how to write good web content.)
Before we say goodbye…
I can’t resist sharing three more tidbits.
1) Here is my all-time favorite example of jargon-y web content gone wrong:
Here’s the copy in case it’s hard to read on your screen: “We operationalize signature strategies across touchpoints that reveal a distinct people-centric approach to service that are experienced and persuasive.”
It’s so bad it’s good! I think that marketing agency has since gone out of business.
2) Former President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 on October 13, 2010. Unfortunately, most of the U.S. government’s websites are so unreadable they actually break that law.
3) Confusing web content gets on people’s nerves, and irritated people are less likely to buy products or services from your website.
Do you want your web content to be less irritating and more effective?
Easy. If you want to write better web content, follow these four guidelines:
- Use active verbs.
- Use simple words.
- Use short sentences.
- Use short paragraphs.
Dumb your web content down, and it will convert better. Go figure.
(Hat tip to my friend David Drews who told me about the VisibleThread report.)