Blogging, email newsletters and articles for the web all carry their own set of rules which you should know about and adhere to if you want your customers and followers to read and share your material.
People read differently on a screen than they do print, which means that in order to get the best out of your written content, it’s necessary to learn how. The idea is to allow for a good level of engagement and for information to be presented in such a way that the reader can take it in quickly and easily.
Let’s have a look at some of the techniques that you can employ to make sure that your readers love your work and keep coming back for more.
Headlines that work
Starting at the top, headlines are of course the thing that will attract readers in the first instance, so they should be highly clickable.
This means you should:
- Keep headlines short and snappy where possible, under six words is the general rule
- Present the headline as a ‘problem solver’
- Make it entertaining
- Ensure it appeals to the reader on an emotional level. For example, laughter gains the best response as it makes people feel happy, but something that provokes anger also works well
Problem solving headlines always do well, which is why you come across many headlines that begin with ‘how to’ or ‘5 tips for’. These types of headlines give the immediate impression that you’re offering a solution to some kind of problem that the reader has.
Many writers make the mistake of not considering readability scores when writing for the web, yet this is hugely important. You can use Flesch Kincaid scoring to determine readability; most sites should write to high school level. This isn’t a case of ‘dumbing down’ your writing or content, it’s about ensuring that it’s simple to take in when someone is skimming, which web readers all do.
When writing, remember one basic rule: if you have to stop or pause when reading the piece in order to take in a word or information then you have just lost a reader. The piece should flow naturally with the use of simple language and you should never attempt to get highbrow when it comes to the words you use.
In Word, you can enable readability scores in proofing tools, or you can use a third-party plugin such as Grammarly’s. You can also of course use the formula above to work it out yourself if you’re happy with doing the maths.
Write for your audience. If you have a highly technical product, then you may want to do some industry pieces that are targeted towards a certain audience that has an understanding of your product, but take care not to alienate readers with the use of jargon, overly technical terms and difficult to understand language.
Passive voice versus active voice
The passive and active voices are the voices of verbs. The use of the former should be kept to a minimum wherever possible as it doesn’t engage the reader in the same manner as the active voice.
So, if you say Jack kicked the stone, then this is the active voice as the subject is carrying out the action, whilst if you say the stone was kicked, this is the passive as the action is just being carried out.
Formatting content for best effect
As I mentioned earlier, online readers like to take in information quickly, skimming over the text in an F-shaped pattern and concentrating the majority of their efforts towards the top. This means that formatting is extremely important for the web, as huge blocks of text will quickly see people leaving as it comes across as hard work and intimidating.
This means that you should follow a few basic rules to ensure that the piece is easy to take in:
- Short sentences and paragraphs should be used
- Paragraphs should be no more than 6-8 lines deep with clear white space in between each
- Sub headers should be used to break up text and draw the eye naturally downwards
- Bullet points should be used to further break up text
This allows the reader to skim much more easily and will engage them much better than a big block of text ever will. You’re aiming to present information in short, bite-sized chunks to gain the best effect.
The above heat mapping study by Jakob Nielsen showed that the same ‘F’ pattern was used when the eyes of online readers were tracked. The first shows an ‘about us’ page, the second a product page and the third search results. As you can see, the pattern is clear in the first two examples and a little more scattered in the third.
Keep in mind that most people read more ‘above the fold’ (top of the page), so try to ensure that the first couple of paragraphs are well-crafted and grab the reader instantly.
Unless you’ve already established yourself as some kind of authority then you should avoid opinion pieces, as well as anything that’s overly promotional (for general blogs and articles, not for email). We all have an opinion and it can be very cathartic to have a good old rant online, but you first need to build trust with your audience.
Until you do, stick to facts and ensure that you back this up with referencing where possible. If you’ve taken information from an online source, then link to it, preferably ensuring first that it’s a good source from a site that many people in your niche will recognise. This will help to build your reputation as someone that gives good information, leading to you becoming a trusted source of information.
Writing for the web should follow the KISS rule – keep it simple stupid – write to your audience at all times, using buyer personas from the marketing department. Format well, include references and above all, come up with ideas that are a little out of the norm but popular. Do this and it’s likely that you’ll see a huge jump in engagement (so long as you’re also distributing the material well) and you can begin to establish thought leadership.