Increasing authority via social networks

I was recently quoted in an article outlining the benefits of websites for SMEs in the transport sector. ‘Net benefits’ in Commercial Motor magazine also provided guidance for small business owners on how to set a website up. I emphasised the importance of well-written copy to ensure companies could be found on the internet, and to present a credible, professional profile.

My inclusion as an expert in the article was the result of responding to a query posted by the journalist on business social network LinkedIn. Its Questions and Answers section lets people from all over the world post a question to which they’d like professional guidance or opinions.

Not only that, but once the original poster has received all the responses they’d like, they can identify the best answer. This is then marked up on the profile of the person who responded, increasing their authority on the network.

Design or content; chicken or egg?

So, which does come first? In an ideal world, says Olav Bjørkøy in .net magazine, “you should never design anything before you have a clear grasp of the content”.

‘Design before content’ is listed in an article identifying the top 10 design mistakes that web designers make. Bjørkøy goes on to emphasise, “…design for your content; don’t insert content into the design as an afterthought”.

This makes perfect sense to me and links back to the relationship between information architecture, intuitive navigation and effective web design. In reality, however, apart from a vague idea of what information a site will contain, the content is usually the last thing to be signed off or delivered by a client.

Why? Because, like it or not, clients are often juggling many different projects, of which their website is just one. The article suggests that one way to avoid this is to provide rolling deadlines, such as “relative timescales for portions of a site build, rather than specific dates”.

I’ve seen this from both sides of the fence, as a client and as a copywriter for digital agencies. It may work for some businesses but for others, it makes no difference. Many clients underestimate how long it takes to gather information, produce text and sign it off internally, and finally how long it takes to upload and edit once on the site. Tweaks and changes are inevitable.

Design and development teams need to educate clients on the importance of the content from the start. Provide some good and bad examples on good-looking websites to show what a difference it can make. They need to emphasise that it shouldn’t take a back seat to the design, which it often does because many people perceive the ‘words’ to be the easy part.

Online style guides

Any organisation that produces printed publications understands the importance of an editorial style guide. So it stands to reason that a separate style guide for your websites, intranet sites and e-newsletters is important too.

When creating an online style guide, the differences between online and offline communications and how content is generated should be taken into consideration.

In many instances, a network of administrators (not always professional communicators) add information onto a website via a content management system (CMS). They might not be very knowledgable about the best ways to write for a website, or sure of what information to include.

An online style guide can help to define some of the basic rules for writing for the web, such as the right language to use online, how to structure the content to make it easier to read, or even what fonts and colours to use.

It also serves many of the same purposes as a style guide for printed publications. For example, it helps to make sure that all websites have a consistent tone of voice, and that spellings and capitalisations particular to the business are used correctly. It’s also a valuable document to give to external agencies that might be producing online content for the company.

There are some excellent examples of online style guides available for free, which you can use as inspiration if you want to develop your own (or you can contact me to do it for you!).

Here’s a selection of the best I’ve found to date:

Quick tip – visualising layout

If, like me, you create copy for clients’ websites, more often than not you will be typing and submitting it in Word (or similar). So, here’s a quick tip to help you see how your copy might look on screen.

In the standard views Word presents your document in, the text is laid out as it might look on an A4 piece of paper. This, of course, is not how it will appear on the website you’re writing it for (I hope!).

To help you (or your client) visualise how the text might look online, use Word’s ‘Read’ feature (usually found in the top toolbar, next to the symbol of an open book).

Whilst this has been introduced to help users read Word documents more easily, it does so by applying some of the principles of good text layout for the web – by reducing the width of the sentences on screen and making the font larger.

Selecting the ‘Read’ view will help you to see how your copy might look on a website and where to introduce paragraph breaks, bullet points, headings and so on. It may also help your clients to see why you’ve done these things too, which can only be a good thing!

Organising content

Information architecture (IA) website Boxes and Arrows has an interesting article, written by content strategist Rachel Lovinger. In it, she says that ‘content strategy is to copywriting as information architecture is to design’.

So, what is IA? According to the Information Architecture Institute, it’s:

…the art and science of organising and labelling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability.

Good IA helps users to make sense of a website and its content. So what does content strategy do? According to the article, its main aim is:

…to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.

Structuring a website

Lovinger goes on to discuss what content is and how a simple website might not need much IA or content strategy.

(All sites need some though, no matter how small – I’ve seen websites of only six pages that were hard to navigate around. No thought had been put into how the visitors were to get from page to page, so the navigation was poor and buttons were badly labelled.)

But as more information is added and a site grows in size, it needs to be structured and organised according to tried and tested principles. This is where an information architect comes in, who will work on documents such as a sitemap or wireframes for the site. They’ll decide on buttons and other visual cues, for example.

What about the content?

A content strategist can then ‘craft the labels that are used on the buttons and think about what sort of language best conveys the messages of the site…and will also work closely with the [information architect] to make sure that the organisation of the site makes sense and will be supported by the content that’s available’.

Lovinger talks about the importance of creating content that’s:

  • relevant to people
  • more useful to machines
  • produced more efficiently
  • comprehensive

I think it’s important for any web writer to have a basic understanding of the link between IA and content. However, you don’t have to be a ‘content strategist’ to keep these ideas in mind – they are basic considerations for creating useful and usable copy.