Making Web Copywriting Pay Dividends: Part 2, Style & Register
'Let's form proactive synergy restructuring teams.' -- Dilbert, Scott Adams
We've all been on that site. The one where you haven't a clue what's going on because what you're reading might as well be written in Martian. Technical jargon and corporate buzzwords swirl together to form a meaningless, congealed soup of text. That this is the case on many a website isn't in itself surprising, but the fact that it has been the status quo for so long is. Happily, over the past few years, perhaps partially as a result of the so-called 'Web 2.0' transition, web copy and web marketing attitudes in general have changed tack and now a great number of websites are actually having a conversation with their visitors rather than hurling a bunch of words at the wall and seeing what sticks. Unfortunately, at times it feels like a case of 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss'; a great deal of today's 'hip' copy feels strained, forced and unconvincing: the words are different, but are still being flung spaghetti-like at the wall. Symptoms of such bandwagonism include indiscriminate application of the adjectives 'fab' and 'lovely', an unfounded belief that visitors to the site already know and love the author, and a general lack of purpose and direction in the writing. The latter two are prevalent in web copy that might have sired the above Dilbert quote; the first is simply a re-emergence of an old problem, that of someone trying to use tools they don't fully, or at all, understand.
The write (sorry) person for the job
I am not criticising. I do not direct these remarks against the many unfortunate individuals lumbered with writing copy for websites simply because they happen to be in charge of the website. As has been well documented, web content should be the responsibility of the department that the content refers to, not the skilled technical workers who developed the website in the first place. My lament is that these people are stuck writing copy in the first place. I said I am not criticising; instead I wish to lend a hand: having established that there is an opportunity for improvement, how can that improvement by brought about? The answer is simple: a zero-tolerance policy on words that mean -- in the context they are placed, of course -- nothing. A list of permitted, necessary, jargon that the audience will be familiar with or that can be easily explained. Above all -- and what much copy lacks -- there is a need for a clear, consistent, recognisable tone. Your writing is part of your brand; it is your voice. Ideally there should be a dedicated team of professional writers who can write static page copy, blog posts, articles and taglines. Realistically there may be, to a greater or lesser extent, an overlap with the marketing department, which isn't a bad thing.
Making your copy represent you & your business
Like any other part of your brand -- your logo, your marketing materials, your website's visual design -- your online voice is your representative; an ambassador, if you will. It speaks for you, and as such, it's important to ensure it's saying the right things, in the right way. The style of your copy is likely to line up with the style of the rest of your brand. If you're a law firm with an austere, serif'd logo, chances are your copy should be similarly professional and graceful. This doesn't mean it has to be cold and stilted, just that it'll be different from the bouncing writing of a new tech startup whose logo contains four different colours and has one or less vowels in its name. In short, you need copy that forms a part of a homogeneous team united in one action: inviting in and communicating effectively with visitors to convert them into customers.