Thursday, June 17, 2010

40 web-writing lessons I learned from tech-writing

Most web writers come from different backgrounds. They may have trained in marketing, or journalism, or English literature, or a hundred other things. We each bring our unique experiences, passions, and skills to the way we communicate online. I consider myself very lucky to have a background in technical communications.

Here are some of the things that I learned as a tech-writer that help make me a really great web-writer.

1. Think in 3D. Consider access and departure points.
2. Consider how the information will be used.
3. Predict frustration points and eliminate them.
4. Write clearly.
5. Write consistently.
6. Use short sentences.
7. “Show”, rather than “tell”.
8. Provide context up front.
9. Use graphics and illustrations.
10. Follow rules and industry standards.
11. Break the rules when it helps you to communicate better.
12. Consider ways to help your audience find what they need.
13. Less is more. Except when it’s not enough. Learn the difference.
14. Embrace technology. You need it, so you need to understand it.
15. Know your audience.
16. Know your business drivers.
17. Have clear communication goals.
18. Make sure your goals focus on your audience.
19. Find ways to test your product’s success.
20. Be creative through the constraints.
21. Learn from other disciplines.
22. Break information into small chunks.
23. Think about different ways the chunks can fit together.
24. Layer information.
25. Use lists and tables.
26. Don’t vary word choices just to add variety.
27. Write descriptive headings.
28. Make sure the information hierarchy is visually obvious.
29. Design your information.
30. Learn how and when to use different information design techniques.
31. Write meaningful links.
32. Review and edit everything before it’s published.
33. If in doubt, write for a global audience.
34. Become best friends with your dictionary and style-guide.
35. Hone your project management skills.
36. Never sacrifice quality.
37. Deliver to deadline. Even if it’s not perfect.
38. Edit ruthlessly.
39. Polish your writing and editing skills. Never stop.
40. Find a great mentor, if you can. Thanks, Jerome!

Please add to this list, or create your own using your past experiences!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Small business owner? 5 Tips for getting a low-cost, high-value content strategy

It’s hard work to secure a budget for content, let alone content strategy. For small business owners, there may be less hassle to get the budget, but there’s also less budget to get. How can you make sure that your small content budget covers the content strategy activities needed to make sure your content is effective?

  1. Make sure your content or design budget has some room for content strategy, research, planning, and design. We can work with “low cost”, but “no cost” will send your content into the world completely unprepared.

  2. Cut costs by eliminating formal reports. Small business owners really don’t get much value from what usability expert Steve Krug refers to as “the big honking report”. Reports are time-consuming to write and expensive. Forget about them. You’re better off actively communicating with your content strategist. Share working notes, spreadsheets, doodles, and ideas. Talk to each other! Write everything down, but don’t worry about getting a polished presentation report.
  3. Get involved! With a limited budget, your content strategist will appreciate a helping hand. Gather up any existing customer or competitive research you have. If you don’t have any, go get some. Define your core brand messages. Think about what you want your customers to do on your site. Make sure you are super-duper clear on your specific business goals and customer needs and motivations. Then share this with your content strategist. Discuss it, shape it, evolve it, test it. Sit in on customer testing.

  4. Use quick-and-dirty guerrilla testing methods. Every design or content budget should include a content strategy component, and content strategy should always include testing. This is the only way that you’ll be able to prove the success of your content. There are tons of different ways to test different things but here’s a couple ways you can test quickly, easily, and for next-to-nothing.

    Customer validation testing:

    Surveys. Validate any assumptions that you made about your customers. Work with your content strategist to define customer goals, motivations, and demographics. Get your content strategist to put together a short survey that you can distribute to past clients or anyone else who fits your customer profile. Your understanding of your customers will skyrocket when you start listening to them.

    Benchmark testing, before and after your content strategy is implemented:

    Web metrics. If you don’t currently have web analytic software, set up Google Analytics (free) and get a snapshot of your web traffic and performance prior to redesign. Go into as much detail as your budget and expertise allows. Then compare these benchmark metrics to post-launch metrics at 3 months, 6 months, and 1 year.

    One-On-One Customer testing. Always do customer testing of some sort. If necessary, sit in a busy coffee shop and offer people who vaguely resemble your customers a free latte for spending 15 minutes to help you out. Or hang out where your customers are, and offer them... something, anything that makes sense and that you can afford.

    Get somebody who knows what they’re doing (your content strategist or usability expert) to put together the test scenarios and conduct the tests. You stay to watch and learn. You may want to run perception testing, key task testing, readability testing, or any combination of these, depending on your research goals. There are lots “right” ways to test, but always remember: Any customer testing is WAY better than no testing.

  5. Be open-minded! Your content strategist will probably come back to you with some new ideas on how to develop, distribute, or manage your content. If they’re good at what they do, those ideas will somehow fit into your budget and timeline, and will reinforce your business goals and your customer needs. You’ll probably know, deep down, that their content strategy makes really good business sense. But you may find yourself panicking, thinking, “Whoa. Hey, I didn’t mean I wanted to change everything.” What you’ll really mean is, “Do I really have to pack in my brochure-ware site and get with the 21st century?” If you want to keep doing business online, the answer is probably yes.

At least you have a sound content strategy to guide you on your journey!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What Kind of Content Are You Serving?

What kind of content are you trying to serve to your customers?
And what does it say about you?

2 New Ways to Think About Content

We all know that content creates the web experience. So let’s go beyond that. If you think of content as any scripted business communication, the opportunities for impacting business strategy and customer experience increase. Customers will experience your content either directly, or indirectly through your employees.

Customer/Content Touch-Points

Here are some common ways in which customers interact not just with your business, but with your content:
  • Being welcomed as they enter your business (Think, “Good afternoon, welcome to Burger Bonanza where we make big beautiful burgers, my name is Nancy Natterbox, what can I get for you today?).
  • Listening to customer service or sales reps go through their spiel.
  • Listening to, and interacting with, voice messages or recordings.
  • Filling out application or membership forms. And sometimes more forms. And more forms.
  • Reading follow-up e-mails.
  • Reading your service contract.
  • Reading your privacy and policy statements, guarantees, and disclaimers.
  • Reading reminder notices.
  • Reviewing invoices and statements. 
  • Reading print newsletters, brochures, or articles.
  • Completing surveys.

Employee/Content Touch-Points that Impact Customer Experience

Your customer’s experience is also directly impacted by how your employees interact with the content that you provide to them. Here are some ways in which your employees interact with content that can make a massive difference to the customer experience:
  • Reading from scripts.
  • Going through checklists.
  • Filling out print or online forms.
  • Getting face-to-face training, or reading training materials.
  • Searching for information on the intranet.
  • Referring to policies or procedures.
Take a moment to think about all of these different content touch-points in your business. What other content touch-points do you have? Do they all work together to create a consistently great customer experience? Do they effectively convey the same core values and brand messaging? Do they provide an effective and efficient tool for both customers and employees?

If you’re like most businesses, you’ve just identified a huge opportunity to strengthen your customer experience strategy simply by improving your content. Some tools that are particularly helpful to get you started are journey mapping and content assessments. More about those later!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Where does your organization fit in the content process maturity model?

Almost every organization creates content, but only a few value their content enough to invest in it. Which, of course, creates a Catch 22: Not valuing your content creates content of no value.

Where does your organization fit in this maturity model? And what are your excuses for not climbing higher up the quality-content ladder?

I’ve adapted the table below from JoAnn Hackos’s “Information Process Maturity Model”. If you’d like a more in-depth look at this model, or almost anything to do with document product and project management, I highly recommend her excellent book, Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People.

Thanks for the inspiration, JoAnn!

(If the image below is too small to read, just click on it and then enlarge the image.)