Website Writers, Developers Must Work in Tandem

Image H84.20196Developing websites is far different than even five years ago. Website technology and Search Engine Optimization (SEO), as examples, have changed considerably.

One thing, however, has not changed. Content is still king.

Too often during the website development process, however, business professionals first involve the designer or focus too much on bells, whistles and technical SEO without including the content writer.

This is a grave mistake. Involving the writer early in the process actually helps prevent unnecessary confusion and frustration.

Websites are a form of publishing. In traditional print publishing, the best practice is for writers to create the content first and then the designer develops the layout and chooses graphics that do not compete with text, but enhance the reader’s experience.

This approach also works well with web design because text – and how it is meant to be presented — can affect the site’s look and content placement.

Getting Started

The best way to approach a website is to establish its goals. Any writer or designer worth their salt will ask some of the questions below and offer to help clients answer them if necessary.

Questions should include:

  • What is this site supposed to accomplish?
  • How does the website work within the company’s overall marketing, communications and branding strategy?
  • Who are the readers/potential customers? Reader demographics, pain points and how readers will benefit must be established. Even basic market research can pay future dividends.
  • What is the overall message about the company and its products/services to the customer?
  • Does this message include the value proposition showing what makes the client unique?

The Designer/Writer Relationship

Introduce the writer and designer as soon as possible to encourage a creative partnership. The writer and designer need to have a shared vision so they can literally be “on the same page.”

During the development process, the designer should be concerned about the site map and material organization. As a natural part of the writing process, however, writers develop outlines similar to site maps to present content logically. Experienced writers will naturally consider the “packaging” of text and how to present it in user-friendly ways. Such writers can already envision reader-enhancing elements such as bullet points, sidebars, graphs, links, etc.

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The writer and designer need to have a shared vision
so they can literally be “on the same page.”
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When the site map or web organization is being considered independently from the writer, the text might not fit the site’s design. What can be very frustrating, even to writers, is once the site is laid out, words often read differently once online.

Here’s why: When text is written and saved as a Word document, it is being read for its own sake. But when it is placed within the context of visual content, it might not stand out as well.

I find this phenomenon to be more unique to websites than in print publications. Text on websites is competing with a graphical frame of navigation tools, links and other distractions that can carry a reader’s eyes to a different space. This differs newspaper or magazine articles because print advertising does not distract the reader to a new space.

When changes need to be made, it is less cumbersome and more cost-effective if the writer has full access to all of the content instead of changing text in the vacuum of Word files. That way, the writer can make sure that coded headlines or other graphic elements that include text are correct.

More On Graphics

Traditional publishing practice also discourages design approaches that also should be avoided on websites. Since many website developers are technicians and not necessarily publishing designers, graphic elements could be misused.

For example, pictures can be worth a 1,000 words IF they are appropriate to the reader and the text.

Let’s say a site is trying to reach executives who buy workers’ compensation insurance. Since workers’ compensation only covers injuries, illnesses and deaths relating to work, a picture of a person sweeping a non-descript floor doesn’t resonate with the viewer. If the picture shows occupational elements, such as a person wearing a work uniform and/or background of a work area reinforces the subject matter.

I know this sounds obvious, but if you look at pictures on websites, you will be amazed at how the chosen stock photography does not reinforce the message. What amazes me even more is how much stock photography features still poses when readers like to people in action.

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Readability is not just a matter of how clearly the text is written…
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Readability is not just a matter of how clearly the text is written, how easily it can be understood or even sentence length. Design plays a larger role and can distract the reader away from even the best content. White space is great, but too much white space between paragraphs can interrupt text flow.

Type size and its typeface are extremely critical or the words can become too “noisy.” Some fonts do not leave enough space between sentences. Using reverse type (white on black and other variations) can be very powerful, but too much is difficult on the eyes.

Also, remember to verify the viewabilty of the most important content. Take a look at your site through several browsers and devices to ensure the most important content is not buried, especially when considering viewing from mobile devices.

Keep in mind that people still print off information to read, so how it looks after being printed is also very important. Continuing to focus on the site’s goals and keeping them “top of mind” is essential. It’s too easy to get into the “weeds” of details, go down a tangential rabbit trail and lose direction.

And finally, choose website designers and writers carefully. Readers and search engine algorithms favor quality. Unique design is more memorable. If you hire based on the lowest price, you are more likely to see common designs or content that looks too similar to your competitors. In the future, I will write a blog on how to hire creative talent.

How will you approach your next website differently? Please share in the comments section below.

Like this blog? Then you’ll also enjoy my recent
Leader’s Edge article on digital media marketing.

To Build Credibility, Stop the Nonsense

Don’t you just love it when the basics of effective business practices win out over marketing ploys?

One basic is credibility. Every company needs it to build trust with potential and current clients, but few do a great job achieving it.

To me, credibility is saying what you mean and meaning what you say. For effective business-to-business brand advocacy, you need a credible product or service. You also need written material that reinforces it.

Companies cannot risk losing customers by telling them “it depends on the meaning of the word ‘is'” as politicians do with voters. (I dare say that if ObamaCare were offered by the private sector, there would be a ton of lawsuits, but I digress.)

Developing quality content comes down to this: write only what you would want to read. Like your readers, you are busy. You don’t want waste precious time wading through marketing hype to get your questions answered.

If your text is has more words than meaning or does not help the customer be ruthless and cut it.

This is really all you need to know and you probably already knew it.

Yet amazingly, too many companies still serve up marketing nonsense for reader consumption. Even worse, the so-called experts advocate disingenuous tactics for building readership. Don’t let them distract you from your goal of writing truly useful text.

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Dictionaries offer definitions of credibility,
but to me, it means saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

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Call me old fashioned, but I never practiced or advocated for so-called strategies like using Google analytics to find key words and then stuffing them into copy. This was never worthwhile because words are for people, not machines! (And as any English teacher will tell you, redundant use of words is just bad writing).

The ultimate goal of web text, and any marketing material, is to gain satisified customers. Back in the day when webmasters were the ultimate purveyors of content, they argued it was better to boost hits to attract people to the content.

I would insist it was other way around: awesome content — which is informative, helpful or interesting – attracts and retains readers. Who cares how many hits you get if the content does not build brand credibility or help sell products or services? My blog does not reach millions but it does reach enough of my potential customer base to keep me busy.

Thankfully, Google’s recent algorithm changes are doing a much better job at discouraging marketing hype. Google is also rewarding longer content as well. This means that organizations can no longer get away with producing cheap, generic content to the ever-growing number of people who only rely on the Internet – as opposed to print — to find out information.

Google’s algorithm also discourages the practice of inserting hyperlinks to material not truly germaine to your topic. To the reader, unnecessary links are empty promises.

Hubspot, which offers software to generate web traffic, does a great job covering this in its “2013 Marketing Predictions: Hits & Misses.” You can find at http://www.hubspot.com. I love what its report said, “Don’t game the system, don’t write for the algorithm, don’t try to be sneaky – focus on helping the people you are trying to reach.”

To this I offer a heartily, “Amen.” Hubspot recommended that marketers focus on quality content (thank you very much), in-depth articles, and social recommends” – that is, the more likes your material earns, the more Google will notice.

Toward Credible Content

Producing material of journalistic quality will encourage reader trust. Today, that is called “brand journalism.” To offer brand journalism, you have to think like an editor and view the customer as the audience. You need to anticipate business problems — what is keeping them up at night — and offer ways to help.

Even before “brand journalism” became a term of art, publishing quality content that readers could trust was always effective.

I had a client who self-published an article on a PDF about ten years ago. Ever since, searchers who enter the subject term in the search engine will still find it on the first results page. He is now nationally known for his expertise. Keep in mind this happened while word stuffing was a common practice and before Google’s developed a finer text sifter.

Quality content also fills an information void. There are fewer journalistic publications, whether on paper or online, because publishers cannot afford reporters. Your organization can fill this information through brand journalism. That is, producing trustworthy articles, blogs, web content, etc., that will keep the readers for coming back for more.

Before producing written material, companies should make sure they live up to their promises. If customer service is lame, even great content will become meaningless now that people can complain online for the world to see.

To build public credibility, identify topics that will interest potential clients and produce copy the media would publish. If the piece is really hot, see if an outside publication would like to publish it first. If a reporter calls you for an article interview, your credibility goes up. If the whole piece is published, credibility goes up even more!

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Ultimately, what customers say about your company is more important than what you say.

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So next time you read your organization’s website, put on your customer empathy hat and ask yourself if the text succinctly answers what readers want to know. Are the words empty or are they are building credibility for your company?

Anyone can say their firm produces quality whatever or the best service – and they do and will. Does the copy say what you mean? Is it accurate? Does it not just tell but also show the readers why it is so great?

Does it mean what you say? Can customers count on the truthfulness of the words? Does your firm’s value proposition reflect the realities of customer service?

Ultimately, what customers say about your company is more important than what you say. When happy customers endorse your offering, credibility and sales should go up.

It all starts with awesome content about a quality offering.

How do you ensure meaningful and credible content? Please share at will!

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Ten Attributes of Quality Content

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 1.00.32 PMDo you find that too many bloggers publish more for their own edification than yours?

How about blogs and web content that are just trying to sell you something?

Readers like me are demanding better content — and rightly so. You are busy and do not want to waste precious time reading lousy blogs. If someone is reading your blog, you should feel honored.

If you want to build credibility for your business, everything published should be top quality. Put it another way, it should pass the news editor’s smell test. Editors have to be very picky about what they publish. Editors know publishing garbage is bad for business. This is applies to any organization.

I was also thinking about quality content when I recently worked tirelessly on a magazine feature article. I am paid by the article so I could have made more money by not putting in so many hours. However, I need to be proud of it, so I dig deeper to give my readers the value-added. My byline is my brand, so publishing good stuff is important for my professional reputation. (If you want to see some of my magazine articles, please visit the “Work Samples” page.)

Given this, my simple rule for quality content is: Don’t write anything you would not want to read.

Here are, in my opinion, the attributes of quality content:

1)     Value. If you cannot answer the reader’s “what is in it for me?” question, stop writing until you can.

2)     Uniqueness. I wrote a blog on tweeting quality content for live events because other blogs focused more on the technical aspects of tweeting than on the content. What good are technical skills with lousy content?

3)     Newness. Provide new information or offer a new perspective.

4)     Show, don’t just tell. Give readers a picture of what you are communicating. Explain how a concept or product works. Give examples.

5)     Cleanliness. Meaningful content obeys the rules of grammar. It is not wordy or redundant. Use a fog index to find sentences that are too long.

6)     Easy-to-understand. The old journalism rule of writing on an 8th grade level is still a good one. Microsoft Word offers a readability index. Use it.

7)     Use graphics to reinforce your point.

8)     Accuracy. Your readers should feel they can take what you said to the bank. If not, you are not building credibility and trust.

9)     Be real. Don’t blog like you are writing a term paper. Your genuine voice makes for much better reading.

10)  Conversation starter. Don’t just write into a vortex. We all benefit from the conversation social media offers and nobody knows everything.

Here’s the truth: quality blogs take time. Do not start blogging until you can make time to dedicate to it. I’ve been blogging for about 18 months. I’ve learned that writing quality blogs once a week and keeping up with comments takes about four hours a week. Blogging is a discipline and consistent posting is necessary to attract Google’s attention.

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Editors know publishing garbage is bad for business.
This applies to any organization.
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Here are the hallmarks of bad blogging:

1)     Poor writing.

2)     Blatant marketing pitches. Social media is about contributing to the Internet community. People are not stupid. They will see through your intentions pretty quickly.

3)     Sensationalism. Some bloggers in the insurance industry would be better fodder for “News of the Weird.” I’ve seen too many blogs relating to sex or bizarre circumstances. It’s unprofessional and insulting, so don’t do it.

4)     Blogs that do not deliver what headlines promise.

5)     Plagiarism. When I got behind on my blogging, a writer friend of mine suggested I lift the works of others and run that. That is called plagiarism and it is one of the deadly sins of writers. If others have covered the topic, do it better. If you can’t, refer your readers to the better blog.

Why is there so much crappy content out there? I blame it on communications and marketing professionals who emphasize blogging as a marketing tool. Consistent blogging with great content should attract customers by building credibility, but bad blogging does the opposite. For the sake of your credibility, do it right or don’t do it at all.

What do you think?

Are You Too Obsessed with Google Algorithm Changes?

Here’s a cute blog for the first day of summer on a Friday afternoon. It relates to my recent post on appropriate blog length.  –Annmarie

The Simple Cure for Google Algorithm Update Anxiety

by Chad Pollitt

Google Algorithm Update Anxiety (GAUA) is a serious disorder that afflicts many marketers around the world. The condition was first discovered by scientists in April of 2003 when Google released its Cassandra algorithm update. Since then, the GAUA disorder has become a pandemic.

Its most recent outbreak occurred on May 22nd after Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, announced the release of Penguin 2.0. Today, doctors have announced they’ve discovered the cure for this marketing plague.

Google Algorithm Update Anxiety Overview 

GAUA symptoms include: Headache, upset stomach, nausea, back pain, muscle pain, nasal stuffiness, shortness of breath, flushing, pain in arms or legs, dizziness, reduced organic search traffic, and angry clients.

Marketers have a greater chance of developing this disorder if they repeat the same keywords over and over, manually build inbound links, meticulously keyword-sculpt every aspect of every web page, calculate and track keyword saturation rates, participate in link farms, buy links, publish lots of on-site ads, duplicate content, publish infrequently, or generally just publish useless and boring content.

To read more, go to http://blog.hubspot.com/cure-for-google-algorithm-update-anxiety