Questions to Ask Buyers about Their Website Content

In our last post, we explored that being a good writer doesn’t qualify you for writing anything you want to take a stab at. There are nuances between types of content and techniques to learn before you can effectively say that you can do a great job at a new type of writing.

One of the easiest types of writing to screw up is website content – and you may never know you did a crappy job. A buyer usually approaches a writer with a one-time job or a single project. Once the job is done, it’s done.

Off the buyer goes with his brand-new website content, expecting results and conversion from the fancy wording.

It may be a few weeks or even months before the buyer realizes there’s something wrong. The site isn’t converting as well as it should. The content isn’t very compelling. The website is broken. Does the disappointed buyer go back to the original writer for an overhaul?

Nope. That buyer goes elsewhere. You would, too, if someone did a poor job on your project.

O Writer, Work Thy Magic

There are three problems with website content that doesn’t work the way it should:

• The buyer’s expectations were too high
• The website content wasn’t properly split-tested and tweaked
• The writer didn’t do a good job in the first place

Most writers lay the blame quickly: It’s the buyer’s fault. The instructions weren’t clear. They were vague. The design is ugly. The site owner isn’t promoting the business properly. The writer can’t be held responsible for a lack of results or poor conversion.

As a matter of fact, yes, the writer can.

Most writers believe that the goal is to write appealing content that reflects the company well, and that’s it. But that’s incorrect. Website content always has a distinct purpose. Writers tend to forget that clear goal: to compel, to convert, to attract, to sell, to inform, to inspire…

Websites are simply gateways to action, and it is the writer’s job to discover what that action should be – and make it happen.

Can You Repeat the Question?

It is the writer’s responsibility to ask the proper questions before writing one word of website content. Some good questions to ask buyers include:

• What is the purpose of the website?
• What action would you like visitors to take?
• Is there a specific service or product you would like to promote?
• What image do you want your website to reflect?
• What emotion do you want your visitors to feel when they read your content?

Create a form of standard questions that you can easily send to clients. Forget about the words you have to write. Focus on the initial effects the website needs to impress on site visitors and the after-effects of the content you’ll create.

The Clothes Make the (Wo)Man

Learn about your clients, too, and their type of personality. For a website to work well, it has to match the personality of the business and the people who will be running it.

Think of website content like custom-made clothing. Too stiff a suit, and the casual entrepreneur feels stifled. Too flouncy a dress and the business owner feels silly.

Observe as much as you can about the business owner through communication and find the proper garment selection for a perfect fit.

Words create a mental image, so make sure that the image you create also reflects the design of the site and the expectations of the target audience. Website content has to feel comfortable to the owner and stir up a sensation on presentation.

Does it sound like writing web content is a complex job? It is.

What – did you think it was easy?

It can become easy, though, if you learn the proper techniques that make you the star of the show. We’ll show you some techniques, too, so stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll explore how marketing strategies help your website wow the crowd.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. James, I wish I’d known you five years ago when I started out in this business. You’d have saved me so many headaches.

    Not that the info is useless now, of course :)

    You’ve hit it on the head here. Now, Getting clients to tell you their expectations can be like pulling teeth, but it’s a necessary exercise.

    Bob Younce at the Writing Journey’s last blog post..The Helium Report is Now Available

  2. Hi James, thank you for this post. I do not write web content however the questions you pose would apply to writing articles and columns, which I do write. Knowing what the editor wants is similar to learning what a client would like on their web site.

    Research into the online or print magzine is vital and you are talking about the same type of research when you indicate that a web content writer should “get to know” their client, their business etc. Ideally, it’s all about “knowing the market” or the “niche” which is what we all need to do as writers.

    Thanks again, for these reminders.

    Jenny Burr’s last blog post..Some “Me Time”

  3. Brett Legree says:

    James,

    Thanks for a timely post – I think I’m doing a lot of things right, yet I have a lot to learn in this area and the answers to the questions you posed will help.

    In fact, you could take the word “website” and substitute in any number of words depending on what you are writing. I would be able to put the word “report” in there, for instance, for some work I’m going to do today at “work”.

    Always about considering your target audience, what they need, and what you want them to take away from your communication.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..canada 2, greece 0. a story about running.

  4. James, I like this very much, and I am seeing more clearly today the point that you are making with website content, that it is a call to action and therefore more of a marketing style of work. ( Hope I am getting it)

    Now, help me out here, When WOULDN’T I ask my future boss, ( The person I am writing for or do any work for ) in ANY style of writing these same type of thoughtful questions?

    If you are paying me, I am going to interview you down to your toes to make sure I understand your every desire and more importantly needs- (because some clients don’t know what they need, they need you to help them understand their needs through consulting) before I pick up my pen.( Or whatever I use to do my work) To me, that goes to the heart of Listening and customer service. Don’t take action unless you know what that action should be- in any business. Not-I THINK I know what you want– it’s I know I KNOW what you want. Otherwise….go home.

    Wendi Kelly’s last blog post..Balancing Balloons

  5. I agree with Jenny that this is sound advice for a variety of writing.

    When I am writing a funding submission, report or business letter I keep these questions at the forefront: What is my purpose? What do I want the reader to do? Who is the reader and what drives them to take action?

    The learning process has involved a lot of trial and error, and I still forget these lessons from time to time. So when I start to feel lost half-way through a piece, I stop and remind myself of the answers to those questions.

    Thanks for pulling this together in such a focused way.

  6. @ Wendi – There are times when these types of questions don’t apply to web content or only one or two may apply. And by web content, I mean all content published on the web. WebSITE content is specifically content to populate a website page.

    Some types of writing don’t have as much moving forward in mind. They are informational, plain and simple. There is no further action beyond informing. The content is not always a gateway to other goals.

    A website is a company portfolio and ALWAYS has another action in mind. The content should ALWAYS highly focus on the business values, image, credibility.

    But I agree with you and other commentators. These are often common questions that can cross many types of writing. They are good questions to ask. They are not always vital to the project, though.

    In website content writing, they are crucial.

  7. I understand the “have to ask” part. What I don’t understand is when I have to do the telling.

    This week someone approached me about running an ad on my site. We talked about costs and what pages he wanted it on, position, tracking.. all the usual stuff. I offered him a 30 day free trial and he then sent me his ad.

    It was just his logo.

    Now maybe some folks logos tell you what is being sold, but most don’t, and this one sure didn’t. So what am I supposed to do? Put up a silly logo as an ad? Sheesh..

    So I wrote back, suggesting as diplomatically as I could that he just maybe, maybe, might want to add some text that actually might cause someone to have a reason to click on his ad? Heck, “Buy my stuff!” would be better than just this meaningless logo!

    I haven’t heard back yet..

    Tony Lawrence’s last blog post..You sounded annoyed by Anthony Lawrence

  8. @ Tony – Because you and I understand virtual world conversion and how things work behind the scenes.

    Most average people have very little knowledge of marketing and promotion strategies. All they know is that they want a business, and they want something online. We spend a LOT of time teaching people how to market and how to make things happen on the web. The answer is always the same:

    “OoOoooOOOOOhhh… I get it now!”

  9. Well, no, this guy has a business and it isn’t all that small.. but interestingly enough he’s in a specific market niche where he’s a distant second from the market leader.

    The market leader has advertised on my site, which is probably why this guy contacted me, but I might guess that such a naive knowledge of basic advertising might have a lot to do with WHY he is number two.

    If he were willing to spend more, I could really boost him up – but there’s no point in even broaching that now.. he needs to be led many a step before we could talk about things like that.

    Tony Lawrence’s last blog post..Extending XP by Anthony Lawrence

  10. Good list of questions!

    In fact, I think that it’s far better to ask too many questions that not enough.

    I think, as writers, we are sometimes afraid that we will annoy the client by asking too many questions.

    Big mistake! By not asking questions we end up making a lot of assumptions and that can be a recipe for disaster.

    In a few cases, clients might be annoyed by questions, but I’ve found that most clients are actually quite relieved when you ask questions that they might not have known how to express or even thought of.

    Look at it this way – asking questions is one way of showing that you are thorough and care about the client.

    Good post!

    Laura Spencer’s last blog post..Of Note: Words For Hire

  11. @ Laura – We tend to ask a lot of questions to help us do a better job. One of the most common answers we hear is, “Hm… Good question. I never thought of that.”

    Two results happen. Either the client puts some thought behind his answer and he gets a better grip on what he needs, or he asks, “What’s your opinion?”

    That lets us show our expertise, make some suggestions, give alternatives and generally, we come out looking pretty nice with a client who feels confident and knows exactly what he’s getting.

    Questions are very good things.

  12. Am I one of the only writers who insists on a copy platform worksheet before taking a job? I think it may be my age–the old school way of writing copy. But my clients are always stunned that I need to know so much.

    I’ll compromise and will send them the worksheet so they can read it and then call them to interview them (so they don’t have to write it all out.) But the three page questionnaire is the same–who are you, why are you better, what do you want them to DO, what do you want to them to avoid and so on and so on.

    This should be standard operating procedure. There is no such thing as web content writers. There are only web content marketers (who write.)

    N@

  13. I’ve said this before: I get very annoyed when someone tries to sell me something related to my business (like advertising, copy writing, seo etc.) without knowing anything about me. That’s basics: if you are going to approach me with a pitch, you should have done your homework and looked up what you could on the web.

    But as this post points out there’s much more. If I have even the slightest interest, that’s when you should start hammering me for more information. Aside from determining how whatever you are trying to sell me is going to improve my life, those questions might also make you see something else you could do for me.

    As Laura said, you might annoy me by asking too much – you really have to temper that based on the interest level I indicate, but it’s probably better to ask one too many than one too few.

    Tony Lawrence’s last blog post..Sales Calls for Tech folk by Anthony Lawrence

  14. I’d add another layer to the questions a writer can ask about: analytics…

    This is the huge advantage writing for the web has over writing for print.

    In the print world, you can only rely on the vision and judgment of the editor. Online you can use actual reader behavior to see which articles they really want to read and how they move between different types of content. Add in multivariate testing techniques and analysis of internal search engine results and you have an amazing wealth of information upon which to build targeted and engaging content.

    James, this is shaping up to be an excellent series. Great work!

    Jamie Grove – How Not To Write’s last blog post..Giving Away Your Book Part 2

  15. I’m not a writer but coming from a web designer point of view, these questions transcend content writing. They are great for many service oriented professions.

    James – this post is SO you, and that’s great.

    Now, I’m waiting to see the marketing post. Any clue as to when it’ll be posted?

    John Hoff – eVentureBiz’s last blog post..How To Buy A House Like A Real Estate Investor: Part 4 – Getting Your Closing Costs Covered

  16. @ John – I didn’t know I was definable ;)

    This series will be going on into next week. I’m not done with you lot yet.

    @ Jamie – Watching behavior is fascinating. While I’m no stat addict, I do check daily and try to observe patterns of behavior, hits and misses. It’s instant results at its best.

    @ Tony – Ahh, the upsell… Seriously, though, what you say is right. By asking questions, we can DO things for clients – better, faster and with more results – by asking questions.

    @ Nicole – No, you’re not… Most writers have some sort of sketchy sheet that don’t ask very good questions. (Oh come now, you lot. I’ve read some of your question forms. They’re horrible, for the most part.) Other writers have ideas for making form sheets but never get around to doing them and even more tend to do case by case questions.

    Which isn’t very efficient, but that’s a story for another day.

  17. @ James – so you’re not done with me lot yet, huh . . . ? ;)

    oooohhh I’m shakin’ in my boots!

    John Hoff – eVentureBiz’s last blog post..How To Buy A House Like A Real Estate Investor: Part 4 – Getting Your Closing Costs Covered

  18. “Websites are simply gateways to action”
    Another quote worthy quote from you, James!

    I wrote to a client today asking them several ways what their website URL was so I could figure out their audience. Afer several times of bouncing emails back and forth, he finally gave me the URL I told him in a quick paragraph what I would do next to help his business and he was tickled pink because seeing where my articles would live helped me envision them. It made it easy for me to see how to proceed with the project.

    Too often writers simply take the brief and run with it without asking any questions.

    Your post has inspired me to draft up a new client questionnaire that I know will help me do better at my job.

    Niebu :)

    Dana’s last blog post..Keeping The Ideas Flowing

  19. Karen Swim says:

    One of many of the first questions I ask clients is who is their market. I am surprised by how often the answer is “Everyone.” I often spend more time helping clients identify their ideal client and their buying motivators, habits, etc. than developing the messaging. It is amazing how many clients have a site but no clear idea of who they are targeting and why. Thank you so much for sharing that developing web content is much more complex than throwing together keywords.

  20. @ Karen – I hate, “Everyone.” It’s a useless answer. Instead of asking, “Who is your target market,” try, “What is the ideal customer profile?” It makes a buyer focus on one person alone.

  21. I totally agree with the responsibility issue, but not all questions are good. Keep in mind that an average marketer has no idea about ‘writing style’ and other copywriting stuff, so such questions can be rather embarrassing. Why showing clients their incompetence? I mean, one shouldn’t be fanatic about asking questions: all in all, the copywriter’s duty is to ANALYZE info rather than to use someone else’s explanations.

    Copywriting 911’s last blog post..8 Reasons Why You Are a Good/Bad Copywriter

  22. @ Copywriting – I disagree, and strongly. As a wordsmith, it is our job to convey messages clearly.

    Also, we’re not talking writing style as in APA or Chicago or whatever. We’re talking STYLE. Flair. Sound. Image. Look. Appeal. Don’t get all caught up in the arTEESTe factor of which punctuation trend or citation pattern you should follow.

    “Do you like professional or friendly? Do you prefer authoritative or warm?” These things are easily asked and make a client think about what sort of style they want to show off to customers. That’s not embarrassing at all.

    Plus, if you feel that one shouldn’t be asking questions and analyzing instead, I’d like to see how that works when a client has no site built, has no previous content and isn’t even really the client but acting on behalf of another client. Should be interesting.

  23. @ James – I agree, and strongly :) By asking relevant questions, a copywriter ensures better targeting, improving the chances of success.

    But I meant a different thing: writers should customize that question list depending on the client, the current order etc.

    Most of my clients like to be asked questions, but those who don’t, appreciate greatly when I take this task upon myself.

    Did you happen to write for people who disliked answering questions? Maybe you know how to deal with them?

    Copywriting 911’s last blog post..8 Reasons Why You Are a Good/Bad Copywriter

  24. @ Copywriting – Ah, thanks. I understand better now.

    Generally speaking, these questions apply to all customers, though each client of course demands personalized questions to really hone in.

    I’ve never met a client who doesn’t appreciate that I’ve asked pertinent, relevant questions to do a better job.

    I have noticed that writers who ask vague questions or ones that require long responses and can’t be answered in bullet points tend to annoy their customer – not good, that. Keep it short, keep it sweet and keep it really easy to answer. Multiple choice works great.

    I don’t believe writers should assume or answer questions based on what they think. No one is a mind reader. Observation is great, but if you want a happy customer, you find out what they want and you provide it or provide better suggestions.

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