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WWW: World's Worst Writing?
Why businesses should invest in the copy on their Web sites, not just the design

By: Todd Marchand

Todd Marchand is a copywriter and consultant who helps businesses, organizations and individuals promote their products, services and ideas through clear, persuasive communications. For other resources, visit his Web site at www.TheCopyDesk.com.

Not so many years ago, when desktop publishing burst onto the scene, consumers snapped up easy-to-use software like Microsoft Publisher and The Print Shop, applying the programs' tools to greeting cards, flyers, even corporate newsletters. The inevitable result: reams of designs teeming with novelty fonts and clip art - whatever, it seemed, was possible if not tasteful.

A similar phenomenon accompanied the growth of the World Wide Web. With readily available design tools, amateur designers began cranking out page after page of illegible text with garish backgrounds, animated icons and more.

The mistake in both cases? A failure to recognize that along with the tools, one must possess the knowledge and technique to create messages that please the eye and are easy to read.

Today, smart business owners recognize the need for an on-line presence - if not to sell directly from their Web sites, then to influence visitors' perceptions of their business, its people, its capabilities, products and services.

As a result, Web design is big business. And many businesses are calling on professionals in graphic design and Web design to create eye-catching presentations.

But what about the message?

Recently I visited a number of Web sites for information on professional services I was seeking, and I was dismayed by the lack of professionalism in the copy. Nearly every message contained significant erors, either in writing mechanics (spelling, grammar, usage) or logic.

Take, for example, the marketing agency that "developes and manages equitable brand reputations" the printer that specializes in "fascilitating interactive communication" and the communications firm that strives to be "extraordinarily unique" (not just one of a kind, but "extraordinarily" so). Or, consider the design studio whose online portfolio includes a direct-mail piece with the teaser, "Your Invited to an Exclusive Preview." Not only does the designer appear careless and unprofessional, but how many recipients of the mailing thought the client did, too?

Equally annoying is copy that's long on style and short on substance, like an ad agency's invitation to "search, open your mind, and explore" the possibility of retaining its services and a copywriter's comparison of a musician's ability to inspire the soul through his instrument with the copywriter's ability to inspire "with quill and ink." Quill and ink? Must be copywriter Bill Shakespeare.

These blunders were found on the Web sites of professionals who should know better. Countless other business sites contain similar errors, and worse.

No matter how glossy the brochure, no matter how animated the Web site, it will be judged by readers for its ability to deliver credible information that imparts benefits. Credibility suffers when the message contains errors in mechanics and logic, and response dwindles when the message focuses on the company ("Our synergistic union of diverse yet complementary creative and technological facilities is unparalleled") rather than itemizing specific customer benefits.

A Web site can be a valuable tool for generating recognition, inquiries and sales. But if its message is poorly written and off-target - if readers perceive no benefit in the message or the business - visitors can abandon the site just as easily as turning a page or changing a channel.

To ensure an expertly written, reader-directed message that generates response, a business should invest in the services of a professional copywriter, along with the designer, when developing a site. And businesses already on the Web should consider a professional's review of their existing copy. With an eye and ear trained to make messages engaging, accurate, reader-friendly and persuasive, the copywriter can help Web-savvy businesses retain readers and convert them into customers.


Tips for better Web-page copy
  • Keep your home page simple and short. Visitors to your site will scan for the information they need. Make sure they don't have to scroll down for essential information.

  • Design for readability. Avoid novelty fonts and distracting backgrounds. Set type flush-left, not centered.

  • Start with a great headline. Let visitors know immediately what your site is about and how it benefits them.

  • Lead with the essential information. Summarize your message in the first paragraph, then elaborate with details in subsequent paragraphs or on linked pages.

  • Be friendly, and address the reader as "you."

  • Use everyday language. Avoid unnecessarily big words when simple ones will do. Use industry-specific terms when appropriate, but avoid jargon.

  • Use active voice. Instead of "It is understood by our employees that great service is what you demand," write "We know you demand great service."

  • Keep paragraphs short - one to three sentences each.

  • Keep sentences short - but vary their length for interest.

  • Use subheads to break long copy into easily identifiable sections.

  • Use bulleted lists to break up long paragraphs.

  • Boldface or highlight key words and phrases (not entire sentences) for emphasis.

  • Incorporate links to pages with detailed information.

  • Be enthusiastic but honest. Back your claims with examples, statistics and testimonials.

© Copyright, Todd Marchand 2004

Other Articles by Todd Marchand

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.

 

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