It may go against everything you've been taught, but you don't want to make people think when they're on your site.
Instead, the goal of your website content is to get your reader the information they need quickly, make it easy for them to take the action they want to, and, most importantly, appeal to their wants and needs.
Don't make them work for it.
Associations often create information-packed events pages, chapter resources, and other pillar web pages that fall short because they lack the basic techniques of good website writing. It's easy to fall into the trap of filling up website pages with walls of text and technical jargon instead of empathizing with the audience and telling them what they need to know from the get-go.
This quick guide breaks down exactly what associations and membership-based organizations need to know to write engaging website content that keeps your audience satisfied and coming back for more.
- Choose your words wisely.
- Keep it simple.
- Assign each page only one task.
- Create a clear, visual hierarchy.
- Get to the point immediately.
- Make it easy to scan.
1. Choose your words wisely.
Currently, when you get a new certification program, for example, someone is asked to create a page for it. Often the initial strategy is, "we need this information on our site" rather than asking questions like "who are we writing for, what do they want to know, and how can we make it easy for them to approach this information?"
Here's how you can change that.
Focus on the Persona
It's essential to know who the “persona” is that you're writing for and then write for that target reader. You don't just want to write with them in mind - you literally want to write to them.
Personas are fictional, yet realistic, descriptions of your typical or target constituent groups. The goal of personas is to enable you to empathize with your reader by harnessing their passions, interests, thoughts, concerns, beliefs, language, motivators, and behaviors.
When you have your personas dialed in, you can better anticipate:
- The objective of your target reader.
- How they'll access your content.
- What their mood will be when reading your page.
- What they'd find most relevant and the words they'd use to describe your page contents.
- What their needs and goals are.
With all this insight ready to go beforehand, you can craft specific, impactful, and deeply personalized messaging, calls-to-action, and solutions.
Below are some quick tips and tricks, but our Ultimate Website Guide for Associations has more information on how to build a persona and includes templates that you can customize.
Tips and Tricks for Creating Personas
- Craft no more than 5-7 personas.
- Start with assumptive personas, and work your way up to research-based personas.
- Conduct at least one live interview with someone from each persona group.
- Include actual quotes within your personas.
- Bring your persona to life with visual representations of each.
- Revisit your personas (and your research) annually.
- Communicate your personas clearly throughout your organization.
Use Your Reader's Everyday Language
Writing engaging website content requires you to understand your reader's everyday language, and use it throughout your web page.
An open card sort is a user research method that's helpful for understanding the nomenclature that exists in your end-users head. Card sorts dive into the mental states of your users to examine how they understand and categorize information.
In a card sort, users are asked to:
- Put card topics into piles that make sense to them.
- Come up with names for those categories.
Card sorting is great for choosing the words and names you use on your web pages, but it can be difficult to interpret. Since your participants won't all describe topics in the same way, you have to find patterns and make decisions that aren't so black and white.
Making sense of all the data requires you to use visualizations and combine insights from the results of your card sorts with other user research you've done and your own expertise.
Use more YOU and less WE
Another huge rule of thumb to keep in mind: use more YOU and less WE pronouns. Your audience wants to know what you can do for them - not how awesome your organization is. Tell them directly, based on the objective of the page and the objective of the reader, how you're benefiting them.
Use Active Words
When choosing your words, avoid indefinite language like “should,” “may,” and “might want to.” These words undermine your authority and fail to light a fire in your audience. Instead, use an active voice with precise, definite, and catchy language to inspire action and improve engagement.
2. Keep it Simple.
There's a popular design saying—keep it simple—that also applies to web content writing.
Consider structuring your content on an eighth-grade level where possible to make it more accessible. We're not suggesting that you "dumb down" your content. Instead, we're suggesting that you craft the STRUCTURE of your content so it's fitting for an eighth-grader.
It's a tough task sometimes to simplify your ideas when they're also your expertise. But you'll reach more of your target audience by simplifying the structure.
The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of visitors to your page don't want to read complex, technical data and ideas that string them along. They just need the information. Look below at what gets the most hits on Google for common search terms. It's basic stuff:
Yes, you still want your sentence structure and basic grammar to be accurate, but don't get so restrictive or bogged down by formality that it takes away from the natural flow of everyday speech. There's no rubric here.
Refer back to your card sorts if you get stuck, and simply focus on using the simple, everyday language of your reader.
Keeping it simple will help you in being engaging and informative, not robotic or "sales-y." Let your personality shine through, and most importantly, simply focus on connecting with your target niche on a personal, human level.
3. Assign each page only one task.
Consider what you wish to achieve with your content. Then set a single objective for the web page you're writing. You might even keep it to one and only one objective.
The important takeaway here is that every web page you write must perform a specific task. A task can entail several parts, which are subsets of the larger task. Your web content shouldn't try to perform a peripheral task. Everything must be united and supportive of the objective.
In short: stay on topic.
4. Create a clear, visual hierarchy.
The more important something is, the more prominence it should have on your page. In other words, structure your content to prioritize the most important information first.
Engaging website content has a visual hierarchy in terms of where content goes within a text block on your page. The most important content should be given the most “expensive” real estate placement. The area that gets the most “eyeballs” is the top of the text block.
You can also use simple, aesthetically pleasing text colors, typography, and sizing to create prominence. Ensure these formatting techniques are aligned with your brand.
Not only does your heading structure help your users understand the visual hierarchy of the page, but it also helps Google and other search engines understand what your page is all about.
5. Get to the point immediately.
You want to give your reader the essential information up front, clearly, and directly.
Website content is starkly different from academic writing and print publications. It's also incredibly different from email writing and all other forms of content writing.
On websites, we flip the academic pyramid. The most important content or text block should go at the top of the page.
Academic Writing Pyramid vs. Web Writing Pyramid
Web writing must keep users on the page long enough to complete the task/objective of the page. You accomplish this by:
- Giving readers the information they seek right away.
- Meeting the user objectives for the page in the beginning.
If the reader is getting what they came for and can sense they're on the right trail, then they'll scroll and read endlessly. If they don't catch the "scent" right off the bat, they bounce. This is called information scent in web design and content writing.
After getting your web visitor on the “scent,” then use the rest of the page to provide helpful, supplementary information that supports the page and the user's unique objective.
6. Make it easy to scan
Write and format for scanning, not reading.
Break up your content into digestible "chunks“ of information and clearly defined areas that achieve the objective of the page but also allow the reader to quickly decide where to focus and what to ignore.
Here's how you can break up your paragraphs:
- Use bullets and numbers for lists.
- Use graphics and infographics to simplify complicated data.
- Tables work well to illustrate if-then statements, compare numbers, or answer questions.
- Use bold strategically to draw the reader to important content, but don't overdo it or you'll negate the impact.
- Pull quotes and call-outs draw a user down a long page of text.
- Use unique photos and human imagery, thoughtfully.
- Use short, descriptive, and meaningful headlines and headings for EACH section of your content.
Increasing the scannability of a page goes back to the concept of information scent. You want to provide visual and textual cues that let the reader know the type and contents of the information.
Also, make it obvious what's clickable by following the basic rules of links. Be consistent and use contextual links that support accessibility and information scent.
However, be careful with your linking practice. If the objective of a page is conversion (e.g. getting them to register, complete a form, make payment) then you don't want to lead them elsewhere. You got them on your page - now it's your job to get them to perform the specific task for that page.
Engaging and scannable web content is also lean and mean. This doesn't mean your page can't include a ton of in-depth information.
In fact, it's helpful to provide your reader any and all information that's relevant and useful. But structure your web page so the content is consumable and minimizes extra “noise” that doesn't support your page or audience objective.
Here's a good example of a lean and mean web page with minimal noise and a clear call-to-action at the top:
So what are the techniques that keep readers engaged and inspired?
In the most basic terms, you want to write and format your pages in a way that grabs users' attention and makes them actually want to read your content—whether it's your current or potential constituents, alumni, donors, educators, or just random web visitors.
Here are some quick takeaways and tips for writing engaging website content:
- Use the words your constituents use and “speak their language.”
- Use strong verbs and “you” pronouns.
- Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.
- Assign each page a specific objective or task.
- Tailor your content for the user objective and page objective.
- Get to the point immediately.
- Make your web content browsable and user-friendly.
- Be clear and direct.
- Avoid unnecessary verbiage.