Friday, January 6, 2012
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Ever do your dishes by hand? It only involves three steps. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Each dish needs two things done, then you go to the next dish and do the same two things. The result is a set of nicely clean dishes. Putting each dish through the same 2-step cycle ensures this outcome.
Providing the best service to clients also requires just a few simple steps:
1 – Say what needs to be said
2 – Do what needs to be done
3 – Repeat
The result is quality website content and, hopefully, a well-satisfied client.
Say what needs to be said
State the few key realities about the content in front of you. “This page could be shortened,”“That photo doesn’t align with the message on the page,” “This bulleted list will read better leading off with verbs rather than nouns,” and so on. As an outsider, you’re visiting in someone else’s living room. At the same time, they have hired you to tell them how to improve things. So you must not let your temptation to “just be nice” interfere with your advocacy.
The discipline of creating good content requires an insistent voice. Speaking up is necessary, even as deadlines loom and unexpected events happen. Quality content does not – cannot – happen by chance. Effective web content is created by an intentional, focused effort with someone on hand to be that voice. Of course, good timing and a diplomatic approach carry your arguments further. But the willingness to tell the client what needs to be said will pay off – for them and their users.
Do what needs to be done
Drill down into the specific and unique tasks of your client project. You must do them with dedication and rigor. It might mean diving into a content management system to fill in missing pieces of meta data. Or submerging yourself in photo selection, or a meticulous pre-launch beta review. Of course, strategic considerations are woven into these tasks, but the tasks (which can take hours, days, or weeks) have to be done. This is the time to put down your megaphone and pick up your keyboard.
This is not to say that tactics should overshadow strategy – that’s an error most organizations make. But for the content specialist, the wonderful high-altitude thinking of content strategy must be brought down to earth and implemented - in real web projects often comprised of infinite tasks.
In her poem, “To Be Of Use,” Marge Piercy writes, “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.”
A good content specialist grabs onto and delves down into tasks, achieving them with as much productivity and efficiency as possible. Task fulfillment makes the strategy come to life.
The best kind of plan is repeatable. You need not create new steps. Simply repeat the two essential steps over and over again. Whether it’s a website of 5 pages or 500. A 2-week project or 12-month project. A site for a one-person shop or a large institution. Say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done - and then go back and do it again.
Upcoming post: The Maintenance Cost of Every Web Page
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
“The greatest gift is not being afraid to question.” ~ Ruby Dee
At a meeting last fall of the Content Strategy – Minneapolis Meetup, I asked guest speaker Kristina Halvorson, industry leader and author of Content Strategy for the Web, how she would recommend I handle a client decision that ran directly counter to good web strategy. I had felt surprised and irritated that a former client had chosen to do something on their website that was obviously a bad idea (it diluted their brand message, created confusion for users, and made site management more difficult).
Kristina had a mind blowing response. It was along the lines of, “You know, you could be curious and ask the client, ‘tell me why you’re thinking about doing that.’”
It was astoundingly simple. I’ve used it dozens of times since. “Why do you think that’s important?” “Can you tell me what your thinking is there?” “How important is that to your users?” “What content do your users first want to find when they get to this page?”
This has accomplished two important goals:
1. Established clarity about content strategy
2. Created stronger content itself
Here’s a site I wrote for a small pest management business. I extensively questioned the client about his services, competitive advantages, and the distinguishing features of his commercial and residential customers. I spent two hours just asking questions. For a tiny 5-page site? Absolutely. That level of questioning created content that does its job – to make the case in a compelling way that customers should contact his business for pest control.
The nature of good questions
Good questions are:
- Open-ended. They begin with “Can you tell me,” “What is…” “Where is…” “How is…”
- Specific. They elicit information that is measurable and objective.
- Motivated by a desire to learn. Discard irritation or impatience. Practice curiosity.
Leadership consultant John Baldoni has useful tips on asking effective questions.
Need to answer some good questions to create your good content? Consider hiring a web content consultant.
Upcoming post: Serving the real needs of clients
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Nobody wants to read your site. Nobody. They don’t want to pay attention to you. They don’t care what you have to say.
They’re busy. They need to jump in, get a task done, and get out. I’d like to just point my finger at Gerry McGovern’s book, Killer Web Content, and say, “what he said” and leave it at that. If you haven’t read his book, stop reading this blog and go get a copy.
According to McGovern:
• 5% of your site content accounts for 25% of your business
• A 100-word web page loses 25% of your readers…at 500 words you’ve lost 60%
• Killer content has six C’s, one of which is “concise”
Let’s stop drooling over our excessive text, expensive photos, and sophisticated animation. Cut. Cut. Cut. And cut some more. Get dependent on the ‘delete’ key.
In getting ready for a new site, my current client took a machete to all of its page text. In each editing session, we spent a good 25% of the effort paring back the volume of text - turning dense blasé messages into great information. It was concise, yet complete.
Too often organizations look at their sites like Narcissus looked at his reflection, falling in love with what they see and forgetting about the world around them. Lenox Powell wrote a great blog post recently saying organizations need to stop talking about themselves and talk to their customers. It’s in talking to the customer that helps create a natural incentive to keep it short.
It’s a simple concept, but takes discipline and time to enact and enforce it.
If you need help increasing your use of the ‘delete’ key, consider hiring a website content consultant.
Upcoming post: Ask good questions to produce great content
Friday, February 25, 2011
This week I saw an outstanding website and felt inspired to feature it here. In the interest of full disclosure, the site owner is a professional associate.
Alison Brown Cerier’s site is fantastic because she takes her compelling brand promise and turns it into simple web content.
The site has enough but not too much information to communicate Cerier’s brand. Her home page is a quick, creative read on what she delivers, with an eye-catching site ID. Her other tabs quickly flesh out her credentials, specific deliverables, and contact info.
Cerier makes it simple for me to understand the compelling service she offers.
Why simple works best
In his book Killer Content, Gerry McGovern puts all content into one of two categories: filler or killer. Cerier’s website is all killer, no filler.
Why is simple content the best? Because that’s what web customers need. They’re impatient. They need to know who you are, what you do, and why they should care…and they need to know fast.
I recently wrote the web content for a small exterminator business whose new business came almost totally by telephone. So the website’s job was to compel people to call. Not click on a bunch of extra links. Not read a bunch of extra text. But call.
So I wrote web copy that clearly communicated the exterminator’s work and credentials, a little info about price, and how fast he came to your home. Then I placed the phone number prominently at the top of each page. Simple.
Simple content is not simplistic. It gives just enough information to communicate the point, and gives the customer an easy way to take action.
That’s what Cerier has done with her site. She uses visuals and navigation to support the content – not the other way around.
A refreshing—and effective—way to do a website.
How simple is your content?
Upcoming post: Let's get addicted to the “delete” key
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
by JO MARSICANO
Good web writing is like other good writing: its value should be unmistakable. You have to decide what to say, to whom, and why.
Writing instructor Mervin Block says, “Write to express, not to impress.” Above all, writing should express an idea, motivate an action, communicate a value. It should support your business goals or organizational objectives. It should entice the web user to read and take action.
A tip: Mervin Block’s instructions for writing broadcast news are an excellent primer for web writing. The two writing styles are very alike because they focus on short, clear writing. I recommend his book, Writing Broadcast News: Shorter, Sharper, Stronger to enhance your web writing.
A numeric formula
In her class, Writing for the Web, Barbara Mednick teaches easy-to-remember rules for good web writing.
- Sentences - 20 words or less
- Paragraphs - 5 sentences or less
- Screens - 3 paragraphs or less
- Use subheads and bullets generously
- Use bolded headlines generously
I use these additional guidelines
- Bullets kept to one line
- Simple language
- When in doubt, leave it out
An example of good web writing
The news media page for the Minnesota State colleges and Universities System follows the rules of meaning, brevity, and clarity. Notice the numerous bold headlines and short sentences. Notice the page length – enough info without too much scrolling.
These guidelines are simple but they require practice. If your text is dense you have to re-write. You have to be a diplomat when you re-write or re-format someone else’s work. You have to align the format with the content.
But it’s worth the extra effort to produce effective web copy.
How good is your web writing?
Upcoming post: The high value of simple content
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Delta Airlines is the world’s biggest airline, with tens of thousands of employees and a reach of 64 countries.
Its website could have made us suffer with endless text about its history, mission, and values. It could’ve weighed us down with flashy animation on the homepage.
It does none of this.
Instead, it keeps the site deceptively simple, keeping upper most in mind exactly what the customer wants to find and quickly.
The site is refreshingly free of what I would call “corporate ego.” Instead, it brands itself clearly with a large site ID at the upper left but keeps the focus of the home page on just a few large navigation panels.
Once you click on one of those panels (‘book a flight,’ ‘flight status,’ etc.) you can get quick and easy info. The site offers lots of other useful information by clicking on one of the top navigation bars – for example for baggage. The navigation to the baggage information is simple, and the baggage pages are well done. They use ample sub heads and bullets, allowing the customer to easily get the info they need.
The site makes it easy for me as a potential flyer to get the top priority information I’m looking for. Then if I need to, I can get other necessary info to complete my business with the company.
The Delta site has successfully blocked attempts to become full of itself. Instead, it has disciplined its content to be useful and easy to find. This website has dropped the corporate ego and has stayed laser-focused on the needs of its customers.
Upcoming post: Good web writing