How people “read” online content
To write effective online copy, you must realize how people use the medium. Barring a few exceptions, people don’t go online looking for dense information and eloquent prose. They’re looking for specific information, and they want it as fast as possible.
The art of crafting online content has changed over the decades. Writing for the internet has become the art of writing for the path of least resistance. In the Darwinian arena of online content, whatever makes a message easier and faster to consume wins. Almost everything else dies. Sad, but true.
People don’t read websites, they scan them. It’s not because they're lazy, it’s because there is just too much content and not enough time.
If we actually read everything we saw online, we’d waste countless hours trying to find the information we need. So, we skim until we find it. And if we don’t find it quickly on one website, we go to another, and then another, until we find one with the decency to give us what we want without having to work for it.
If you don’t want your website to be one that people leave and forget, your content has to be valuable, concise, and easy to parse. To do this, you need to put a lot of thought into both your content and how it’s structured. How your content looks on the page is just as important as the content itself.
Writing copy that provides value and is easy on the eyes and brain is a great way to build trust with your audience. It shows them that you care about their needs and time, and this will go a long way in separating yourself from your competition. And this is good for business.
How to write better online content
You don’t have to be a great writer to write great online copy. It helps but you’ll be surprised by how much your content will improve just by incorporating the following guidelines.
Making something easier to read will drastically change how often it gets read. There are two ways you can make your copy easier to read: controlling how it’s visually presented and molding the message to be easily absorbed.
Way number one: Legibility
Legibility refers to how clear your content is, visually. If people can’t make out what they’re trying to read, nothing else is going to make a difference anyway. The following are ways you can make your content easier on the eyes.
1 - Typeface
A “typeface” is what most people mean when they say “font.” It’s an easy confusion to clear up. Helvetica, Times New Roman, and Futura are all typefaces. Helvetica 400 weight (regular), Times New Roman 700 weight (bold), and Futura italic are all fonts. Fonts are just single subgroups within a typeface.
Different typefaces work better in different situations. Some are best for longer chunks of text (body text, aka body copy), some are best for headings (titles and subtitles), and some are best for decorative messaging.
As long as your decorative text fits the overall design and can be easily read, you can pick whichever typeface you want.
Headings are used to indicate new sections and subsections on your website, which means they need to stick out. To do this, make them bigger and bolder, so people can easily find them. You don’t have to use a different typeface than your body text for these, but if you find one that contrasts nicely, go for it.
The most important typeface decision you’ll make is what to use for your body copy because that is what people will spend the most time reading. Therefore, it needs to be easy to read. For this, you need a typeface that’s been designed to be “invisible,” meaning you don’t notice all the intricacies and differences of the characters while reading it. Garamond, Helvetica, Times, Palatino, and Arial are just a handful of the many great choices out there. There are others out there, and you can find many great options with a simple Google search.
2 - Size
People calibrate their monitors differently, which means you have little control over how big your text will actually look when they read it. That being said, there are standards you should adhere to.
The standard size for body copy online is 16px (pixels). It’s been the agreed-upon size for quite some time and is the default size for most browsers.
But before you pick 16px as your body font size and move on, you should know how to set the size of your text correctly. Setting your text size using pixels can lead to some unwanted scaling issues on different browsers.
Instead of using pixels, try using rems. “Rem” is short for “root-em”, which refers to a browser’s default text size. Since most browsers’ default text size is 16px, setting your text to 1rem will make it 16px, but will cause fewer scaling problems. I know it’s one extra step, but it’s worth it.
3 - Contrast
This one’s easy. Just make sure your text and background contrast so that people can read it easily. Most website builders will have a built-in accessibility tool that will warn you if they aren’t contrasting enough.
If you want to place text over a background image, try using a colored overlay to make the text stand out more. Just make sure the text stands out.
4 - Paragraph width
The longer a line of text becomes, the more tired the reader gets. This is because long lines strain our cognitive load, which is the capacity the human brain has to process information. Turns out that our cognitive load is embarrassingly small while reading, which is something to keep in mind while laying out your website.
Lines of text that are physically long take more energy to follow and make it harder to transition to the next line than shorter lines. If the line is long enough, we may even stop reading altogether. So, make your lines shorter. Keeping them 75 characters long or shorter should do just fine.
5 - Heading and subheading
Clear and obvious headings and subheadings help break up information into smaller, more discoverable chunks. When picking out the fonts for your heading and subheadings, make sure you pick ones that are easily distinguishable from your body text.
There’s no official rule for how to scale the various fonts in your typographical hierarchy, but there are established scales to choose from that can help you get started. If you just want the quickest acceptable option, just double it each level up and call it a day.
6 - Use bullet points
If you have a list more than a few items long, make life easier for your reader by listing them with bullet points. This will help them skim through those ideas much quicker than if they were strung together with commas.
Way number two: Comprehension
Where legibility deals with the visual presentation of your content, comprehension refers to how well people can understand it. I’m not talking about the quality of your message or how well it’s written. I am strictly referring to how you can structure your message for easier and quicker consumption. And you can do so pretty easily by incorporating these few practices.
1 - Use plain words
When was the last time you were impressed by an author’s vocabulary?
Using big words or overly sophisticated phrasing is the best way to turn people off. This is especially true when doing it in a medium that people prefer to scan than read.
Do yourself and your audience a huge favor and just write plainly. If you’re writing for the general public, you should aim to write for an 8th-grade level. It’ll ensure that most people will be able to understand it easily, and that’s the whole point.
That being said, you should always write for your audience. If you're writing for astrophysicists, you probably shouldn’t write for 8th-graders.
2 - Use short sentences
Apparently, people have a hard time with long sentences even if they are physically small, so break them up when you can. Sometimes you can’t, and that’s fine, but try to get into the habit of separating related ideas into smaller, easily-digestible bits.
And if you were taught that you can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but” like I was, you were taught wrong. You absolutely can. That, and ending sentences with propositions, are two grammatical “rules” that really aren’t.
But before you start chopping up all your sentences, first try to combine them and whittle them down to their optimal delivery. Simplify the reading process by simplifying your message. Brevity isn’t just the soul of wit, it’s what keeps people reading.
3 - Use smaller paragraphs
This is just the last point but on a bigger scale. You’ve probably realized that sentences in blogs and online publications have gotten smaller over the last few years. There are a few reasons behind this change and why you should consider jumping on the bandwagon.
First, people are much more willing to read a few lines than, say, 10-15. Breaking information up into smaller chunks makes it easier to digest.
Second, it looks better on mobile devices because it allows an entire paragraph to be on the screen at once. This is comforting because knowing where the endpoint is removes a sense of uncertainty. Sounds trivial, but it isn't.
Third, it makes your content more scannable. Long paragraphs are hard to scan. If people can’t scan your content, chances are they won’t stop and read any of it.
So, the fewer sentences in your paragraphs the better.
Tone of voice
The tone of voice you use in your message can make a gigantic difference in how people respond to it and can even affect how trustworthy and desirable people find your business.
There are many tones to choose from. You can be serious, casual, enthusiastic, friendly, respectful, quirky, etc. Whichever one you choose should depend not only on how you want to present your business or message but also on the audience you’re writing for. Someone looking for a lawyer is in a different headspace than someone looking for party supplies. Write your content accordingly.
Regardless of which one you choose, always get someone else’s feedback before publishing. What sounds friendly to some may sound unprofessional to others. The most important thing your tone of voice must do is to show that you are trustworthy. As long as you accomplish this, you’re on the right track.
Although humor can be a great tool for connecting with people, it can also be a risky tactic. Everyone has a different sense of humor, and the last thing you want is for your good-natured joke to rub someone the wrong way. Unless you are 100% certain it won’t offend anyone or come off as unprofessional, you may want to go for the safer option.
Lastly, choose a tone of voice and stick to it. Changing tones here and there will confuse the reader, and confusion is annoying. Pick one and be consistent.
More often than not, you’ll want your readers to take a certain action on your site. To increase the likelihood they do that, your writing has to be persuasive. Here are some tried and true ways to help you do that.
1 - Use an active voice
Using an active voice isn’t the same as picking a tone of voice. Using an active voice is a grammatical tactic that simply means writing in a way that makes the subject take the action instead of having the action being done to him/her (known as passive voice).
It’s the difference between “Help is a click away” (passive), and “Click here for help” (active). It inserts a sense of action into the message, which is a subtle form of encouragement.
2 - Focus on the benefits, not the features
Listing features is useful in describing a product or service you’re selling, but it’s not that persuasive. If you want people to buy a product or service from you, focus more on how buying it will benefit them.
Compare the following ads for the same noise-canceling headphones:
(Listing the features)
Apex’s noise-canceling headphones:
-have Dolby surround sound
-have noise-canceling technology
-are made with lightweight material
(Listing the benefits)
Apex’s noise-canceling headphones:
-will make every song sound like you’re at a concert
-will let you hear only what you want to hear
-are so light you won’t even know you’re wearing them
By focusing on the benefits people will gain by buying a product/service, the more valuable and enticing you'll make it sound.
3 - Storytelling
Storytelling is foundational to how humans communicate. Think back to all the conversations you’ve ever had. I guarantee most, if not all, of them were stories of what happened, would have happened, or will happen.
Structuring information into a story helps us retain that information. The better the story, the more information we retain. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be a professional writer to tell a good story.
To present your message as a story, just explain how the reader’s life will change from before and after doing business with you. Guide people from their current situation to the one they’ll be in after they take the action you want them to on your site. Structuring your message like this can also help you design your website by fleshing out the user journey.
4 - Add a sense of urgency
Compelling writing is effective writing, and few things are more compelling than a closing window of opportunity. Countdown clocks and showing how many you have left of a particular product are powerful tools, but if you’re going to use them, be honest about it.
If you offer a limited-time sale or say that there are only 3 more left of a certain product, make sure that information is correct. Nothing screams “phony” more than a website that shows the same time-sensitive promotion or limited availability every time you visit the site. Why would anyone trust you if you’re lying to them from the start?
5 - Be emotional
Everyone’s heard that we aren’t supposed to make decisions based on emotion because they cloud our judgment. But it turns out that emotions are fundamental to our decision-making process because they help us assign value to things.
Don’t get me wrong, making decisions based purely on emotion is rarely wise. But instead of pretending we don’t use them while making decisions, understanding how important they are to making decisions unlocks a new toolbox for writers.
It’s important to be careful here because there is a big difference between making an emotional connection with your audience and manipulating them. It’s the difference between watching a heartfelt movie and watching an SPCA commercial with Sarah McLachlan playing over a slideshow of animals piercing your heart with their eyes. Both are effective, but you kinda resent one of them.
Calls to action (CTA’s) are one of the most important parts of your website because they make it easier for users to take the actions you want them to. CTAs are the buttons you see on websites that usually say something like “Click Here” or “Learn More.”
When used properly, CTAs increase conversions by helping people make decisions and reducing the chance of them leaving your site.
CTAs are great because they reduce friction (steps in a process) on your site by providing clear and obvious road signs for the reader about which step to take next. The less friction there is, the more likely customers are to follow through with an action.
Using CTAs throughout your website makes the experience of using your site both easier and more enjoyable. They reassure the user that he/she is on the right track. They take the guesswork out of the process.
Although you don’t want to overwhelm people or ruin your website’s design by placing CTAs everywhere, they can be useful in many situations. When appropriate, you can use CTAs to help:
- make a sale by directing the user to a product page
- generate leads by directing the user to a signup form
- promote an event or sale
- make it easy to find products or information
CTAs, like everything else, are only as good as their design. So, how can you make sure your CTAs help both you and your customers?
1 - Make sure they’re contextual
A button floating in the middle of nowhere is just going to confuse people. CTAs should be placed after some text. Whether it's a whole paragraph or a single sentence, always make sure your CTAs are anchored to a bigger idea.
2 - Make them stand out
In order for CTAs to be helpful, they need to stand out from everything else on the page. You don’t want to make them eyesores, but they need to be obvious. Giving them a different size and color than the surrounding text and some breathing room should do the trick.
You can even make them promote your client’s brand by using their brand color as the color for the button (as long as it contrasts nicely with the background).
3 - Be very clear
This goes for both the text before your CTA and the CTA (button) itself. Don’t use vague language about what will happen after the user clicks on the CTA. People are inherently scared of uncertainty, so if you want people to trust your CTA, be very clear about what will happen next.
Whether the user is signing up for a newsletter, going to a product page, requesting support, etc., just make it clear that’s what will happen when they click on it.
4 - Use actionable language
The only emotion evoked by a CTA saying “submit” is boredom. Encourage the reader to take action by giving your CTAs a sense of action. Buttons that say “Get a free quote” or “Join the community” are much more likely to get clicked than a button that says “Click me.”
5 - Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Promotions and offers are great sales tools, but the second you fail to do what you say you can or will do, you become untrustworthy. Nothing in the world can help you at that point. Make sure your CTAs are up-to-date and honest.
6 - Make them low-commitment
The bigger the commitment, the more people need to think about it. If your CTA sounds like a point of no return, you're going to scare more people than you attract. CTA’s are much more useful as a way to let people know that clicking on this button will simply take you to the page you’re looking for. Nothing more.
Meet them at their level
You could be the greatest writer of our generation, but unless you write your online content the way people expect it to look and read online, no one will ever know.
You have to realize that people have little time and patience when they’re on your website. Waste their time for even a second, and they’re gone.
If you want your writing to bring in business, make it useful, scannable, consistent, persuasive, and throw in some CTAs to help guide the way.