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Writers Weekly: Beyond Short and Scannable... Writing for Corporate Web Sites

I'm a lucky IA who started as a writer, moved into IA (both corporate in-house and consulting), and shifted again into writing after having a baby. Expect more of these sorts of articles -- who stays in one career their whole life anymore? It's important to talk about the hybrid people we are, and it's especially important to learn how to work well with others who influence the writing team. Cheers to everyone who can enjoy that journey. Read the article below, or find it over on Writers Weekly here.

August 16, 2006

Beyond Short and Scannable: Writing for Corporate Web Sites By Melissa Bradley Diskin

Good web copywriters arm themselves with a thesaurus, a style guide, and maybe even some books on emotional intelligence in the workplace. But if you write for the web, you know that there's more to successful copy than the old standbys of knowing your audience and keeping copy short for easy scanning. The following questions will help you navigate an early interview and also help you avoid hidden pitfalls after joining a corporate writer pool.

Who's on the team?

Corporate web sites aren't the province of a single person. Gone are the days of a single Webmaster - it can take hundreds of people to keep a site up and running. Writers need to keep abreast of how a site is structured and how it's changing over time, and these three people are most likely to be part of your (sometimes invisible) team. You may want to request a meeting with them if you aren't formally teamed up together:

+ Information Architect - an "IA" establishes a site's user experience and information design, from a high-level, site-wide view down to a page view, including wording and placement of buttons and other controls. Their templates, or "wireframes" for sections and pages, will often restrict copy length, and their primary focus is on how a user will navigate through the site to accomplish tasks. IAs are analytical, detail-oriented types who often come from creative backgrounds (including writing).

+ Graphic Designer - these right-brained folks are responsible for the look-and-feel of a site, but they're more than eye-candy vendors. The best ones have a background in user-centered design, and it's often their visuals, not your words, that grab corporate deciders by the lapel and say "this is it."

+ UI Programmers - don't dismiss these left-brained types as coding robots. As a writer, you won't be mixing with the database guys or the back-end coders, but user interface programmers or "front-end" coders will be dropping your copy into their code as they create demos and other interactive content.

Who's behind the team - who "owns" the site?

Anyone who works in a corporate environment knows that it's not just your direct boss who sees and approves your copy. The org-chart doesn't tell the whole story, so it makes sense to find out who the person is that you really need to please. The power-behind-the-throne could be a marketing executive higher up in the food chain, a product developer whose new product is about to hit the market, or the wunderkind in the chair next to you. Tread carefully, and adapt your written words as needed.

What's at stake?

Time and money are the watchwords of almost all corporate endeavors. Try to prevent loss of either by asking to see your predecessors' failed campaigns as well as successful ones, to find out what worked and why. As you work, keep a file of rejected copy, organized by product or site section - a sea change in an advertising campaign may send you scrambling for last-month's pitch file, to reuse headlines, phrasing, or a stray idea that didn't quite make it to the table then, but would work now.

Egos are fragile, so don't forget to work well with others. At the intersection of corporate in-house interests and external, user-centered interests, web copy needs to be strong, yet subtle, and the "buy now" tipping point is always hotly debated. There's nearly always a power play between marketing and the user-interface departments when a new product launches - it's practically an in-house joke! You'll need to align yourself with your group (for writers, this is usually marketing communications), but respect the other side and make overtures whenever you can, so that you can sidestep future squabbles.

Advice on rejection and moving on: Absorb, don't deflect, criticism. Remember, edits of your work are almost never personal. If site statistics determine that a phrase or product description isn't working to get users to click through and buy a product or service, it's not about you - it's just that the user hasn't responded as predicted. Be flexible, alter your phrasing, and see what happens over the next day or week on the site. This is when it pays to talk to the IA or other user-experience professional, who often keeps track of these stats.

You probably already know to tailor your words and think in sentences, rather than paragraphs. But don't forget to use the vocabulary of the corporation and its products. Study up on user interface concepts such as "findability" or "information scenting." Balance your inside, word-oriented view of the company with a sense of what a user needs to accomplish when he visits a site. And always remember that corporate success demands a willingness to work as a team, even if that team seems invisible at first.

Melissa Bradley Diskin is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and information architect who writes about food, fashion, and travel for Daily Candy, Not For Tourists, and others. She can be reached via her site, http://www.melissadiskin.com.

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