WEBSITE DESIGN GUIDE - CREATING COMPELLING CONTENT THAT ENCOURAGES ACTION
Good content needs to be both accessible and compelling, which can be achieved by considering the person who is going to be consuming it, and tailoring its focus and style accordingly.
It might go without saying, but every website on the internet has content on it. ‘Content’ can mean lots of different things and it can take lots of different forms. It could be news articles or blog posts but it could equally be contact details, product information or a pricing matrix. It could be first-party (what that website has produced themselves) or third-party (such as reviews, links to other websites or social media feeds). It can be written, pictorial, videotorial or audio. For transactional websites it could be the products themselves and for other types of websites it could be a specific functionality such as a booking form for a restaurant, or an airport’s live departure board.
Content is what keeps us on a website once we arrive there and it’s what helps us assess the suitability of a company or its products and services. It’s what, ultimately, helps us fulfil our needs and get our goals and jobs completed.
Whilst someone like a journalist might spend a lot of time carefully crafting and finessing the article they are working on (at least a good journalist will), other types of content often don't get the same love and attention they deserve. This is a shame as content is the single most important element of your site, and every bit of it contributes to the experience someone has and the perceptions they form. In recent times, content has also taken on a secondary purpose, and is now a key component of both search engine optimisation (SEO) and content marketing strategies.
I’ll be focusing on what makes content effective. This is difficult to achieve (creating good content is a real skill and takes hard work), but it is conceptually simple. Fundamentally, effective content needs to satisfy two criteria:
Delivering on just one of these elements isn’t enough. It doesn’t matter how strong your content’s message is if it isn’t effectively conveyed. It also doesn’t matter how easy it is to absorb your content if it doesn’t hold any actual value.
2. ENSURING CONTENT IS ACCESSIBLE
Before we go on, it’s worth mentioning that ‘accessibility’ actually holds technical meaning in the world of web design - most commonly referring to the practice of ensuring those with disabilities can still use your site. I’ll cover that concept in more detail in a later guide, but for now, I’m simply using ‘accessibility’ to mean how easy something is to consume and digest. There are several ways to help ensure this.
Pitch it at the same level as your audience
Any content on your site should be developed for your visitor’s benefit. This might seem obvious, but it’s incredibly easy to lose sight of when your content is being created. One way to avoid this happening is to always be considering who the content is going to be consumed by.
Once you have this in your head, tailor the complexity of your content accordingly. A typical rule of thumb when creating content is to assume your visitor has limited knowledge of the topic area, but that isn’t always the case. It might be true of a website selling something like a boiler, an infrequent purchase where the visitor’s product familiarity is going to be low. In this case, language should be kept simple, and jargon should be avoided. However, if you were a paediatrician writing an article to be read by your peers, then you could assume a much higher level of fluency in the topic area and adjust your style accordingly.
Keep it concise
Your content should take up as little of your visitor’s time, whilst delivering as much value as possible. Every word of text, or second of runtime, should count, and the key messages should be communicated early and clearly.
Many of your visitors are likely to be time short and will appreciate it if you can keep your content concise and focussed. Unfortunately, some online constructs encourage bad practices in this area. For example, SEO guidelines encourage writers to stuff their content full of keywords for the search engines to pick up on. If you can include a keyword or two in your content and still preserve its coherence then that’s fine, but artificially including them at to the detriment of your overall message is not.
Make it visually digestible
In a later guide I’ll talk about how layout and visual design choices can help content feel consumable. Beyond that, there are a few things that the content itself can do to look consumable:
Break up content with headings. A reader's eyes and brain need a break from block text and headings and sub-headings allow that, and give valuable structure to your writing and other content. This is true for video content too, where headings and divider frames would provide equivalent value.
Break up content with imagery/video. This can be another way to give your visitors a mental break and is a perfectly valid reason for using imagery.
Use lists. The human brain craves structure when consuming content and numbered lists and bullet points help provide that. They also stand out and indicate which part of the content is most worth focusing on.
3. DEVELOPING CONTENT THAT IS COMPELLING
Once you’ve ensured your content is accessible, it needs to be compelling. I mean this in the literal sense - good content compels people to do something having consumed it. That something could be something significant, such as signing up to a paid online learning course or requesting a quote, or something much smaller like signing up to a newsletter or even just remaining on a site and reading more. There are a number of steps that can be taken to make content compelling.
Make it purposeful
All content should be written with a purpose in mind - be that to educate, convince, impress, entertain, inspire or something else. Deciding what you want your content to achieve in advance of creating it helps direct and shape it, leaving you with something more meaningful and impactful.
For example, a solicitor might write wills for its clients and want to communicate that service. Before doing so it should decide why exactly it wants to do this. There are a number of valid reasons it could have, all of which would lead to differences in the content it should create:
Advertise. It might be happy just to communicate it offers this service. The content format would, therefore, be quite factual, with a list of features of benefits of the service and little other commentary.
Educate. It might decide that for people to be able to properly assess the service, they should know a bit about wills to begin with. This would mean adopting a more patient content style, where things are explained in simple terms and visitors are guided through the decision-making process.
Impress. Writing wills is quite a skill (I imagine) and the process of having one written would definitely require expert help. A solicitor wanting to communicate that might decide to make them sound scary and complex, but leave the reader believing their firm can help by communicating their expertise and heritage.
Convince. A solicitor could decide that as part of the will-buying journey its visitors are likely to be looking at lots of different options and providers, and so decide to write content that demonstrates that their firm is best placed to help. This content would lean heavily on not only the benefits of the service, but on the aspects that truly differentiate their firm from the next.
It's true that some content could have a dual purpose (our solicitor might want to educate and impress at the same time), but it’s generally worth picking just one purpose (or a maximum of two) and sticking to that. Picking more will lead to content that is less focussed, less concise and only partially effective at achieving its aim.
Make it relevant
All content should be relevant and beneficial to the visitor who is consuming it. Think about your visitors' goals and missions - as much of your content as possible should be in service to helping them do that.
For example, it might be right for our solicitor to try and educate their visitors about wills and how they work, because a lot of their site traffic will be people doing preliminary research into the topic area. For a website selling something more straightforward (such as phone chargers), content that is designed to educate the visitor is going to be largely irrelevant. That website’s visitors aren't looking to learn about phone chargers - they are there to find the right one, compare prices and quickly make a purchase.
Make it unique and current
Content should also be original and unique. Most sites are likely to have competitors and so need to find ways to stand out and differentiate themselves. A new perspective or take on an issue is one way to achieve that, whereas content that treads the same ground as every other website of its type will provide very little additional value.
Content should also be kept up-to-date. If things change in your industry, or within your company, your website must reflect that. If not, the content could end up being misleading and prove actively detrimental (rather than beneficial) to the visitor consuming it.
Make sure it reflects how you want people to perceive your brand
There are a number of ways a visitor will gauge how likely your website will be to help them achieve their goals and jobs. That will be partially informed by a logical and rational assessment of your offer, but much of it will be driven by more emotional factors and gut feel. Your content is one of the key elements that will influence this gut feel.
This means that you need to pick a tone for your content to adopt. There is no right answer for what your tone should be - authoritative, factual, familiar, technical, informal - but this should align with how you want your visitors to see your brand, and should be largely consistent across all pieces of content on your site. To bring back our solicitor as an example, an authoritative and factual tone is likely to prove more effective than something informal, given the nature of what a solicitor does.
Provide a call to action
We already touched upon calls-to-action (CTAs) when discussing the homepage, but their use needn't be limited to there alone. Effective content gives you a chance to leverage CTAs in a way that feels natural and organic. For example, having informed someone about a product or service, any of these CTAs would be relevant, and even expected:
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Not all content needs a CTA, and in some places it would be odd to see one but, if used correctly, they can provide visitors with the impetus to carry on their journey with you, hopefully leading to positive next steps and action.
You almost certainly want visitors to be left with a positive impression of you and your company and will (hopefully) spend time crafting well-thought-out, original content. All of that good work can be undone by basic spelling and grammar (SPAG) errors.
Most website builders will come with an inbuilt spellcheck tool - so use it! There are also browser add-ons you can download that will check these things on the fly (my current favourite is one called Grammarly). These tools are completely free and, if they save you even one lost sale or lapsed visitor, are well worth your time.
Match the complexity of your content to the topic familiarity of the visitor who is going to be consuming it.
Keep your content as concise as possible, without compromising its meaning or message.
Don’t let SEO principles (such as use of keywords) lead to overly bloated or incoherent content.
Use headers, imagery and video, and bullets or numbered lists to help break up your content.
Consider what you want your content to achieve (its purpose) before you begin creating it.
Don’t try and achieve too much with your content - keep its intended purpose as focussed as possible.
Ensure all content is relevant to your visitors, the journeys they’re on and the goals they want to achieve.
Ensure your content is unique and up-to-date.
Use a tone and style that fits with how you want your visitors to perceive your brand.
Leverage calls to action (CTAs), where relevant, to give visitors a clear next step once they’ve consumed your content.
11. Run a full spelling and grammar check before publishing.