Ah, the copywriters’ life before the Web. Life was so simple. You had a story to tell, clients wanted you to add some spin to inflate the language to make it sound grand – and you didn’t have to worry about anyone reading it other than humans.

Copywriting for the website is so, so different. One of the ways in which the Web has really made its mark on communications is the degree to which it has made informal language a more favourable way to communicate. People are no longer impressed with gravitas-filled text. Hype and spin gets the cold shoulder. What they want is clear, fast information. Quite right too – marketing English (and hey, I’ve written my fair share of it) will hopefully be a blip in the history of the language that lasted just a few short decades.

Web sites are more successful when they are conversational, approachable and friendly. If your business sells spades, consider opening with ‘we sell spades; they cost £10’ – and then let every embellishment and improvement pull its weight. Website copy shows the consumer winning: the consumer wants a spade – he/she needs to know if you sell them and what they cost. Then, and only then, they might be interested in your spades’ unique selling points. This turns traditional copywriting thinking on its head, where the benefits and features are milked for all they are worth. But on a website, where visitors give you less than a second before moving on, anything other than the key information is just an encouragement to leave. We might add an adjective and reinforce that our price is low: ‘we sell great spades, they cost just £10’ but that’s pretty much all we need. We’ll put the spin stuff in the supporting text, and we’ll keep that information both direct and non-pretentious too.

There are still too many websites where the home page tells you how the company ‘reengineers paradigms’ or ‘maximises human capital’ – or some such flim-flam. Sometimes there’s an entire paragraph (or paragraphs) of text that contains grand-sounding words, seems impressive, but actually communicates nothing at all – not even what the company does. ‘We’re a global solutions business, which drives greater customer satisfaction via a range of innovative services’ – as an example. Web value: nil.

Website copy also benefits from a more modular structure – headings, paragraphs, bullets and so on. This creates some visual relief and enables people to scan the page for key information. Not all Web pages have to work in this way (hey, take a look at this one) because for some jobs, prose is the best. But for initial positioning pages, product and service descriptions, company profiles and so on, the information is digested more easily if it’s broken down visually using basic structural components.

I am still often asked to “make copy more impressive”, introducing majestic words (but nothing too obscure, I was once asked to remove ‘alacrity’ from some copy because the client had no idea what it meant) and softening the stuff that makes the company sound too normal. I tend to fight my corner: I know that what communicates well is what communicates directly. If we don’t think with those words, we shouldn’t be using them to communicate.

Of course, there’s the added complexity that Web pages also need to be written to accommodate the requirements of search engines. This is a skill that many copywriters lack – it’s not complex, but it does require some analytical thinking, search engine knowledge, competitor research and a good eye for editing text.

The writers of yesteryears’ brochures had none of these concerns. It would have been unseemly to use copy that’s too informal – the client would almost certainly have rejected it. If there wasn’t a good percentage of marketing-speak, then the client would be disappointed. And there was no need to worry about search engines.

I’m not yearning for a lost era, frankly I’m glad to see the back of it. What’s especially great is that we’re transitioning from a time where websites are written in one way and brochures in another – though there’s still some way to go. The language of the Web is extending its influence, and an increasing number of clients want a similar level of informality in their brochures too – after all, the company should have a consistent ‘voice’ – so we need some degree of alignment of style and vocabulary between the website and the company brochure.

I am still asked to ‘make a website from our brochure’ – but find now that clients are receptive to changing the style of the language, if it can be demonstrated that it will benefit visitors and search engines alike.

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