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How do you write for a Web site?

Summary: Good writing is the very best way to make your Web site stand out from the millions of other sites.

Instead of "selling," writing for a Web site should focus on helping visitors become customers.

Web writing must connect with visitors personally. We do this by addressing their needs and by writing with a consistent personality or voice.

Be sure to tell your visitors how to achieve their objectives on your site.

Text trumps design on the Web

The early Web only handled text. The geeks who created the Web saw it as a way to communicate with other scientists using words. The use of images and graphic design on Web sites was an afterthought.

Especially given the dominant role of search engines, words have more power on the Web than do imagery and sound.

Professional writers have been almost totally absent from the Web, even today. Initially, at least, writers were left out because the Internet was developed for scientists and the military.

Non-professionals, however, have been hunched over their keyboards, pounding out messages for news groups, forums, chat, and email, creating personal Web sites, and seeking out the writings of others.

Because of this history, Web writing is nearly democratic: everyone has a voice. Writing on the Web has become a medium of the average person.

So anyone write for the Web, right?

Sure, everyone has been writing on the Web.

But that doesn't mean that all writing on the Web is equally effective. Anyone who can write well could probably learn to write effective copy for Internet marketing, but it would require training and practice.

And let's be honest: most people do not write well.

In the article on Web site success, I said that most Web sites don't succeed. Ineffective writing is a major cause of this widespread failure. Selling your product or service online requires specialized writing skills.

In fact, you'll need good writing just to get visitors to click to the next page of your Web site.

There are something like 40 million Web sites globally. How can you differentiate your Web site from your competitors' sites?

There are only two things that can make your Web site stand out: your graphic design and your writing. Other elements, such as your prices and glitzy Web technology, can be easily copied by your competitors.

And you're not just writing for people. Your writing also has to impress the search engines.

If potential customers can't find you when they search for whatever your Web site offers, why have a Web site? (You'll learn how your Web site can appear near the top of search engine results in the search engine marketing article.)

This work requires intelligence, attention to detail, and in-depth knowledge. Amateur writing and amateur design will condemn your site to being average—or worse.

If you want to stand above the average Web site, you'll need an outstanding writer and an outstanding designer. (If you already have a site, contact me now for a free analysis of your Web site.)

Because of the way the Web has developed, writing for the Web is different from other kinds of writing.

What's different about writing for the Web?

The Web is an active medium

The Web is not like TV. When you go online, you're active. That's why we talk about "users" rather than "viewers." You don't sit in front of your screen passively. You select, write, click, comment, vote, and buy.

Visitors to your site can end the relationship at any moment. And they'll be gone forever. So your writing has to motivate them to stay with you.

The Web is both anonymous and personal

Many have noted the anonymity of the Web. If we want to we can hide our identities online.

Often overlooked is that this anonymity lets us express very personal aspects of ourselves. The anonymity of the Web has encouraged us to celebrate our individuality.

Your Web site has to respect both the individuality and the anonymity or privacy of your visitors.

Businesses on the Web walk a tightrope

The very early Web was built for military and scientific purposes. Then the general public took to the Web to do email, participate in discussion lists, and create Web sites. This turned the Web into a very intimate, personal environment.

Only late in the Web's development did businesses try to make money on the Web.

The early Web was largely non-commercial and information and services were almost totally free. It's no wonder the public associates the Web with "free."

Many people are still leery of the role of business on the Web. Because of this resistance businesses must adopt a less aggressive tone on the Web.

The idea of "selling" is out of sync with people's basic idea of the Web. If you're not sensitive to your audience's attitudes about business on the Web, you'll lose their trust.

Instead of selling, aim at helping your visitors become a customers. It's the same end result, but a different approach.

The first step is understanding and addressing the needs of your audience. The customers' needs come first, and only after that will they want to hear about you.

Good Web writing shows personality

Most business Web sites have written content that sounds like generic corporate speak. Do you think anyone reads that stuff? Of course not. It's boring and it doesn't touch us personally. To succeed, Web writing must be engaging and motivating.

The style of good Web marketing copy is similar to the way people write email: personal, informal, and often humorous.

How informal should your writing be? How personal? That depends on the kind of business you have and the way you choose to position it.

Once you choose a voice, write with a consistent personality throughout your Web site.

Be a traffic cop: wave them on to the next step

Every Web site should exist for a specific purpose. The goal of most professional Web sites, for instance, is to have qualified visitors contact the professional.

When you're visiting a Web site, you're frequently uncertain about what to click on next, aren't you? That's because Web sites are all a little different and Web pages present users more options than you'd face in a magazine ad. That's why you have to guide users toward the objective.

To do this, you have to have a clear idea of what your visitors need and want. This is part of the Web being personal: it's all about your customers. If they don't find answers to their needs on your Web site, they'll leave.

Make it easy for your visitors. Tell them what to do. To help your audience move through the site, you have to put it in words. And make sure that your site is laid out so the flow from step to step is obvious, nearly inevitable.

The Web is a two-way medium

Visitors to your site will expect you to be available to communicate personally with them. They will contact you using email, instant messaging, phone, or the contact form on your site. If you never reply, you'll lose the sale. If you wait 24 hours, you might lose the sale.

You have to respond quickly to take advantage of the immediacy of the Internet. Fulfilling the interactive potential of the Web isn't easy. Decide in advance who will be checking the site's email and responding to potential customers. Commit to checking frequently and replying quickly.

Unlike broadcast and print media, on the Web your audience will feel free to tell you how you're doing. If they can't find something, if a feature isn't working, or if they want you to carry a new product, someone is likely to let you know. Feedback is good. Use it to improve your marketing.

Before we move on, let me share with you some keys to writing for a Web site.

Seven principles for writing Web marketing copy

  1. Most of your visitors will find you by doing a search, so your writing has to meet the needs of the search engines.
  2. Most visitors are looking for quality information about a topic. They'll hit the back button if your site only lists your services or product specifications or is overly self-promotional.
  3. Visitors often scan pages quickly for relevant information, so the writing and page layout must make this easy for them.
  4. Reading on a monitor is more difficult than reading on paper, so your writing should be clear and lean.
  5. Visitors respond much more positively to text that touches them personally and emotionally.
  6. Choose a personality or voice for your writing which represents your business accurately and maintain that tone throughout your Web site.
  7. Guide your visitor. Use the copy and design to make it obvious what they should do next.

Does that sound like a lot to keep in mind? It is. That's why you should have a professional help write your Web site. At the very least, be sure to have a professional review your text to be sure it is as good as it can be.

Want to know if your site has what it takes? I'll be happy to do an analysis of your present Web site.

Need a new site? Let's discuss your needs.

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