The 5Ws of writing web content that doesn't suck

"I need to put something up on the web."

I've heard that a lot over the years. Problem is, "something" is often at best PDFs of the print campaign, and at worst a figment of someone's imagination.

I'll just give my magic content lamp a rub and we'll get that up on the website like magic! Sorry, there's no such thing as a magic content lamp. If you want something up on your website, you better be prepared to plan it and create the content. 

I'll just give my magic content lamp a rub and we'll get that up on the website like magic! Sorry, there's no such thing as a magic content lamp. If you want something up on your website, you better be prepared to plan it and create the content. 

So, here's a step-by-step guide for defining "something." Answering your five Ws are a big help here:

  • Who are you talking to?
  • What do they want to know?
  • When will they be looking for the information?
  • Where should it go on the website?
  • Why are they looking for this information?

Let's take each of these in turn.

Who are you talking to?

Knowing who the audience is will help tailor the content. What are its demographic, psychographic and geographic details? Having personas for your web audiences are a big help, but in the absence of that, try to put yourself in the audience's shoes and imagine ...

What do they want to know?

Say your issue is that civil unrest is jeopardizing one part of the supply chain, and the solution will require a new pricing structure. Distill it down to what your audience wants to know most: "How much?"

My favourite example of thinking from the audience's point of view is from an interview with Nora Ephron. Here's the highlights:

The first day of [high school] journalism class, [Instructor] Mr. Simms … began to teach us how to write a lead. … He read us a set of facts. It went something like this: "Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium on new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, and several others.

We all began typing, and after a few minutes, we turned in our leads. All of them said approximately what Mr. Simms had dictated, but in the opposite order ("Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty," etc.). Mr. Simms riffled through what we had turned in, smiled, looked up and said: "The lead to the story is, "There will be no school Thursday."  

Brainstorming questions that the audience might ask is a great way to figure out what information you'll need to post. But for the love of the game, do NOT post a Frequently Asked Questions page, unless it's actually composed of frequently asked questions and not questions you wish people would ask. The answers will form a rough draft for your final content.

When will they be looking for the information?

Are you driving traffic to the web as part of a larger campaign? When does that start? That's the date by which the information needs to be posted.

Make sure you are leaving enough time to create web content—nothing pisses off web editors more than posting imaginary content the night before. Creating and posting web content is just as important and may take just as much time as the posters, radio ads, T-shirts and print catalogue. Plan for it.

Where should it go on the website?

This decision is best left up to your information architect or web editor, but again, if you're driving traffic from other places, where are you sending them to? The home page? In that case, you'll need something there when they get there—in the banner, or news feed, or something. If you're hoping to use a vanity URL to go to a page deeper in the site, that takes time to set up.

Why are you posting this?

I once got asked to post the PDF of a letter that was mailed to all customers affected by an issue. The letter said that customers could go to the website for more information. The letter was not more information, it was the same information. What was the point?

If you are using the words "for more information, go to our website" in your collateral materials, you darn well better have more information online. Which is why you need to plan the content and include time to develop it in your timeline.

To sum up ...

  • Knowing who helps you write with them in mind.
  • Knowing what gives you a rough draft.
  • Knowing when helps you plan time to polish it.
  • Knowing where makes sure they're not frustrated when they arrive.
  • Knowing why helps with the big picture.

Let me know if this works for you, or alternatively, your tips on planning web content. And, if you have some web content that needs work, please give me a call