The art of writing for the web: 3 techniques for understanding who your content is for (before you publish a thing)
Who is this for? In the second instalment of a four part series on the art of writing for the web, we consider three common techniques for understanding who you’re creating content for — and how to make sure your copy resonates with those needs.
In part one of this series, we:
- discussed how people read on the web (they mostly don’t)
- defined what writing for the web is (clean, bullshit-free communication that’s adapted to typical online browsing behaviour)
- proposed 3 key steps for creating great web copy that gets results
The first of those steps, then — the most important aspect of writing purposeful web copy before you even commit a single word to a page — is understanding who it is you’re writing for.
In other words: your target reader, your audience, the users of your digital products and services.
You see, good web copy isn’t there just to sound pretty — it’s there to elicit a response from your reader and, ultimately, get results for your organisation.
And in order to craft copy that resonates with your target audience in that way, you need to be able to empathise with them. That is, you need to understand who exactly it is you’re trying to communicate with, how they view their world and yours — and what type of content they need from you.
This sounds like pretty obvious stuff, right?
But actually, one of the most common mistakes brands make is neglecting to do this. They fail to put themselves in the shoes of their target audience — and instead, simply write what sounds good to them.
Remember: you are not your target audience. How you perceive your products or services as an ‘insider’, is not necessarily how your target audiences views the world. You need to adopt their mindset.
In this article, I’m going to share with you three fantastic ways of getting closer to your audience — understanding who exactly they are, their expectations, and their informational needs — in order to then write copy that specifically targets those needs.
Sound good? Okay, let’s get to it…
Technique #1 for understanding your audience: user stories
User stories are a great technique for putting yourself in the shoes of your website visitors and qualifying the need for any given piece of content from their perspective.
A user story is comprised of a 3-part statement that describes:
- who your target user is (the actor)
- what they’re looking for or the problem they’re trying to solve (the narrative)
- why finding that thing or solving that problem is important to them (the goal)
So each user story typically takes the following narrative statement…
As a… (insert description of the person you imagine using your service)
I want/need to… (insert defining task the user is looking to complete)
So that… (insert wider outcome/goal that this task will lead to)
To share a complete example in context. a possible user story for this here article, could go something like:
As a small business owner with a fledgling digital presence…
I want to understand how to craft copy that’s optimised for the web…
So that I can more effectively use our digital channels to connect with my target audiences and grow my business.
See how this really helps to clarify our focus on what it we’re trying to do with a piece of communication?User stories — give em’ a try.
Technique #2 for understanding your audience: personas and experience maps
Customer/user/audience personas are another great way to get under the skin of who you’re writing for, so that your content is genuinely shaped around their needs and behaviours (rather than merely being based on internal intuition).
Personas are summary representations of an organisation’s target audiences. Personas are an internal storytelling tool (ideally based on hard-evidenced research) that help teams to develop a shared understanding of who their ideal customers are and align over the best ways to add value to them.
For each audience group, a persona document outlines things like:
- typical demographic traits: including age, location, occupation, and device (plus a mugshot picture, to add to the realism)
- key goals and thoughts: what the customer is ultimately looking to achieve, which your products or services can support
- typical audience tasks: the specific interactions with your products or services that support the audience’s goals
- emotional responses and feedback: including typical frustrations and pain points the user might experience in their interactions with the organisation
In reality, personas come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, determined by the specific things that are important for each brand to emphasise about their target audiences…
Source: Dani Guerrato
Source: Content Marketing Institute
Putting together your own personas takes a lot of effort and collaborative discussion — but the heightened focus and relevancy of the content your produce, is well worth it.
Useful further reading and resources for developing personas:
- Venngage: 20+ User Persona Examples, Templates and Tips For Targeted Decision-Making
- Nielsen Norman Group: Personas Make Users Memorable for Product Team Members
- Hubspot: Make My Persona Tool
- UXPressia: Persona and Customer Experience Mapping Tool (free version available)
Customer experience maps
Customer experience maps take the empathy-building of personas a step further, by placing them within the ‘big picture’ context of your products and services.
A customer journey map visually arranges all the various interactions (or touchpoints) that take place between a brand and its customers, into a linear timeline (i.e. a journey).
Customer journey maps provide a bird’s-eye view of how different audiences interact with a product or service, including their defining goals, emotional responses and pain points — and what that means for the type of content and user experience the brand needs to deliver to them, in response.
Like personas, customer journey maps come in all different shapes, depending on what a company is most interested in or needs to document in related to their brand and UX goals.
But to give you an idea of what one looks like, here’s an example skeleton outlining the typical ingredients of a customer journey map…
Source: Nielsen Norman Group
The map is comprised of three key ‘zones’…
Zone A is the contextual ‘lens’ that explains the subject and focus of the map. It includes:
1. the persona/audience segment whom this map is focused on
2. the scenario (or task) that is being analysed and mapped out (below)
Zone B is the actual ‘meat of the sandwich’ visualising the above persona’s experience. It includes:
3. the defining chunkable phases of the journey in question (or ‘touchpoints’)
4. actions — what the user is doing or trying to achieve (defining tasks)
5. thoughts — what the supposed internal narrative of users is (based on first-hand research) in relation to thee above actions
6. emotions: what the user is feeling, including any frustrations or ‘pain points’ that are acting as barriers to doing what they want to do
Zone C is where reflections on insights contained in Zone B key are documented and translated into proposed actions and accountabilities. It includes:
7. opportunities — defining content requirements and priorities in response to the above documented needs
8. internal ownership — assigning responsibility and accountability to team members for taking forward priorities documented
Hopefully that gives you enough of an idea to have a go at developing your own customer journey maps.
Customer journey mapping is not only strategically invaluable — helping everyone on a team to understand who it is they’re writing copy for, for which various stages of interaction, for highest impact — they’re also pretty fun to develop.
Customer journey maps flex everyone’s creativity and storytelling skills, reminding everyone of the bottom line of who you’re trying to reach and the kind of experience you’re trying to create for customers.
Source: Adaptive Path
Useful further reading and resources for developing customer experience maps:
Technique #3 for understanding your audience: keyword research
Keyword research is sometimes thought of as the highly technical realm of SEO guru-ship and wizardry.
But actually, keyword research is and always has been, a matter of language.
There is your audience. There is the language. There are the words that they use.
– Eugene Schwartz
The above quote, from one of the most influential copywriters of his generation, is from the 1960s.
If developing personas helps us to understand who it is we’re trying to reach, and experience mapping unpackages the typical behaviours of those audiences — keyword research gives us the specifics of what language they use (and therefore the words we need to adopt in order to connect with them).
At the deepest level, keyword optimization has nothing to do with SEO. It’s about knowing your audience so well that you learn which words will grab their attention, earn their trust, and persuade them to buy your products or services in the future. You have to “optimize” your writing for maximum effect.
As a web copywriter, keyword research helps us to:
- develop topics, information categories and menu labels
- create product descriptions, messaging, and value propositioning
- craft blog post headlines, sub-heads and body copy
that genuinely reflect the mental models of our target audiences, align with the language prospects use when searching for the web, and resonate with the questions and pain points of prospective customers, members or supporters.
How to do keyword research
Okay, so keyword research is in itself a whole other kettle of fish of a topic — and there are some really great and detailed guides out there on how to approach it (which I’ll link to, below).
However, for the purposes of laying out the basic ‘first principles’ of keyword research in support of better web copy, here’s the skinny on what it should typically involve…
Step 1: develop a list of topic categories
First thing’s first, you need to establish the top-level topics around which all of your publishing activity centres. Or to put another way: the subjects most relevant to your brand and your audience’s interests.
For example, a travel agent might develop a basic topic architecture based on:
- world regions and country destinations offered (Europe, Asia, South America etc.)
- the travel styles or niches the company serves (budget package holidays, boutique chic hotels, sustainable ecotourism, adventure treks etc.)
- target audiences (families, couples, solo travellers, business trips etc.)
These list of topics will then provide the basis for your keyword research.
Step 2: research the keywords you think you need to target for each of your topic categories
Now it’s time to find and collect some high quality keywords — real search queries that people are entering into Google, which relate to the topics you publish content about.
Generating an effective list of target keywords requires a combination of creative juice and the help of a decent keyword research tool to validate ideas and hypotheses.
So, taking the above imagined example of a travel agent… let’s say that one important topic/product offered by the business is ecotourism in Central America. So, some keyword ideas (phrases you think prospective customers may be using online that are relevant to that offering), might include:
- eco-friendly holidays Central America
- sustainable tourism Central America
- budget ecotourism holidays Central America
And so on, and so on. In fact, by the end of this brainstorming process, you may well have documented dozens upon dozens of target keyword ideas — for each topic. Going gangbusters!
Next, we need to take all those ideas and, using a keyword planner tool (the most common being Google’s Keyword Planner) to refine them into a final list of quality keywords for each of your topics.
Step 3: finalise your target keywords for each topic
Now that you’ve discovered a whole load of possible keywords to target, it’s time to whittle things down to a final list of terms that hit the sweet spot between:
- popularity: people are entering that phrase into Google a lot
- relevance: the phrase genuinely relates to your audience’s needs and your business goals
In the world of SEO, the contrast between these two factors is often referred to as ‘short tail vs long tail’ keyword targeting.
In summary, ‘short tail’ keywords are the most obvious, extremely high volume — and yet often, ultimately unrealistic, keywords we could possibly target.
Whereas ‘long tail’ keywords are those that are far more niche, specific — and ultimately, more relevant to the people you’re trying to reach.
So, returning to the example of our fictional travel agency business, the keyword ‘travel’ would be a classic ‘short tail’ keyword. It’s entered into Google millions of times per day globally. Not only is it going to be ridiculously competitive to achieve a high ranking for such a generic term — it’s also unlikely to be that relevant to the vast majority of people performing that query.
In comparison, honing in on more niche ‘long tail’ keyword phrases — such as ‘budget ecotourism holidays Central America’ — will attract a steady stream of relevant prospects to your content.
Whilst it’s important to aim for the highest possible volume of traffic to your content, you’ve also got to keep things relevant to your brand’s offerings and your actual audience’s interest and needs.
Useful further reading and resources for doing keyword research:
- Copyblogger: Keyword Research: It’s Not What You Think
- Neil Patel: SEO copywriting guide
- Moz: keyword research guide
- Hubspot: How to do keyword research for SEO
Keyword research tools (some free, some paid)
So, now that we understand who it is we’re writing for and — through a combination of user stories, personas, experience maps, and keyword research — how we can focus our content on the right people, in the right ways, it’s time to jump into the heart of the matter: the writing.
Next up, we’ll be walking through the key style techniques and first principles of web copywriting that lead to clear, direct and compelling communication.