The challenge for writers of web content is that we think that people want to read our content. They don’t.
The web is not a murder mystery. People don’t want to get "sucked into" the content we write. To them, being sucked in is something to be avoided at all costs. In 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds. Today, it’s eight seconds. The attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. Most people come to the web because there’s an information gap. Something has cropped up. There’s something they don’t know, something they need to do.
They are looking for a bridge for that information gap. They want to get over that bridge as quickly as possible. At heart, writers are not like that. Writers by their nature are story tellers. Writers need readers and the ultimate success for a writer is a reader who gets lost within the world of the writer.
Writers want to share, and they need a reader to share with. Writers want to help. They want to explain. But writers too often fall in love with the craft of writing itself, with the smell and rustle of paper, with the words themselves. But most web content needs to be highly functional and utilitarian. The content itself is not the destination. It’s the signpost — getting busy people with busy lives quickly and easily to where they need to go.
But we writers can be a bit like vampires. We want to suck your time. We want nothing more than for you to spend as much time as possible with our words. That’s success for a writer. As writers we walk a tightrope between empathy and ego.
The organization itself is the most needy of writers. In 2015, a great many websites and intranets are still full of vanity projects. Some communicators still spend more time polishing the egos of senior management than serving their customers. Language is deliberately made complex because if it were made clear the customer would realize they are really getting a very bad deal.
Whenever you find websites with happy clappy content, smiley face images and obscure legalese, you can be pretty certain that underneath all this haze of confusion lies anti-customer business practices. But these approaches don’t work so well anymore. Organizational propaganda has overplayed its hand. The customer is ever more cynical and skeptical, less trusting and less loyal.
Writers can begin to sow the seeds of clarity and transparency. The Web is made of content after all. To do so we need to start by changing our own ways of thinking. Let us not focus on engaging but rather on informing. Let us not focus on getting people to spend time with our content but rather on seeing how we can save them time.
Let’s go on a relentless pursuit of the absolute minimum amount of content that is needed to allow people to complete their tasks. Let us hone, test, refine and constantly focus on and think about our customers. Without the skills of the web writer, the web loses much of its potential.