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…