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May 13, 2010

Content Boot Camp: Run a Mile in Your Reader’s Shoes

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Our Web content exercises are coming to an end, but now you’ve begun to build the muscle you need to endure any writing project that comes your way. If you had to take just one point away from this series, it’s that your online voice should be a reflection of the brand and its target community.

That said, it’s a good time to once again bring it back to who your target audience, or community, is. Who your readers are affects the way you’ll deliver the message. Tone up your writing by taking the time to know who makes up your target communities. You wouldn’t speak the same way to a community of attorneys as you would to a community of gamers, right?

runners' shoes
CC BY-SA 2.0

Last week, we talked brand “messages.” This week, we’ll talk “tone.” Messaging and tone go hand in hand. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it — what voice you use to deliver that message. For example, you may want your website to be friendly and humorous or sophisticated and professional. And while many factors go into creating the “feel” a person gets from a website, copy is an important element.

Let’s take an example from last week’s Content Boot Camp, “Send the Right Messages.” I used two examples of how a company with a line of high-quality cookware might frame up its messaging (what it says about its brand).

The first message went something like this:

“Buy our pots and pans because they’re full of awesomeness. Dude, let’s not beat around the bush: You like to eat, don’t you? Well, they cook stuff you like to eat.”

And the second was:

“When you invest in our platinum cookware, you join an elite society of people who also value the art of cooking.”

In last week’s post, we concluded that the second example would strike more of a chord in the target community because it sent messages like “the art of cooking” and “elite society.” But it’s not just what was said but how it was said. The way key messages are delivered through the use of words sets the tone. One voice is not superior to the other; rather it varies with the community the company is trying to target.

So, what kind of community would the first example be targeting? Well, it might work well for a younger crowd, maybe male college students. And what kind of company would send that message? We might conclude that the company is one that provides inexpensive cookware to young adults who care about saving money and the utility of pots and pans. A company that doesn’t take itself too seriously would likely connect with a college-aged crowd.

It all boils down to what image you’d like to portray. And if by now you haven’t built your brand yet, this exercise, along with the others I’ve discussed, can help you brainstorm a persona for your product, service or organization.

If you’re still unsure of what type of style or tone suits your brand or community, review other websites online, read through industry or mainstream publications and so on. Once you find a style you like that makes sense for your brand, take note of it and use that as a foundation.

Trim the Fat

Regardless of what tone and messaging you choose, here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when writing to any online reader:

  • Dump the nonsensical verbiage. Just because people around you use the terms “integrated solutions” or “strategizing” freely in their daily banter, doesn’t mean they’re the best words to use in your Web copy. Instead, try explaining in detail what an “integrated solution” would actually mean to the situation.
  • Don’t assume your readers know what you’re talking about. Explain anything that could be unclear, in detail. Even if you’re sure you’re writing to someone who would understand industry-specific concepts, tap into your inner journalist to answer the who, what, when, where, why and how.
  • Keep it simple. Most major print and online media write at grade-school level, so it’s always best to keep it simple. The waning attention span of readers — especially online readers — will work against you if your copy is hard to read, even if it’s an educated community. If you can’t read it out loud without stumbling, you’re probably in trouble.

Pump Up Your Interview Questionnaire

You’ve been working hard to follow the series, so here’s a little gift: download this questionnaire that covers all the key topics we’ve discussed in our Content Boot Camp classes. This will give you the basis for crafting unique copy for all your Web projects. Go forth and conquer that keyboard!

Content Creation Questionnaire (PDF)

Content Boot Camp Series

Part 1: Performing For Your Audience
Part 2: Your Company Is Great … So What?
Part 3: Send the Right Messages
Part 4: Run a Mile in Your Reader’s Shoes

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5 responses to “Content Boot Camp: Run a Mile in Your Reader’s Shoes”

  1. Steven writes:

    Thanks Jessica.

    I’m sure someone summed up your first fat trimming point with the phrase “eliminate superfluous words”. That’s something I make a point of doing when I blog.

  2. Steven writes:

    Never underestimate a client’s ignorance!

    That’s not a jibe – the whole reason any client hires any professional is to compensate for their own lack of experience and expertise in a field. So that point about not assuming is a very pertinent one.

  3. Vanessa writes:

    Thanks for the post, great info – I can’t wait to pass it along to our staff.

  4. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thanks, Vanessa — glad to hear it!

  5. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thanks for the comment, Steven. Usually I find that the clients hold the knowledge on their product or service, and as a writer, it’s my job to use my expertise to extract that knowledge and translate it in a way that connects with the target audience.



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