Who for? Fellow copywriters; brands that write their own material

How long? 4 minutes

In web writing, brevity is boss.

When writing for the web, brevity is boss. Because online content is not about pretty lines of prose – rather it’s about helping users to find the information they want, keeping them engaged and encouraging them to share their experiences.

As a freelance copywriter, my job is to whittle down a business’ key message into short, snappy content that gets noticed. Obviously the tone of this message will depend on the business but in general, here are 5 standards that I’ve found helpful across the board.

Oh, and they all begin with H. How nice.

1. Be Helpful.

You may not always have the sexiest content to write about. Trust me, having covered topics from mortgages to metallurgy, I’ve been there!

But even the dullest-sounding content can be the most interesting thing in the world to readers looking for genuine advice on that topic. So as long as your content resonates with the people for whom it’s intended, you’re doing your job.

If in doubt…

  • Spell it out: Remember, people have little time and even less patience – so get to the point of your topic straight away. For instance, I like to call out who a particular post is for and how long it’ll take to read. I also try to summarise the topic in the first few lines so if it doesn’t suit a particular reader, they can move on.
  • Cater for skimmers: Make it easy for readers to scan text and skip to the sections they want with bold headers and bulleted tips. Don’t worry about losing leads in this way – you’ll engage the people who are actually interested in what you have to say and they’ll appreciate you putting their needs first.

2. Be Human.

People love brands that connect to them on an emotional level. So if you’re gushing about the benefits of tracker mortgages, don’t talk like a salesy lending company from the 1980s. Cut the jargon and explain the situation like you would to a friend.

Your content is your chance to show some personality. Sometimes, creating content that’s fun and conversational will be easy. If you’re a copywriter, you might get a client that’s happy to be a bit off the wall (Dollar Shave Club, anyone?!) and if you’re a business, you may already have a fairly informal voice, making it easier to establish a compatible tone (yep, there is a difference). Other times, especially when very traditional brands want to dial up their digital offering, it can be a bit trickier. In all cases, it helps to be human.

If in doubt…

  • Lighten up: Whether I’ve been given info from a client and asked to ‘make it sound nicer’ or to create content from scratch, I aim for a fairly light tone that I can pull back if needs be. I start by researching trustworthy sources in the field and seeing what they’re talking about before deciding what can set my content apart. Even if I’ve nothing new to add, using simpler language and a more comprehensive structure will make it a valuable resource.
  • Write like you speak: Show your professionalism by giving solid advice, not by sounding like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus. If you can say it in 5 words instead of ten, do. Avoid clichés like ‘innovative’ and ‘cutting-edge’…and NEVER use ‘unique’ unless your product or service really is the only one of its kind. This great fake brand video will show you what I mean.
  • Don’t patronise: Making your content more digestible doesn’t mean dumbing it down to the point of offence, or being overly pally either – especially if you’re addressing PhD graduates in Microbiology. Know your audience and use a tone that’s appropriate.

3. Be Humerous.

A little humour can go a long way in engaging readers. Obviously, this depends on the business – if it’s a funeral home, lay off the wisecracks. But in most cases, people like the content they read to be entertaining as well as educational. It’s another way of showing that you’re human, too.

Personally, I like starting with a fairly informal tone as it can always be reigned in. It’s much easier to do this than to sprinkle humour across a very dry piece of content, which looks out of place and frankly, a bit fake.

In saying that, humour can often work best when least expected. Take 404 error pages as an example. Usually they’re incredibly dull affairs that do nothing but frustrate the user. And while these examples of clever 404 pages may not result in customers rolling around the floor laughing, they do show a brand’s personality in an inventive way. People who see them may be thoroughly tickled and less inclined to punch their PCs for broken links.

4. Be Humble.

Although a sprinkling of humour is always welcome, being overly cocky about it isn’t. After all, people who constantly laugh at their own jokes are often laughing alone. So maybe consider cutting the three exclamation marks you tend you put after every sentence, because that’s really you telling the world how hilarious you think you are (!!!).

Exclamation marks should really be reserved for, well, exclamations. If you’re shouting about a new product that people simply can’t miss, fine. In some cases, you might use them for lightening your tone or for illustrating a point. That’s ok too. My advice? Use them in small doses.

Same goes for emojis. Depending on your audience, they might be charmed by a few well-placed characters. But don’t run the risk of going overboard and looking like this email from Bynk:

In my humble opinion (and in most designers’ too, I’d imagine!) this is an example of what not to do. Overly cutsie, emoji-filled content will make people reach for the sick bucket faster than you can say ‘winkey face’.

As well as being humble about your comedic abilities, be humble about your work. In fact, humility is one of Google’s key pillars (alongside the whole ‘Do No Evil’ thing). So even though a particular brand may be saving the world, try not to brag about it in your writing. Make people’s lives better without showing off. Be friendly without trying to be their best friend. By all means, show them WIIFE (‘What’s in it for me?’), leading with product benefits rather than features, but don’t do it in a salesy way. Customers will see right through it.

5. Be Headlining.

Exercising a bit of creative licence with that title, but anyway…

There’s no point in having helpful, interesting and entertaining content that could change lives if no one sees it. Search engines play a key role in determining where your content appears – and here’s how to make sure that it’s top of their list:

  • Map out your content for the coming weeks and months, setting SMART objectives if you like to make sure that it’s relevant for your audience.
  • Use engaging, action-driven headlines that contain relevant keywords. Listicles have proven pretty effective too, with odd-numbered lists more popular than even. Don’t overdo them, though – rather, throw a few in among your regular content. Variety, spice, life and all that.
  • Write blog posts around the 1,600-word mark to satisfy Google’s algorithm. Because unlike common perceptions, it’s more effective to produce a well-researched piece of content every two weeks than a short in length (and light in usefulness) post every day. In saying that, don’t just bulk up content for the sake of it. Apply these editing tips to make sure that every line is necessary and fluff-free. Also, don’t leave it too long between updates as Google’s all-seeing eye will zoom in on that, too.
  • Keep content interesting and shareable with video and other multimedia elements whenever possible.
  • Link your blog posts to external sources when possible. It adds credibility and can help you to get your blog noticed among key influencers in your field.

And that’s about it.

With these 5 Hs, you should be ready to go forth and wow with your online content.

Psst…Got any tips of your own for writing online content? Feel free to share them below!

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