Creating Compelling Content

Listen with webreader

We’re lucky at the University of Notre Dame. We know most of our intended audience will eventually come to our sites. We have a captive audience of Irish fans, students, faculty, Notre Dame alum wannabes, and peer institutions.

And then again, we’re not so lucky. We don’t always have professional writers to craft our web pages. We often are called upon to write our text ourselves.

And we aren’t always great, even good writers.

So how do we create web pages that contain decent content?

First, I believe we have to ask ourselves, “what is good content?” For a higher ed site such as ours, the answer will differ from that for a retail site. However, a few things are constant, no matter what kind of site we’re crafting.

Here’s a checklist you can use to see if your site meets this guideline and other good practices.


Ask Yourself Suggestions
Is your content unique? There are thousands of higher ed websites. Does your site provide information that can’t be found elsewhere (even on other Notre Dame sites)? If not unique, is there a valid reason for including it on this site?
Is your content useful? Think of the goals of your site and of your visitors. Does the content help fulfill those goals?
Is your content easy to understand? Remember that you have all kinds of visitors to your site: high school students and their parents, non-English speakers, faculty, and just plain curious folks. Write so that just about anyone can understand what you’re saying.
Are your links valid? Linking to other sites is a good idea; however, those sites could change without you noticing it. Set up a regular schedule to check your site’s links. Here’s an easy-to-use web service for link checking.
Do your graphics or photos that help visitors understand your content? While photos are nice to have on websites, make sure that they actually add value to the page. Make sure they relate to the content and help the visitor relate to or understand the content.
Did you limit your ideas to one per paragraph? Several short paragraphs can get the point across to your visitors better than can one long paragraph. If the points are short enough, consider making them into a bulleted list (easily scannable).
Did you put your important content first?  Visitors will typically read only the first one or two words of each paragraph when scanning the page. Be sure to put the most important points first so that your visitors won’t miss them.
Is your content up-to-date? Old information is useless to your visitor and destroys the credibility you’ve worked so hard to establish.
Do you have an FAQ section? Frequently asked questions can be very helpful. However, make sure that these are truly FAQs and not simply information you haven’t taken the time to organize.A good example of an FAQ section that is based on feedback from callers is the one on the Notre Dame Human Resources Department’s site. This FAQ section is built on questions asked of the department’s help desk and is regularly updated as the questions change with the time of year.
Have you turned long paragraphs into bullet lists when possible? Bulleted lists can help break up the page for easier scanning. This will help visitors find information they might have otherwise overlooked.
Do your headings help your visitors find things on your page? For more information on using headings to organize (and even write) your content, check out “Five Things You Should Know about Headings.”
Is your text left-aligned? Although the default is left-aligned text, sometimes we insert images so that the text wraps on the right of the image. While this can seem, perhaps, a little less boring than right-aligned images, images to the right help visitors quickly scan and read your page without having to refocus and readjust to the varying margins of text to the right of images.


Content, Context, and Beethoven

Listen with webreader

I preach content made for the audience: context is vital. It bears repeating.

The Beloit College Mindset List came out this week. Typically, this just makes me feel old. But then, I felt old when I was 18 and mentioned Albert Schweitzer in a college speech class and was told that I should have explained who he was because not everyone knew had heard of him (and that was MANY years ago; I can’t imagine trying that today!).

With this year’s report, however, it’s different. Today, I feel a call to action. I need to use this mindset as a reminder to our Web clients (and me) that not everyone knows that Nirvana was a band; that Beethoven wasn’t always a dog; and that children used to never even consider divorcing their parents! Today, students (according to the poll) don’t even know how to write in cursive (it’s an optional subject in school these days).

In other words, it’s a different world out there. Messages and calls to action that might work for my generation probably won’t do a thing for the college crowd. To make a reference to Black Monday in a financial sense won’t bring our students’ minds to Wall Street (well, except for a few finance majors), but instead, to the punk rock band.

We speak in the same language in different tongues.

The lesson I need to drive home (in my own mind as well as those of our clients) is that we need to ALWAYS keep in mind the experiences and knowledge of our readers–in other words, the CONTEXT in which the CONTENT will be read.

Secret Formula to Capture About Page Readers

Listen with webreader

How much thought do you give to your About page of your website? Until recently, I hadn’t thought much about them either. Yes, I know, we need to cover the basics—who, what, where, when, and how—on these pages, but really, can it be that hard?

According to John Hyde, who wrote “About Pages: Good, Bad, and Missing,” it can be. Hyde says that, although users seldom choose to form a relationship with businesses (or, in our case, a school) because of an About page, they often come to these pages to get a feeling of who we are, “who lives behind the websites” to find out whether the like what we are and what we value. According to Hyde, “About pages help users put our heretofore anonymous organization into perspective.”

In the competitive atmosphere of higher education, drawing students, staff, and faculty to our university can be a challenge. By providing good About pages, we are helping our various schools and departments fulfill their missions to bring the best to campus.

After reading Hyde’s article, I decided to quickly review some of Notre Dame’s sites to see how they measured up to Hyde’s  5 Ws of About pages (who, what, when, where, how) as well as an added one (call to action). (Hyde also has other good criteria, but I’ll touch on those later.) While the call to action might be an arguable requirement, I would argue that even having an added “Contact Us” button or link (even if in the header of every page of the site) would help make users feel more “at home” and comfortable, knowing we are inviting their contact.

Here’s how a few of our sites stacked up. (Note that the last site is not ours; it is Hyde’s. I wanted to make sure the doctor took his own prescription!)

Who What Where How When CTA (University of
Notre Dame)
x x x x The University of Notre Dame, founded in 1842 by Rev. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C., of the Congregation of Holy Cross, is an independent, national Catholic university located in Notre Dame, Ind., adjacent to the city of South Bend and approximately 90 miles east of Chicago (College of Arts & Letters) x x x x x x Separate contact page within About
x x x Uh oh! We have work to do!
(Center for Social Concerns)
x x x x Separate history/staff/quick facts sections

(School of Architecture)
x x
(English Department)
No About page
(Notre Dame Security Police)
x x x x (Notre Dame Fire Department) x x x x x x Separate contact page within About (Provost’s Office) x x Separate biography, directory, and other pages (Registrar’s Office) No About page (University Health Services) x x x x x x/
Welcome letter rather than specific “About” section.
(John Hyde)
x x x x x x/
I’m John Hyde. I’ve been improving websites since 2006. I’m based in York, England.

With a new client I look for the easy wins. This makes everyone feel good.

Did you notice that the University home page covered who, what, where, and when all in one sentence?

Some of these were “stretching” to cover all five Ws. Some were better written than others. But just reading these, I’ve a new appreciation for a good About page.

What are your thoughts? Does it matter, for instance, that some sites don’t have an About page? Or that some don’t have a call to action?


Now that I’ve completed this little exercise in reviewing some of our sites and making notes for future edits, I think I should take some of that medicine Hyde offered and drank. I need to fix my About on this blog. And then offer some suggestions to those who maintain the AgencyND site. Thanks, Mr. Hyde!

Elevator Pitches for your Website

Listen with webreader

We tell clients they need an elevator pitch for their home page, and often they look at us like we’re from another world. Why an elevator pitch? We’re an academic institution; we’re not selling anything!

Ah, but I disagree.

We are selling our university, our department, our program. Whether we realize it or not, we are selling something just by offering our thoughts, publications, or insight into our organization. We may be selling our school to potential students (and their parents), our expertise in a research field, the world-class stature of our faculty, or something else, but by our presence on the Web, we are, nonetheless, selling something.

And unlike in a face-to-face meeting, we cannot immediately adjust our pitch to fit the circumstances. Or hand out a different brochure to difference audiences.

Our Web elevator pitch needs to be a brief, compelling, and visual way to entice visitors into our site. It’s a way to tell others in one or two sentences

  • Who we are
  • What we do
  • Why they should care
  • What we can do to benefit them

An elevator pitch is what we want others to remember about us or what we want a journalist to quote when describing us.

In order to create a good elevator pitch, we must, of necessity

  • Know our audience (how do they speak? what are they looking for?)
  • Know ourselves (what are our strong points? what do we want our visitors to do?)
  • Know our competitors (saying the same thing about ourselves as our peers say about themselves will only bore our visitors; we must separate ourselves from the crowd)
  • Know our advantage (what makes us different and better?)

We can then set these down in a short paragraph and then look at that draft from the harsh viewpoint of a disinterested visitor to our site.

  • Does it ring true?
  • Does it make me want to learn more?
  • Does it bore me?
  • Is it memorable?
  • Does it clearly state who, what, and how?

Then we cut mercilessly. We whittle our pitch down to one or two sentences.

But we’re not finished yet!

What about all the other pages? Do they have an introductory statement like this? Since most of our visitors will make their return visits beginning at something other than our home page, we want to be sure to capture their interest on each page.

Oh. And then, we will need to make sure each of these pitches is relevant today. And next month. And next year. Like anything on the Web, we must keep our elevator pitches fresh and relevant.  When our department/school/program changes, we need to review our pitches to make sure we’re still being truthful and informative.

And you thought the Web was just moving text from print pieces . . .

Website Strategy—Planning: What a Concept!

Listen with webreader

How in the world does one go about planning a new or reworked website? Well, in a lot of cases, that planning consists of a number of committee meetings ruled by one or two people who force their ideas down the throats of everyone else. Or perhaps the committee works well together, and they all agree on what they want on their site. Sometimes, an “expert” or team of experts is hired to devise the plan. The experts may even sit down with the people owning the site and find out what they want on it.

But in all these cases, the reason for the site is absent or, at the very best, hidden in the corner. I mean, what’s the site for? Surely we can’t all afford to have a site made for us/our department/our group for the sake of vanity. It’d be easier to have a printed piece produced; one we wouldn’t have to maintain.

No, in nearly every case, the reason a site is built in the first place or revamped should be stated at the very beginning of a project—and it should not be “because we need one” or “but every other department has one and ours is not as pretty/pithy/up-to-date, etc.”

Determining the reason (the goals) of your site should be one of the first things you do. For without properly defined goals, no site, no matter how beautiful it is, will persuade your user (the guy who comes to your website) to do what you want him* to do. He may appreciate the beauty, but unless you define your goals and have specific actions you want your user to do, he will probably walk away pleased with himself but a little confused because “something was missing.” That “something” was most likely a call to action.

So you determine what you want someone to do; then you put in your call to action. Now what? Just for the sake of argument, assume not everyone who comes to your site wants to do what you want. Just suppose that he feels he can get a better deal, find newer information, get something for free if he just keeps on looking on the Internet. How are you going to convince him otherwise? That, ladies and gents, is the key to judging whether your website works—whether it serves its purpose in helping you accomplish your goals.

True. With a university site, one hardly has to worry about making sales (usually). And if a student is thinking of coming to Notre Dame, it might not take too much to convince him to delve a little deeper and find out about the benefits of coming here. But suppose he’s not really sure he wants to come here. Or his Aunt Agnes went to Harvard, and “gee, anyone who’s anyone would go there.” Do you have that response ready when his mind starts wandering away from that “Apply Now” button and back to Aunt Aggie’s tirade at dinner the other night? Well, if you want to turn that prospective student/faculty member/donor into someone who buys in to what you are offering, that objection is something you’ll need to consider—for each call to action—on each page.

How do you keep those website “musts” all straight? It’s not easy. However, something we use here at AgencyND might help. It’s a simple table that sets forth each top-level navigation page you anticipate having in your site, what you think you might want to have on that page, your goals for that page (calls to/points of action), possible objections, and (drum roll, please) how you will respond to that call to action.

Anticipating objections before you populate your site will help you further define your goals and also help clarify your thoughts as you sit down to write your copy. Knowing why you are putting something on the Web helps make what you put on the Web much more powerful.

Try out the table. See if it fits your needs. And if you find something you like better, pass it along. We’ll all benefit!

*Just a note. As a former editor and a woman who has been around a long time, I have no problem with using the formal “he” when referring to a person of unknown gender in cases such as this. I find it much easier to type “he” than “he/she” or “s/he” or “he or she” and am personally not offended one bit by this quirk of the English language. I apologize in advance if you are.