When I started writing website content back in 2003, business, school and nonprofit websites were nothing more than glorified online brochures, banner ads were all the rage, and “below the fold” was blasphemous.
A lot has changed…
But some things – some writing best practices – remain pretty similar.
In the past 15+ years, I’ve worked on website projects big and small, for clients as different as night (Fortune 500s) and day (independent schools). And I’ve realized: while user expectations and experience have transformed dramatically, the basics of good storytelling and online writing hold true.
Here are 15 timeless things I’ve learned after more than 15 years of writing websites:
Your website is not a catchall for content. It’s not the place to post any story or update or idea that is shared with your marketing department. And it’s not the place to make every department in your school happy.
Your website is your most important marketing tool. And for that reason, it needs to be written for your audience. This will mean disappointing some of your internal audiences. But keeping your website focused on your dream families’ wants, needs and challenges is the only way to keep it working for you.
SEO. Three little letters that have the power to make rational communicators crazy. Too many of us get hung up on the idea that there is a magic way to get found online. But here’s the thing: SEO isn’t a mystical answer. It’s always changing. And what most people think about when they think about SEO isn’t even SEO anymore.
Look, there’s no winning this game. You’re not going to out-Google Google. But you can convince Google that your website is the best resource for searches related to your expertise – and you do that by writing really good copy. For your audiences, not for the search engines.
We often feel like we need to include everything on our websites. That if we leave something out – some little detail, or feature, or benefit – our dream families will most certainly notice and question it.
But the truth is, readers don’t read. They skim. They take in the essence of your content and decide if your story has given them enough reason to move forward in their relationship with your school. They don’t need the history of every initiative to do so. Instead, they need to be enticed. Which leads me to…
Think of your website as the start of your conversation with a prospective student or family. When you meet someone new, you don’t bombard them with every detail of your life. Instead, you try to break the ice. Find common ground. And, if all goes well, figure out a way to stay connected.
Websites are meant to start a story and entice the reader to continue forward by taking action – by reading more, contacting you, subscribing, connecting in some way.
One common mistake I see with schools is that they spend big bucks on a new website design and structure … and then transfer their old content over to the new site.
This is a huge waste. Because while design and user experience is critical, so is the content on the page. If your website isn’t telling the story your dream families want to hear, you’ll lose them. Content is just as important as the design and technical aspects of your site – if not more so.
The Associated Press hasn’t published and updated its renowned style guide for 60+ years for nothing.
Clarity and style are synonymous. Sticking to basic style guidelines and editing rules makes content more professional and polished. So having an understanding of AP style is important when writing your website content.
The headline-writing gurus at Copyblogger report that on average, 8 out of 10 people read headline copy, but only two out of 10 will read the rest.
This logic does not only applies to online articles and blog posts. It’s true for website content. Each page of your website should have a headline that appeals to your audience. I like writing page headlines that make a promise or prompt some type of action. This involves readers with the content and demonstrates why they should read on.
As mentioned in #4, keeping messaging simple is key. But it’s not just about simple messages. It’s also important to include fewer words. Fewer blocks of texts.
Instead of writing novel-worthy website content, create white space by keeping content short and sweet. Include bulleted lists to break up text. And use subheads to allow your audience to absorb the key points without reading every word.
You never want your great content to come to a dead end. That’s why call-to-actions are the most important words on the page.
A well-written call to action can encourage further interaction with your school—online and off; make your audience aware of your school’s other differentiators; and prompt your audience to share their information with you. They’re the best way to fend off the dreaded bounce.
“Readers prefer images … so let’s give them images!” “Wait, readers now like audio — add some audio!” “Hold on, scrap all that … video is king!”
Content trends? They change over time. Audiences are constantly changing their preferences when it comes to written and visual content. So instead of jumping on a trend and forgetting the basics of good storytelling, make sure you give your readers options: if you include a video, also include key points from that video in bulleted written form for those who don’t want to watch. If you have audio content, include a transcript. Giving your audience the option to consume your content the way they like it makes it more likely that you’ll get your message across.
The best way to get your readers to give you something valuable, like their name and email? Give them something valuable in return!
Gated content has remained a fantastic way to prove your expertise and build your owned audience. When you understand your audiences’ wants and needs, and create a resource that addresses those wants and needs, they’ll thank you with their trust and loyalty.
Projects that hold off on content development until well after design and programming and underway always blow their deadlines. Always.
Why? Because content is a sensitive matter. It takes time to craft a compelling story. And website content often needs to travel through layers of approval before finding a place online. Considering that large websites can have hundreds – or thousands – of pages, the content development process needs to have a realistic timeline, or it will hold everything up at the end.
The most successful website projects I’ve worked on all have one thing in common: they have a very small content maintenance team.
Once you devote time and resources to developing a strong online story, it’s important to protect that story. That means that editing capabilities should be restricted to a small group of people. Think of these people as your website content “gatekeepers” – all edits should be submitted and approved by this team before they are made on your site. Otherwise, your site will soon become cluttered with jargon and unnecessary details.
You know that dusty box of old brochures you have in your storage closet? Imagine if you handed one of those to every prospective student and family that came through your door. You would never, right? Well, that’s what you’re doing if your website content is out of date.
The key thing to remember is that when you press “publish” online, that does not mean your website content is complete. Content isn’t static. You can’t print it and forget it. It requires continuous attention and maintenance. So it’s important to reframe your idea of what it means to launch your site or publish your content.
To reinforce #14 … check your analytics! Too often, we set up Google Analytics when we launch our websites and let them sit stagnant in the background for far too long. Instead, use those insights to test various types of contents, find out which pages of your site are working (and which need improvement), and where you have other opportunities for success.
These 15 lessons have, so far, stood the test of time — which is crazy, since we all know that Internet years are a little like dog years, things change so fast. Who knows what the next 15 years will bring!
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