Drawing attention is harder on the Web

publication date: Aug 24, 2011
author/source: reproduced with permission, Specialized Information Publishers Association
You can't just lift donor and client stories word for word from your print materials and slap them on your website. But how do you write effectively for the Web? In a June 2011 presentation to the annual conference of the Specialized Information Publishers Association, Curt Brown of Progressive Business Publications laid out the challenges of writing for online consumption - and how to overcome those challenges. Here's his list.

  • In print, headlines have three seconds to grab the reader; in online, you have one. The three types of headlines and email subject lines that best grab a reader's attention are need-to-know information like news, a tease and intrigue.
  • Use shorter sentences and paragraphs, fewer details and more contractions, and be more conversational. People are less likely to scroll down a page if there are large blocks of copy.
  • Consider the visual difference. In print, people can see where the story ends, and if the length isn‘t too daunting, they‘ll stick with it. They generally don't have that with the Web. That means you need to pay more attention to transition sentences, use shorter sentences and write descriptive subheads.
  • The beginning of a story is even more important online. (It's just so easy to click away.) One editor uses a details-at-11 approach, taken from those teases you hear on commercials right before the news comes on.
  • Throat-clearing introductions are especially deadly on the web, precisely because you don‘t have the advantage of people reading them in print and saying, even subconsciously, "I'll get past this because this piece isn‘t that long anyway."
  • The web is less formal. A print headline might say, "Worker was fired for his bad attitude: Why's OSHA involved?" The online equivalent might be, "Fired for being a jerk or whistleblower? OSHA weighs in." (Brown says that there are many headlines PBP has used online but would not use in print such as, "‘I got so trashed!' 7 worst things to say at work" or "Kids surfing the Net - while still potty training." It's just a different mentality.)
  • A negative tone works online. People have entirely different motives for clicking on (or forwarding) an online link than they do for subscribing to a newsletter. A few weeks ago, a PBP editor was leery about using a subject line with a negative tone: "5 reasons even the best sales teams fail". But it was used and got the highest click-through percentage in the past month. In print, however, they used "Five reasons the best sales teams usually win."
  • Be more direct on the web. In print, a headline might read, "Five ways to add polish to your professional image." Online, it becomes "Think looks don't affect your salary? Guess again!"
  • Top-10 lists work.  Some main-media publishers have a person who just does lists.
  • Give an online headline some intrigue. "OSHA dodges budget cuts: More inspections on the way?" "Wedding costs golfer US Open." "Let your employer know about this tax-cut time bomb."
  • Online articles can be great for the comments they elicit or the instant feedback. But Brown says that he does not "write to elicit comments. If the topic and story are good enough, you‘ll get comments. Plus, I think it's a bad trap to write in a way that begs for comments ... The stories I've written that got the most comments were done without a thought given to whether or not people would be moved to comment."

This article is reproduced with permission from the newsletter of the Specialized Information Publishers Association.

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