Before getting into the context of the web and its pitfalls and cautionary tales, the first thing you need to know is that anyone can produce good content.
It’s the ability to know the good from the bad that sets the professionals apart from the novices.
The early stages of content creation are all ideas and whimsical excitement. When you have a page of ideas staring at you but with no next step, that’s where a copywriter comes in handy. Developing engaging, meaningful web copy is a balance of Function and Emotion. Both are tricky.
So you have content but how do you know what should make it to the web? I’ll talk you through patterns of thinking, established tools, and a few personal idiosyncrasies, that I use to craft web copy fit for publishing.
The Web – Harsh Task Master
When I first encountered the ‘rules’ of web writing it struck me as a dumbed down version of real writing. Shorten this, bullet point that, it seemed like a pretty soulless exercise. I was wrong.
The web is its own medium. It moves fast and is concentrated with weak messages.
The key to successful web copy is creating markers of quality. This is the challenge, and one you should embrace wholly.
Whether you are aiming to create content for a website, sales chat for banner ads or in depth blog articles, you have to write with conviction, confidence and an acute awareness of context.
Connecting with your reader and making an impact is reliant on two things – Credibility and Trust. You have to commit to creating quality content, no fluff or filler.
Online readers are fickle, dismissive and on the search for a quick hit of meaning. People don’t read online content, they skim. The easy solution to counteract this problem is to simply make your content better.
Before I begin on any copywriting project, I create my ‘List’.
It’s a template that I work from and add to. The act of writing itself is a personal one and I have my habits, but the technical steps to producing great content should remain consistent.
Step 1 – Research.
Step 2 – Tools to use.
Step 3 – Tone of Voice & Draft.
Step 4 – Redraft.
I’ve come to realise that this list is less of a schedule and more of a personal reassurance of my goals. It also happens to be a pretty good distilled idea of what copywriting is.
Copy Tip #1 – Get a post-it note and write the objective of your content on it.
I’ve just written my objective for this article – ‘Help people develop copy fit for publishing on the web’. Stick this at the top of your machine or desk and after each section you write read this objective back to yourself.
Know Your Audience
Without this first step you have nothing.
To speak with relevance and interest you have to converse, not dictate. Conversation is a mutual language, a natural flow. You can’t have this relationship without human insight.
Research is an investment. It’s an opportunity to investigate the person behind the statistics. Analyse competitor’s sites, immerse yourself in the wider industry and find ways to engage on a personal level with your targeted audience.
I favour the good old-fashioned interview. Before I start working with a client I issue them with a brand questionnaire. This is a collection of questions designed to make them explain their business/project in their own words. This is invaluable.
How people talk about themselves vs. how they want their audience to see them is often akin to their wants vs. their needs. Good content isn’t an opportunity to be cringingly ‘clever’, it’s a tool be be brilliantly insightful and engage.
This is where you can begin to flesh out what the realistic expectations for your copy are.
Writing for the web is a balancing act. You need to be precise, impactful and relevant all at once, and time isn’t on your side. You can’t bludgeon the reader with a million concepts in one swoop – What do you want to say and to what means? Prioritise information, concentrate themes and consider what is actually valuable content to the reader. Have another gaze at your post-it note. Take stock of your objective and focus.
Insight is the beginning of it all. Use it well and you can develop perhaps one of the most valuable content techniques of all – Establishing an effective tone of voice. This is how you get your foot in the door.
Copy Tip #2 – Write by hand first.
I write everything down and then type. This is almost a screening process for me, but it also serves as a way of connecting words with a meaning. Creating a list of keywords associated with your content urges you to trim the fat and look to the buzzwords.
A Structure of Benefits
Good writing is a blend of Function and Emotion.
Structuring your content well is as integral to its success as the words themselves. No one will read a mass of concentrated copy. How content is pieced together guides and holds the attention span of the reader.
I employ a series of quick iteration tools, built to structure my content in a meaningful way and fulfill the readers instant appetite.
Your headline is it. It holds the weight of your content. Packed with meaning and promise, it has to be catchy enough to grab attention and honest enough to deliver. Use wit and wordplay with caution, this is your chance to spark a connection, not demonstrate a poorly placed sense of humour.
Hit them with a benefit. People look for the positive so what is so great about what you have to say? Make them need to stay on your page.
My headlines tend to develop from my Copy Tip #2. Keywords are pure benefits.
Your headline is the theme, your Subheading is your message.
What is your content delivering? I use my subheadings as a wider context. Sometimes I hint at the ethos behind the message, other times it’s more direct.
Just as important as a headline, this handy heading is your opportunity to back up your headline claim, outline what is coming next. Establish a trust and deliver.
So, my headline here is ‘Subheadings’. Clear, informative and honest. My subheading could read ‘How to deliver a brand promise’, or ‘Establish truth’.
Avoid the use of ‘Marketese’. This language of empty claims instantly loses any credibility built up, avoid phrases such as ‘Hottest ever’ like the plague.
Functionally subheadings are great for logically grouping content and for separating extended text.
One Idea per paragraph
So now that your sections are taking shape, refine the focus.
Kiddy excitement is admirable but limiting each paragraph to one idea is a challenge I revel in. Don’t over-romanticize your copy. Let tone and your voice take care of emotion and use this section to get the facts and solid messages as functional and succinct as possible.
Make each paragraph fit for skimmers.
SEO – Key terms
SEO can be a controversial subject. I hate linking for linking’s sake. SEO can build or kill your credibility. My approach to Search Engine Optimization is to keep it natural.
You’ve spent valuable time on your content, don’t fill it with ill-placed key phrases and links. Use organically relevant and concise keywords and phrases in the headlines, subheadings and copy body.
Your investment in research comes into play here. Spend time investigating how your audience talks, searches and associates with you. Linking to resources can be a sign of trust, a demonstration that you aren’t a greedy service provider but a user-centred educator.
Copy tip #3 – Read your content out loud.
You’d be surprised how different copy can read and sound. Nothing can indicate how natural a phrase or sentence is more than hearing it back. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t type it.
Your Language as Your USP
Your tone of voice is perhaps your most distinguishable feature.
This is your personality. It is how you say what you say. Use it the right way and you can make long lasting connections, regularly interact with your target audience and reinforce trust. Use it poorly and you can confuse the reader and misrepresent yourself.
Often the most unsuccessful uses of this are by people who fail to constantly utilise and apply their tone across the board. Characterful jesting in the About section followed by a corporate speech in on their Approach page doesn’t quite match up.
For my own copy I adopted my character. I got rid of overused service promises and opted for owning my self-taught status and branded myself as a wordsmith rather than copywriter. A subtle difference, but this set the tone for my content.
Recently companies have opted for rewriting their Terms and Conditions. I love this complete commitment to their voice and style.
Your voice can target users, exhibit attitude and be fun. If you find a tone of voice that sells, you can create consistent content with ease.
Copy Tip #4 – Read over past diaries and stories.
How you naturally write will contribute to your tone. If you have to force it, it isn’t right. Spend time assessing the actual words you use to describe what you do. They will have more in common than you realise.
Polish, Refine & Publish
Now for the hard bit.
Creating and developing content is a slog. Sometimes personal, but mostly trying, this process can often leave you feeling like the proud parent but resist the urge to publish right away.
Hindsight is a tool some writers don’t have. Fast paced deadlines and years of practice proofing as you write means that that window of time to process, digest and edit is lost. Get into a good habits now.
This edit period is more than a spellcheck. There’s always fat to trim and points to re-emphasize so take your time before you push it out live.
There’s a few things I run through before I publish;
- Read my notes – These early scribblings often illustrate the purest form of my content.
- Gain a fresh perspective – I send to a reader or friend unrelated to the context. If they understand what I’m saying then it’s done the job.
- I spell and grammar check – If possible, sleep on your content. Errors will be glaringly obvious when you read with new eyes.
Understand that creating and developing content is a process. Don’t be too tough on yourself. Content is a currency – Contribute regularly, practice often and share what you create.