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Writing for the Online Reader
Posted on April 17th 2014
It’s never easy for businesses to write content, as in blogs, social media posts, and other publications pushed into online assets. Before diving into writing for the online reader, let’s take a look at how it’s different than market-heavy print:
- Print copy is usually more dense and promotional.
- It’s expensive to publish traditional print advertising.
- It’s difficult to track how many people read physical brochures and other publications.
- The print audience either ignores or is already interested in a business.
- Print copy is recycled and lasts longer.
These points need to be acknowledged and accepted by marketers. Brochures, flyers, small booklets, and other print materials do have one advantage, however, and it’s that people who encounter them are less likely to ignore them. They have a place in business marketing, but the style and content needs to be revamped if you hope to gain attention from online audiences.
The online reader is busy. Between newsfeed scrolling and bookmarked, content-heavy websites, there are plenty of distractions out there in the big online ocean. To counter the screen-induced ADD readers of today, we’ll have to shape content around their expectations.
Go to any entertaining website and look at the headlines. Are homepages populated by “Top 10 Ways,” “3 Big Trends,” “How To Do Something,” and similar headlines? Yes.
This is because people expect to visit these articles and, if they’re bored, quickly skim through for the cliffnotes. Successful online writers utilize headings, styled fonts, bullet points, and lists to make this happen. Not only is it reader-friendly for those online, it also allows writers to format posts and articles around pre-built templates.
In addition, online content is sparsely written and includes plenty of white space. Big, blocky paragraphs are for long-form articles and press releases, not business-sponsored marketing and blogs.
Here are three other things online readers expect:
- Multimedia: The more pictures, video embeds, and infographics, the better. We are a visual people — why not buffer your content with relevant, intriguing images?
- Resources: For news and blog-type articles, it’s helpful to add in links to internal and external resources. If anything, these reaffirm the authority of a piece’s theme and give readers easy access to additional information.
- Concision: Online readers want concisely written articles that stick to their purpose. Keep it short, and keep it brief. You can always write more.
The Question-Answer Format
People use the Internet to find information. The only reason “Google it” is a term is because there’s information to be found.
When blogging, especially, businesses need to focus on writing content that fulfills this expectation. It all starts with the headline. The headline is the teaser and reel that pulls in readers. What are the 9 ways to lose weight right now? How do I build a treehouse? Who are the sexiest celebrities?
Why not pull these question askers to your answers?
Businesses, of course, shouldn’t be writing anything outside of their niche industry. The headline needs to propose an idea and be answered in the content. Diary writing is an example of not answering questions. Here’s a more in-depth look at headline writing.
After reading (or skimming) your content, readers need to have their question answered.
Sorry, Mad Men marketers, but people are seldom attracted to written marketing material. The turnoff is when articles, posts, website content, and other materials are written by boring brand machines. Don’t be a boring brand machine.
To retain the online reader after luring him or her to a site via an attractive headline that answers a question or arouses suspicion, we’ll need to write with style. It’d be easier to “tip” this, so here it goes:
- Speak directly to the reader (as in you).
- Inject humor if applicable, but don’t expect it to work.
- Use personal anecdotes that are relevant.
- Tell the reader what to expect in a piece within the first 100 words.
- Avoid “hip slang” and trendy language (you’re a professional, after all).
- When writing technical jargon, explain the terms.
- Write casual.
Save the market-heavy content for press releases and product material.
The Marketing Paradox
The odd thing about writing online content from or for a business’ perspective is the intent: To market and promote. This goes against the “leave marketing style at home” idea mentioned above.
Fortunately, content published online by businesses is doing all the marketing it needs to do. You are the question-answerer, right? If you write it, they will come.
Then there are a business’ expectations. Traditional and online marketers will tell you to include a call-to-action, links to product pages, and name drop brands to subconsciously influence a purchasing decision. Fine! Do it. Just make sure these elements don’t poison an entertaining article by burying them in branding.
Online writing comes in all shapes and sizes, meaning this style advice may be less relevant for Twitter than business blogging. Different platforms require different types of writing based on expectations, the audience, and the writer’s intent. But we’ll save that for another day.