The Vanguard View: Insight for Association Websites

Engage and Convert: Make Your Association’s Website Content “Web Friendly”

Posted by Ray van Hilst on Wed, Jul 16, 2014


This is the second in a series of blog posts based on the “5 Website Improvements to Make in 5 Minutes (or Less)” that I co-presented with Maggie McGary at the ASAE Membership, Marketing and Communications Conference in June 2014. Each of these posts will cover one of the elements we discussed in more detail and today’s topic is Make your Content “Web Friendly”.  To get a sneak peek of future posts, view the slides from our session on Slideshare.

Words Matter

Visitors to your association website don't want to exhaust themselves wading through an endless chunk of text just to find out who you are and what you offer. By filling your pages with great portions of text –  without images, videos, or any way to interact – you will send your potential users away.

Of course, you need words.

But you don't need as many as you may think.

In his essay 'A Storyteller's Shoptalk', the great, late short story writer, Raymond Carver, once said: “That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones.” Carver was known for his succinct style, and for crafting deceptively simple sentences almost any reader could engage with. Now, Carver never wrote for websites, true enough, but we can learn valuable lessons from his quote.

Research by the Nielsen Normal Group shows that you can achieve a 58% increase in usability by cutting half the words on your page. Furthermore, in his book Don't Make Me Think, Steve Krug explains his 3rd Law of Usability by telling us: “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half what's left.” This may sound extreme, but it really will work. Users will not be impressed by a wall of text on every page, no matter how eloquent it may be.

Try focusing on shorter paragraphs, and get rid of what Krug calls:

  • 'Happy talk' with too much salesy waffle
  • Pointless instructions
  • Unnecessary adjectives (e.g. that)

Once you begin to remove certain words and phrases, you may just be amazed by how much more engaging your content becomes.

Take a look at the following example from Don’t Make Me Think. Both pieces share the same goal, yet their structure is very different:

The following questionnaire is designed to provide us with information that will help us improve the site and make it more relevant to your needs. Please select your answers from the drop-down menus and radio buttons below.
The questionnaire should only take you 2 to 3 minutes to complete. At the bottom of the form you can choose to leave your name, address, and telephone number. If you leave your name and number, you may be contacted in the future to participate in a survey to help us improve the site.
If you have comments or concerns that require a response please contact Customer Service.

This is written well, and clear enough, but it's far too wordy. Let's see the smarter choice:

Please help us improve the site by answering these questions. It should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete the survey.
NOTE: If you have comments or concerns that require a response, don't use the form. Instead, please contact Customer Service.

As you can see, the above version is much better: it takes less time to read, it features more white space, and it tells the reader exactly what they need to know. By using “customer service” as anchor text linking to the company's customer contact page, the reader also has a call to action for a clear next step.

Write (and Layout) for Scanning

As we explored in our previous post on visual hierarchy, you should lay each page out so it is as easy for the user to scan as possible: your key information needs to be presented so it's quick and easy to find.

How can you improve your layout?

  • Embrace heads and sub-heads - Use this format in Word for easy importing onto your site. Make each head and sub-head clear – avoid ambiguity.
  • Break up content with bullets and lists - Just like this one. Clever, eh?
  • Use formatting to call out copy - Bold sparingly (but effectively), and use italics to emphasise key points without going overboard.
  • Leave white space between content - This aids faster reading.
  • Use strategic images - Again, don't bombard the user – just give them enough visual aids to reflect your services and support key points.

One of my favorite examples is the edit  Kathy Henning used in her blog post for ClickZ titled "Writing for Readers Who Scan" where she re-wrote the opening paragraphs of Moby Dick to be scannable for the web.  (Click here to read it... We'll wait while you check it out.)

Dispense with jargon and superfluous vocabulary

When you create content, never use undefined jargon or needlessly complex language – you'll exclude new (or potential) members of your community, and can hurt your search discovery.

Be as clear and engaging as you can, for all users – the harder your content is to understand, the faster users will click back to another result.

For example, avoid using 'official' terms for familiar concepts when there are easier options. Here are some samples from

  • Riverine Avifauna = River Birds
  • Involuntary Undomiciled = Homeless

Passive versus Active Voice

Writers often tell us to avoid the passive voice wherever we can, as it's clumsy and potentially confusing. However, as Jakob Nielsen points out passive voice can be an effective tool for headlines and subheads.

Passive voice allows you to:

  • Front load keywords
  • Put the most important words first
  • Think ROI

The active voice, on the other hand, works best for body copy, as it:

  • Increases readability and understanding
  • Establishes writing best practices

An example of using passive voice for a headline and then active voice for the body

5 Tips to Better Writing: Get your Free White Paper Now

Become a better writer for the web with this new whitepaper. Increase the readability of your website with the important content in this paper.

As you can see, the passive voice places the “meat” offer of a free whitepaper at the beginning of the title telling the user the unique value and what they will get. However, the active voice's body copy is more dynamic, more direct, and imperative – it is directing the user with concise language.

No matter the subject of your content, users want to find the information they need without becoming bogged down in blocks of text.

Let them get in, get what they need, and get out.




Krug's 3rd Law of Usability tells us to “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.”  Studies show this increases usability by 58%.

Photo Credit: Flickr, edibleoffice


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Topics: web governance, best practices

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