Web Copywriting: Doing it Wrong

Good web copy is rare. This week, I’m getting insight into why it’s so difficult.

Designer Tom Hapgood’s web design class builds a free website for a local nonprofit every term. This year, my writing class is putting together three paragraphs of text for the home page.

We started with the text that’s on the current web site. My class has already spent a few weeks learning about the importance of having a point, so they could see immediately that the current home page just doesn’t have one.

Your visitors will give you five to 12 seconds, roughly, before they decide to leave or to stay. Your home page has to tell visitors immediately who you are and what you do. Your homepage should also be very clear on what you want your visitors to do.

Once we read through the whole site and figured out what exactly the organization does and the goal of their site, we decided on a single sentence that said exactly what we wanted to convey at the website. Can you do that for your website? You should. Possible sentences of this kind might be:

  • With the help of donations from people like you, our organization starts homeless families on the path to stable, independent lives.
  • You should buy tires from us because we provide expert, convenient service.
  • Our cupcakes are so cute, they’re a fashion accessory.

If you can’t create a sentence that sums up the point and purpose of your site, then you probably aren’t clear enough in your mind to write that homepage. Ideally, you know this before you begin writing your site content, but we find that many of our clients have something in mind that’s more like “You should hire us because we can do practically anything” or even “You should buy our stuff because we want to make some money.” The nonprofit site’s homepage gave the impression that their main point was something like “Give us money because lots of companies already have.” That’s not what they meant to say; they just didn’t think it through.

Once you have a clear point to make, you must actually make that point on your homepage.

Having come up with a clear statement, we then identified the points of support it needed and made an outline specifying what each paragraph ought to say. The class split up into three teams and got to work on writing the paragraphs.

Each team identified a clear point and the necessary support. They were, at this point, way ahead of most of the “before” websites we start out with.

If your website’s main point is “Our products let you go green without sacrificing quality or value,” then you have to say something that proves your products are environmentally responsible. You have to make it clear that your prices are competitive. You have to address the question of quality.

If you want to say, “We are such fun, cool accountants that you will enjoy tax time if you work with us,” then your homepage content has to demonstrate your fun coolness, while also making it clear that you are in fact accountants.

The class, having figured out what they wanted to say,  jumped in to write the paragraphs. Unfortunately, they began with things like, “Multiple studies have shown that the most effective approach to…”

You don’t get to ease your way into your homepage content. You have to make the points you need to make, and every word you use should do that — and only that.

We’re still working on those three paragraphs. I expect to give the nonprofit a home page that will — with the web design class’s new design — get the effect they’ve been hoping to accomplish.

This is a great assignment for a writing class, even though they’ll soon be getting back to research papers, where it’s completely appropriate to start off by referencing multiple studies. They’re learning how to decide precisely what needs to be said, and to say it clearly and directly. This is a good thing for any kind of writing.

It’s essential for web copywriting.

What about your homepage? Does it make the point it needs to make? Or have u been doin it wrong?

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