First Rate Writing Adds Power
To Web Site Design

by Claudia Temple

Copywriting for your Web site shouldn't just mirror your printed materials. Learn how to write copy that will increase sales and bring in new business.

“I need help – fast. My boss approved money to design the company Website and it looks great, but we’re not getting any leads or sales. My job is on the line. What can I do?”

How many times have you seen a discussion list or forum post like that one? Usually, the first response suggests advertising options…look into ezine ads or pay-per-click offers.

Advertising may be part of the overall solution to the challenge of building revenue through the Website. But consider a more fundamental problem – the Website copy. If the writing doesn’t work, you’re wasting scarce advertising dollars driving visitors to that Website.

Words play a vital role on a Website. They convey the information the site visitor is there for and just any old words don’t work. It’s easy to get the writing wrong.

Fortunately, research like that done by Jakob Neilsen (http://www.useit.com/) and the Stanford Poynter Project (http://www.poynter.com/eyetrack2000/) points to new standards in Web writing.

When a Website is peppered with too many uses of ‘we’ and ‘our company’ or industry acronyms and jargon, the diagnosis is fairly easy. The copy was likely supplied by the client – maybe even the CEO. Or, you as designer were handed product data sheets or brochures as the copy source.

This copy is usually full of detailed product features accompanied by complex graphics like flow charts, screen shots or performance graphs. By and large, this kind of copy is all about the company – how it started, became successful, and its array of products and services.

The problem is that this company-centric copy just doesn’t work. Prospects won’t even read it, particularly on the Web.



Headlines grab attention first
Using great headlines and sub-heads takes on new importance when you learn that almost 80% of Website visitors jump from headline to headline or sub-head. Only 20% read word for word and the rest of us look for what we want in bold or highlighted text.

Good headlines pull a reader into the copy. Use intriguing phrases like ‘New Solutions to Age-Old Problems’, or a question like ‘Are You Up Against a Brick Wall?’

Use sub-heads every few paragraphs to appeal to readers who scan. Make them short and informative to point to key information a visitor may be after.

Learn to count words
Reading copy on a monitor is about 25% harder than reading on paper. Website visitors cope by scanning for ideas or phrases, instead of reading every sentence in sequence. You can take advantage of this phenomenon by shortening sentences (under 17 words good, fewer is best) and paragraphs.

A few one-sentence paragraphs like this can work wonders.

While a site design may include white space, the copy sometimes doesn’t. Short sentences and paragraphs add pauses and make reading easier.

Speak the language of benefits
The cardinal rule of copywriting is to write about product benefits, not features. It’s also the rule most often broken. I notice that even marketing types become so immersed in designing, building and selling a product that they are unable to see past the features. That’s unfortunate, because customers buy benefits.

A product is fast, made of high-quality material, and light-weight. Isn’t that enough for any prospective buyer?

No, it’s not. What a buyer is getting with that product is something that saves time, makes his work life easier, and saves money because it won’t need replacing.

Those are benefits. That’s what a prospect wants to hear about.

Translating feature-based copy to a benefit perspective can be a challenge. Get inside the target audience and find out what problems they face that your product solves. Lead with the strongest benefit, and include two or three more. Relegate the product feature list deeper into the site.

Tell readers what you want them to do
Every Web page should have a call-to-action. It might be ‘Subscribe to our newsletter”, ‘Download a white paper’, or ‘Send me information’. Without telling visitors what you want them to do, they’ll do nothing at all.

Websites can offer a variety of options for interaction. That’s good because interaction increases interest and involvement. By adding a call-to-action in your copy and design, you’re making it easy for the visitor to interact and increases the odds he or she will stay longer and return later.

Avoid jargon
Every industry has its own language, and you’d assume industry terms would be widely understood. Big words, technical terms and industry jargon – client copy is frequently full of these. Instead of positioning the client as superior and leading-edge, this kind of language turns readers off.

Use common words and translate industry jargon instead. When your copy is conversational, readers warm to you and will stick with your copy longer.

What makes more sense to you…’complementary infrastructure with top-tier performance objectives’ or ‘the systems work together flawlessly’?

Less is better
Any writer will tell you that writing short is more difficult than writing long. Writing short is a must for the Web. Slashing extra words is part of the editing process before going live with any site copy. If a word doesn’t add real meaning, it’s axed. You’re usually wise to eliminate most adjectives and adverbs. Rewrite sentences around lively verbs. That way, you’ll avoid the passive voice…”it is” or “there are”.

Experts say that Web copy should be cut 50% from its print counterpart. So pare your copy to only the essentials and look for ways to present it in scannable format. Use lists generously and format lists in bulleted format. Add captions to tables and photos to present additional information.

Lastly, hyperlink an individual word within a copy block to provide the reader an option for more information. Reserve the words “click” and “click here” as a call-to-action separate from your copy.

Almost everyone writes in some way, shape or form in their daily work. However, not everyone writes well or even knows what makes for good Web writing. Take the time to learn the ropes, or ask a professional writer for assistance in developing a Website that meets the client’s objectives. Your client will be happier in the long run and make more money to boot.

© 2002 Claudia Temple. All rights reserved.


Claudia Temple is a freelance web copywriter who helps her clients develop better customer relationships with effective writing. Her website is http://www.writewerks.com and you can reach her at claudiat@writewerks.com

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