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Online copywriting can make all the difference between a website that engages and converts, and one that stagnates.
Words communicate to your visitors and influence actions (both positively and negatively). Furthermore, good copy is, as far as the search engines are concerned, the food of the Gods. Words are to Google what oxygen is to you and me.
So I thought I’d try to nail an A-to-Z of online copywriting. As ever, these recommendations are guidelines, rather than firm rules. They're broadly applicable to web copywriters and bloggers, as well as journalists who have their work published online. I hope it makes for a handy bookmark-friendly checklist...
A is for Audience. Know your audience (or rather, audiences) before you start writing. You need to know why you’re writing too. Landing pages should provide just enough information to persuade the visitor to proceed along the checkout path. A blog post like this one will hopefully help readers tune into what we do, to become new members, and to share the article to extend our brand reach.
B is for Brevity. In the online world, short very much equals sweet. I try to keep paragraphs to four lines or less. I avoid multi-idea sentences and paragraphs. A sentence can be a paragraph. Get to the point, and move on. Think Chandler, rather than Balzac.
C is for Call To Action. Web pages don’t convert per se, but people certainly do. As such it is up to the copywriter to help encourage readers to take action. Remember to place multiple calls to action on the page. The footer is a strong place for blog articles (sharing tools, Adsense, comments), whereas landing pages need prominent calls to action above and below the fold.
D is for Doh! It’s easy to make a mistake when writing, so after publishing you should always methodically read and re-read your articles, to spot the mistakes that you probably made. Do this even if you have an editor or sub-editor.
E is for Engagement. Bloggers will want readers to leave comments and share articles (so ask questions, encourage debate and feedback, and listen to opinions). Retailers will want visitors to become customers, and to leave reviews and rate products (so send persuasive post-sale emails asking for feedback). The best copy encourages participation and interaction. And engagement leads to satisfaction...
F is for Formatting. A long page of unformatted left-aligned text with 12-line paragraphs does nothing for me whatsoever. Conversely, I find it easier to read and digest web pages that mix it up a little bit. Use text formatting liberally to help anchor the reader’s eye and to emphasise key points and calls to action. Split up the page with sub-headings. Images help too.
G is for Grammar. No typos, dammit. Lots of full stops please. Don’t misuse the semi-colon, for heaven’s sake. And this is the web, so let’s avoid double spacing. Don’t capitalise headlines (and certainly stay clear of the CAPS LOCK key). A conversational approach to writing online is a good thing, but you still need to avoid the basic grammar mistakes.
H is for Headlines. Vitally important for search engines and readers alike, a good headline can make all the difference. Puns and wit are all very well offline, but it’s best to be descriptive online. Use ‘awesome adjectives’ for blog posts. Match landing page headlines to advertising copy (e.g. paid search text). Test your headlines, and experiment. And don’t forget about those keywords.
I is for the Inverted Pyramid. This is a technique journalists will be familiar with. Copywriters can adopt the inverted pyramid too. Simply put, the most important information is placed right at the top of the page, and the least important at the bottom. The key facts and figures are presented in the opening paragraph or two (try to answer a bunch of questions: who, what, where, when, how, why, etc). Cut to the chase.
J is for Justify. The job of the copywriter is to explain a product or service and then to justify the purchase. That often means justifying the price, and instilling faith in the visitor (a prospective customer) that they will be making the right decision if they proceed to buy. It requires a little persuasion, and a lot of know-how. Justify the offer!
K is for Keywords. If you write for websites and do not pay any attention to keywords then you’re missing a trick. Companies must always undertake some keyword research before launching a blog, or a new website. A clearly-defined keyword hitlist can help you to attract highly targeted traffic. Focus your web pages around a keyword / phrase (but avoid keyword stuffing). Make sure all writers are familiar with keyword goals.
L is for Localisation. Keep it local, right? No doubt my American readers are appalled by my use of ‘s’ rather than ‘z’ in words such as ‘localisation’! It is essential that you write pages for a specific locality. Think globally, write locally. We will be doing more in this space on our own website in the months to come.
M is for Metadata. Readability is important, but findability is essential, otherwise your beautifully crafted web page won’t be seen. Give your web pages and articles appropriate tags to help your readers find them. Google has been known to give love to websites that make use of tags.
N is for Nanocontent. 'Nanocontent' is in this case the first 11 characters of a website’s links and headlines. The first couple of words are essential to helping readers to get the gist of an article, or a link, when it is published elsewhere (e.g. by reading the headline on Twitter, or on a search engine). For example, you should instantly recognise the format of this article as a list by its initial characters in the headline. Front load action and descriptive words, to persuade the reader to read the rest of the headline / link and to click through. Jakob Nielsen’s recent study in this area makes a lot of sense.
O is for Over-Optimisation. Don’t for one minute think that you’re going to get one over the search engines by cramming as many keywords into your article as possible. That’s so 2002. Keyword stuffing doesn’t work, doesn't work, doesn't work, doesn't work...
P is for Persuasion. It could have been for ‘Psychology’ though the two are inherently linked. Your copy, especially your sales copy, should persuade the reader to take action. Landing page copy needs to gently help the visitor towards the checkout. Blog articles should convince readers to engage, either by commenting or sharing your article.
Q is for Quality. Quality (of visitor) always beats quantity. In most circumstances you do not want to attract millions of unqualified visitors. Untargeted traffic can cost you money, and it does nothing for your conversion rates. Focus, focus, focus.
R is for Repetition. Leave readers in no doubt about the meaning of your page, or opinion. Have a point. Ram that message home.
S is for Skim Reading. Web users skim pages, rather than methodically reading them as you might a page in a book. As such the use of bold, links, indents, bullet points and sub-headings are all excellent ideas when writing online. In the words of Patti Smith: “Break it up”.
T is for Testing. There’s no better way of optimising your web pages than to test, tweak, monitor and repeat. This applies to everything from your landing page headers, to the explanatory text on your homepage. It is particularly vital in the checkout, and especially on your product pages.
U is for Under Beats Over. In print there are always word counts to be wary of, but online it doesn’t much matter, since a webpage can be as long as your arm. That’s not to say it should be. Remember George Orwell’s six tips for writing, notably: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
V is for Voice. Make sure you have one. A distinct tone of voice can help you stand out from the crowd. Some companies may choose to adhere to a corporate style of writing, but in the last decade or so many ties have been slackened or removed entirely. Loosen up!
W is for Write To Be Read. By looking at an Amazon research tool Steve Berlin Johnson found that shorter sentences appear to help readers to digest ideas more easily. Is there a correlation between readability and sales? It certainly looks that way. Make yourself understood for maximum impact.
X is for X-Rated. It’s probably best to avoid the word ‘shithead’ in headlines and email copy. You know, spam filters, and all that...
Y is for You. In my view, there’s not much wrong with adopting a personal approach for web writing, particularly with blogging. From this article you’ve discovered that I’m a Patti Smith fan. No biggie, but this kind of thing can help forge bonds with readers, as well as helping them remember something about you / your article. Adding a little character is more than a little ok.
Z is for Zumbooruk. No, I have no clue either. But since I was struggling with the ‘z’ in this list I thought I’d make the point that it’s always vital to use plain English (or whatever language you choose to write in). They tell journalists to “write for an intelligent 11 year old”. I think that can encourage dumbing down, but the point is that you must write with clarity and without pretentiousness. Why use a big word when a small one will do? At any rate, and I know you're desperate to know this: a zumbooruk is a small cannon fired from the back of a camel.
So what did I miss? Do let me know below. And if you enjoyed this article then be sure to say so by retweeting it on Twitter!
[Image by DeclanTM via Flickr, various rights reserved]