Saying what needs to be said

The hardest part of creating a website isn’t writing the code or setting up the servers, it’s writing exactly the right thing to convince someone to sign up. As the creators of our own sites, it’s nearly impossible to put ourselves into the mind of a new visitor. We come up with great sounding headlines and slogans thinking they describe our products perfectly, when in reality they leave visitors scratching their heads and us with a high bounce rate.

“It does exactly what it says on the tin” – Ronseal

When writing your headlines and follow-on text, always ask yourself “How?”, “What?” and “Why?”. Those are the questions users will be asking themselves as they skim your site. Remember that you have only 10-20 seconds to capture their attention, so forget fancy and clever headlines and write concise and practical ones.

I believe an example of where perhaps things could have been improved was on a previous site I built contraswap.com.

The copy is perfect, but is it right? At first I would read it and think “Yeah, this describes our product perfectly.” and then after a period of time spent not working on the product, re-reading it made me question what the site actually did and left with questions. Ok, the why is that I’ll gain more readers, but what is an advertising barter exchange and how do I use one. You could argue that the answers are obvious, but I’m playing the role of a naive visitor. I heard a great quote at SeedCamp this year, that it’s not that users are stupid, it’s just that we haven’t earnt the right to their attention yet. Introductory text needs to allow me to not have to think. I even wondered if people even realised that it was an online tool.

A good example of a landing page is 37signals’ Backpack. The why is a better organised business. The how is by keeping everything in a centralised place. The what is that it’s a web-based tool. The copy is simple and reading-level low so that it doesn’t require much thought process to ingest.

On the surface this stuff seems easy, but believe me, it’s really hard. Always question the things you write or better yet, get someone else to read it, but make sure they have no prior knowledge of what your product does. Ask yourself “How?”, “What?” and “Why?” every time you write something your users will read.

  • I think the problem boils down to having to be so concise. You can never answer every question in about 30 words. Maybe the trick is to just pick one key thing and go with that. A well-chosen screenshot probably speaks as much as the text too, giving you extra “words” to play with, as it were.

  • It’s interesting that some of the 37signals products have longer text on their homepage too (as I write, the bottom of the page at http://basecamphq.com/ ). I’m thinking of different ways for experimenting with longer text whilst still trying to keep it readable. Because in about 30 words you’re always going to have heaps of questions left over. Perhaps the purpose of the intro text should only be to pique curiosity to make people read the next piece of text, and you just accept that you can’t do it all straight away.