I’m hoping this blog – a complete guide to website copywriting – will be the first in a series of detailed posts on the work professional freelance writers do.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be talking to other copywriters about their specialisms, how they do their jobs, and how they got where they are today.
Integrated Website copywriting
I believe in the value of integrated website copywriting projects. Website copywriting is a major part of what I do – I’d go as far as to say it’s the bread and butter of my business – and I’ve done enough projects to be able to generalise.
Sometimes, I work on small website copywriting projects where the design and build is done before the content. But for larger projects, I like to be involved from the concept stage. I also like to have direct contact with:
- The clients
- The design team
- The dev team
The easiest way to explain why website copywriting should be an integral part of the project from the start is to go through a typical project step by step.
That way, it’s a simple job to highlight all the ways content can, and should, be a key part of any website build.
To jump to any of the sections, click the links below. Otherwise, read on!
- First contact
- Website navigation consulting
- Initial project meeting
- Data gathering
- The research stage
- The questionnaire stage
- Tone of voice guidelines
- Liaising with design and development
- Drafting content
- Finding snags
- Client content review
- Final checks
- Site launch
1. first contact
The way it tends to work is this:
My agency client comes to me and tells me they’ve got a new client for a website-build project. They do the build (and often the design) in-house, and they outsource the website copywriting to someone like me.
We talk about what the project will entail, what their client does, and whether the new website will be content- or design-led.
There’s usually a little dance around budget – no one wants to be the first one to name figures – so at this point I’m hedging my bets as to whether this is going to be a project I want to get fully involved with.
I’m interested, but I’m not committed yet.
2. website navigation consulting
One service I frequently offer clients before a website build begins is user experience and website navigation consulting.
I charge for this work separately to any further work on the project.
To begin with, I examine the current sitemap and discuss with my agency client how they think the new website should function, including:
- Which pages need to be stripped away
- Which pages function well in terms of SEO/UX
- What the main product/service areas are, and how they break down into sub-categories
- What the problems are with the current site navigation
After this initial discussion, I look through the entire website to see:
- How it can be streamlined
- Which content can be removed or consolidated
- What new content is needed, and in which formats (just a couple of new paragraphs? A new page? An entire new area of the website?)
- How we can improve user experience and flow throughout the site
One of the interesting things about websites is this: as companies grow and expand, they feel that their website should too.
It’s not true: in almost all cases, the bigger a company becomes, the more pared-back their website should be.
So, what you tend to find is that websites that haven’t been changed for a while will have a top level navigation that’s pretty clear, descending into secondary and tertiary navigations that become increasingly erratically organised and poorly populated.
These additional pages tend to be after-thoughts and add-ons, so there’s less attention to detail paid to:
- What’s written on them
- How it’s written and formatted
- How it integrates with the rest of the site (i.e. how it’s accessed, where it links to and from etc.).
I tend to recommend that most these pages are removed and/or consolidated when the website is updated.
As part of my user experience and website navigation consulting service, I create a visual representation of a proposed new site map, with suggestions for additions, amendments, consolidations and removals from the existing site map.
My client looks over it, discusses any areas of uncertainty with me, then finalises it before including it in their final proposal to their client (who we’ll call ‘end-client’ for clarity from here on in).
Once my client’s confirmed the proposed sitemap, and whether the project will be design- or content-led, I’m able to finalise a quote for them. This takes into account:
- How much research will be needed
- How quickly the project will need to be completed
- Whether I’ll need to visit the end-client (I usually do)
- How many pages there will be
- What the page templates will need in terms of written content.
My client factors my quote into the total project quote they send to the end-client. If I’ve done any consulting, I invoice for that.
Then, I wait to see what the client will come back with, and whether I’ll be doing any more work on the project.
3. INITIAL PROJECT MEETING
It may take a number of weeks – or even months – for my client to confirm whether the end-client has opted to use my services as part of the project.
I don’t sit around and wait – I carry on as usual, and keep my client updated about my availability.
If I’m signed on to the project, I’ll agree payment terms with my client – often, we split the total sum in half or into thirds, payable over the duration of the project.
Then, the data gathering / initial project meeting stage begins. I make a start on basic research and content marketing strategy planning. usually accompany my agency client to the end-client’s premises to discuss:
- The website design and build
- The content marketing strategy I’ll be applying to it
The topics I’ll cover as part of the content marketing strategy include:
- Brand tone of voice
- UX (user experience) and navigation
- SEO (search engine optimisation)
- CRO (conversion rate optimisation)
How much emphasis is placed on each depends entirely on the project.
4. data gathering
The initial project meeting is our first opportunity to explain to the end-client what we’ll be doing with their website.
I also use the meeting to ask the end-client questions about their business and industry:
- What they do and how they do it
- What sets them apart from the competition (hint: often nothing)
- What they like and dislike about their current website
- Which competitor sites they like and why
I also take the opportunity to ask a few questions about brand identity, tone of voice, and how the client sees their business, industry and customers.
Often, I prepare a questionnaire for the client before this meeting, which they keep and send me once they’ve had a chance to think and discuss their answers with their colleagues.
In my business, I work primarily with trade, industrial and B2B end-clients, which can mean that I deal with a lot of concepts that are new to me and quite complicated.
When I visit end-clients, I always try and get a site tour, so I can see what they do and how it all fits together. I need to fully understand what the end-client offers their customers, so I’m basically like the most attentive school trip visitor ever during these tours.
Once I’m home, I write up the notes I took during the meeting and tour, and share them with my client. I use these notes to:
- Decide on the basic content I want to include on the new site
- Decide how the content should be spread across the site
- Identify information I still need to gather
5. The Research Stage
At this point, Google is my friend.
I spend at least a couple of days online, finding out more about:
- The end-client’s business and industry
- Their competitors, and industry leaders
- The services/products the end-client and their competitors offer
I use the information I gather for two main purposes:
- To gather factual information
- To decide how to position my client as an industry leader
I create an individual dump file (a document into which I make notes and paste useful content) for every page of the new website.
Once I’ve completed a dump file for every page, I:
- Collate the information I’ve gathered
- Decide what needs to be covered on the new website
I also take notes on the good and bad points I see on competitor websites (clear, informative content; overly corporate tone etc.). These get dropped into my developing tone of voice document.
6. The questionnaire stage
When I’ve finished the research needed for every page of the new website, it’s time to fill in the gaps: things I wasn’t able to find out, things I don’t fully understand, and things that are specific to the end-client’s business.
The best way I’ve found to fill the gaps, and get information right from the horse’s mouth (so to speak) is to create questionnaires for the end-client to fill out – one for each page. If the type of content needed on a number of pages will be very similar, the same questionnaire can be tweaked and re-used.
Depending on the amount of information needed, it can take end-clients a number of weeks to fill out the questionnaires and return them. Once I’ve received the answers, I review the information and contact the end-client to clear up any gaps and uncertainties. I then take the information from each questionnaire and drop it into the relevant dump file.
FUN ANTI-PLAGIARISM WARNING:
Quick note on dump files: anything I write is left in standard ‘body’ format. Material I paste from competitor and other sites is marked up in red. Material from the client is italicised.
That way, when I get to actually drafting the final content, I can see clearly what’s mine and what isn’t. Plagiarising isn’t just bad for your business and the people you rip-off – duplicate content will screw over your end-client too.
7. Tone of voice guidelines
Before drafting content, I need to set the guidelines for a new, consistent brand tone of voice to be used during the website copywriting stage of the project, and by the end-client in future.
While some clients already have tone of voice guidelines, most don’t. The ones who do often say that the existing guidelines are out of date or no longer relevant.
I use two things to inform the tone of voice guidelines I write:
- The answers to the tone of voice questionnaire from the initial meeting
- The notes I made on competitor brands
I also review the negative trends in the end-client’s industry: for example, if the industry has an overwhelming tendency to be very dry and corporate, I’ll make a clear note to take another direction.
By combining the client’s thoughts with my own personal “wish list” of positive points, I’m able to create a full, authentic and unique brand tone of voice for both me and the end-client to use when creating content for their website.
I often send the tone of voice guidelines over to my agency client so we can make sure that there’s an affinity between the written content, any multimedia content, the design and the build.
You wouldn’t want cheery, jokey content set against a highly professional, structured web design, nor would you want very straight-laced content on a fun, interactive site.
8. Liaising with design and development
Once I’ve completed the tone of voice guidelines and they’re approved by my client, it’s time to see how the design and development side of things is coming on.
My client sends over PDF previews of the page template designs so far, both so I can get a feel for the visual side of the website, and so I can decide how much content will be needed on each page.
In web copywriting projects, I decide on the size of content modules before I actually draft any words. For example:
A page might require three ~20-word text overlays for its header image carousel, followed by a subtitle, an intro paragraph of 75 words, another subtitle, a more detailed paragraph of 150 words, four small paragraphs (four lines each) to accompany four icons, and so on.
Working the content this way allows me to plan out the copy before it’s written, let the design and development teams know what I’ll need them to enable for me, and standardise the look and feel of the pages on the website.
When I’ve decided on the content modules for each page, I send these plans over to the design and development teams for review.
If any adjustments are needed, we discuss those and decide how best to balance the visual and written content requirements.
When all the little issues are ironed out, the content plan is set, and I can make a start with the writing.
9. Drafting CONTENT
Stage nine of the project, and it’s Actual Website Copywriting time.
The first job in the content drafting stage is to go through each of the dump files and insert the relevant headers and word/line counts decided on in the content plan.
I do this all in one go so I can be sure there won’t be any mistakes, and to save me wasting time checking the content plan over and over as I write.
I also make a note in each file of the keyword phrases the page should be targeting, so I remember to include these as required.
When it comes to writing, I’ll open up one dump file at a time, and begin to drag the copied and pasted content, my own research notes, and the client’s questionnaire responses into the section I think they fit best.
I remove any extraneous information: anything that’s not relevant, incorrect, or replicated elsewhere.
Once I’m happy with the basic spread of content, I begin the website copywriting itself.
As I create content for each module, I cut and paste the notes from that module to the bottom of the file. That way, when I’m happy with the copy I’ve written, I can review all the rough material, check I’ve covered every point I need to, and delete it bit by bit, until there’s only neat copy left.
One thing to point out: once all the content is drafted, but before the rough notes are deleted, I duplicate the file so I’ll be able to access the rough notes if needed in future.
This process takes a considerable amount of time, as you’d expect.
I upload the content as I write it, so the design and development team can make a start with situating it in the dev site.
I usually work with clients over Basecamp or Slack, and the files (Pages, as I use a Mac) frequently need to be exported to either Word, PDF, or both, before being uploaded.
10. finding Snags
While I’m writing the rest of the content, my agency client will situate what I’ve already sent them in the dev site.
When I’ve finished the first draft of all the content (often a few weeks’ work), and they’ve uploaded it all, it’s time to discuss how it fits.
I arrange a chat with my client – usually over Skype or the phone – to find out whether there are any obvious snags.
Perhaps 50 words is too long for the intro paragraph, or four lines is too many for the content under the icons. Maybe the intro text on a service page seemed fine, but when you access that page from its landing page, it’s a bit too repetitive.
A large part of website copywriting is looking at how the words work in context. There are always a few areas that need work, so I note them down, then log into the dev site so I can correct them in situ.
It’s far easier to amend snags this way, as Live Edit mode allows you to see how text sits within the design template.
Once the website copywriting’s done and the snags have been fixed, and I’ve let my client know, it’s time to go over the dev site and proof-read the content for issues like spelling, grammar, punctuation, as well as clumsy phrasing, repetition and inaccuracies.
I also need to make sure the content adheres to the tone of voice guidelines, and that each page targets the correct keyword phrases.
Again, I correct these issues in situ on the dev site, making a note of the changes made to each page, and pasting those notes into the files on my own computer, so I’ve got a record of exactly what’s been amended, and where.
12. Client content review
Once the content is in place, de-snagged and proof-read, it’s time for my client to finalise everything on the design and build front before presenting the site to the end-client.
This presentation is sometimes done in person, back at the client’s premises, or remotely. I’m not usually present – I rely on my client to feed back to me.
My client will often give the end-client a printed copy of each page, so they can mark up areas they think may need amending.
There may be issues with phrasing, or the accuracy of certain information, and a good old-fashioned red pen session is often the best way to address these.
In an ideal world, digital amendments would be possible – via something like Tracked Changes – however, in my experience, the vast majority of clients in the sectors I work with most frequently have no idea how to use it.
13. final check
When the amended documents are sent back to me, I review each one. I log into the dev site at the same time, so I can see how the content currently sits.
Then it’s a question of going through the word processing files, reviewing the changes, and deciding whether to implement them or not.
I implement the ones I agree with, often making small changes to the text around them so the content still sits neatly in the dev site.
Any I don’t agree with, I list in an email with a reason for my rejection. I send that mail back to the client via my agency client, and usually my decisions are accepted.
If they’re not, there may be a little tussle (at the end of the day, you can’t force a client to accept content they don’t like).
Sometimes I offer up a complete alternative rather than including something I think will damage the tone of voice, give a bad impression or sit awkwardly within the rest of the content.
14. Site launch
Once all the content’s in place and approved, the website copywriting part of the project is pretty much done. You’d think this would be a bit of a high point in the whole process but, quite honestly, it’s usually a quiet affair.
My client lets me know when the site is going to be put live, and I usually keep an eye on things from afar in case of any last minute amends.
Otherwise, all that’s left is to invoice, and thank the clients for their collaboration. Then, it’s into the portfolio with this project, and on to the next website copywriting gig!
I hope you enjoyed this long read on website copywriting – do you think I missed anything out? Are you a website copywriter who does things differently? I’d love to hear from you – comment below.
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