Before You Write Another Word Part 2: Content Strategy
Having decided the tone in which we are going to write the content for our website, we now have to decide what to write. We already know that we need to be writing expertly, with authority. We also know that search engines, just like humans, are looking for useful and timely content. We know we can’t just rip that off from someone else… so where do we start?
It’s back to the whiteboard folks, for a good old-fashioned brainstorming and planning session... with a few technological twists.
Climbing your website tree
Picture your website as an tree. The base of the trunk is the homepage, every page after that a branch, every other a smaller branch off one of the big branches, etc. If you draw this upside down, you’ve got what we call a “sitemap”.
I don’t like drawing the tree upside down because it makes it look too easy to get a user from the top to the bottom, as if gravity will naturally draw them down through your content when the exact opposite is true - you have to earn every click.
Imagine your customer, arriving at the base of your tree, has to climb their way up to the content that they want. Every branch takes effort to reach and the further they have to climb, the tougher and more tiring it gets.
The attention span of a web user is notoriously short. Depending on which article you decide to believe, the longest is around 12 seconds and the shortest around 5 seconds. It might not seem like you’re asking a lot of a customer when you ask them to click from one page to another, but you are. (We’ll talk about this in more detail in “The 5 Second Test” a bit later!)
The good news is that not every customer will need to climb the tree from the bottom. It is possible for a customer to land on any page of your website that they can find from a search engine or click to via a link. Great news… except that when this happens, gravity does take over - if the page they hit isn’t right for them, there’s a good chance they're going to fall off the tree - either back to the homepage or off your site completely.
What does all this mean? It means you shouldn’t approach creating content without a plan. A plan that maps out your page from the homepage onwards (and upwards) and that identifies the purpose of every single page.
By “purpose” I mean that, for any page, you should be able to define its title, give a short description of it, and define what unique search phrase you are targeting with this piece of content.
If you can’t write down the title, description, and search phrase for a page then you are not ready to write that page.
Drilling down: my technique for climbing website trees
Understanding how a website tree should be built doesn’t make it any easier to build one, of course. Here’s a technique that I’ve used to build structures with clients in the past that produces great results.
I ask questions.
OK, it’s not quite that simple, but fundamentally that’s what it boils down to. The trick is in the questions that I ask. A lot of consultants/developers/marketers will sit with their client and ask questions a bit like this:
_Consultant: “What pages do you want on your website?”_Customer: “We need a homepage, a page about our team, a page about our products…”
This technique produces a horrible outcome for everyone because it requires the wrong people to do the wrong job. Why on Earth would your customer know what pages you need on a website - that’s what the resident web expert is there to work out (or, at least, they should be).
A savvy customer answers the question like this:
_Consultant: “What pages do you want on your website?”_Customer: “The ones that will get us the most customers and the most revenue. Let us know what they are.”
Now, if you’re from the consultant/developer/marketer camp you might be screaming right now: “How the hell am I supposed to know the answer to that?”
Here’s a technique that I’ve used in the past to answer that question that produces great results.
I ask questions.
Here’s how you do it…
1. Forget what you know
Forget anything you already know about your own business. Because you’re going to be taking on the role of a brand new customer. Brand new to your product, brand new to your brand, brand new even to the concept of what you do.
2. Write down what you want to know
So, now that you’ve cleared your mind more effectively than a one-hundred-year-old Zen master, it’s time to start asking questions. Imagine it like an interview process - you’re still the new and sceptical customer and you need to be convinced of everything.
Here’s an example I’ve worked through for a telecommunication company.
Website: Hi! I’m Brand X.
Customer: OK. What do you do?
Website: We sell IP Telephony.
Customer: What’s IP Telephony?
Website: IP Telephony lets you make calls over the internet.
Customer: Why would I want to do that?
Website: It makes all calls cheaper, especially international calls.
Customer: OK, I like saving money. How much does it cost?
Website: There are a few different plans, it depends on call volume.
Customer: I never heard of you guys before, can I trust you?
Website: We’ve got a great team here and we’ve worked with big clients.
Customer: Sounds good, how do I get started?
Website: Just fill in this form…
Don’t you wish all sales meetings were as easy as that?
It may seem a little weird to have this conversation, but you’ve got to accept that the most fundamental job your website has to do is convert visitors to customers. That might mean giving you their money, it might mean joining your mailing list, it might mean filling in a contact form. It doesn’t matter what form it takes - the important point is that every page supports this process.
If you don’t know why a particular page is on your website, what do you expect a customer to make of it?
3. Find the pages that answer the customer’s questions
So, looking at the transcript above, how many pages can you see for this website?
I can see 6:
- The homepage.
- A page that explains what IP Telephony is.
- A page that explains the benefits of IP Telephony.
- A page that explains pricing.
- A page about the company and who it has worked with.
- A contact form.
It’s not a lot, but you’d be amazed at the number of businesses that do very well online with little more than this.
Let’s put these pages into a table now and start working on some of our titles and descriptions:
Save money on telephone calls with IP Telephony from Brand X.
Brand X are the IP Telephony providers who can save you money on your telephone calls.
What is IP Telephony and how does it work?
What are the benefits of IP Telephony?
How much does IP Telephony cost?
Who are Brand X and who have we worked with?
Contact Brand X about IP Telephony.
4. Rinse and Repeat
That’s just one sequence of questions of course; to get the full value from this process you need to keep asking questions, keeping asking questions, and keep asking questions. Remember that getting a customer to contact you is a conversion - a win! The vast majority of customers will abandon your website if they can’t find the information that they need without contacting you.
Here are some of the questions we didn’t ask yet:
- Do I need a computer to use an IP phone?
- Do I need a fast broadband connection to use an IP phone?
- What is the call quality like?
- What happens if my broadband goes down?
- What happens if Brand X’s systems go down?
- Can I switch my IP Telephones from Brand Z to Brand X?
A lot people bury the answers to these really important questions in a “Frequently Asked Questions” page. My advice is to take your FAQ page outside, lightly douse it in petrol, and set fire to it. It’s a conversion killer and it’s an SEO horror show.
A lot of people think that adding something to their FAQ page is solving a problem - but if a question is getting asked frequently by customers, doesn’t it deserve its own webpage?
Worse than the super-long word-soup FAQ page are FAQs hidden behind an on-site search engine. There’s nothing wrong with having an on-site search engine, but hiding pages so that the search is the only way to find them means you’ve lost any chance of them appearing on Google or any other search engine.
It was their job to answer a customer’s question and get them to convert - you just locked them in the cupboard under the stairs like Harry Potter. You wouldn’t do it to an employee, don’t do it to a webpage.
Web pages are like employees in many ways - categorising like this is how you can understand the Five Types of Webpage and how to master them.