Posts Tagged ‘Strunk & White’

Five Reasons Why Your Website Content Isn’t Working—And How to Fix It

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

When was the last time you looked up a business in the Yellow Pages? I’m willing to bet, at best, maybe once in the last six months, assuming you can even find a copy of your phone book.

Now, when was the last time you looked up a business online? Probably yesterday, if not within the past few hours, right?

Effective Website Content Is Strategic
My point is this: If you have a business, you need a website. But having a website isn’t just about posting a few pictures and some general info about your work and contact info.

You need content that distinguishes you and your business from your competition, that clearly explains your product or service, and that gives your ideal client a compelling reason to contact you or make a purchase. And you need a website design that’s attractive and easy to navigate, that guides your reader to the information that’s most important.

Here are five of the biggest mistakes I see when asked why a client’s site doesn’t seem to be bringing in new business:

1) No Clear Statement of What Sets You Apart
All too often, websites spout a lot of generalities about a business, offering a summary about a profession on the homepage and overused descriptions of benefits (e.g., “we pride ourselves on great customer service”—well, everyone says that, and if you didn’t care about your customers, you shouldn’t be in business in the first place). It’s the gotta-put-something-up-there-now-that-I-have-a-website syndrome.

Web content, especially on the homepage, needs to clearly state what you do and what distinguishes your business from your competitors. To write this well, you need to understand the following:

  • Who is your ideal client, what problem she’s trying to solve and how your work will help her. More on this in #3.
  • Who else is out there doing the same work, how they present themselves, and how your approach is more effective for your ideal client.

If you’re struggling to answer these questions, check out Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid. Work through his exercises to clarify your value proposition.

When you have your answers—and believe me, this takes time and a lot of thought, and evolves as you develop your business, so it’s worth revisiting—sit down and revise your homepage content, with your value proposition high on the page. You don’t want visitors to have to scroll too far to get the point.

2) Text Is Clunky, Rambling and Impersonal
Good web copy is like any good writing—clear, concise, using strong nouns and active verbs. It needs to be easy to skim, but substantive enough for the serious reader to learn more. These two posts will help you to write copy that meets those criteria:

One other point—we all respond to content that connects on a human, personal level. I don’t mean you need to spill your guts to your target audience. But don’t be afraid to be yourself! What do you care about? Why are you in this business? What do you love most about your work? Be sure to capture that essence in your web copy. One of the best places to get more real is in your About page. Here’s a blog post that will help you write a compelling personal profile for your site:

3) Content Is Written from Your Point of View, Rather Than Your Ideal Client’s
This ties to both of the above issues. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing all the stuff you think is great about your work. But what you think is important may not be what your client actually cares about. You need first to understand your ideal client, everything from economic status and lifestyle preferences to where she gets her purchasing information and what worries keep her up at night.

Then put yourself in her shoes and ask why she’s come to you. How do you help her solve a key problem or answer a pressing question? One way to get at this is to write yourself an email, as if you were your ideal client, inquiring about your business. Then revise your web content with her in mind. This exercise may be a tectonic plate shift for you—if so, good. You’re on your way to writing some compelling content for your site, from your ideal client’s point of view.

4) Design Works Against Easy Reading and Navigation
There are plenty of free templates out there to choose from, or maybe you asked your next-door neighbor’s kid to code your site to save money. But it’s critical to choose a quality design. Effective websites are based on some basic principles of usability—what makes a site easy to read and easy to navigate.

Headlines and subheads, color-blocking to break up text, short paragraphs and careful use of white space to make a site easier to skim, clear navigation with simple drop-down menus, quality graphic images that establish tone and focus attention (but not too many competing images on a page)—all of these are elements of good design. Here’s more to consider as you evaluate your website:

5) No Call-to-Action
This one may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many websites fail to include an effective call-to-action. What is the goal of your site? What do you want visitors to do when they finish reading? Be sure you can answer this question, and then be sure that your visitor can easily find your call-to-action on every page of your site.

At the very least, you want her to contact you for a free consult or other free service, to open a relationship with you. Or maybe you want to capture her contact information to build a quality email list for future product offers. In that case, you’ll need to create a free download of valuable information that’s relevant to your work and her needs, that your visitor will receive in exchange for her contact information.

While you’re at it, be sure to cover these basics in constructing your Contact page:

When you’re through evaluating and revising your site, test it on your best customers and friends who fit your ideal client profile. Ask if they can tell you what sets you apart and why they do business with you, or what would compel them to do so in the future. Their answers are your best indicator of whether your website content is effective and what you need to refine it further. Added bonus: you can use the positive feedback as testimonials.

And if you’d like a professional assessment of your website, please contact me. I offer a free half-hour consult to new clients, and I’d be glad to give you feedback on your website’s effectiveness.

Marketing consultant Evelyn Herwitz loves to help you tell a great story about your great work. She specializes in search-optimized web content that positions you as an approachable expert in your field and helps you grow your business. Contact Evelyn for a free half-hour consult for new clients.

How to Write Great Web Copy? Mind Your Strunk & White

Monday, March 26th, 2012

There are some great online resources for how to write excellent web copy. But the best guide was published nearly 100 years ago.

That’s right, I’m talking about The Elements of Style, that writer’s bible first published by William Strunk, Jr., in 1918 as a handbook for his Cornell students and revised in 1959 by one of his most notable former pupils, E.B. White (he of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little fame).

Strunk & White, as it’s fondly referred to by writers who love to write, nailed all the basics in this slim book. Here are six rules worth committing to memory when you write for the web (or any other genre, for that matter):

Use the active voice.
Your sentences read faster and sound more forceful with the active voice; the sentence’s subject performs the action instead of being acted upon (it’s even clunky to explain passive voice):

Our sales team listens closely to our customers. (active)


Our customers are closely listened to by our sales team. (passive)

Put statements in positive form.
Don’t waffle. Make clear, firm assertions about your product or service. The more certain you are about what you do for your clients, the more your clients will trust you (just be sure you can deliver):

We match you with your dream home.


We try our very best to find you a home that fits your lifestyle.

Use definite, specific, concrete language.
This is one of my favorites. The more clear and precise your word choices, the better. All too often, you run across language that’s convoluted for the sake of sounding intelligent. Bureaucratic prose comes to mind, as well as legal documents. For the web, in particular, you need to catch your reader’s attention in the first few seconds. Choose strong, active verbs and precise nouns, be direct and clear in your writing, and you’ll hook them.

Omit needless words.
For web content, this is essential. Most readers skim; make every word count. You can still include detail. To quote S&W, just make “every word tell.”

A few quick fixes that can help you trim words:

  • Turn “of the ____” prepositional phrases into possessives (“the customer’s” rather than “of the customer”).
  • Use active verbs instead of forms of to be. (“We work with you to find a solution.” NOT “Our goal is to help you find a solution.”)
  • Trim phrases who is, which was, and other similar padding (“Bob Cratchit, our accountant” instead of “Bob Cratchit, who is our accountant”).

Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
Another way to say this is vary your sentence structure. Nothing bores more quickly than a long paragraph of clunky sentences that are all the same length, especially if they also violate the first four rules, above. Be careful not to go on and on in one sentence, then another and another, without furthering your point, as I’m doing here. Use connectives—and, but—selectively. End with a short, punchy thought.

Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.
Follow this principle of parallel construction, especially when constructing lists or bullets.  This is a qualification of the previous rule: don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you have to vary your sentences for the sake of variety. When lists, bullets or subheads have a similar form, your reader will see the connections more readily. Notice how each of the six rules I’m borrowing here from S&W are all short commands. You can skim them as headings and see how they build a basic set of skills.

You’ll find more clear, timeless guidance about excellent writing in Strunk & White, on correct usage (grammar and punctuation), composition and form. The entire, concise manual is viewable online, but I prefer my battered copy that I’ve had for decades.

Whichever form you choose, refer to it often. Whether you’re just beginning to write web content for your own site or are an experienced content developer, I guarantee you’ll find it helpful.

What about you? What are your favorite writing resources?

Marketing consultant Evelyn Herwitz loves to help you tell a great story about your good work. She specializes in search-optimized web content that positions you as an approachable expert in your field and helps you grow your business. Contact Evelyn for a free half-hour consult for new clients.