Social media still needs good web writing

By Robert Jarovi - The one primary benefit of social media marketing for content providers is that someone else becomes your syndicator. That is, web visitors can become your champions by forwarding your article, commenting on your blog, retweeting your posts, Liking you on Facebook, and Following your company on Linkedin.

When visitors appreciate something you published, they want to pass it along, because it may benefit others within their community or interests. They are actively reacting to your content rather than passively reading it (or worse, not reading it at all).

Having these champions is the best-case scenario. But in reality, even with all the fancy web 2.0 (or 3.0) tools out there to help market, engage and distribute, websites are nothing but HTML and code without solidly written web content. Content is still the King in the online universe. There’s very little social media can do to help get you better site traffic or more engaged visitors when your site is built on weak content.

The dirty secret about content

Here’s an industry secret revealed – there’s just not enough good web-ready content to go around for every website out there. Certainly there’s enough adequate content to fill home pages, landing pages and news items. But often content is an afterthought in website planning - and when it’s there, it is used primarily to attract search engine attention.

Most sites have casual content providers or subject matter experts who can write about what they know. Yet it’s often not good enough for web friendly copy. Writing for the web is not the same as writing for print. It takes effort and a different way of looking at the subject matter. But once you master writing for the web techniques, your site will get better, targeted traffic. First time or casual visitors can be converted into regular visitors with one well-written story or article.

Understanding web writing basics

Learning the basics of web writing and how it can be applied to your website to get results is critical to growing readership and site visits. Why? Unless you’ve got a magic cure for cancer, you will have to spend some time convincing readers why they should buy from you, partner with you, pay for your advice, or just care generally about what you do. If you have engaging stories, good quality product and service descriptions, and interesting case studies, your site becomes a helpful resource (in addition to achieving your business strategy).

So how can this happen? While there are many steps you can take to improve the content on your site, here’s 7 tips to get you on your way.

Know your audience

Who is your audience? Before you even develop and write your content, you must have a pretty good idea of who comes to your site and why. Your site may provide information (news, advice, help, how to...), be purely transactional (e-commerce site) or it can be simply a lead generating tool to qualify prospective customers. There are also unique demographics (personas will help you understand this) or even geographies that you’ll have to consider when creating a profile of who visits your site. Understanding the makeup of your audience helps you target information and fine-tune how it is presented.

Tell your audience what’s in it for them

Your content must be worthwhile to the reader. They often want to take care of a specific task, get information or learn something new. Make sure they know why they’re reading your content and why they should read more of it. Always ask yourself when writing: What’s the benefit? Why should someone read this? Web copy should clearly spell out the benefits right away, ideally in the first few sentences.

Good headlines get attention

Headline writing is an art, and it does take some practice to master. Some of the best headlines come from newspapers. But be careful in using print as a model: don’t be too clever or witty with website headlines. The point of a headline is to draw the reader’s attention to a story using a few good keywords. It also provides a quick summary of the contents of the article, and subheadings help even further by allowing users to scan down the copy to decide if they want to read further.

Simple and direct headlines work best, and if you incorporate one or two good keywords into the headline, you’ve helped to index the page better for Google or your site’s own search tool. Don’t use more than 10 words. Also, you can repeat the headline of your story as a home page link or related link elsewhere on the site. And when someone forwards or tweets your article, they often use the exact headline you provided. So make it good!

Here’s a quick test: Read your headline out loud slowly. Does it have cadence and rhythm, or does it sound clunky and stilted? Would you read the story based on your headline?

Don’t bury the lead

Site visitors are looking for good, useful information and they want it as quickly as they can Google it. Visitors are generally impatient when searching, so when they do find something that can help them (your article, story or other content) and you’ve put all the important information at the end, you will most likely have lost them by the first paragraph.

Position the most relevant and important information in the first sentence. In fact, the first paragraph is best seen as the conclusion, whereas in most print materials the conclusion or the “kicker” is at the end of the story.

Keep your sentences (and paragraphs) short

Make your sentences short. Like this one. Why? Because we read text differently on computer screens than we do in print. When users visit websites, they typically scan text first and then decide whether or not to read the entire text. When you pick up a book, newspaper or magazine, you still scan; but often you read from start to finish in a linear fashion. Remember, web readers are impatient. If their eyes get tired, they’ll go elsewhere (another site) to find what they need.

Typically, stories should average between 15 and 20 words per sentence. This is considered “easy reading”. Sentences longer than 30 words may be hard to understand or even remember. Paragraphs themselves need to be broken down into shorter chunks and divisions as well.

Use the active voice

It may sound like boring grammar school advice, but writing in the active voice makes your writing much more direct, confident, and in the present. It makes reading easier to follow and more concise. Also, using the passive voice can unwittingly absolve responsibility from the doer in a sentence. To write: “A number of employees were let go from the accounting department by the XYZ company in an effort to reduce costs,” sounds dodgy. "XYZ company laid off several accounting employees to reduce costs and redundancy,” is more direct and honest in its narrative approach.

List the most important information

As mentioned, web users scan text first, and they don’t read every single word. Therefore break up bulky data items into something that can be scanned like a list. Call out important points (features, benefits, requirements) into bulleted or numbered lists. These lists help readers to recall key points better than if buried in paragraphs. You see more bulleted and numbered lists on websites than you do in print, because it helps visually beak up information on a screen.

Content is still king in social media marketing

Content is the glue that keeps your site together, it’s what informs your visitors about your products and services, and it gives you credibility to help differentiate and position yourself as an expert. If you want your content to be picked up by social media, you need a good solid story to get you there. It may sound old fashioned, but even on the web, every word counts.

So make them good.

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