Whose site is this anyway? Hint: not yours

There usually comes a time in the development of a website when the owner suddenly realises it’s not their website at all. Or to be more precise, it’s not about them – it’s actually about the reader.

But wait, who’s paying for this? Why can’t I talk about the 18 months we spent re-developing a key product or after-sales process? What about that really clever algorithm that we own? Surely that should be explained.

You can see where this is going, so I’ll spare you the obvious (and sometimes painful) conclusion that no, it doesn’t necessarily have to be mentioned, let alone “explained”.

Why because your website is actually about your reader’s business.

Details are not details. Oh yes, they are

The thing is, as readers we are pretty good at reading through texts. We have been trained to scan and zone in on the bits that might be interesting. What are they? In writing terms, they are the bits that tell us what we can do with this new product or service. What we don’t want are details. Why? Because how you got there is your problem, not the readers’.

Engineers: I get it, I really do. Without the details, the product would not be twice as fast, bright or reliable as the competition. This is exciting for everyone. What isn’t exciting is the detail of what makes it do all that. Because guess what: they are details for the reader. We want to know what it means for us in real life.

Mirror, mirror

The first time the penny dropped for me on this subject was in the nineties. Upon reading a glowing description of his company that I had written, the client said it was just what he needed to boost his morale in the morning, “What a cool company I work in”.

The point he was making is that it was written to please the client, not the client’s customer.

How can I tell?

There is a very fine line between providing information and writing fluff about oneself. How can you tell which side of the line you are on?

  • Gut feeling: you get a warm fuzzy glow about yourself from your own website.
  • First person plural: if you find the word “we” more than twice on the same page.
  • First person plural (ii): if you start any sentence with the word “we”.
  • No direction: every sentence should make the connection with the reader’s business or goals; you’re leading them to the “contact” or “download” buttons.

Exceptions, I’ve known a few

There are nonetheless a few sites that can afford to be less outcome-oriented. Public service sites that detail grants or government procedures spring to mind. FAQs and customer support sites are other examples.

Last thing: calls to action that sing!

Once the overall site has been reviewed, now take a really close at all the calls-to-action. How enticing are they? Does the reader have a reason to click through? Would you?

Michael Leahy writes stuff (that’s the pitch). If you want to get more response from your website, drop a note (that’s the CTA).

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