Is Web Copy Ruining Your Design?

Jan 10 2011 by Rick Sloboda | 24 Comments

Is Web Copy Ruining Your Design?

Integrating web copy and design can be a difficult feat when the designer and copywriter aren’t on the same page. Failure and disappointment often follow.

To ensure that web copy and design collectively attain optimal results, the designer and writer must have a shared understanding in at least four areas:

  • Website’s purpose
  • Website’s audience
  • Brand’s characteristics
  • Web requirements and constraints

Define the Website’s Purpose

Every website and web page should have a purpose. Amongst the most important questions a designer can ask a client is: "What is the objective of your website, and how does it support your business goals?" Surprisingly, many business owners aren’t sure.

With a bit of prodding, the designer can establish the website’s objective, which might entail, but not be limited to:

  • Selling products online
  • Producing leads
  • Creating awareness
  • Building a brand
  • Attracting subscribers
  • Establishing a community
  • Generating feedback

What’s more, defining a website’s main objective helps shape the site’s primary call to action, which might be to get the visitor to subscribe to a newsletter, call or email, request a quote, download a demo, and so on. And when the design and copywriting are collectively geared toward getting users to take that action, the website will produce higher conversion rates and overall success.

Energy management company Energex makes it easy for their website visitors to complete tasks, thanks to clearly defined calls to action.

Determine the Website’s Audience

Websites should target a specific audience. Typically, there will be one primary audience, and one or two secondary audiences. Each audience has its own attitudes, concerns, biases, needs and desires. Good website design and website copy accommodates the unique characteristics of each audience.

If the designer and the copywriter are not clear who they’re targeting, chances are the website will miss the mark completely. For instance, our copywriting firm was hired to write content for a dental implant specialist, and the designer indicated we were to target the general public. By asking the client a few questions, one of our copywriters discovered they actually wanted to focus almost exclusively on referring dentists, which made a world of difference on what needed to be designed and communicated.

When a web designer and copywriter are in sync, the visual and written messages are much more likely to resonate with the intended audience. For example, per the image below, the computer repair specialists at Macinhome connect with Mac fans by featuring heavily Apple-influenced web design and copy. So when the Mac enthusiasts land on their website, they feel right at home.

Also, by clearly defining intended audiences, designers and writers avoid designing and writing for themselves or their clients, which often leads to self-aggrandizing drivel. For more on targeting the right audience, check out Web Writing: The Good, Bad and Ugly.

Understand the Brand’s Characteristics

Brands have their own personalities, and both website design and copywriting need to reflect the characteristics of the brand. Having a fun and wacky design is no good if the writing emphasizes safety and reliability. Similarly, lyrical writing isn’t effective if the brand is simple and direct.

Case in point: our copywriters assisted a pheromones manufacturer last year, whose website originally featured formal, scientific-themed visuals, along with web copy that stated, "For guys who want to get laid." Definitely a brand disconnect there.

Designers and copywriters form a personality and set a tone. Therefore, they must help the client develop a consistent identity, signifying what the company stands for and promises to deliver.

Thrillworks offers an example of how design and web copy can harmoniously merge to convey a clear message, and create certain expectations.

Adhere to Web Requirements and Constraints

Internet users are constantly bombarded — and often overwhelmed — by piles of disjointed information and technologies. Through exploration and constructive discussions, designers, developers and copywriters can plan and align the right technologies, information architecture, SEO tactics, and other important website elements.

Failing to have a unified plan of attack can cause delays, grief and missed opportunities. For instance, a conventional copywriter with limited or no knowledge of online navigation, link strategies, or basic rules of SEO can hurt search engine presence, usability, conversions and a website’s overall success. In such cases, delegating certain tasks to another teammate or bringing in a specialist can save the day — and the project.

How to Achieve a Shared Understanding

While it’s easy to see that web designers and copywriters should operate from a shared understanding of purpose, audience and brand, it’s more difficult to reach this shared understanding in practice. Fortunately, there are strategies that designers and writers can employ to get on the same page.

Work from the Client’s Own Documentation

One of the easiest methods is to work from the client’s own documentation. If the client has an up-to-date, written marketing strategy and communications plan, then the website’s purpose and audience will likely be obvious. A documented brand analysis signals necessary design and copy characteristics.

Pull the Information Out of the Client

If the client doesn’t have documentation, then the writer and designer may need to pull this information out of the client. If the client has formulated plans that haven’t been documented, then the designer and writer can interview relevant managers, compile their findings, and report back to the client.

Another approach is to provide the client with a questionnaire that prompts them to note their marketing objectives and goals. By having the client respond in writing to questions surrounding purpose, audience and brand, the designer and writer can be certain that they are on the same page as the client.

Step Back From the Project

In the event the client is unable to clearly define their marketing strategy or the purpose and audience of the website, the designer and writer may need to temporarily step back from the project. Until the client can provide clear direction, the client is unlikely to be happy with the website and may make continuous requests for changes — a scenario where no one wins.

How to Deal with Crappy Copy

Designers often find themselves creating designs for old web copy. In some cases, the client may have taken copy directly from existing print material, or assigned the writing to an employee who’s an inexperienced writer. Consequently, the web copy may miss the mark for purpose, audience, brand and web requirements.  

While there’s an increasing awareness surrounding web writing, many businesses continue to fail to recognize what professionally written web copy can bring to a website and the company’s bottom line. A well-versed web copywriter can help a business with everything from attaining traffic via search engines, to differentiating a business from the competition, to defining and persuasively communicating key benefits.

So, when a designer is faced with a client that insists on using weak copy, it helps to point out that professionally written web content can:

  • Generate presence and attract traffic via search engines.
  • Bolster their brand, to help gain trust and credibility.
  • Improve conversions, which means more leads and sales.
  • Provide a higher ROI on their online marketing investment.
  • Eliminate stress, save time, and help avoid delays.

Summary

To attain an effective website, design and copy need to reinforce each other. The web designer and web copywriter must support the same objectives, address the same audience, and project the same brand characteristics. When in tune with each other, designers and copywriters can create more robust websites that gain credibility and trust, and achieve desired objectives, goals and conversion rates.

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About the Author

Rick Sloboda is a Senior Web Copywriter at Webcopyplus. Their company’s client list includes AT&T and Scotia Bank. He advocates clear, concise and objective website content that promotes readability and usability, and conducts web content studies with organizations in Europe and the U.S., including Yale University. Follow him on Twitter @Webcopyplus.

24 Comments

Vivek Parmar

January 10th, 2011

that’s really a pathetic condition when anyone copycat your hard work. For content writing we can use copyscape but for designing didn’t find a any of them.

Shaymein

January 10th, 2011

Don’t forget content strategy and governance of content! After the launch of the site, who’s in charge of content, how will they be in charge of content, how does that fit into the brand image you developed and how will that content be displayed and continue to uphold the site’s design and structure. Failure to plan on how site content will change in 3 weeks or 6 months can wreck your design as well or prove to be a poor design if not ready for such content.

Here’s a good resource: http://blog.braintraffic.com/

Also, designers should be attending this: http://confab2011.com/ to get a good idea of how that planning of a website can be done.

Brandon

January 10th, 2011

Great article! I experience this struggle between design and copy frequently, whether it be at my 9-5 job or with freelance clients. As a designer, understanding the purpose of a site and having strong copy makes designing a lot easier. There is nothing worse than trying to create an effective design with no or weak copy. Thanks for the insights.

Richard

January 10th, 2011

Funny that a copywriter considers himself as important to a website as a designer. Give a client a choice on which to pick, good design or good web copy, and they’ll chose design.

Umer

January 10th, 2011

The Purpose of a website should be kept in mind before designing a website

Usman

January 10th, 2011

Website Audience should be considered while designing a website

Michael Tuck

January 10th, 2011

You guys can crack on content writers all you like, but the fundamental reason of any Web design is to support the content, not vice versa. (There are exceptions, of course.) The two examples that stand out so well in my mind are Craigslist and Jakob Nielsen’s sites — virtually no design to speak of on either site, but the content makes them immensely useful and popular. On the other hand, the best design in the world will sink like a stone into Internet oblivion if the design lacks the content to back it up. My favorite example of this is a WordPress forum volunteer whom I won’t name; he/she has an incredibly lovely WordPress site whose reason for existing is apparently to showcase random crap he/she found while Web surfing. I visited the site once and saw no reason to ever go back.

The author’s point is clear: if the content and design sides don’t work together, then the site doesn’t work.

Devin Walker

January 10th, 2011

Great article for those new to the seasoned in the web design/development area.

Eric B

January 10th, 2011

@Richard: “Funny that a copywriter considers himself as important to a website as a designer. Give a client a choice on which to pick, good design or good web copy, and they’ll chose design.”

And they’ll be choosing incorrectly. Way too much emphasis is put on design. Copy sells.

/not a web designer or a copywriter

Barry

January 10th, 2011

Those technical writing classes back in college have come in handy.

Val

January 10th, 2011

@Richard – what you say about clients is true, I know because I am one. But this is only because clients THINK they can write copy, but KNOW they can’t draw – which they correlate to design. So the world often ends up with a snazzy looking site that doesn’t say or do much that is really useful.

Val DuVernet

January 10th, 2011

Rick S – great primer on how to attack a new job or a way for someone with an existing site to look at how to freshen it up. Clients can’t always take on a complete new project from top to bottom – but applying any one of these tactics will help get a site on the road to better results.

Got carried away earlier responding to comments so doing a separate post. Feel free to combine my comments with those I left for @Richard.

Rick Sloboda

January 11th, 2011

Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

@Sheymein Indeed, while this article focuses on getting copy and design to work in concert, content maintenance or governance plans are important. That’s where professional web copywriting firms come in, right? ;)

@Michael Tuck I agree that design should usually support copy, and especially appreciate your concluding comment to @Richard in response to “Funny that a copywriter considers himself as important to a website as a designer. Give a client a choice on which to pick, good design or good web copy, and they’ll chose design.” However, I think Craigslist and useit.com do have design; it’s in the form of function. Good function or usability equal good design — as much as attractive aesthetics. Guys like Jakob Nielsen likely keep their sites lame to make that point (and perhaps to drive designers mad).

@Eric B Yup, copy sells. But, I’ll be the first to admit, copywriters are dependent on designers. As noted in Is Poor Website Design Holding Your Business Hostage?, it’s wise for web copywriters who take their craft seriously to partner with high-caliber, experienced designers. One of the top reasons is that studies reveal websites have as little as a 1/20th of a second to establish a first impression. Who can get you a stellar first impression, which makes it easier for web copy to entice visitors to take desired actions? A good designer.

Ayman Aboulnasr

January 11th, 2011

Thanks alot Rick, very informative indeed.

I’ve written a short article on effective copy writing specifically for Web Designers. Please let me know what you think about it.

http://www.joptima.com/topic/how-to-write-effective-copy-on-the-internet-for-web-designers/

Rick Sloboda

January 11th, 2011

@Val Yes, many business owners do consider themselves to be semi-professional writers. The outcome is usually jargon-filled, long-winded, company-centric hype. Business owners tend to focus on what they want to say versus what the audience needs to know.

Mark

January 11th, 2011

Hi Rick,
Great article! But I have to ask…
Shouldn’t “And when the design and copywriting is collectively geared toward getting users to take that action, the website will produce higher conversion rates and overall success.” actually read “And when the design and copywriting are collectively geared toward getting users to take that action, the website will produce higher conversion rates and overall success.”?

Michael Tuck

January 11th, 2011

Rick,

“Good function or usability equal good design.” Absolutely. Excellent observation.

Rick Sloboda

January 12th, 2011

@Ayman Aboulnasr There are good points in your web writing article, but I don’t agree with this statement: “You, the web designer are the best person to for this [web copywriting] job. You know the internet, you know the tools (HTML tags, CSS…etc.). Basically you have all the necessary skills to write credible eye-catching web copy.”

Getting designers to write copy will usually produce mediocre results. The same goes for a copywriter who suddenly thinks he’s capable of producing quality designs. Most copywriters don’t even understand the fundamentals of design, and could never give established professionals like Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain a run for their money.

While some people are multi-talented, and there might be overlap with certain web tasks, I believe the best results emerge when designers design, developers develop, and writers write. I mentioned in an article featured in GAWDS that the sharper your focus in a particular segment of your industry, the quicker you can gain expertise in your field. And that’s when the best clients come to you; the ones who value your work and pay accordingly.

@Mark Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

Keri

January 17th, 2011

“Give a client a choice on which to pick, good design or good web copy, and they’ll chose design.”

Now ask the audience.

Sven

January 19th, 2011

“Give a client a choice on which to pick, good design or good web copy, and they’ll chose design.”

-from perspective of UX design is nothing without the right chosen content/copy -this is what Rick mentioned inside the summary and this is why both have to work together hand in hand (designers give the form, copy fills it with meaning)

Pen Hunt

January 26th, 2011

As an ad agency creative director / art director I naturally lean towards great design displaying meaningful words :)

Chromatix

February 3rd, 2011

Really appreciate the tips on getting web designers and copywriters to operate from a shared understanding of purpose, audience and brand… as you said this is VERY difficult at times. Any more specific tools/exercises would be great too! Thanks Rick.

Kshitish Purohit

March 10th, 2011

Great read Rick!

I, however, don’t really agree with the Energex example. The CTAs are well-defined but I won’t want to use ‘now’ and ‘within 24 hrs’ in the same box.

Cheers :)

Nadia Ross

November 27th, 2011

Thanks! I just came up with some very important edits for our website. I realize we’re short on the ‘call to action’ part.

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