Writing for the Web: Timeless Rules for Great Website Content

  •    Tim is a freelance business writer. He writes about the business of innovation, comics and genre entertainment on The Full Bleed.

Your website advertises something. Whether it's a business, a portfolio, or just an idea, all websites aim to persuade visitors to read more or take some kind of action. From the 1950s through the 1980s, no one was better at getting potential customers to take action than the late David Ogilvy, colloquially known as the father of modern advertising and founder of the multi-national ad agency Ogilvy & Mather.

In September of 1982, Ogilvy wrote a memo to agency staff titled simply "How to Write." Within he listed 10 tips that are still shared in writing circles and should be required reading for anyone trying to build a business online. They apply remarkably well when writing for the web today. Here's all 10:

  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally,
    judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious [fool].
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don't write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

Key Themes: Clarity, Brevity, Accuracy

Ogilvy's list leaves little to the imagination. His strong belief is that clear, concise copy is what serves clients and consumers best. Scientific research says that he's right.

Copyblogger surveyed the available data and found that simple words such as "you," "free," and "new" have power that longer and more complex words lack. Verbs are also more likely to inspire action while qualifiers ("a small fee" rather than just "a fee") can help undecideds to accept your offer. Finally, readers want a compelling narrative that's personal, relatable, and which connects emotionally.
When you're writing for the web, don't sell yourself or your services as a collection of bullet points. Write as if you'll relieve pain or help to realize a dream, and then deliver on the narrative.

Why does this matter to you, the website owner? Because Google cares about good, persuasive writing, and no site or search engine delivers more traffic to websites. Originality, clarity, usefulness, and accuracy are all part of its scoring process, making Ogilvy's admonishments all the more crucial if your aim is to build an audience.

A Man Ahead of His Time

Today's world is very different from the one in which Ogilvy made his name. We talk less and text more. We write emails. We develop websites. We read constantly, from Facebook posts to Instagram updates to blogs and websites. Words matter even more today than they did 34 years ago.

Does that mean David Ogilvy saw the future before others did? Maybe. What matters is that he was right. Clear, concise, accurate writing is the single most important thing you can offer to those you communicate with online, especially the audience for your website.

BONUS CONTENT:

  • Writing That Works: How to Communicate Effectively in Business from authors Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson is now in its third edition, and includes new advice for writing online.
  • In 1977, interviewer John Crichton spent an hour talking with Ogilvy about the business of advertising and persuasion. The entire conversation has since been uploaded to YouTube. Find it here.

​Image Source: Oglivy & Mather