by Nicole Henderson
Anyone can write for the Web, but not everyone can do it well. Your copy needs to clear a path through all the clutter readers sift through online every day—e-mail, web publications, blogs, social media and your competitors' web sites. This may seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be.
The key is to respect your readers’ time and reward them with relevant, compelling content. These five tips will help.
1. Make yourself useful.
Roughly four seconds: That's how quickly the average reader can assess a web page. So before you get caught up in the "how" of writing for the Web, take a step back. Consider who you're writing for and, more important, what they're looking for.
Most online readers are on a mission, and it probably doesn't have anything to do with the latest message, campaign or product you're trying to promote. That doesn't mean you can't reach them, though.
Craft content around your readers' needs. Think about what questions they might have or what problems they're trying to solve. Offer something useful, and they'll stick around to hear what else you have to say.
2. Be brief but not boring.
Every article or seminar about writing for the Web will tell you to "keep it short," and for good reason. Short sentences, paragraphs and pages make the most of that four-second window you have to grab readers' attention.
But there's one thing you shouldn't sacrifice in the name of brevity: your story.
Put your message into a meaningful context for your audience. Be specific and evoke emotion. Don't just promote your product or service; demonstrate how it can benefit your audience.
Trim additional words. Throw out unnecessary paragraphs. But don't lose sight of the overall narrative. If you do, you'll lose your readers as well.
3. Lead the way.
No one reads what's on the Web anymore—at least not word for word. Research shows that 79 percent of web users scan web sites, plucking bits and pieces of useful information as they go. So don't assume people will read your story straight through.
Organize your content with subheads, bulleted lists and boldface type. That will help people spot the information they want quickly.
And think beyond your main story, offering extras to catch a scanner's eye. If you're promoting a digital camera, include a sidebar with tips on how to take better photographs. If you're marketing a restaurant, throw in a few recipes.
Remember, readers aren't surfing the Web for a sales pitch. They're looking for value. If you provide it, and make it easy to find, you stand a better chance of getting their business.
4. Write for searchers, not search engines.
Writing for the Web has become synonymous with search engine optimization (SEO), and that certainly makes sense. It doesn't matter how brilliant your writing is if no one can find it.
To make your site more visible to search engines, identify the words your target audience is most likely to search for. Then use those words in headlines, links and boldface type, and repeat them throughout your web copy.
But don't stop there.
Once people find your copy, you want them to actually read it (remember the four-second rule?). If you've put too much emphasis on strategically planting search terms, you could risk losing the natural flow and tone that readers respond to.
Understand how SEO works, but don't be ruled by it. Consider it one more tool in your arsenal, and remember that ultimately, you're trying to reach real people who crave real content.
5. Be realistic—and direct.
Don't expect readers to give your copy their undivided attention. They'll probably jump around—checking their e-mail or updating their Facebook page one minute, paying bills online the next. Oh, and they're making dinner, watching TV and talking to their kids, too.
To capture readers' attention amid all of that noise, put your most important information first. Remember, that's not necessarily what's most important to you, but what will resonate most with the audience you're trying to reach.
Use natural language. Lose the buzzwords, marketing-speak and technical lingo. It will only put people off. Unsure of the tone you're striking? Read your piece out loud. If it sounds strange to say it, chances are it won’t sit right with your audience either.
Keep in mind that even though you're a professional communicator, you're also an online reader. Use that perspective to your advantage. Apply these five tips the next time you write for the Web, and you'll craft engaging copy that's worth more than a few seconds of your readers' time.
Nicole Henderson is a writer at AHA!, a strategic communication firm that specializes in writing. Contact her at email@example.com.
Appeared originally in IABC International’s CW Bulletin.