Content Strategy & Web Writing

4182826573_3c20158212_m It’s the time of year when critics start compiling “best-of” lists. Not to be outdone, we’ve put together a list of the year’s top-10 resources for web professionals.

These resources are the ones we turned to again and again in 2010—for useful information, to learn something we didn’t know, or to think differently about marketing and copywriting.

Two of the categories are online (blogs and Twitter) and the third category, books, can be found either in old-fashioned paper-bound or electronic e-book versions.

Continue reading "CDG’s Top 10 of ’10 for Web Professionals" »

I know, I know. “New Year’s resolutions? Before Thanksgiving? What gives?”

Well, I contend that if CVS can put up Christmas decorations before Halloween, I can give you some New Year’s resolutions now.

In fact, the idea for this post occurred to me when I started prepping for our annual site reviews—both for CDG itself and for our clients. At first, I’d planned to provide guidelines for analytics and what you should look at in order to measure success.

But then I realized that I might be getting ahead of myself. After all, before you’re going to measure progress, you need to give yourself benchmarks for improvement. So, instead of giving you advice on how to look back at 2010, I want to give you a plan for moving forward in 2011.

Here are several action items to put on your calendar for 2011. You’ve probably already accomplished some of them. Prioritize the rest, and plan accordingly for next year:

Continue reading "Early New Year’s Resolutions for Web Professionals" »

The question mark at the end of the headline is intentional. Rather than try to answer questions with this post, I’d like to raise some questions and start a conversation. CDG’s most recent foray into the mobile world got me thinking about the challenges inherent in writing mobile content.

As a web writer of a certain age, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the tenets of writing for websites: Cut the fat. Don’t make users think. Write for your audience. Optimize, optimize, optimize, etc. But what are the rules for writing for mobile devices?

I’m not sure I know—yet—but here are a few ways I’m starting to think about amending some of those aforementioned tenets:

  • Cut the fat—If it’s important to be concise on the web, it’s freakin’ essential when you go mobile. One way to pare down the word count as much as possible is to work very closely with designers and your UX team. Images, layout, sound, etc. can all help to pack in meaning that gives context to your words.
  • Don’t make users think—One of the best phrases ever coined about web writing and design, this is even more vital in the mobile world. Multitasking and mobile go hand-in-hand, and as a result, your user’s already short attention span becomes positively miniscule. Your content has to give the user a clear and unambiguous path to his or her end goal.
  • Write for your audience—Look at the demographics that define your mobile audience. I admit that this is something I’m just beginning to research on an industry-wide basis. But when writing mobile content, you should ideally try to tailor your content for those specific users. Are they younger? More heavily male/female? Do they fall into a niche?  Do your homework and write accordingly.
  • Optimize, optimize, optimize—I had an Oprah-sized “Ah-ha” moment when I read this insightful post by Beth Graddon-Hodgson. She pointed out that people search differently on their mobile devices. Specifically, their queries are “more concise.” As she puts it:

If you want to find out if your dog could have fleas, on the computer you may type “signs that my dog has fleas” into Google. On your mobile device you may simply type “dog fleas.”

The consequences for optimization are obvious.

So there you have it: My initial thoughts about writing for the mobile medium. It’s a topic I plan to spend a lot of time thinking, studying, and probably arguing about for the foreseeable future, so I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Let’s start the conversation, shall we?

It’s definitely fun when a blog post or other piece of content catches on and starts getting passed around. People comment on it, re-tweet the link, share it on Facebook and your traffic spikes.  “I’m popular!” you think. “People like me!”

Is that really the most effective strategy? Sure, if you can do it all the time.

Otherwise, you should look at your traffic patterns over time and analyze which is really your most popular content.  Here at the CDG Blog, we have 2 posts that were immediately popular because they got picked up and passed around:

Since these posts' popularity came largely from social media links and StumbleUpon, we saw large spikes in our traffic. But after a few days that traffic dropped off and has since pretty much dried up. Hopefully we picked up a few RSS subscribers.

Then we have two other posts:

  • Chess for the Blind – from  May 2006 about a design competition to create a chess set for the blind which we liked because of our client American Foundation for the Blind and it's about accessibile design
  • 3 Tips for Taking the Google IQ Test – since both Heidi and I pass the test to become Google Analytics Individually Qualified, we shared our top tips on preparing for and taking the test.

Neither of these posts had a huge spike in traffic when it was posted. But because they are well optimized for keywords that are searched on consistently, they rank extremely well and drive (a small stream of) steady traffic. And over a couple of years, that adds up to being in the top 5 most popular posts on our site. No big flashy debut, just steadily doing the job and bringing visitors to us consistently.

What does this mean for you?

Don’t just look at the last month or the last quarter of data. Go back several years and see which pages are consistently driving traffic.  Take a look at the Entrance Sources – is it traffic from one really good referring link or organic?

Rather than looking at individual keywords, use the search feature to look for groups of similar words driving traffic to the page with Entrance Keywords.

Re-optimize old posts to take advantage of changes in search patterns.

Don’t overlook a few visits each week – over several years, that adds up to a steady stream of new visitors finding your content.

New journalism and the "Google Gods"

Journalism is changing to "appease the Google Gods" according to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post (though I might argue with him about whether some of those former headlines were as clever as the newspapers thought they were).

Approaching content strategy in a new way

A List Apart talks content strategy - including three reasons not to select a particular Content Management System (they're more common than you might think).

Not Found

404 Not Found is usually not the most popular page on your site. (And we always recommend a customized page to help visitors get back on track quickly.) Mashable presents a round-up of 35 entertaining 404 pages that you might actually want to go looking for.

Facebook search

We all wondered what Facebook would do with posts, pages and information that we "liked." And now we have at least a partial answer. As of this week you'll start seeing additional results when you use the search feature on Facebook that will show you which of your friends shared a particular link or liked a post containing your search terms.

Google in an instant

The launch of Google Instant (currently just in the U.S. and for searchers logged in to their Google accounts) had the web buzzing this week: what are the implications for SEO and AdWords, for example? Will it change the way people search? Meanwhile, one agency offered a way to track the new Instant searches in Google Analytics.

Curated book collection

This list is for service designers which is nice since dedicated books are few and far between.

Know of any other good curated lists?

Reflection As director of marketing, I’m subscribed to several different email lists for marketing newsletters, products and services. My main reason for subscribing is the content, but it also gives me insight into email marketing from the customer’s point of view. (For example, I’ve previously written about how to avoid glaring subject line mistakes.)

Last week was a case in point. One morning, I received a sponsored email message about a major email vendor’s white paper. About an hour later, I received the same message. And by "same," I mean identical: Same subject line, same content, everything.

At first I thought it was a mistake. Had the list double-sent the message? Was I subscribed to the same list twice by accident, perhaps under 2 different versions of my work email address?

When I opened both messages and compared them, I realized what had happened. This particular vendor had purchased a sponsored placement—and sent the same exact message to--two different email lists. It just so happened that I was on both lists, so I got the message twice.

(Now I’m going to assume that as a dedicated email sponsor, this vendor had no direct access to the addresses on both lists, so had no practical way to de-dupe addresses as they would have with an in-house list.)

So what can you do to avoid sending your audience the same message twice?

Continue reading "Haven’t I Seen This Message Before? How To Avoid Email Content Déjà Vu" »

This week, I’ve been doing some competitive research for a project, part of which involves looking at and reading a whole lot of websites. And you know what I’m finding? Most websites just have too much darned content. I’ve beaten this drum before, but it’s worth stating again: too much content will kill your site. Here are three reasons that you should strive for less content.

1. People don’t care about you.
It doesn’t matter what you’re selling or who you’re serving. The people who come to your website just don’t care about you. They care about themselves. They want to find what they’re looking for quickly and make a fast decision about whether you can help them. Keeping your site as lean as possible will help ensure that all of the most important information is right at the user’s fingertips (or mouse clicks).

2. They’ve heard it all before.
About halfway through my evaluation of competitors’ websites for this particular project, I realized that you could—almost without exception—cut and paste the content from any one site to another, and it would make NO DIFFERENCE. Every single company made the same promises, offered the same benefits, and touted similar expertise. There’s no need to regurgitate empty corporate promises for the sake of it. Say what you do. Prove you do it well. Tell the user what to do (buy something, contact you, sign up for an email, etc.). Get rid of everything else.

3. Less content is much easier to manage.
How many pages are there on your website? I’m willing to bet you can’t answer that with any level of certainty. And could you swear on a sacred text that all of that nebulous content is completely up-to-date and accurate? Think of how much easier your life would be if you got rid of all of those musty, dusty pages that nobody reads anyway? Check your site stats and find out which pages users AREN’T visiting. Odds are, you could jettison quite a few of them without hurting your site at all. In fact, you’ll probably make it better.

When’s the last time you de-cluttered your website?

I’m afraid I’m feeling a bit congested, writing-wise this week. But I’m taking my lovely colleague Heidi’s advice to get over myself & write.

Writers (myself included) often develop the habit of writing a little bit every day. Now, I try to exercise every day, and I find that there’s actually a lot in common between writing and exercising when you’re not especially in the mood. To wit:

  • You dread it.
  • It can be painful.
  • The hardest part is getting started.
  • It doesn’t take as long as you think.
  • You feel fantastic when it’s over.
  • You’re more likely to do it again tomorrow.

So when you’re faced with a writing project that’s just not inspiring you to brilliance, my advice is to go on a writing sprint. Try writing non-stop for 10 minutes. Set a timer and don’t stop typing (or scribbling). I can almost guarantee that once you finish your sprint, it will be easier to keep going.

See what I just did there? I cleared up my own congestion. And now, I’m off to tackle another project.

What techniques do you use to get over a creative block?

Pencils Amber Naslund of Altitude Branding wrote a great blog post last week on how to, well, write great blog posts. Of her 9 ways to breathe more life into your blog, the one that struck me most was #8: “Be Okay With Incomplete Thoughts.”

Here’s what Amber said: “So many people think they’ve got to write the complete guide to whatever to have a blog post. Instructions and how-tos have their place, but so does theory, insight, exploration, questioning. That’s part of what distinguishes a blog from a seminar, to me. It’s teaching and learning all wrapped into one.”

It shouldn’t seem that revelatory, but it was. Now maybe you’re not as much of a perfectionist as I am (or recovering journalist), but my internal editor usually insists that my writing doesn’t really count as writing—especially not for the blog—unless it’s a complete thing with a beginning, middle and end.

Don’t get me wrong, perfection has its place. So do multi-part blog post series. But Amber’s onto something here. Not all blog posts have to be “Here’s the Answer” instructional. They can be “Here’s An Answer” or “I’m Trying to Figure out the Answer” or even “What’s the Answer?”

It also reminds me of what Seth Godin says about quieting the lizard brain and how your job is to ship—to get it out the door.

As long as what you’re writing falls within your blog’s larger mission and scope (you do have a reason why you’re blogging, right?), an individual post’s format can be any degree of baked, from nicely browned to just-mixed dough.

So don’t worry whether your thought is complete or incomplete. Buy your lizard-brained internal editor a latte and let her relax for a while. And just write. Ship it, publish it, and write some more.

(Like this.)

Your Turn

  • How do you feel about writing “incomplete thoughts”?
  • How do you defeat the lizard brain or the internal editor?

[Photo credit: Hythe Eye, Flickr Creative Commons]

Get your web content rolling with copywritng that strikes the right toneBack when I used to sass off to my parents, they’d often say, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” Web content providers have to keep that in mind all the time. When you’re writing content about a dull or unpleasant subject, you need to deliver medicine with a healthy spoonful of sugar.

Unless you’re the DMV. At least that’s the message that seems to be coming across on a new podcast posted on the website for the Virginia DMV. I’ll admit the title got me curious: “Five Reasons to Avoid the DMV.”

I mean, does anyone NEED another reason to avoid the DMV? I don’t think so. Maybe this was a cheeky PR move to counter the institution's bad rep. They're in on the joke, right?

Not so much. Instead, the “podcast” is simply the audio file of a PSA, reminding Virginia residents that, although online renewal for vehicle registration is free, an in-person renewal will cost you $5. Huh?

Did they have a contest at the DMV to come up with the most off-putting way to address this topic? I mean, why not frame the announcement as “How to Save Time and Money at the DMV”? Or better yet “Five Ways to Avoid the DMV”? They could have easily profiled five transactions that Virginia drivers can do from the comfort of their own laptops, without schlepping all the way to the DMV.

With just a slight change of tone—Presto! The five dollars of savings now looks like a nice little cherry on top of the delectable sundae that is the DMV website.

Come on, DMV—we know we have to deal with you, but couldn’t you at least try to make us feel warmer and fuzzier about the whole thing?

When’s the last time you encountered online tone-deafness?

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