Writing for hummingbirds – Web Page Drill Down

Have you ever watched a hummingbird get breakfast? It darts about staying but a few seconds on each perch before disappearing in a blur. Imagine trying to sell your services to this creature. Absurd, you say? Well, statistics show that website visitors and humming birds have a lot in common: They’re flighty.

Website writing plays a bit part in how long a web visitor will stick around, but is usually neglected. In the time and budget-limited world of web design projects, existing text is used verbatim from the last trade show handout or company brochure. It’s tempting to “re-purpose” hard-earned sales copy. Copy and paste it to the website and visitors will love it.

Well, not usually. It’s often shocking to hear when 90% of your web visitors spend less than 15 seconds on a website. Even targeted marketing campaigns can have only 25% of visitors stay more than 30 seconds. When someone sees a mass of copy on one page, they make an economic choice: “Do I have time to read all of this?” This is reality and your website must deal with it. Get the main points out quickly – then, after they’re perched, show them the sweet stuff. I remember a t-shirt that said “Life is short, eat your Derby Pie first” which makes sense in so many ways here. So for web pages selling services, I like the journalistic style known as the “inverted pyramid method.” High level selling points at top, followed by supporting copy (around 200-250 words) and then linkages to other pages to continue. You can stop reading at any point along the way and get 80% of the benefit of the information. The resulting structure looks like a tree, and the path a visitor takes on that tree describes their interest and intent.

Some advantages:

Major Points Made First, Details Available. Visitors with greater interest are rewarded incrementally as desired, carrying with them the big picture concept. If they are interrupted or distracted, your site still gave them something to take away. If you should want to provide a “printer friendly” version, you should do that with Adobe Acrobat, and insert all information in one PDF file for simple printing. Don’t assume that your website will print well right off the screen, as it usually doesn’t.

Information is neatly sliced.
Search engines have their own economic decision to make when they visit your site. It is well known that they have an easier time indexing each page properly in this simplified layout. When optimizing a page, having only one major theme to target usually results in better success, all the way up and down the tree of your site.

Scrolling is reduced. While hot-rod mice make scrolling less a burden than it used to be, many prefer to see everything “above the fold.” Make sure the continuation links also show above the fold so they can find their way to the rest, and never force them to scroll “sideways.”

Individual concepts are linkable. Your sales emails can casually link to areas of your website to support a comment. Others linking to your site in their blogs can get closer to the topic they’re wanting to link to.

Web sitemaps can be constructed. A site map is a table of contents for your website and search engines eat them like Halloween candy. Google even has a way to feed your sitemap in a sort of “fast-pass” around its normal process of rating sites. When sections are sliced well, sitemaps just work better. In addition, the off-screen Adobe Acrobat version can be structured using Acrobat’s Outline function, mirroring the site perfectly, but still very printable.

Click-trails can be examined in web statistics. You cannot track the user’s eyeballs (yet) over a huge block of text, so it’s hard to say what was interesting to a visitor. But when visitors click towards the area of interest, you can track their intent as subsequent pages are requested from the site.

The site can adjust itself on the fly.
Ok, advanced topic: By reviewing actions, dynamic websites can change the visitor’s experience on the fly. An example might be a website selling equine insurance. The visitor who enters looking for Quarter Horse products has no use for sections on Thoroughbreds. After a few software-monitored clicks, the website morphs into a full-blown Quarter Horse Insurance site with other breeds fading quietly to the side. Suddenly you’ve multiplied your chances for a sale several times over.

Lastly, while it’s getting better, but it’s still hard to find good copywriters who understand the inverted pyramid. Often those skilled in writing press releases are excellent at it. Style guides for press releases are excellent training material for this method as the goals are much the same. Perhaps a good way to find someone is to interview writers over lunch. Then ask the waiter to bring Derby pie before the main course. “Who knows,” you can say, “the place might catch fire!”