I’ve worked on more than 1,300 web sites over my web writing career and I’ve seen some sites that are downright embarrassing. They’re out of date, poorly written, overly grandstanding or just plain dumb.
When I’ve talked with the company about why their web site’s content doesn’t work, there are usually one of three reasons why.
The first of these reasons is …
Writing great content takes time. It takes significant time to understand your audience, determine their needs and supply the right information. It takes time to evaluate web stats to determine pages that need overhauling. It takes time to identify the right keywords that customers care about.
Unfortunately, some corporate, government or University web sites are the responsibility of people who just don’t have time. They’re busy – swamped at 120% capacity.
If you can never find enough time to update your site … you’re actually quite normal. 75% of participants in my web writing workshops say they don’t have enough time. Most of them say because the task of updating the company web site just isn’t given enough importance by their manager. A few of them say the responsibility for what is effectively a window into their organisation doesn’t even appear on their job description.
How sad is that?
If your company suffers from a lack of time to update your web site, you could benefit from outsourcing that task. If you want to talk to someone about it – or to just to commiserate – let us now.
We’ve just finished another series of workshops for a government department and taught a range of staff across the dept how to write and why it’s important to get it right. Why do we do tailored workshops? Is there a benefit to teaching a whole group of staff from one organisation rather than have them go off one at a time to a corporate workshop?
Training your staff en masse addresses a number of issues when it comes to writing great content for your web site.
Firstly, there is a misunderstanding in business that everyone can communicate. I have sat in on project briefings in which the project manager has been told to get the message out. No-one checked with the project manager as to whether they had the skillset to do it. The underlying view is that they naturally did. Communication, like any other part of business, is a skill and to presume that all of your staff can communicate well in the written form sets your organisation up against challenges of consistency, quality and quick delivery. Training them all individually can be expensive – which is why govt departments are leaning more towards training them all at once.
Secondly, this type of training introduces consistency across the department or organisation. If you have one key message to get across, training them to write to that message works.
Thirdly, it’s cheaper. That is usually enough to get the attention of management.
Lastly, the work starts in the workshop, not after it. Our tailored workshops use examples that are real to the staff. The examples we used in the government department workshop were their own examples. They weren’t hypotheticals. They weren’t examples of government communication from the UK or Canada … and they allowed the staff to apply the theory directly to their own work.
There is a real benefit to lifting the skillset of a whole group of people rather than just training up one person and then giving them the job of improving everything.
For years, good advertising campaigns were developed creatively by two people: the art director and the copywriter. Good campaigns nowadays still do. Ad agencies realised that the whole package needed to work together – the text informed the design, which carried the text.
Web site projects, however, don’t. Is that a good thing?
In my opinion, no.
Why do ad campaigns have a balance of design and words? Because it works. It is how the ad sector has developed materials for ages. And they keep doing it because it works.
But for some reason, web sites evolve with just a design influence. Yes, I know the responsibility of providing the content falls to the client and the designer plays the role of art directior, but I would argue that projects set up in this way really struggle break through because the client doesn’t know how to write effectively or communicate effectively with their audience.
If ad campaigns were set up like web sites, the art director would be relying on the client to come up with the copy, tagline or slogan. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Then why is the web any different?
Should I join you on Facebook or visit your web site or follow you on Twitter or connect with you on LinkedIn?
It’s intriguing that with the maturation of social media, organisations are now asking their audiences or customers to join them in multiple places online. Many companies promote their online presence by asking customers to like them on Facebook, visit their web site for more information, to follow them on Twitter or join their YouTube channel.
Then they’re disappointed if people don’t do all four.
The question I asked a client last week, in terms of how to structure an online presence, was to ask the simple question, ‘where should people connect with you on the web?’
Their answer was: ‘everywhere. We want people to join us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, our web site – everything ’.
Is that realistic? Also, it is worth it?
I don’t think it’s realistic. People are time-poor and don’t have spare time stashed away that they can spend communicating with you via four or five different platforms.
At this point of the discussion, the techies usually jump in and say ‘Don’t panic! We’ll link up your Twitter feed to populate your web site and link your blog to your Linkedin profile so it is automatically updated.’ Is that the right approach?
As with so many things when it comes to communication on the web, I don’t think a technical solution automatically fixes a communication problem.
The key behind the strategy of an integrated online presence is that you are using the channel to reach people who a) are in that channel anyway or b) like the style that that platform produces.
I’ve set up social media programs where the organisation has used Facebook as a research tool and Twitter to make announcements particularly to the media. If their customers don’t follow both, then that’s fine. The communication channels are playing their role.
I have prospective customers who we refer to this blog because it showcases my expertise in social media or web writing and I don’t then push them into joining our eNewsletter or follow me on Twitter. And that’s okay … I am still connecting with them.
Social media has enabled us to connect with people in a different way but on the downside it has also fragmented the overall communication with them online.
So where do you want people to connect with you on the web?
One of the things that has always fascinated me about web sites and social media is that people often will upload a better version of themselves than what they really are.
I have seen some profiles from friends and colleagues where the photo is stylized and I know of one particular woman who Photoshops ALL photos before they go online.
The persona they adopt, the language that they use and the stories they tell can give you a different impression of who they are as well.
I was talking about this with some friends and someone mentioned they were disappointed in what they’d seen on social media from their friends – not because it was offensive or incorrect, but because it wasn’t the real them. And the person made the statement ‘it’s a shame that they aren’t more real because who they are is what makes them’.
So what does this philosophical rant mean for corporate web sites?
I have recently worked on a couple of corporate web sites, where it was obvious in the briefing meeting that the client wanted to portray on the web a better version of themselves.
Now while I completely agree that you should always put your best foot forward when promoting yourself, one of the things with these companies was that their success was built on the type of people they were and the way they did business. What they wanted to put on their web site didn’t reflect that. As a result, it wasn’t going to engage with prospective customers in the same successful way they engaged with people in the real world.
Since then, I’ve taken on two projects where we are very much working towards adding personality to the site and being as real as possible – to show a company warts and all on the web but then to take the next step to showing how a company fixing its shortcomings. The web site is about people … not product.
Surveys are showing how people’s trust of web sites is falling simply because people don’t just believe what they read on the web any more. One way to get around that is to be real – to show what your customers look like, how you help them and to remove the marketing fluff which tries to show something that you obviously aren’t.
From lurkers to contributors …
The fourth and final key to social media is not just getting people to turn up in your social media space, it’s getting them involved.
How do you engage with people via social media? This is actually the hardest part of running any social media program. This isn’t like Kevin Costner in the field of dreams ‘if we build it they will come’. You need to work hard to a) bring people into the community but then work even harder to b) engage with them.
In a workshop yesterday, I was asked ‘how do you turn people from lurkers to contributors?’ She was having issues with many people interested in her social media presence, but very few actually contributing.
That’s quite normal. Research from a few years back found that around 70% of social media communities observe the contributions of others while not adding anything themselves. In short, they like to watch.
So how do you turn that 70% into contributors? Well, the first thing to realise is that some people won’t contribute … and that’s okay. They don’t want to participate proactively – and probably wouldn’t if you were holding a conversation around a board table in the real world. So expecting the whole 70% to start becoming posting machines isn’t feasible.
But you can chip away at the others. Some ideas for you:
- Ask questions. Too many corporate social media efforts are one-way message broadcast services. You can’t look at it this way if you want to be engaging with people. You have to talk WITH them, not AT them. So ask their opinions, ask questions and get them to respond to issues by asking them to … but keep it professional. Find out how they use your products or services, but be careful asking them which is their favourite day of the week or whether they scrunch or fold. They’ll disappear faster than you could imagine.
- Start the ball rolling for them. Sometimes people are reluctant to jump into a conversation (or even a social media space) because they don’t want to be the first one to talk. If that’s the case for you, you may want to set up a few people to be key contributors. Give them ideas if you need to.
- Find out why they don’t participate. Perhaps they don’t feel they know enough to contribute. If that’s the case, then show them that any contribution is welcome.
- Use polls or simple response competitions. Clicking on a radio button is actually a contribution.
These are just some ideas to hopefully spark further ones. Growing social media is not just about numbers … it’s about engagement.