How to adapt your writing to an online audience

27/07/17How to adapt your writing to an online audience

In an ideal world, you would be reading this blog slowly, possibly sitting in your favourite armchair, hanging on every word. I’d be able to use long, sophisticated sentences that would make me sound really clever, and…

I’m not fooling anybody am I?

It’s no secret that we read things differently online, but in my experience many advisers struggle to make the transition. Balancing the right tone, with an easily readable style, while getting your point across, can be a bit of a challenge.

However, if you get it right, the reward is a far more engaged audience.

What’s different about reading online?

Scanning, skim-reading and ‘gisting’, mostly.

The medium is a major reason for this. For example, what devices do people use to view your website? Our research suggests that:

  • 72.48% will be using a desktop computer or laptop
  • 21.58% will be using a mobile phone
  • 5.94% will be using a tablet

Reading anything on a screen often demands scanning the screen to quickly identify the information you need, and discarding what you don’t. There are plenty of things vying for your attention, so generally you can’t afford to read every word.

Research by Campaign Monitor found that the average time allocated to a newsletter after opening it is 51 seconds. When they analysed the reading behaviour of a test audience, they found only 19% of those tested read the whole letter. Most scanned for the general ‘gist’ of the email, and 35% only looked at the beginning and the end.

So, now that we understand the behaviour of an online audience, it begs the question:

How should we write for the web?

I recommend using several different techniques, which if you look around this piece, you’ll be able to point out, such as:

  • Bullet points and lists
  • Clear headings
  • A combination of sentence lengths
  • But no long sentences; no more than 25 words in a sentence, or three sentences in a paragraph
  • Asking questions to keep people engaged

At the start of this blog I said that advisers (often) struggle with writing for the web. Many of you will write often and well, but those pieces will generally be in-depth, technically complex, reports. This, of course, is an art form in its own right, and one that is no doubt tricky to do and very valuable to clients. Switching styles, to writing for the online world, is tricky.

Consequently, many advisers, used to writing in a very specific way won’t change their style when writing articles or blogs. These simply don’t engage the scanners and the skim-readers.

Utilising the words and phrases that your audience use is also important. The content is more likely to resonate with them and it’ll help with search rankings too. Don’t be tempted to dust off your thesaurus and include a list of clever, yet obscure, words; you need to minimise the obstacles that lie between the reader and the message.

What is the right tone of voice for the web?

Whilst we are adaptable, we believe a professional, yet informal (even conversational), style works well online.

I’m also an advocate of the old adage; ‘write how you speak’. Using a conversational tone tends to work well on the web, as it is far easier to take in whilst skim-reading. That isn’t an excuse to be informal and sloppy, however. Like anything it’s a balance.

There is a quote often attributed to the novelist Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”. Your content may be technically correct and filled to the brim with useful information, but it’ll all be for nothing if it’s stuffy and hard to read.

Keep it simple. Keep it short.

How else can you improve engagement?

Words should also be accompanied by the use of relevant images; which most people will actually see before they do the words.

The brain processes an image 60,000 times faster than text, so visual aids can be extremely useful in getting your message across and keeping people interested.

Of course, these are only tips and techniques that have worked for me in the past. There are bound to be plenty more that I look forward to discovering in the future. Writing for the web isn’t easy, but once you find something that works for you, it’ll change the way you think about creating content, and hopefully inspire you to produce it effectively.

So for those of you that are in fact reading this slowly, sitting in an armchair with a large brandy, I apologise for excluding you. But for everybody else out there, I look forward to reading great content next time I stumble across your website.

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