writing for the web

This article was originally published as “Writing Online Content for Distracted Humans and Web-Crawling Spiders” in the Association Executives of North Carolina’s Success By Association magazine, November/December 2015 issue.

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Remember the days when members read everything you mailed them? Or, at least you thought they did. You never knew for sure, but one thing’s for certain: you didn’t have the competition for their attention like you do today.

Nowadays, media sites, for-profit communities, vendors, consultants, and brands are clamoring like you for the same 15 minutes of your members’ online reading time. Many of these competitors have big budgets to spend on behavioral scientists, marketers, copywriters, and designers to help them deliver attention-grabbing content.

But, you can compete and win if you know the basics of effective online writing.

Capture attention if you want to deliver value.

A few years ago, marketing experts proclaimed, “Content is king.” If you wanted to position your organization as a trusted authority and indispensable source of information, online content was the way to go.

Now, content is in danger of becoming a commodity. Much of the content slung about the web today is irrelevant crap—written in a rush to capture eyeballs and the favor of Google’s search algorithms—those web-crawling spider bots. To deal with the constant stream of content in their inboxes and social streams, readers quickly skim and mercilessly hit the Delete button.

“When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive,” said science historian James Gleick. If you want to deliver value to your members, you must first capture and hold their attention.

Write for skimmers, not readers.

When online readers visit a page of content, eye-tracking studies show that they scan the page in an F-pattern. First, they scan the headline, and the first sentence or two. Then, their eyes glance down the page, scanning subheaders and other bold or bulleted text.

Online readers scan to find out if the content appears to efficiently deliver the promised value, so your content must invite the reader in by looking easy to read. Segment content into short paragraphs interspersed with bold subheaders that summarize the message and guide the reader down the page. With content management systems, you can format subheaders so Google takes notice of any keywords used in them.

Use a parallel structure for subheaders and bullet lists. For example, make each subheader an imperative sentence, like the ones in this article. Bullet lists and indented quotation blocks also provide a target for skimming eyes and the necessary white space to break up a page.

Stick to one font style so the page doesn’t look busy. Use different font sizes for the headline, subheader, and body. Never underline text—only embedded links should be underlined. When using links, never say, “Click here.” Instead use the embedded link text to describe what the reader will get when they click.

Reel in the reader.

Hook your reader with the headline or subject line. Headline writing is an art and science that takes years to master, but a few tips will move you to the front of the class.

  • Promise value.
  • Make it personal.
  • Ask a challenging question.
  • Trigger curiosity.
  • Stoke anxiety.
  • Convey urgency.
  • Make it tweetable.

If you capture readers’ attention with the headline, they’ll read the first sentence. Then keep pulling them in, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Don’t wait for a big reveal at the end of your piece—deliver the value up front before you lose them.

Speak to the reader.

Let your content be personally engaging and conversational, not dry and institutional. Be a real person behind the screen. Address the reader with “you”—the most powerful word in copywriting.

Strive for strong, simple language. Avoid using jargon, clichés, and buzzwords. Use the active, not passive, voice.

In MS Word options, under Proofing, turn on the Readability Statistics tool. After a spell-check, it shows the percentage of passive sentences and the Flesch-Kincaid grade level. The lower the grade level, the easier and quicker your content is to read. The Hemingway Editor is an online tool that identifies complex and passive sentences. Don’t worry, you’re not dumbing down your content, you’re saving time for your readers.

Write for the reader, not Google.

Google’s algorithms have changed over the years to become more attuned to what readers naturally seek. If you write content that readers find valuable, Google will find you too. There’s no need to stuff content with keywords. Write clearly and naturally using the words and phrases that readers use to talk about your topic. Listen to members’ conversations in your online community, social platforms, and elsewhere to understand their language and needs.

Beware “black hat” SEO agencies that guarantee a search ranking. Never try to game Google—you’ll suffer a punishing and, perhaps, permanent loss of ranking. Knowing a few basic search engine optimization (SEO) principles will ensure your content does well in search rankings.

In April 2015, Google announced that websites must be mobile-friendly to earn a decent ranking. Write for the mobile reader:

  • Shorten subject lines.
  • Use appropriate font sizes.
  • Provide plenty of white space on the page.
  • Make links easy to click.

Use your content management system’s SEO tools to create a title tag and meta tag—the page description in Google search results—for every web page. Make sure your image file names include descriptive keywords. Provide explanatory alt text for every image—when images don’t load, readers read the alt text to see what they’re missing.

Include internal links within your content—links to related content on your website. Check out the SEO starter guides from Google and Moz for more SEO tips.

Neuroscientists say the digital world has rewired our brains. Our attention spans have suffered. We read differently online than we did when print was king. However, we have access to more information now than ever before. Make sure your online content is easy for your members to find and digest.

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer for technology firms serving the association market. The association community remains her professional home after spending ten years at national and state associations overseeing membership, vendor programs, marketing, publications, chapter relations and more. 

Related posts:

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Mike Licht after Edouard Manet)

Close your eyes and imagine a perfect world. Your audience never misses a post because your content is so interesting and entertaining. They can hardly wait to share it. Your reputation as the industry’s premier resource spreads. Your Google ranking and retention rate improve as more traffic and members come your way.

David Carr at the New York Times knows that perfect world:

“Hit the right note, and your readers become like bees, stopping by your site to grab links and heading back out on the Web to pollinate other platforms.”

Your content will create that type of buzz if you pay attention to a few key steps.

Understand your audience’s culture.

Associations are made up of many communities based on demographics and professional interests. The online community is likely very different than the volunteer leadership culture you’re used to. Take some time to get to know them – the online community citizens, influencers, connectors, creators and conversationalists. Get a sense of their hot buttons and accepted truths. Find out what they read and share, and what fascinates and irritates them.

Listen and learn about their needs and interests. Participate in conversations. Ask questions. Become a trusted member of the community. Without that trust there’s no chance of success.

Please read the rest of this post at the Avectra blog

how to get people to share your content associations

Photo by David Lofink/Flickr

The cliché people say, “Teach what you know.” I know enough about writing for the web to share it, so here’s part 3 of my series.

But before we get started you should know this: although I know enough about writing for the web, and even do it for a living, I’m still learning. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning about writing, but I’m willing to share what I know.

(Never trust anyone who says they know it all. If they don’t know they don’t know, what else don’t they know?  Hmm…)

In part 1 of this series I gave advice on writing for scanners, not readers, and the importance of headlines and formatting. Part 2 covered the voice of online writing, humor, sarcasm and the final edit.

Spread link love.

Why do online writers include links in their blog posts? They do it to:

  • Provide additional resources for the reader.
  • Reference a credible or authoritative source to back up a statement or to give credit for an idea.
  • Lead readers to related posts on their blogs or elsewhere. Links within a post to other posts on your blog will help your Google ranking.
  • Share the spotlight by linking to (and promoting) the posts of other bloggers. A link to another blog will help increase the other blog’s Google ranking. The link in your post will show up in their stats as an “incoming link.” Spread the love around!

When you share a blog post on Twitter, shorten the URL by using bit.ly, ow.ly or another URL shortener. These services also track clicks on your links so you can see how popular your posts really are.

writing for the web online blogging freelance writer raleigh

Photo by Rojer (flickr)

Encourage comments and conversation.

Blogs are social media because the comment box provides an opportunity for conversation with your readers. You’ll get to know your regular commenters, read and comment on their blogs and follow them on Twitter. Perhaps one day, when you’re in the same city, you’ll meet up in real life for drinks.* That’s how I got to know many of my friends in the association community.

[*This is why I could sneak ‘drinks’ into the title of this post. Do you know how hard it is to find a word related to ‘conversation’ rhyming with ‘links’? Have a better idea for a title? I’m all ears, in the comments. See how I did that? Encouraging you to comment?]

If you do a Google search on “increase blog comments,” you’ll know by the number of results that encouraging comments is a constant challenge for most blogs. Most of us read a post and leave without making a comment. We’ll take the time to share it on Twitter but we won’t leave any trace of ourselves on the post itself. What can a blogger do to change that?

  • End posts with questions that elicit more than yes/no answers.
  • Write about a controversial topic or express an unusual view, i.e., provoke your readers to comment.
  • Solicit reader anecdotes, solutions and examples about the topic.
  • Don’t require registration for commenting. Most comment widgets require a name, email and optional web address – that’s sufficient.
  • Remove barriers to lively conversation. If you have a good spam filter, consider automatic approval of comments; you can always delete a comment if it really gets under your skin and that’s your policy. If you go with automatic approval, make sure you’re notified about new comments by email, in case something questionable gets through your spam filter.
  • Be a good citizen by responding to all authentic comments — the ones that say more than “nice post.” Otherwise you’ll look like you don’t give a hoot about your readers. There’s one exception to this rule which I’ll explain in a little bit.
writing for the web online blogging freelance writer raleigh

Photo by Douglas R. Witt

Defend your blog against trolls and their relatives.

Everyone dreads the negative or angry comment. That’s a risk you take by putting yourself out there in the very public blogosphere. Pressing the Delete button isn’t always the best solution. I wrote a post for the Avectra blog that explains how to deal with negative comments from complainers, critics and trolls: Don’t Let the Haters Get You Down.

Banish the spam man.

The only exception to the “reply to all comments” rule is when a comment looks like link bait – a link embedded in the commenter’s name or inserted in the comment is used as bait to drive up their Google ranking with incoming links and to get people to click back to their website.

You’ll recognize these bottom-dwellers by their obviously spammy content or by the comment’s brevity, smarminess or poor English. Your spam widget should catch most of them, but every now and then one will slip through. To give you a sense of how they’re usually written, here are a few examples from the 68 spam comments dwelling in my spam filter right now:

  • I believe this web site has got very superb written articles articles.
  • Wow Your site is of the chain.
  • Hi my loved one! I want to say that this post is awesome, nice written and include approximately all vital infos. I would like to look more posts like this.

Amusing. It must work for them because they keep doing it. I’ve noticed an uptick in spam comments, especially on posts that were once featured on the WordPress home page. If you suspect a comment is spam or link bait, feel free to delete it; it’s your blog, you’re the boss.

Wow, where did the time go? We didn’t even get to copyright, fair use, Creative Commons and image sourcing. Don’t roll your eyes, this stuff is fun!

Writing for the Web series

Last week, I shared tips on writing for the web, or, as I affectionately referred to all of us online readers, writing for online monkey minds. Reading on the web is a different experience than reading the printed page. Online reading is informal, interactive and interruptive; it requires a different style of writing. In my monkey mind post I discussed writing for scanners, not readers, and the importance of headlines and formatting.

No matter the medium, you want to hook the reader and get to the point quickly. On the web, it’s even more critical because we feel less loyalty to a web page than we do to a magazine or book we’ve purchased, so we’re apt to click away as soon as you bore us.

Imagine talking to your reader.

The web feels different than a magazine, newspaper or book. We talk back on the web, get replies and have conversations. When you write for the web, use a more conversational voice than you would for the printed page. It’s okay to write in the first person, whereas that would not usually fly in a printed article.

Pay attention to your voice. Using “you” is fine. When I write blog posts, I imagine I’m giving advice, sharing ideas or having a conversation with a friend or colleague. I use “you” throughout my posts because I’m talking to you. I can’t see you, but I imagine you there, listening. This is perfectly healthy.

For organizations, especially in blog posts, don’t always refer to yourself as “we.” It may be appropriate at times, but “we” can sound awfully impersonal. Some readers may even hear it as a royal “we” if they’re in an unforgiving mood. As a reader, I want to connect with a person, the writer, not to a faceless institution represented by “we.” It’s far too anonymous and nontransparent.

However, I use “we” frequently when I write about topics that concern my community, for example, when I write for the association community about a membership issue. That’s an inclusive “we” in the sense that “we’re all in this together.”

online writing blogging web

Multitasking… 57 tabs open… (photo by John Ott)

Oh, you think you’re funny?

We might be funny to a few people, maybe. If we’re lucky, a dozen or so might get a chuckle from our brand of humor. Humor works online because it’s informal and conversational. A little humor entertains us and keeps us reading. But if you want to get a point across, don’t go overboard with humor unless you’re a comic genius with a humor blog.

Sarcasm, however, doesn’t always translate. I find sarcasm hard to resist because it’s part of my usual schtick. But in real life we use inflection, stress, timing and facial expressions to make our zingers stick. Online, we only have this:😉 Tread carefully so you don’t unwittingly insult your readers.

I’ve seen writers convey sarcasm by stretching out a word with extra vowels so it reads how it would sound in a sarcastic tone. Others will add a “heh” to their sarcastic remarks, or use sentence fragments to instill the same sense of timing they’d use in real life.

You’re not done yet!

When I’m done with a piece, I use the Find tool to look for instances of passive voice. Passive voice will suck the life out of your writing. I search for the following words (and suffix) and change them where I can: be, was, is, were, are, -ing.

Keep tightening it up. Look for redundancies and unnecessary words and phrases, like “that” or “some.” Does your word order make sense?

When in doubt, look it up. Keep dictionary.com in your bookmark bar so you don’t use the wrong word by mistake. Find grammar resources to help you with those pesky little rules you tend to forget. Don’t worry, this happens to everyone; we forget because our brains are too full.

Here are a few to check out:

Finally, read it out loud. Or at a whisper. How does it sound? Any awkward spots? Jargon? Corporate-speak? Are you bored? You’ll be amazed how well this technique works.

I heard someone say recently on a Twitter chat: “Perfection is the enemy of good.” So true. There’s always something to edit in that final draft. But summon your strength and make it the final final. Click Publish and move on unless you’re chasing a Pulitzer.

writing blogging web online

Click it! Click it now!

Next time I’ll get into comments, trolls, copyright, fair use and all that good stuff.

Writing for the Web series

Does this sound familiar? You settle in to read something online. You first scan the screen, and then begin reading a long paragraph of text. Soon you realize you’re no longer reading; instead you’re thinking about dinner or your draft picks. Click, close tab.

We all do this. Reading on the web is informal, interactive and interruptive.

  • Informal – our family and friends are here, anything goes.
  • Interactive – we are used to ‘talking’ back via comments or feedback buttons.
  • Interruptive – we are easily distracted by email alerts, links, instant messaging, social networks and open tabs.

If we write our online content the same way we write for the printed page, we’ll lose our readers, except for our mothers and a few diehard fans.

Write for scanners, not readers.

We read differently online. I think we all know this intuitively, but it’s also been proven in studies. We scan. In eye-tracking tests 79 percent of users scan any new page they come across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

We scan in an F-shape: first, horizontally across the top, then horizontally a little lower, and finally vertically down the left side. The photo below shows results of web usability eye-tracking tests. The redder portions are the ‘hot spots’ where most eyeballs land.

Why is this important? If you want to hold your reader’s attention, format your text and write in a way that will do that.

writing for the web online reading freelance raleigh

F-shape online reading pattern

Hook them with headlines.

Headline writing is a skill coveted by print and online writers. Do a Google search on “writing headlines” and you’ll see how much advice is out there on writing headlines for blog posts, articles and marketing copy.

Amidst all the online noise and distractions, we want our headline to hook the reader and draw them into our content. A good headline needs to give a sense of what the reader will get for their time. It provides an ‘information scent.’ It also helps if it’s clever, controversial or promising. If you want to improve your headlines, Copyblogger has oodles of posts on the subject.

Break up your text.

Readers like lists and bullets. They break up the visual monotony of one paragraph after another and make the content more alluring to read.

Lists posts are by far the most popular posts on many blogs. Check out the titles of the most popular articles on Copyblogger’s home page:

  • 8 Bad Habits that Crush Your Creativity
  • Do You Make These 7 Mistakes When You Write?
  • 10 Effective Ways to Get More Blog Subscribers.

List posts like these promise takeaways in an easy to read package. An uncommitted visitor can scan and digest before deciding to settle in and read.

Readers also like bold subheadings. Subheadings tell the reader what to expect within the text and visually break up the page.

Use short paragraphs and sentences.

Aim for paragraphs that are five lines maximum. It might not always happen, but it’s an ideal to keep in mind.

Keep your sentences short. Use limited punctuation. Parentheses, especially, can cause a break in reader attention.

And my favorite: sentence fragments are okay.

Does it sound like we’re dumbing down writing? Possibly, but what we’re trying to do is appeal to the distracted web reader by making the text visually appealing and conversational – an enjoyable online reading experience.

online writing reading web freelance raleigh

Photo by Laineys Repertoire

A few more formatting tips

Left justify your text. Don’t use indented paragraphs.

All of you who grew up with typewriters, stop using two spaces after a period. A period is followed by only one space. Using two spaces is a dead give-away that you’re older and perhaps haven’t kept up with the times. And before you accuse me of ageism, just know that I too had a college prep typing class in my senior year of high school. I adjusted, you can too.

If you have a few lines of quoted text, set them off from the rest of text in block quotes. If you want to add more visual relief, italicize the block quote.

Break up your text with photos or graphics but only where it won’t interrupt the reading flow. Graphics sometimes take longer to load so don’t overdo it or your reader will leave before they even arrive.

Next time, I’ll share guidance on voice, links, trolls, copyright and more.

Do you have any other tips to add?

Writing for the Web series

What do I do when I’m not writing?

Every now and then I share what I know with others. Recently I did a few presentations that I thought I’d share with you too. Of course it’s not like the real deal when you get to experience my witty banter and stories. Consider this the Cliff Notes version.

In March I went to Chicago to speak to a group of association volunteer leaders about creating and nurturing an online community – Community 2.0 – PowerPoint or PDF version with slide notes. My slides for this presentation are more text heavy than usual because they were recording the audio for a webinar for the members who couldn’t attend in person.

online community, associations, membership organizations, community

Ignore the icky template. That asked me to use it, I did. I'm a rule follower.

I also did a short session for the same group on Writing for the Web.

writing for the web, online writing, blogging

When writing, always start with a good breakfast. Yes, another template.

Last week I spoke to a group of association professionals here in North Carolina on the basics of blogging – And Now You Want Us to Blog Too? – PowerPoint or PDF version with slide notes. I love that title! I can’t take the credit; it was AENC’s idea. In this presentation I talked about objectives, strategy, content and making a blog work.

blogging, associations, membership organizations, nonprofits, blogs

Admit it, you like reading blogs, don’t you? You subscribe by email or RSS feed and you get valuable and interesting content delivered daily to your computer. How convenient! You receive tips and advice, read about hot issues and learn about resources that help you do your job or get ahead in your profession. Wouldn’t your members like that?

A blog provides news, information and thought-provoking ideas – a professional development trifecta. It’s the ultimate content marketing tool – engaging your readers with valuable information that holds their attention and strengthens their loyalty. A blog educates policy-makers, journalists and other influencers about your legislative and regulatory issues. A good blog establishes your association as a thought-leader in your industry.

Google loves blogs and their keyword-rich pages. Because of their dynamic fresh content, blogs rank high in Google indexing. Blog posts are sharable. They’re sent to colleagues via email, or shared on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Your association’s reach and influence expand via Google and social media platforms.

Blogs are social. Your members participate in the conversation you start by commenting back to you and each other. Blogs have more personality than websites. They have a real person’s voice, or many people’s voices. You can play it straight by providing serious information, and also be entertaining with lighter posts and videos.

blogging blog association small staff manage

flickr photo by Pete Gontier

Can you manage a blog?

Even a small staff association can manage a blog by publishing repurposed and curated content in addition to original content.

You can get content in several ways:

  • Create original content. Don’t worry, you have access to more content ideas than you’d expect. Trust me, the more you write, the easier it gets.
  • Repurpose existing magazine, newsletter, educational session, blast email and political alert content.
  • Ask members to contribute a monthly post. Look for bright members who want visibility. If they don’t write well, edit their work or outsource the editing. If their writing is hopeless, film them.
  • Ask industry bloggers to contribute monthly guest posts.
  • Outsource content creation to freelance writers.
  • Do a mix of all of the above.

Content can also be collected from other sources, reviewed and curated (filtered) to find the most valuable and interesting posts for your members.

How do you begin?

Start by regularly reading industry blogs to get a feel for the community and issues. Also read social media blogs to learn more about managing and marketing a blog.

Put together a staff team, or a team of members and/or industry thought-leaders overseen by staff, to develop an editorial strategy. Review your communication, marketing, professional development, membership, advocacy and public relations goals. How can your blog help achieve those goals? Don’t operate your blog in a silo. It must be an integral part of all those association programs.

Discuss how you will handle negative or critical comments. Censoring is only an option for extreme cases – spam, libel or vulgarity. Socialfish recently shared an excellent social media response triage flowchart.

Create an editorial calendar so your posts enhance other association efforts.

Always have a full pipeline of posts so you can at least publish weekly.

However, blogs need daily attention. Even if you don’t post daily, someone must review comments and reply back, share your posts and posts from other sources on social media platforms and, ideally, comment on other industry blogs. Like content creation, this can be done by staff or outsourced.

If staff sets the blog’s strategy and calendar, content can be created and collected using a combination of talents. The effort required to oversee this educational, community-building and marketing tool will be well worth it.

(A version of this post was originally published on Splash: Refreshment for Your Small Staff Organization)


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