Why isn’t my site ranking in searches? Why has traffic not improved since we hired you? Calls from customers are actually down… do you even know what you’re doing?!”
Ah…the music of irate customers, whose site you have lovingly designed and crafted only to see it filled with insipid writing so bad and error strewn, that it is actually putting customers off the company. The Internet is still littered with examples of slick-looking sites filled with terrible copy. These sites will never generate decent results, and more often than not the owners will hold the web designer responsible.
Explaining this to them diplomatically is hard enough. But what you really need to do is turn the situation around so that you have another high-performing site to your name, and another happy customer’s testimonial.
Even worse than clients who produce poor or error-strewn copy are those that don’t get round to populating the site at all, leaving your masterpiece looking like a newly built house that’s awaiting painting and decorating. This is why, although most web designers don’t come from a writing or content creating background, many have become adept at sourcing images and improving text cobbled together by their clients.
Design Doesn’t Sell
The problem is, the copy doesn’t just need to be decent. For a site to really work—and usually by that we’re talking boosting your client’s business—it needs to be outstanding.
Andrew Kucheriavy, founder and CEO of US web design, UX and marketing agency Intechnic, says it is clear that “design itself does not sell”:
Good content is what sets your website apart from the masses and delivers the right message into the hearts and minds of your customers. The success of your website is determined primarily by its content. Ultimately, content wins the wallets of your customers. All other components of your website (design, visuals, videos, etc.) provide a secondary support role.
There are two key areas in which only content can really perform: driving traffic to the website, whether by garnering links or attracting bots; and making that final link with customers that persuades them to buy. Each of your clients is therefore going to need some long form text and some shorter—but very well constructed—‘sales copy’ to funnel casual browsers towards a contact or purchase.
As a web designer, how do you go about ensuring the copy populating your sites is not just average, but excellent? The following processes will help ensure your designs get the words they deserve.
1. Plan Ahead
Consideration for suitable content should start as soon as a web design job is commissioned. You may be happy to start working on the site in advance of having the text, but you do need to agree a timescale for its delivery, along with outlines of what the writing will address.
How long will each page be? Use your expertise in design and web analytics to guide the client towards suitable targets, rather than allowing their subjective tastes to dictate that an 800 word homepage description of all their main models is needed.
Often a client will say that they already have suitable copy on their old website. Do not assume this to be true. Look for yourself and it may become obvious why that site was failing. In that case, you’ll need to persuade them that a whole new approach is what will really yield results. Ideally, this will involve a bit of strategic thinking around customer preferences and pain points, sales and marketing. Kucheriavy says:
The content of your website should always begin with proper market research. First, you should determine your high value customers and define personas for your website. Then you should determine how you will target them.
If your client is a small business they may not have a budget for strategic marketing of this sort, but on the other hand they should have a good idea themselves as to who their customers are and why they are buying. That is a good starting point when planning copy.
2. Editing is as Important as Writing
Even great writers require an editor to look over their work, and a bit of deft editing can go a long way to rescuing even bad copy. For the solo or small agency designer, editing is a key skill and it’s well worth becoming familiar with the basics.
Editing is not just proofreading, but that is a start. If you like what you read, great: just correct the spelling, grammar and punctuation as required. If you don’t, try and identify the problems—they tend to fall into two categories: bad writing, and failure to address the subject. In the latter case a good editor will often send the draft back to the original author, with the key questions posed as constructive criticism. Maybe superfluous could be tactfully suggested as blog material for a later date.
If the writing is long, jarring or ugly; or sentences are hard to follow and understand; then you should be able to correct it by editing. Start reading again and improve bits as you go. And then again. And again.
George Orwell’s rules on writing are still a good place to start when it comes to looking at how an article can be improved. They are analysed in a modern context here but in summary, they are: Keep words short and be economical; make sentences simple and engaging; and use plain English, avoiding cliches and jargon.
3. Ensure Great Landing Pages with a Winning Formula
As the front line sales copy, landing pages have an important role to play. They are usually quite short in terms of copy length, so this is a real chance for you to add value for your client for relatively little effort. Just ensure their key sales pages stick to a solid tried and tested formula—and be even more ruthless in removing any waffle as part of your editorial intervention.
A good landing page starts by addressing a problem: hopefully you identified that at the planning stage. Now, in a very few sentences, illustrate that problem to the intended audience… Are their homes too cold but fuel is expensive? Is their garden looking untidy because they are too busy to tend it?
Once you have painted this picture and formed an emotional connection, explain how your client can help (with their wonderful stoves which not only look good but also burn lean, or by providing a trusted handyman that will ensure the garden is in top condition when the homeowner does get a day to enjoy it). Point out that your client has successfully solved this problem in the past for others, maybe linking to your testimonials.
Now add the ‘Call to Action’. That could be calling the company, or clicking a ‘Buy’ button. There’s no point beating about the bush here. Just ask!
4. Regularly Generate Ideas for Blogs
The basic business website just doesn’t hold enough copy for SEO purposes, so you really need your clients to commit to keeping up a blog. This commitment often doesn’t last very long.
At least one person within any organisation is usually keen to do some creative writing and publicize themselves. The problem is that people simply don’t know what to write about. As their go-to web professional, this is your chance to be extra helpful by providing them with some guidance as to how they can keep a blog going.
Romilly Golding, of copywriting agency Bwrtr, has some useful tips for plucking content strategy-friendly blog themes out of nowhere here. She suggests looking at the company’s founding and its significant milestones, for example, and creating a calendar of anniversaries to celebrate. You can also write about your company values and vision, and pick hot topics that affect your customers.