People Don’t Read on the Web…Please Read On.

A friend and I were texting back and forth last night, me bemoaning the fact that I didn’t know how to start this blog article about web copy, him doing the virtual equivalent of nodding sympathetically. He said if he were writing the blog, he’d write about the recent redesign of the nbcnews.com homepage. His observations included the following:

“The dumbing of America”

“Assuming people can’t read”

“Everything needs a picture of Kim Kardashian”

“Legitimate web sites looking like tabloids”

Now, to be fair, there are two things you should know about this friend:

  1. He is a seasoned and very talented creative director, strategist and copywriter.
  2. He firmly insists that “this whole Internet thing” is a fad and will die off one day soon.

So, I don’t claim that he is at all representative of … well, anyone.

And a news website, whose primary function is to tell the news, and attract a lot of visitors in order to entice advertisers, is certainly a different beast than a typical business-to-consumer (or even B2B) website, which will have a specific, prescribed action that it wants its users to take.

But it got me thinking about some of the “truths” of online marketing—specifically, of writing copy for online marketing.

1. People Don’t Read

Multiple studies on website usability, engagement, conversion, etc., have proven this to be true: People. Don’t. Read.

As someone who spent 16 years in advertising and marketing for the book publishing industry, this pains me. But as a working mother of two young children (and one big dog), with a husband who also works full time, and one desktop, one laptop, one iPad and two iPhones in our possession, I get it. And I’m guilty of it, too.

Last year, Slate.com published an article about this very topic, complete with graphs and heat maps and everything. It was particular to news and other “content-provider” websites, but it’s eye opening and entertaining.

2. Words Matter

The parts of a web page that do get read almost universally (by approximately 80% of visitors)—and which are key to website conversions—are the headline and the “call to action” (in effect, the “click here” button or link that represents the desired action the people behind the website want the user to take).

So with probably fewer than 10 or 15 words to convince your visitor to do what you want them to do, those words matter. And they’d better be good.

Again, as someone with a background in traditional marketing (OK, let’s face it; anyone who’s been in the biz for 20 years must, by necessity, have a background in traditional marketing. We didn’t even have email at my first job.), this came as somewhat of a jolt during my first experiences with online marketing. Gone are the days of print ads chock-full of purple prose and effusive descriptions. You’ve got a second to grab them, and less than a second to convince them to do what you want. This blog post from CopyBlogger discusses the need for brevity in today’s digital age. (Don’t worry; it’s a quick read.)

3. But Not in the Way You Might Think

There are many tested “formulas” for creating headlines and calls to action that will inspire the clicks we desire. Here’s an Unbounce.com article that discusses 5 of them. I’ll tell you right now that my copywriter friend would have not-nice things to say.

It’s not that the creative strategy isn’t important. Of course it is. But in online marketing, it’s the conversion strategy that’s absolutely crucial. And little things make big differences—“Get” vs. “Download,” “Download” vs. “Read,” “Read vs. View.” Now, I doubt anyone working on “offline” marketing would say they weren’t ultimately looking for conversions, but here’s the thing. Online, it’s all totally testable, trackable and measurable.

I remember years back when we would all ooh and ahh over the click-through reports we’d get on our banner ad campaigns (which were, of course, billed by impressions). Even then, I thought how fortunate it was that our [not direct-response] print and broadcast ads couldn’t be measured that way—we’d all have been out of jobs. Today, we’re held to the numbers.

4. Less Quantity, More Quality.

One final word of caution. Just because there are fewer words doesn’t mean we can let the proofreader go home. In fact, one might argue that, with less copy, quality assurance is even more important. We have such a small, small window of opportunity to convert potential customers, and nothing destroys credibility faster than misspellings or typos. But look on the bright side—there’s really not that much copy to proof. And no one’s going to read it anyway.

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Author: Author Image Melissa Lord

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