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. 

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

If you’re looking for me, check out my food blog, Grabbing the Gusto. I write several times a week over there.

You can also find me online writing on the blogs of some of the best technology vendors in the association market, but I’m doing that undercover in collaboration with some of the best brains in the industry. I’m also helping them with case studies, white papers, tip sheets and articles.

And now for my exciting news: I just signed a contract with a publisher to write a book about strategies for living in small spaces. This opportunity fell into my lap, or, more accurately, into my inbox. After mulling it over for weeks (okay, maybe months) and seeking advice from author and publisher friends, I decided to go for it. Must live up to my motto and grab the gusto.

And for no particular reason except I really love it, I’m sharing this photo I took last weekend of the pier on Ocean Isle Beach at sunset. I love the way it makes me feel and I hope it makes you feel that way too.

Ocean Isle Beach pier at sunset | Deirdre Reid

Ocean Isle Beach pier at sunset | Deirdre Reid

I’m not the only one who likes being a content curator. Elizabeth Engel is always an excellent source for interesting reads. Check out her weekly What I’m Reading series.

If your job involves engaging members, customers, constituents, donors or volunteers, you must read this post by Jeffery Cufaude, Cultivating Engagement: What was the Catalyst? He says, “If we want to cultivate relationships that invest people in our community, cause, or organization, we must remain curious about them: how might what I’m learning about you now alter my next interaction with you?” Grab your team, make them read this, and figure out how you’re going to start doing this next week.

Andy Freed captures why I like reading all kinds of things and making odd connections. He was heading to TEDActive (the live Palm Springs simulcast) where he anticipated learning about association management from a dolphin researcher. And why not?

When’s the last time you picked up a phone and called a member you don’t know? I know. I never did it either, except when we were desperately promoting our trade show in the midst of the housing implosion. Eric Lanke has some ideas about the real reasons we don’t pick up the phone.

Barry Feldman wants you to take a hard look at your website after reading his post, 11 Reasons Why Prospects Don’t Convert Into Customers. He gives you the eleven reasons, good advice and a quick checklist at the Convince & Convert blog.

I just LOVE this post about a dying restaurant by Ken Mueller. I can feel for them because for eight years I was the general manager of an independently-owned (and very successful) restaurant, long before the days of social media. But we’ve all seen this story – lots of attention, but a little too late. Let’s all pledge to honor Ken’s words:

“I will continue to support small, independently owned family businesses whenever I can. I will also go out of my way to let them know I appreciate and support them. I will reward them for their humanity by spending my money with them, in hopes that they will be sustainable and profitable.”

Are you texting and using LOL like an old fart? Luckily for me I got tired of LOL long ago. And it’s a good thing because it no longer means what you think it does, if you’re of a certain age. Not my age. And if you’re one to lament the decline of the English language because of texting, fear not. “Anyone who says that text language is chaotic isn’t paying enough attention to the system of rules that users have developed to move real-time conversation into written form,” says Anne Curzan in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At ProBlogger, Thomas Ford explains what you need to know about using free images from the web. His post will help you understand copyright rules, rights and different types of Creative Commons licenses.

Here’s one to bookmark and hope you never have to use. Tia Fisher at Social Media Today shows you what to do if your Twitter account has been hacked.

Steal this idea from Association Media & Publishing: sponsored small group dinner discussions.

Steal this idea too for your next trade show:

vendor twitter game tweet

The only infographic I looked at this week, thanks to Stowe Boyd.

This is conference week for me. I spent Sunday through Tuesday at the Avectra Users & Developers Conference where I wrote a few blog posts:

I got back Wednesday afternoon and today I’m heading to Colorado Springs for the ASAE Great Ideas Conference. Be sure to check out the hashtag #ideas13 if you want to follow along.

Pretty soon we’ll all be Dr. Doolittles. Vince Cerf “envisions an interspecies Internet” where we’ll communicate with animals and aliens.

Happy Friday!

“…talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals”Photo by Curt Smith (Flickr)

“…talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals”
Photo by Curt Smith (Flickr)

 

In one corner, a company that made a mess of customer service and then made it worse with social media. A moving company threatened to sue my friend’s wife because she wrote a negative Yelp review about them. The company also purchased positive Yelp reviews, deleted negative Facebook updates, and doesn’t seem to know how to dig itself out except by digging deeper.

“The beautiful part of the Internet is that everyone can now be a publisher. The scary part of the Internet for a company like <name> is that you don’t always know who you’re sending crazy intimidation letters to and how they might respond,” says Phil Buckley, the guy in the other corner. They picked the wrong guy to piss off, Phil happens to be an SEO and Online Reputation Management (ORM) expert. He has a lot of friends, and many of them are also ORM experts. The experts think this makes a great case study – you can’t buy that kind of publicity!

And, Happy Birthday, Phil!

Jeff Cobb at Tagoras is in the midst of updating their Association Learning Management Systems (LMS) report. He and Celisa Steele have been talking to LMS vendors and participating in demonstrations of platforms. He’s identified four association learning technology trends: “I can already see that there are at least four areas in which some very significant progress has been achieved over the past couple of years. I’m labeling these broadly as integration, convergence, mobility, and analytics.” Exciting times for associations with the educational innovations that await!

As our use of new social and digital platforms and technology evolves, irksome issues crop up, well, they’re irksome for some, not all. A sports reporter was “reprimanded” by the University of Washington athletic department for excessive tweeting during a basketball game. Sam Laird at Mashable writes, “As the ability to provide real-time updates becomes more and more common — and as the line between reporter and spectator becomes increasingly blurred — should the rights to live updates be protected to the same degree as TV and radio broadcasts?” Another example of an organization having a tough time giving up control? Or are their rights being infringed? I tend to side with the reporter on this one.

One more Twitter item: can we all just agree that you should never retweet something without first reading it? Good. I’m glad you see it my way, you’re a good citizen.

How different would the world be if everyone had access to high-quality education and a bigger world of ideas? Call me a dreamer, but I think we’d have less crazy extremism, ignorance, and poverty. Maybe the $20 Aakash tablet made by Suneet Tuli’s company, Datawind, is a step in that direction. Christopher Mims at Quartz reports that India’s government wants to distribute Datawind’s tablet to India’s 220 million students. It would be cheaper than buying textbooks. Tuli wants to educate the “ignored billion.” He says, “Our effort in all of this was to use technology to fight poverty. What happens when you try to make it affordable at this level?”

“Calling all publishers, editors, and content creators: If you’re creating content for a business, you are marketing. But you might be missing out on all that you can achieve with your superb content if you are not content marketing.” That’s the rallying cry of The Content Marketing Manifesto by Monica Bussolati, her recently released e-book – a call to action you should heed if you run a business or organization. I’ve only skimmed through the book because I’m planning to read it this weekend, but I can already tell I’m going to be reading along saying “Yes!” out loud, and probably learning a good deal as well, and as usual, from Monica.

Blogs are one of my favorite content marketing tools, but they’re also a great way to think out loud and become part of a larger conversation, according to Seth Godin. “No single thing in the last 15 years professionally has been more important to my life than blogging,” says Tom Peters. He goes on: “And it’s the best damn marketing tool by an order of magnitude that I’ve ever had.” Well then! Maddie Grant found this short video of Godin and Peters talking about blogs. It’s only 1:38 minutes, come on, click!

For those of you who read last week’s post and had doubts about an old band led by two guys in their late 60s: I’m happy to report that The Who exceeded my expectations, and my boyfriend’s, whose expectations were much lower. They did the entire Quadrophenia album, followed it up with five Who classics, and then a quiet version of Tea & Theater with just Roger and Pete on the stage. The highlights of the evening: Roger’s voice and efforts to get every note and scream right; Zak Starkey’s Moon-like melodic bombastic drumming (he is so damn good); video solos by, rest their souls, John in 5:15 and Keith in, what else, Bellboy; the mesmerizing Quadrophenia instrumentals; and being in the same room as Pete. Long live rock.

Happy Friday!

Young Zak Starkey with godfather Keith Moon (credit unknown)

The coolest thing I saw all week, no contest, was Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic free fall skydive. Nothing beats that. Red Bull has two short videos of the event: a 1:30 minute highlight version and a 4:30 minute full recap version. Both are exhilarating to watch.

If you publish text, video, and photos on the web, please understand how copyright works. I’ve been a little loose a few times with screenshots of YouTube videos, but other than that, I try to stick to the rules, it’s only fair.  However, I’ve seen lots of blogs using copyrighted photos, and I bet it’s because they just don’t know any better. My most popular post of all time explained the basics of copyright, so if you’re not clear, be a good social citizen and check it out.

Here’s the worst case scenario when you infringe on someone’s copyright. A blog hosted by EduBlogs, a client of web hosting firm ServerBeach, had posted a questionnaire copyrighted by Pearson, an educational publishing company. ServerBeach received a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violation notice from Pearson. Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica explains what happened next: instead of dealing with the complaint in a rational way, ServerBeach shut down all 1.45 million education blogs hosted by EduBlogs.

And here’s another one. Jeff John Roberts at GigaOm writes about copyright trolls hired by “image owners (who) are brandishing the nuclear option against everyone — from small blogs to careless interns.” This could happen to you if you use copyrighted material and the owner gets sore about it.

I love politics. I hate politics. That’s life inside my head during election season. I guess what really drives me bonkers is the partisan hatred. The self-righteous arrogance that too many people on both sides have toward the other. No wonder I’m an independent, but not undecided.

Chelsea J. Carter at CNN says this election tests Facebook friendships. An election should never test a real friendship but I can see how it would test your tolerance for being around someone who talks politics all the time. According to Pew Research Center, “Nearly one-fifth of people admit to blocking, unfriending or hiding someone on social media over political postings.” I’m part of that one-fifth. I’ve hidden people for now. I’ll bring them back later. Her article mentioned a Facebook page: Nobody Cares About Your Political Posts. Really. Like. There’s more to life than politics.

All this political drama might just be an exercise in someone’s lab. According to physicists at the University of Bonn, “they may have evidence that the universe is a computer simulation.” Have we finally discovered who the They are? Hmm, maybe someone is watching you.

And if that didn’t spin your mind around enough, have you read this Newsweek piece by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, about the after-life experience he had during a coma? I hope this guy is on the level. Pretty wild.

I read a disturbing essay last weekend by religious scholar Sarah Sentilles in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin: The Pen is Mightier: Sexist Responses to Women Writing about Religion. No, I don’t normally read the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, but I was led to it by one of my literary blogs. She writes about the sexist responses her recent book received from male critics. Then she goes on to discuss the more pervasive sexism existing in the literary world, and speculates about the reception her essay will receive: “I expect to be called whiny and strident and annoying and grating and hysterical and uninformed. I expect to be told I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Why does this persist? It makes no sense to me.

Art geeks will enjoy this one. Bence Hajdu creates new works from paintings by Old Masters, like David, Boticelli, and Fra Angelico. They’re eerie and wonderful in their abandoned state. See for yourself at Hyperallergic.

Happy Friday!

into the light by mindfulness (Flickr)

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

Blogs are not dead! That was the verdict from DelCor Technology Solution’s unconference last month: Progress U. – Blogger Summit. I’m go glad I got up to Arlington VA to attend, it was a great day of conversation. DelCor’s publishing a series of follow-up posts from the Summit. The first talks about the state of blog reading and writing today and why blogs are a good idea for associations.

DelCor’s second post discusses Six Barriers to Blogging – And How to Bust Them. Don’t let limited resources, organizational culture, staff’s full plates, fear, lack of confidence orleadership’s unfamiliarity with blogs discourage you.

We’re so lucky to have access to free tools for professional development, like blogs, but there is a potential downside: cognitive overload. Back in August, Ed Rodley, an exhibits professional at the Museum of Science in Boston, wrote about Dealing with Your Cognitive Load. His post received so many replies from the museum community that he compiled their ideas into four more posts.

I must share something he said in Part 4 – it’s what drew me into the rest of these posts because it’s so spot on about personal growth:

“All of the strategies listed above have one thing in common. They don’t require anything aside from your own desire to learn. As someone who has worked in a large institution for most of my professional career, it’s easy to succumb to the mindset of waiting for permission to do anything. This is especially true of old-school “professional development.” There are forms to be completed, signatures to be garnered, and justifications to be gathered before any learning happens. But in the current climate, waiting for anything seems like a recipe for getting left behind.

Speaking of traditional nonprofit organizations, how many of them have a full-time employee dedicated to managing volunteers? Yeah, not many. In associations, volunteering is a benefit of membership, often the benefit that brings them back year after year. You’d think more resources would be directed at keeping members engaged and satisfied, but no. Susan J. Ellis at Energize, Inc. says Part-time Volunteer Management Means Equally Limited Volunteer Involvement.

In this brilliant post Jamie Notter, author with Maddie Grant of must-read book, Humanize, points out that social media is just a wave knocking down a corner of your sand castle. But be ready, he says. “The tide is coming in. Social media is giving us a bit of an advance warning that things are changing.”

While Eric Lanke was visiting one of his members, a manufacturing company, a simple sign on the wall provided a moment of clarity. He brought the mantra back to his association, it’s one that works in any organization: help the customer succeed.

I started this selection with two posts from an unconference, I’ll end with a post that Jenise Fryatt wrote about Event Camp East Coast: How an Unconference Changed My Life.

That’s it for now, happy reading!

Lady Blogger with Her Maid, after Vermeer by Mike Licht (Flickr)