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When enough is better than a feast

When enough is better than a feast

When you are writing copy for your website how much information is enough?  How much is too little or too much?  And most importantly, how much information is optimal?

As with everything on the web, we need to start by considering the customer.  Think of them as information foragers; like hungry animals scavenging for prey they roam the wild west web looking for information to help them do their jobs.  It may seem logical to us that they will forage on the beefiest animal, and thus that we should write long content, but this isn’t always the case.

Your customers will choose very quickly on your site which information to consume.  Intuitively, both animals and people decide what to consume in a way that optimises their benefits relative to the costs.  Your customers are used to assessing a web page and trading off the quality of your content versus the time it takes to read it.

By way of analogy, let’s imagine that in the story of the Three Little Pigs that the pig who built his house of bricks was the heaviest of the three porcine brothers.  Does this mean that the big bad wolf will eat him?  You might feel he would because of the obvious benefit of filling his stomach most quickly, but as his house is built of brick and he is impossible to catch the wolf might settle for the siblings in the houses of wood or straw.

Therefore the wolf must eat more calories than it expends pursuing the pigs.  The real question therefore is not where it can get most food, but where it can get most food relative to the cost of chasing it down.  Thus the cost / benefit ratio is what matters, and not the benefit alone.

On the web the cost which your website charges your customers is their time.  The benefit to them is completing their tasks.  A long article may contain more information, but if it takes too long to read, hungry readers will abandon your site and read shorter, easier content elsewhere.

A good example of an online cost benefit analysis which we all do is booking airline tickets.  If we have found a flight which broadly matches our needs in terms of departure time, arrival time and cost, we will only review other airline websites if we feel there is a significant cost saving to be had.  And flight comparison websites and travel aggregators are increasing market share, because their cost / benefit ratio is so high.  They are saving their customers huge amounts of time.

To get your content length just right therefore, you must focus on two things.  Firstly, you must link well, and secondly you must understand the needs of your customers.

Good links are the essence of the web.  Linking (along with search) is what differentiates online content from offline content.  Be aware that when your customers are reading your website they are taking small steps deeper and deeper into your content.

Imagine you sell books on your website and someone wants to buy the latest Harry Potter book.  Their key questions at each stage of the journey may be as follows:

Arrive at home page

[ Am I at the right place?  Yes, the home page explains what they do ]

Select author search

[ Do they stock J K Rowling?  Yes, I see her on the dropdown list ]

View all J K Rowling books

[ Is the latest book available?  Yes, I see it listed first in search results ]

View the latest book in detail

[ What price is the latest book?  When will it arrive if I buy now? ]

So recognise that your customers will consume your content in small bites and give them enough to answer their questions at the time and allow them to make the next step.

Secondly you must understand the needs of your customers.  Imagine you sell medical equipment and you feature your products on your website.  The level of interest and depth of knowledge which your customers display will be much greater than that of a casual book buyer.  So whereas with Harry Potter’s book there was a series of simple questions based on a simple to understand product, in the context of medical equipment the questions are much more complex and the sales process likely to be much more involved.

Your challenge remains to save your customer time.  The more quickly you can provide your customer with the information they require to compare products, prices and features the more likely they are to buy from you.  In the States some businesses even feature their competitors products and prices, because they know that’s what the user is going to do next anyway.

Like everything else in the online world, the skill of copywriting is changing.  It is no longer just about writing brilliant content, it is about writing brilliant links and giving your customer the quickest journey.  Their investment in your website is their time and in return they want quick, immediate and discernable benefit.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

View more insights by Gareth

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