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Writing effective website copy

One of the biggest challenges in managing a website is writing compelling, interesting copy that motivates your audience to action. Recently, we chatted about copywriting with marketing guru Bob Johnson over at Hawkeye Creative Communication.

A few tips:

  • Write in the first-person. Address the reader directly. "I" and "you" are OK. You're not writing a thesis. You're communicating with real humans.

  • The first paragraph on a page can be only one sentence. When it comes to paragraphs, be ruthless. Never more than 50 words.

  • Sentence fragments. They're OK. For emphasis. And for punchiness. Really!

  • Be specific. Avoid general claims. A local campaign isn't going to change the world - don't claim that it will. It will, however, make a difference in that community.

  • Your subheads should be action phrases, not labels. In other words, "Social Security Information" is bad. Better: "Social Security Attacked." Best of all: "Help Defend Social Security."

  • Don't lecture. Avoid programmatic policy language. Instead, tell stories.

    As Jonathan Krantz of MarketingProfs.com points out, "If you want to scare the cloak off Little Red Riding Hood, don't lecture her about the woods and its perils - put the wolf's hot breath on her neck." After all, that was the genius of Ronald Reagan, right? Use stories to illustrate complex policy matters.

  • Pay attention to your audience. Use their words. When a supporter says something compelling about your campaign, use it.

  • Short, fast copy. Remember, people read books, scan web pages, and glance at email.
    • Short sentences.
    • Short paragraphs.
    • Subheads.
    • Bullet points.
    • Anglo-Saxon words (purge words with Latin roots).
    • Use bold to highlight key phrases.
    • Use emotional language, when appropriate.

  • Don't forget the call to action. It's astonishing how often people forget the call to action - and the link that empowers them to take action. If you actually ask people to take action, they're more likely to take action.

  • Don't forget links. No dead ends. There's always somewhere (maybe off your site) where visitors can get more info or take action. This is especially true for the 'thank you' page after they've taken action. Always tell them the next step in their activism.

  • If you're sending a regular newsletter, keep the subject line consistent. If you're sending a one-off pitch for action - use the subject line to grab their attention. (But avoid those spam triggers.)

  • And, of course, pay attention to your frames. George Lakoff is right: the language you use defines the mindset that people use to put ideas in their brain. Don't think of an elephant.