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So, "Rewrite your site” came in at number one in the Top five things you need to do online in 2010. What a shame most companies will mess that job up quite atrociously.

And for one simple reason: they’ll ask far too many people what they think...

In his January post, Kevin Gibbons bemoans “useless, static pages written without any understanding of keywords, often filled with poor spelling and grammar”.  Of course he’s right, those things are inexcusable and yes, it is now time to finally clean up the copy on your website.

But to me, the most inexcusable error of all is to then spend six months filling that website with content that is simply an insulting and irrelevant waste of visitors’ time, simply because there are so many stakeholders in your web content project that you can’t get agreement on meaningful, scannable, customer-facing copy.

It is an all too familiar experience for us to see page after page of succinct, web-friendly, findable copy with clear, bite-sized messaging destroyed by rounds and rounds of “feedback”.

  • First there’s the insertion of inward-facing political messages handed down from board-level management and really meant for shareholders’ ears only (“In the current economic climate we have taken the decision to outsource key deliverables such as our logistical operations…”).
  • Next comes the space-wasting chest-beating hyperbole from Marketing (“We are the leading global solutions provider to the digital imaging market with solutions that are best of breed and bleeding edge...”)
  • Then the paranoid control-freakery of the product managers (“Please insert the following 1000 words on how our patented anti-freezing zip system TM actually works on this fleece jacket!!!”)
  • And finally, there’s the butchering of plain language and tone of voice by compliance or anyone else especially chicken (“Can you add a triple asterisk under ‘Free Returns’ and add that this only applies if you haven’t pierced the cellophane wrapper, live in Wales and are standing on one leg?”).

With all this incredibly helpful “feedback”, is it any wonder the end result of that site content refresh often turns out to be what my school French teacher would sarcastically refer to as “une oreille de cochon”?

Over the past ten years running digital copywriting agency Sticky Content I’ve watched many talented client-side editors fight the good fight for better web content against a barrage of internal interference. I’m hoping these three tips will help them win their case for copy usability in 2010.

1. Demand that every page requested has a point

I used to work at BBH, where at the top of each creative brief you had to state what each piece of work was designed to make people “think, feel or do”. It’s still genius. Imagine how much better your web content would be if stakeholders were forced to answer that question for every page planned (and – dare I suggest – for the site overall).

Equally the question: “What do our customers want from our website?” is much under-asked and can normally be answered pretty accurately by call centre staff, who we always try to involve early on in the content planning.

2. Start with a clean sheet

Too many site rewrites begin as a project to improve existing content  – putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. Instead start with your ideal web content plan and then look and see what you already have that can be reused, edited or cut to fit. Almost certainly your existing web content will have grown organically and haphazardly and the best thing you can do to improve it is to lose and merge a load of pages.

If that sets off your seo alarm, then push those pages further down and add a succinct, usable landing, summary or product page on top that aids navigation.

3. Actively manage content stakeholders

Managing stakeholder feedback is essential if you’re to avoid that sinking content-by-committee feeling on your site. The first thing we have tried with great success might seem obvious: get the stakeholders together at the beginning and tell them the scope and purpose of the refresh project. On some projects, we’ve trained stakeholders in web writing best practice and shown them samples of the kind of content we’re aiming for, pre kick-off and the feedback has been far more mindful of copy usability as a result.

The second thing to do is to give people permission to give NO FEEDBACK AT ALL if they think the writing is actually OK. This seems so obvious, but if you do nothing else, I’d advise you to take great care over your covering email when you circulate web copy for comments. If someone sends you a document simply asking for your opinion, you feel obliged to have one! If someone emails you and says: ‘my ideal is that you sign this off as is and only insert a comment if you spot a serious factual inaccuracy about the product you are expert in’, they will often happily do just that.

Finally, limit your stakeholders in number and ensure you agree a pecking order (Can compliance overturn a change made by sales? Or vice versa?). Give a clear sense of what you expect from people, and within what timeframe. Compliance people don’t need to feed back on grammar or tone of voice, just as the brand team doesn’t need to comment on legal issues.

And hold your ground. They may know all there is to know about life insurance. But you are the expert in writing clear, meaningful, findable, on-brand and usable digital copy that will actually raise online conversion rates. And if it all kicks off into a big old 'my copy is better than your copy ruck'? Split testing should soon show whose copy actually helps customers reach the end goal... 

Catherine Toole

Published 23 February, 2010 by Catherine Toole

Catherine Toole is Founder and Managing Director of Sticky Content, and a contributor to Econsultancy.

10 more posts from this author

Comments (15)

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Tim Akinnusi

Tim Akinnusi, Non-executive director at Glasshouse Consulting

I agree with the writer.

People consume information online distinctively differently to how they would in a newspaper or magazine....so website copy should be in web speak and should be kept concise and engaging. Companies need to appreciate the fact that the reader is online, therefore copy should be written in the context of the website and everything else that goes with it. i.e. "click on the link on the top right hand side to search for an article you can't find on this page"...


over 6 years ago

Stephen Logan

Stephen Logan, Senior Copywriter at Koozai

Starting from scratch is a great suggestion. All too often people fall into the same trap time and time again. If your content has failed and you have to re-write it, why would you want to follow the old template? There's a reason why it didn't work and just papering over the cracks won't do a thing.

Plain English is vital too. I seem to always encounter websites using industry language that poor old Joe Normal (me) hasn't got the faintest clue what you're talking about. Keep the jargon to a minimum and keep the tone approachable. As far as pet hates go, that's well up there.

A well put together summary and an interesting read. Many thanks.

over 6 years ago


Tom Albrighton, Digital and SEO copywriter at ABC Copywriting

These are all very good points in terms of the content itself. In terms of the process, I think it's often worth developing the content, coding and (to an extent) design of a site in parallel. 

For project management, that's a complete nightmare. But it's often very good for the site. There are many usability and structural issues that will affect content (or should), but they just don't come to light until the site is actually built. If you attempt to finalise content before beginning development, these opportunities can be missed. 

For example, writing web content in Word gives little sense of which pages are prominent, and which less likely to be seen. You might need to repeat key information across multiple pages, perhaps for different audience groups. Similarly, diagrams and tables often need several iterations before the online version works as well as it can, in harmony with content. Heading styles, text layout and internal links are all important too. 

When working on my own site, I fiddle about with the coding of the pages, the images and the text all at the same time. As a result, every revision takes aeons, but at least I'm constantly thinking about how every element needs to work together. 

When I worked in illustrated books, the final 'crunch' phase of each project was always characterised by a designer and an editor (me) working in tandem, ironing out informational and presentational issues step by step, hand in hand. There simply was no other way to complete the project effectively. And I think it's much the same online. 

over 6 years ago



I sometimes do website 'refreshes' for recruiters. Firstly I review their current offering for first impression, content, user friendliness, navigation etc. and make a few observations and positional/design recommendations, then, once they have agreed with my feedback and that some tweeks rather than major surgery would instantly improve certain pages, I then take the knife to the copy on every page, cutting and changing it where necessary and leaving it be or making minor amends where anything more would only be change purely for change's sake.

I think that every organisation definitely needs an outside eye to be cast over their site from a first time user's point of view as it's far too easy to get too close to it

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Katherine

Nice article. Having done a lot of web copy/content projects myself, I think you should add to the list "Get customer feedback".

Too many web projects start and end without asking the people who actually use the site. How can you write excellent copy if you have no idea what your readers think of the existing copy?

I think you have to run a customer survey on the site and work out what you're good at and what's missing as well as checking the analytics to see what pages have the best/worst engagement. 

The last thing you want to do is throw the baby out with the bath water, as you allude to with reusing content.

Another point is balancing readability of content with content optimisation. Web owners want their pages indexed and visible at the top of SERPs but you don't want an over optimised keyword flooded page that reads like a technical manual (unless of course you are writing a technical manual!).



over 6 years ago


Catherine Toole

James thanks for your very sensible comments. It's always good to meet a fellow content advocate. I do agree you should always ask customers what they want to see (content planning 101) but I do have an issue with site surveys and the interpretation of customer analytics...

In my experience, the people that will bother to respond to a survey are often not representative of the customer base as a whole.

I saw one set of survey results recently where it was clear that the low-value, time-rich customers were the chief respondents to the survey. They appeared to be asking for more in-depth and deeper level product content. WIthout revealing too much detail, it was my instinct from talking to the call centre that this kind of content had actually been a barrier to the usability of the site. It had affected online form completion rates and driven impatient customers offline to the call centre, thus increasing their costs.

I became very concerned that this survey would be used to justify a future content plan which would actually alienate the high-value, time poor customers that the business really needed to attract and delight.

The same thing happens when you ask customers what they like about the existing content on a website. It's like asking if I prefer the chicken or the beef - I don't get a chance to tell you I'm a vegetarian. It's possible (and it's so often true) that the content I really want and need as a customer is missing entirely from your website. So any customer content survey worth its salt will focus less on 'tell us what you like about what we've done' and more on 'what would you really like to see'.

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Catherine.

Yes I can understand your comments but my take is that by including customer feedback in your planning, it gives you a fuller picture of needs. I certainly wouldn't say take every comment at face value, you need to interpret data.

Customers are not homogenous as you point out. Surely copy needs to be built to cater for different types of customer? The challenge is to make the top level pages contain the most salient copy so that time poor customers can get what they want and make a decision without being overloaded.

However, time rich customers, though they might represent lower value, still represent value. If you lose 10% of your audience because you deem their needs to be less important, you have damaged your brand. 

For me an intelligent content strategy provides information layers, like peeling an onion. The landing page has the top level key info and calls to action, then you can use sub-pages and overlays to display more detail for those who have the time and inclination to dive deeper. This is where content framework/architecture is really important.

I agree that the way you structure your survey is critical; that is where the skill of customer research comes into play.



over 6 years ago


Catherine Toole

I do and I don't agree. I've seen too much 'interpretation of data' that leads to content being created that is more cosmetic than commercially-effective. Of course I agree that customers are not homogenous and of course in an ideal world you have to plan and create content for different user types. But we spend all day, every day, working on digital content projects and the percentage of clients who have that level of understanding of their online customer base is shockingly low.

Yes, the best content plans map different content to different customer need states (and with my most sophisticated ecommerce clients we are developing content strategies which map content on a matrix against both customer types, needs/buying cycle and content types - ie does 'Jonny' want this information in text, mobile or video format?). I also agree that in general good web content is content that can be drilled down into pyramid-style so those that want to can keep on reading and the seo team is kept happy.

BUT - and it's a big but - sometimes these surveys and personas and analytics and rounds of opinion and feedback from multiple stakeholders (my original rant) can obscure the very basic principles of creating a website which sells. Simple, clear, scannable, benefit-driven product information. Clear signposting and calls to action. Excellent instructional text around forms. You and I both know that a lot of sites fall down on these basics. And if you simply get on and implement these things first, you won't damage your brand, you're unlikely to lose any existing customers and you will almost certainly see an uplift in sales.

It's good debating this with you by the way - I think we are really on the same side : )

over 6 years ago

Alan Bannister

Alan Bannister, Marketing Consultant at Albaco Ltd

Thanks for the great comments here - really useful stuff.

The one thing I always insisted on when my writers were writing for the web was that they had to adhere to the KISS principle. It works.

Best regards


over 6 years ago


Karon Thackston

I cheered at the examples you gave above, Catherine. Very funny, but painfully true.  I see far too many B2B sites that completely ignore the site visitor.  They "we" all over themselves with we's and our's and not a single "you."  Would they do that if a prospective client was sitting across the desk from them?  Well... maybe, but I hope not.  

Your article should be a wake up call for CEOs, CIOs and marketing execs who seek to "guide" the content.  If they want to beat their chests and flex their muscles, let them create their own site where they can fill it to the brim with rubbish.  Bet it doesn't get one, single click!

over 6 years ago


Julie Kosbab

Depending on the scenario, I've also seen poor SEO practices destroy content flow as well. Overuse of keywords, choosing keywords that don't have meaning, applying obsolete methodologies of density and format...

It often depends on who is involved and what their understanding of the art of SEO is - and how up to date they keep it.

over 6 years ago


Destry Wion

This is such a great article, Catherine!

You make an excellent point at the very end -- split testing. I know A/B testing for design considerations, and it's an effective way to find/demonstrate what works and what doesn't. I assume split testing for content is similar in concept; it sure sounds like it.

Anytime you can show tangible usability results to stakeholders, you should, even if it's a little extra work. The payoff from it, as irrefutable affirmation of all the good things you've been fighting for up to that point, really sticks with people, making them glad they listened to you. It could also make the difference for how a site is maintained (at least for a while) after you move on.

In fact, I'd really like to see some split test case studies published at this point. That would really compliment all the prescriptive stuff that's available. If you have a good split testi study to share, I'd love to read it.

Destry (@Wion)

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Catherine

Interesting points and I always enjoy a good debate:)

I know exactly where you are coming from and you are right about the lack of detailed customer knowledge in many businesses.

I also agree that you have to draw the line in the sand and make sure that you can produce good copy in a realistic timeframe otherwise you will go round in circles searching for the illusory, perfect wave.

The role of analytics is to evaluate how content and changes to content affect page engagement and conversion (sign-up, newsletter, contact us, purchase etc). This for me is essential.

The basic principles must underline everything that is written but at the same time from experience I have found customer data to be incredibly useful, provided you know how to use/interpret it!



over 6 years ago


seo firm

I applauded the examples you gave above, Catherine. Very funny, but painfully true. I see too many B2B sites ignore the site visitor. They are the "we" the entire car with me and we must be equally and "you". Think that if a potential customer sitting in his desk full of them? Well ... Maybe, but I hope not. Your article is a wake-up CEOs, IT and marketing executives seeking to "drive" the content. If they want to beat his chest and flex his muscles, creating a website where you can fill up with garbage. Beth did not get one, just one click!

about 6 years ago


Elderly Alerts

And if you simply get on and implement these things first, you won't damage your brand, you're unlikely to lose any existing customers and you will almost certainly see an uplift in sales.

almost 5 years ago

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