Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What's Wrong With This Website?

Every so often, I get a prospective client asking for me to take a look at their site and let them know what I think can be done to improve the copy. To be honest, much of the time I have to know more about the business and the audience before I can give a thorough critique. However, there are a few common problems I see often with client-written website content, as well as brochures, newsletters, and pretty much anything else written by businesses for customers to read. Here are a few of the common signs you need a copy rewrite:

Lax spelling and grammar. This is hands-down the most common problem. I know I harp on this a lot, and a lot of copywriters will probably say it doesn't matter as much as other things. But I just can't let it go. I will repeat this until the day I die: bad writing makes you look bad. Period. End of sentence. If you screw up your punctuation, people will notice. If you don't put the apostrophe in the right place in your title, people will notice. If you think "you're" and "your" are interchangeable, people will notice. If you have a comma splice in the middle of your tagline (Subaru, take note), people will throw things at the television. You may think this is just me talking and I'm a grammar Nazi, but believe me--there are more of us out there than you realize.

Absolutely no awareness of the audience and their problems. Every website should have its visitors in mind--and every word should be about how the company solves their problems. So many companies don't mention their prospective clients' problems at all. You don't leave with any impression of how the product or company can benefit you. There is plenty of copy explaining who they are and what they do, but no "here's what's in it for you" moment. No mention of why this matters, of how this will make people's lives easier. Knowing your audience and their problems takes some market research--you can't guess on this--but it's worth it.

The assumption that people care about you. Nobody cares that you've won a slew of industry awards. People do care that your product will work better for them than the other guy's and will cost them less, too. Much of the time, website copy is all "we" and "us" and not much "you" at all.

Attempts to "sound like we know what we're talking about." Jargon should be avoided for most audiences. I've seen a lot of websites--particularly in more technical industries--where the writing is all about how smart the company is and how many big words they can cram into a single page. Much of the time, their audience isn't people with advanced degrees in the subject who can understand that jargon--it's middle managers with little technical skill who have to make the case to their bosses to buy this technical equipment--and who need to understand why the company needs it first.

Writers bring clarity to website copy. They tease out what's special about your product--why people should want it--and they explain it in the easiest, most compelling way possible. Good graphics are important in a good site, but without good writing, your snazzy website won't sell like it could.


Mark Wiehenstroer said...

I would also add - Too many words on a page. Too many words on a page is many times an inability of the 'writer' to be concise and effectively use the available space on the page. A filled and lack of organization on a page doesn't make it easy for the reader to quickly find the info they're seeking.

Anonymous said...

Missing the most basic information -- though this falls under the "no idea what the clients care about" section.

So many companies, restaurants especially, fail to put a snail mail address, driving directions and/or basic tel number.

A site can do a lot for a company, but there's no point if it doesn't provide at least what's in a phone book...

Jennifer Williamson said...

These are all great points. Mark, I definitely hear you on that one--even I can be too wordy if I don't watch it. In web writing, it's all about saying what you need to say and not wasting the prospect's time.

Anon, that's definitely true too. Although I understand why some companies don't put their phone numbers online--I've had clients worry they'd get a lot of crank or sales calls that way. But you could also get a lot of business.