Screen literate

When a leading ISP publishes its own style guide it’s a signal that if you want to achieve maximum impact online, copy is as important as design. Anna Richardson talks to digital specialists who appreciate the power of the written word

Writing content for the Web is a very different beast from writing for print. Online audiences expect more information, in less time and in less space, and their attention spans are much shorter. And as the Internet has become more complex and sophisticated, the importance of writing for online has grown.

Yahoo has just published its first style guide (’the ultimate sourcebook for writing, editing and creating content for the digital world’) – a clear reflection of copywriting’s rising status in the online realm.

’Elevating content creation to the level of craft benefits everyone on the Web, and clear communication and high editorial standards are important, no matter where or why you write,’ writes Srinija Srinivasan, Yahoo editor-in-chief.

Bearing content in mind when designing websites should therefore be a no-brainer, but according to Andy Budd, managing director at digital design consultancy Clearleft, ’even though content is massively important, sadly, it’s the one thing that is often neglected in Web design’.

This can be due to clients – some see content as non-technical and invariably leave it to the end of a project, while others view websites as ’dumping grounds for old content’. ’Writing good, targeted copy is a real skill and also quite time-consuming,’ says Budd. ’Many websites have hundreds if not thousands of pages, and all of those need to be reviewed.’

When budgets are tight, writing is one of the first elements to be brought in-house, agrees Jon Melville, content analyst at Civic. ’There is little recognition of the fact that writing for the Web requires not only an understanding of different audiences, but of usability, search engine optimisation and decent grammar.’ Without quality content, the design becomes irrelevant, he adds.

Writing in the digital landscape, ’the trick is to frontload your information so it’s immediately clear what you’re talking about’, says Robin England, senior writer at Brand Advocate. ’People scan-read online, searching for key words and phrases that leap out and attract their attention.’ Another way to engage the reader is speaking to them in their own language, and tone of voice is key. There are typically many different types of users for any website, and designers have to think about all their content needs.

’In print it was all about the publisher having a tone of voice and talking at the reader. Now, on the Web there are different tones and different voices, often in one place,’ says Greg Hatfield, director of strategic projects at digital design consultancy Cogapp. ’You also have to have an authentic voice. You cannot fool an interactive and engaged audience.’

The first section of Yahoo’s style guide is titled ’write for an online audience’ and includes chapters such as ’identify your audience’ and ’define your voice’.

Clearleft often gets its clients to imagine their website as a famous person. The University of Wales was imagined as Anthony Hopkins, for example – Welsh, well-spoken, intellectual and knowledgeable. ’When you’re thinking about writing, having that picture in mind helps to communicate,’ explains Budd.

For Scotland is the Place, a Scottish government website by Civic which aims to encourage potential migrants to move to Scotland, the content was carefully tailored to an audience whose first language isn’t English. ’By avoiding the use of complex words and phrases, and explaining acronyms or colloquialisms, the content [becomes] more inviting to overseas readers,’ says Melville.

While tone of voice is essential in attracting and retaining visitors, paying attention to a site’s micro copy is also vital. ’The way you word something can have a massive effect on conversion rates,’ explains Budd. ’It can be a matter of just changing a few words.’

There is now also a push within the website design community to explore art direction, says Budd. ’Rather than pumping content into a bucket, put the content and the design together,’ he says.

Working with content specialists is great, he adds. ’We’re very good at user experience and understanding structures and patterns, while copywriters understand the emotional triggers that people have. It works beautifully online.’

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