6 steps to effective college web copy – without the hype

July 26, 2012 by
effective copy college websites

Are you hesitant to write strong copy?

Many university websites takes a 'just the facts' approach to much of their content.  The prose is low-key, and shies away from anything even remotely 'salesy.'

There are a few common exceptions - 'about' and 'admissions' pages often take a slightly more promotional stance.  And academic departments will sometimes try to entice students with examples of future careers in their field.

But overall, the focus is on providing information rather than employing the persuasive techniques of copywriting.

University web marketers are right to be cautious.  'Copywriting' denotes sales and marketing, and Matt Klawitter has written eloquently on the perils of using 'corporate-speak' in the higher education environment.

Nonetheless, every school needs to communicate its unique value to prospective students, parents, donors and others.  Effective copy is key in achieving that, because in the online environment recruiters aren't there in person to listen to their audience and get a feel for

  • who they are
  • what they're looking for
  • what they're worried about
  • or what might prevent them from requesting more information or applying for admission.

Website copy has to anticipate all that, and give people what they need and want.  In effect, copy acts as a virtual salesperson.

It may seem like we're back in the realm of 'corporate-speak,' but never fear.

college web copy should work like a matchmaker, not a salesperson

That's how Eric Sickler of Stamats talked about what it means to be a recruiter in higher education in a recent webinar.  Recruiters need to find (and recruit) the right students for their school, because mismatches always end badly - for both students and institutions.

It's a very apt metaphor, and it applies equally well to your web strategies.

University websites also need to attract and engage the students who represent a good fit.  And it takes solid research, clear communications, and effective persuasion at the right time and in the right way to make that happen.

The moral of the story?

You need strong copy, but it must be copy that's suited to the higher education environment.

the 6 pillars of web copy for higher education

Here are the main things to focus on to write effective copy for university websites.

1.  Know thy target audience(s).  Think about the strengths of your school, and which groups are best suited to what you've got on offer.  Then use web analytics, surveys, feedback from faculty and recruiters, social media updates, student blogs, and any other intelligence-gathering tricks you can think of to draw a clear picture of your site visitors.

Consider creating personas to refine your results and make it feel real and easy to use.  Segment your audience into your most important groups and write to each individually.  Using a generic student won't reach anyone effectively.

2.  Establish a clear and distinctive identity (or brand), and communicate it consistently throughout your website (and the rest of your messaging).  Bob Sevier has some useful advice on how to avoid branding clichés and come up with ideas that will be genuinely compelling.

3.  Place your visitors at the center of your copy.  You've got lots of cool stuff happening at your school, and you want people to know.  That's great - never hide your light under a bushel.

But, never forget that your visitors aren't inherently interested in you.  They want to know what you can do for them (that is, the benefits to them).  So every time you utter, 'We have 2 Nobel laureates in our molecular biology department,' don't forget to answer the 'so what?/why should I care?' questions.  As in, 'Now that they're so famous, do they still teach undergraduates?', or, 'Will they work with me on the research I'm interested in?'

4.  Write for skimmers, not readers.  The biggest challenge in writing for the web is getting and keeping people's attention.  To keep people with you and encourage them to read more deeply:

a.  Utilize benefits-oriented headlines and subheads.  Can visitors get the gist of what a page is about just by reading the heads and sub-heads?  They'd better, because it might be the only thing they read.  And if done well (i.e., the benefit to them is obvious), headlines will entice people to read the small print.

university web copy

let there be light

b.  Short scannable sections. Let there be light . . . and air, and photos and lots of space on web pages.  The kinds of paragraphs academics tend to write (i.e., long - and I was one of them) are dense and hard to read online.  1-4 lines per paragraph is a lot easier to read than 10.

c.  Short words, short sentences, chop out the fluff.  Save the complicated stuff for class.  Get to the point, in as few words as possible, in easy, everyday language.

5.  Tell people where they are, why they should care, and what to do.  This is all about giving clear instructions and calls to action.  Web visitors won't mind - it saves them from having to think too much.

So, for instance, if you've got a page that comprises 50 links, avoid just listing the links (as I've seen on many pages).  Give visitors a clear benefits-oriented statement of what's on offer, how to use the page, and what to do next.

6.  Strategic use of keywords.  A detailed discussion of keyword optimization is beyond the scope of this post, but it's a factor copywriters can't afford to ignore if they want to appear in organic search rankings.  Here are some basic principles:

    • familiarize yourself with basic keyword research
    • identify which keyword phrases you want to rank for (are you getting enough applicants for your award-winning MFA program?  Are people able to find it online?)
    • use keywords in the places where search engines are looking (meta title, meta description and headlines/sub-heads, for starters)
    • always prioritize readers over search bots.  That means no keyword packing or awkward phrasing in order to 'game' Google.  It's getting smarter about sniffing out these strategies and punishing sites for them, so they're more likely to hurt than help.

What have I missed here?  And what do you find most challenging about writing copy for your school's site? 

Photo credit 1: Creative Commons License Andy via Compfight

Photo credit 2: Creative Commons License amtrak_russ via Compfight

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