Copywriting Tips - Writing For Online Markets Tips
In this article, we will be discussing how to write copy for the Internet.
As well as, How the Internet has opened up an immense range of opportunities for freelance copywriters making it easier for them to work from home? In this article, we set out some basic principles of writing online copy. In addition, as it's helpful for copywriters to know a little bit about how web pages are created, we include a section on essential HTML (the main programming language in which web pages are created). We explain how to write, edit and update a web page, and also look at the art of writing commercial emails and e-zines (electronic magazines).
There is a particular demand for copywriters who can produce effective website sales pages, so we look at this in detail. We explain SEO (search engine optimization) copywriting, another task that online copywriters are often asked to perform. And we close by looking at business blogging and micro-blogging, two more tasks copywriters are increasingly taking on. But before we get on to all that, let's answer a more basic question...
WHY ARE WRITERS NEEDED FOR THE INTERNET?
It's easy to forget how new the Internet is. The World Wide Web, the most popular part of the net, started in 1989 with 50 people sharing web pages. Today, at least 2 billion people use the web, and there are over 1 billion websites, a figure still increasing steadily. For most people, the net has become an inevitable part of their everyday life.
In its early days the Internet - while a useful research and communication tool - offered little in the way of opportunities for writers. That has all changed now, however. Companies have come to realize that having a snazzy-looking web page isn't enough on its own. To get visitors to their site and keep them there - and put them in buying mood - they need well-written, interesting copy. And who's going to provide that for them? Not the techies in their IT department, that's for sure. What they need are writers!
The internet is a constantly changing and evolving medium, but one thing that never changes is the power of the written word, the content. The net revolves around the content, and it could not have become the worldwide success story it is today without it. And the good news is that copywriters are needed to produce copy for a huge range of Internet-related purposes. They include:
- sales emails
- electronic newsletters and magazines (ezines)
- email press releases
- online video scripts and captions
- sales sites
- company homepages
- downloadable courses and mini-courses
- ...and many more!
In general, similar principles apply when copywriting online as when writing traditional (printed) advertising materials. There are important differences as well, however, related to how electronic media work and - just as important - the way that people typically use them. So let's take a closer look at the basics of writing Internet copy.
ESSENTIAL HTML FOR COPYWRITERS
Websites (and some emails - to be discussed later) are not created solely using text.
Behind every website is a computer language called HTML.
HTML is the main language in which all web pages are created. It actually stands for HyperText Markup Language. As a copywriter you are unlikely to be asked to do any complex programming - this is a website designer's job - but you may be asked to perform some basic HTML coding.
Understandably this worries some writers, who don't consider themselves in the least way 'technical'. And yet, the underlying principles of HTML are simple and logical. If you can write to a publishable standard, you can certainly learn the basics of HTML without too much hardship. In this section of the course, we will tell you enough to get you started and point you in the right direction if you want to find out more.
HTML determines how your copy will be displayed on a website. It tells the Internet browser that 'reads' the page how to show the human reader your message. In addition, search engines use some of the features of HTML to decide how important your page is to a topic that someone types into a search engine. Even if you don't get involved with coding at all, therefore, it is still helpful to have some understanding of how HTML works.
It's easy to view the HTML behind any website. Using a web browser such as Internet Explorer, visit the site of your choice, and click on Source or View Source in the browser's View menu. A new window will then open showing the website HTML in its original form.
As the name indicates, HTML is a mark-up language. That means the text the reader sees has been prepared with tags that are not displayed. The tags are enclosed in angle brackets <like these>.
Tags generally written in pairs: an opening tag and a closing tag. The closing tag is just like the opening tag, except that it has a forward slash. For example, the tag to make text bold is <B>, and the tag to turn it off again is </B>. So the following line of HTML...
This is an example of <B>bold text</B>.
...would look like this when displayed in a browser:
This is an example of bold text.
Some of the other tags used for marking up the text are shown in the table on the next page:
Note that HTML is, with a very few exceptions, case insensitive. So you could write <center> or <CENTER>, for example, and it would work just the same. For clarity and readability, we have used upper case throughout this article.
Inserts single-line break
Defines a paragraph
Defines heading size (H = 1-6)
Contains a table
Web Page Structure
There are four basic tags that - with certain minor variations - appear in the HTML of any web page. They are <HTML>, <HEAD>, <TITLE> and <BODY>. Here is the HTML for a very simple web page, demonstrating how these tags are used.
<HTML> <HEAD> <TITLE>Web page title goes here</TITLE> </HEAD> <BODY>Body text goes here</BODY> </HTML>
This is about as simple a web page as you could possibly create. It would display in a web browser as a plain document with 'Body text goes here' at the top and 'Web page title goes here' in the title bar.
Let's look at each of these tags in a little more detail and see what they do. The document starts with a <HTML> tag - this tells the browser that it is looking at a web page written in the HTML language.
The next tag is <HEAD>. This tag can contain various items of information about a web page, but the most important is its title. This is contained within the <TITLE> tags. The <TITLE> tags both have to go inside the <HEAD> tags, so the order of these tags is always <HEAD><TITLE></TITLE></HEAD>.
After the </HEAD> tag, the next tag is <BODY>. Everything that will actually be displayed on your web page goes here, including the copy you have written. At the end of the page are the last two tags, </BODY> and </HTML>. These tell the browser that there is nothing more for it to read.
Incidentally, the code above demonstrates the principle of 'nesting' that you must use when writing HTML. Like nested Russian dolls, whose top and bottom pieces must match before you put on the next piece, the opening and closing tags of HTML have to match in the correct order. If you get mixed up and put them in the wrong order, the page will not display.
There is one other important thing that often appears in the <HEAD> area, and that is the so-called meta-tags. Meta-tags are not displayed to viewers, but they are used by search engines to work out what a web page is about and how highly it should be displayed in searches for any particular word or phrase. Meta-tags may also be used to provide a description of the website in search engine results. Here is the same HTML as above, but with the two most important meta-tags added:
<HTML> <HEAD> <TITLE>Web page title goes here</TITLE> <META Name="Description" Content="description goes here"> <META Name="Keywords" Content="keywords go here"> </HEAD> <BODY> Body text goes here </BODY> </HTML>
There are many other tags as well as those shown in the table. Some are used for marking up text, but others are more concerned with how a page displays, how it appears to search engines, how it links to other web pages, and so on. You can learn more about the wide range of HTML tags on the excellent W3 Schools website at www.w3schools.com.
WRITING AND EDITING WEB PAGES
In the last section we talked about HTML, the main language in which web pages are created, but we missed out one rather crucial question - what software should you use for writing or editing web pages?
There is one very important bit of advice we would like to offer here. Unless you are specifically told that it is acceptable by your client, don’t use a word processor such as Microsoft Word for this purpose. That applies even if you are simply creating content that will be dropped into the web page later by your client's web designer or webmaster.
The trouble with Word is that it uses a range of special characters that do not display properly online. These include 'smart quotes' (quotation marks that are curled to the left or the right), long dashes, ellipses (...), and so on. If any of these characters are used on a web page, they will not display correctly - you will get a meaningless set of marks instead.
For creating website text, it is better to use a text editor such as Notepad (included free with most versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system). A text editor has far fewer options for formatting text than a word processor, but it will ensure that your text can be copied to the website without causing any problems or requiring major amendments by the website designer.
Alternatively, you can use a dedicated site-building program such as Dreamweaver. These programs make it very easy to add features such as hyperlinks, visual text, and so on. They also let you switch quickly and easily between the 'bare' HTML and a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) view of how a site will look when it is published on the web. Such programs can save you a lot of time when creating websites, but they tend to be expensive, and there can be a steep learning curve when you are new to them. If you are simply preparing or editing text for a website, you may find that a text editor such as Notepad is sufficient for your needs.
Editing and Proofreading
As a copywriter, you may be asked to edit and/or proofread a client's website. There is another important word of advice we would offer in these circumstances, and that is to avoid doing the job solely on a computer screen. As mentioned earlier, the text is harder to read on screen, and if you work in this way it is far more likely that you will miss some mistakes.
It is best to print out the website page by page and check each one on paper, where mistakes are much easier to spot. You can then send amendments back to your client - or his programmer - in the form of a list of corrections, identifying each page of the site clearly by its URL. Alternatively, you could mark up amendments on the printed-out pages and submit them to your client in this format.
Another alternative, if you have the technical knowledge - and your client's trust - is to get the necessary details to access the website files and make any corrections directly. To do this you will need an FTP (file transfer protocol) program, such as the free FileZilla program, which can be downloaded from http://filezilla-project.org.
You will need to log in to your client's server - the computer on which his website HTML is stored - and download the pages for the site. You can then correct the source code on your own machine (being sure to keep a copy of the original code before you start making changes, in case it has to be restored later). To do this, you will need to find out from your client where his site is hosted and get the necessary log-in details. Note that clicking 'Source' or 'View Source' in your browser and get the code that way isn't always possible, as websites often include 'hidden' pages which won't show up in the HTML window, or else pages that aren't part of the proper source code will appear.
Once you have downloaded the files onto your own computer, you can simply correct the text in the normal way (using a text editor or dedicated website design program, as discussed in the previous section). A little experience of HTML programming might be necessary to avoid altering the critical functions of the site, but the parts you should and should not amend will generally be obvious. Once all of the desired amendments and corrections have been made, you can then upload the revised and corrected pages using your FTP program. Unless your client has complete faith in you and your abilities, however, he is unlikely to authorize this method, as you could maliciously or mistakenly cause expensive damage to his website.
WRITING EMAILS AND EZINES
We have already referred to emails and ezines (electronic magazines) in passing, but we now need to take a closer look at them specifically.
The first point to note is that emails and ezines can be written either in plain text or HTML. HTML-formatted emails look much snazzier since you can use color, layout, visual text and so on, just like a web page. Unfortunately, however, not all email programs work the same, and they may not display HTML-formatted emails correctly, or at all.
When writing emails for bulk distribution to a wide range of recipients - an electronic press release, for example - there is, therefore, a good case for sticking to plain text.
Plain text emails look rather dull, but if all you want to do is get a short message across, they may be perfectly adequate. As we shall see later, however, for ezines and newsletters, in particular, you may have to consider the other options.
There are two main types of email you are likely to be asked to produce - press releases and marketing emails. Let's look at each of these in turn.
We talked briefly about electronic press releases in Copywriting Basics - Public Relations Writing Tips. To recap, we pointed out that sending press releases by email has certain advantages when compared with mail or fax, but some drawbacks also. The main advantages are the savings in time and money. The drawbacks are that electronic press releases are easily ignored, they may be filtered out by anti-spam software, and many newspapers and magazines dislike them.
Nevertheless, electronic press releases are growing in popularity and acceptance, and there is every chance that as a copywriter you may be asked to write one. Here then are the main principles again, along with some guidelines to follow.
Email press releases are written in a similar, journalistic style to traditional ones, though they tend to be shorter (normally under 400 words). They are also usually submitted in the body of an email rather than as attachments. One reason for this is that magazines and newspapers use a variety of email software, and they may be unable to open attachments created in some programs. In addition, emails with attachments are more likely to be intercepted by spam filters. Publishers may also decline to open attachments in case they are infected with viruses. And finally, opening an attachment takes up more of a journalist's time than simply scanning a few lines of text in an email.
Electronic press releases are still a relatively new phenomenon, and various forms of presentation are used. You should not go too far wrong if you follow the guidelines below, however.
- Unless you have a good reason for doing otherwise, send your press release in plain text, not HTML, format. The reasons for this were discussed in the previous section.
- Try to make the email subject line captivating - if a reporter isn't grabbed by this, he may delete your email without ever opening it. A good tactic can be to put the words 'Story Idea' or 'News' at the beginning of the line. Reporters are always looking for new story ideas and are appreciative of people who can help them. Your challenge is to stand out from everyone else who is emailing them.
- The first line of the actual email body should read: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE in all caps. This lets the reporter know the news is authorized for publication on the date they receive it.
- Allow one spacer line, then write a headline using title case (a combination of lower case and capital letters). Keep your headline to ten words or less. Do not write the headline in all capital letters, as this makes it harder to read online.
- Allow another empty line for spacing, then begin the text of the release. Aim to be as concise as possible, and make any dates clear, since reporters do not always see releases on the day they are issued.
- Email programs sometimes break lines in an awkward place, so it is best to insert your own hard line breaks after a set number of characters per line. To be safe, we recommend setting the margin to 65 characters when writing an email press release.
- Close the body text of the press release with the characters -30- or # # #. These are stylistic conventions that let a reporter know they have reached the end of a story.
- Finally, include contact information below the main text. A reporter reading your release should be able to make a decision about your story on the first screen he sees, so it's important not to waste that space with contact information. They will scroll down to find out whom to contact if they want to follow up the story.
As an example, we have rewritten the restaurant press release from Copywriting Basics - Public Relations Writing Tips below as it might look if prepared for email distribution.
START OF EMAIL COPYWRITING
As you will see, the two meta-tags come within the <HEAD> area. In the example, they go after the <TITLE> tags, but they could just as well go before them - it doesn't matter as long as they are within the <HEAD> area. Let's look at each one in turn:
META Name="Description" Content=
This meta-tag includes a short description of the website in a form you would like to be displayed in search engine results. It is put in double quotation marks. For example: "This is the homepage of Universal Widgets, the UK's leading widget manufacturing company."
META Name="Keywords" Content=
This meta-tag includes any keywords and phrases you would like to have associated with the page. Again, they are put in double quotation marks and separated by commas, e.g. "widgets, widget manufacturing, widget sales". If someone performs a search using one or more of these terms, the fact that you have included them in the keywords meta-tag improves the chances that the site will appear high in the results listings.
As a web copywriter, it is quite possible you will be asked to provide a copy for meta-tags. Even if you do not have to enter them yourself, then, you will know what meta-tags are, where they appear in web page HTML and the purpose for which they are used.
Images and Hyperlinks
Websites don't consist only of text, of course. They also have images. These may include photographs, cartoons, graphics, logos, and so forth.
Images can exist in various forms, but on web pages, the most usual are gifs and jpegs. Gifs are typically used for cartoons and graphics, while jpegs are most commonly used for photographs. Gifs have the suffix .gif (e.g. logo.gif), while jpegs use the suffix .jpg or. jpeg (e.g. myimage.jpg or myimage.jpeg).
In HTML, the code to display an image takes the following form:
The expression within the quotation marks tells the browser the name of the image to be displayed and where it can be found. In the case above, the file myimage.gif is saved in the same folder as all the other website files, so all that is needed is the name (and suffix) of the file to be displayed. In other cases, however, the image might be on another website, and if that applies you would need to include the full URL, so the browser software knows where to find it:
Hyperlinks are a key feature of all websites. As you probably know, when you click on a hyperlink to another site, you are immediately taken there by your browser.
Hyperlinks are created in HTML using the following code:
<A HREF="URL">Link Text</A>
'URL' in this expression is the complete URL of the site, including the standard HTTP:// prefix. An example would be http://www.hubpages.com.
'Link Text' is the text from which you want the link to be created. Here is a simple example:
We welcome visitors to the <A HREF=“http://www.hubpages.com”>HubPages website</A>.
On a website, this would create the following line:
We welcome visitors to the HubPages website.
There would be a hyperlink from the words 'HubPages website', so anyone clicking on them would be taken to our site. Note that hyperlinks are usually displayed in blue and underlined so that visitors know a link is present. Link text is also referred to as anchor text. The actual anchor text you choose to link from can play an important role is search engine optimization (discussed later in this article).
You can also create links from images. In this case, the syntax is as follows:
<A HREF="URL"><IMG SRC="image.jpg"></A>
'URL' is the complete URL of the site, as before, and image.jpg is, of course, the name of the image file. A real-life example might look like this:
<A HREF="http://www.hubpages.com"><IMG SRC="sample.jpg"></A>
As discussed earlier, the title in quotation marks after IMG SRC= can be just the file name if the image in question is saved in the same folder as all the other website files. If the image is stored on another site, however, you would need to include the full URL, so the browser software knows where to find it:
Either way, assuming that the file sample.jpg was found, it would be displayed with a hyperlink to the HubPages website. Anyone clicking on the image would be taken to our website, in other words.
As a copywriter, you may be asked to indicate where hyperlinks should go in the text you are writing. In addition, if you are asked to edit or proofread a web page (to be discussed shortly), you may need to check and correct the hyperlinks. With the information given in this article, this should not present any problem for you.
This has necessarily been a brief discussion of HTML, but it should be enough to get you going. As we mentioned earlier, as a copywriter nobody will expect you to be an expert on website design and HTML. However, the more you know about these things, the more useful you will be to your clients, and the wider the range of services you will be able to offer them. To find out more about HTML, as mentioned before, we recommend the W3 Schools site at www.w3schools.com, and also PageTutor at www.pagetutor.com. In addition, there are many good introductory books on HTML and website building you can buy, e.g. in the popular 'for Dummies' series. Just visit the Amazon bookstore at www.amazon.com and enter 'HTML' in their search box to see a range of the latest titles.
EMAIL SUBJECT LINE: Story Idea: New Thai Restaurant Opens In Littletown
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New Thai Restaurant Opens in Littletown
A new restaurant serving Thai cuisine, The Summer Palace, opens on Tuesday 1 August in Bridge Street, Littletown. The Summer Palace is named after the ancient building of that name in Thailand's capital, Bangkok.
Among the attractions will be 'steamboat'. This is a traditional
Thai dish, where diners cook strips of meat, fish, and vegetables in stock on a small burner in the middle of the table, and eat them with rice and noodles.
The proprietor of The Summer Palace, Anne Sereywath, says: 'At present, the choice of places to eat out in Littletown is limited
to Indian and Chinese. We aim to give people here a wider choice and introduce them to some new foods, and new ways of eating them!'
The Summer Palace is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 11 am to 11 pm. Both fixed price menus and à la carte are available. Advance booking is not essential but recommended at the weekend.
As an opening offer, every dinner at The Summer Palace during the first week will be given a complimentary glass of wine. Bookings are now being taken on 0302 87543.
Further information: Anne Sereywath
Tel: 0302 87543 (day/evening)
Note to Editor: Further information, including a sample menu, can also be found on the restaurant's website at www.thesummerpalace.co.uk.
END OF EMAIL COPYWRITING
Note that in some cases electronic press releases are distributed via Internet-based services such as Pressbox (www.pressbox.co.uk). In that case, you will need to prepare and format your press release according to their particular requirements (check the website for instructions), but in general, this is unlikely to differ greatly from the style set out above.
Turning now to marketing emails, these may be written for a wide range of purposes. Typically they will be sent to people who have signed up to your client's mailing list and may include details of new products or services, special offers, discounts, company news, events, and so on. Marketing emails are not normally sent unsolicited, as this counts as 'spamming' and in Britain anyway is against the law.
One of the key aims in writing a marketing email is to get the recipient to open and read it. Many people nowadays get dozens or even hundreds of emails every day, and even if they have voluntarily signed up to read emails from your client, there is no guarantee that they will do so. One of your key aims, therefore, must be to create a compelling subject line that virtually forces people to open it. Here are a few tips and suggestions:
- Avoid using all capitals. Not only is this visually off-putting, but it also makes it more likely your email will be blocked by spam filters.
- Likewise, avoid using the word 'free'. This word is typically associated with spam emails, and its presence in the subject line makes it more likely your email will be blocked. Other words to use with caution, for this reason, include cash, money, bonus and guaranteed.
- Tell the reader what to expect in your subject line, but don't reveal everything - give enough information to attract their attention, but leave them wanting to read the email itself to find out more.
- Include your client's company name. This makes it easy for the recipient to see immediately whom the offer is coming from.
- If possible, personalize your subject line to the recipient. Including their name, in particular, will always grab a reader's attention. Your client should be able to tell you whether personalizing the subject line (and the email itself) is possible or not.
- Keep it short and simple. Try and keep the subject line to around 50 characters, including spaces. This will help promote readability and ensure the whole line is displayed as intended. Many web-based email readers (e.g. Hotmail) won't display more characters than this.
- Don't over-use punctuation. Some amateur writers believe that putting multiple exclamation marks in the subject line somehow makes it more compelling. The opposite is usually the case.
- If there is a time limit to your offer, including this in the subject line can be motivating. For example: 'Special discount offer - ends noon tomorrow.'
- Another idea that has been used successfully by some marketers is to start the subject line with 'Re:', for example, 'Re: Increasing Sales'. This works because people see the Re: prefix and assume it is a reply to a message they sent out themselves. Like all such devices, this should not be over-used, however.
- Finally, spend enough time on it. A common mistake is to leave the subject line until last and not spend enough time trying to get it right. It's the single most important aspect to the success of your email, and you should give it the consideration it deserves.
So far as the body of the email is concerned, the same general copywriting principles - e.g. write as you speak, emphasize benefits rather than features - apply equally to marketing emails. And the specific principles of writing for the Internet set out earlier in the article apply as well. To remind you, these include:
- Be as concise as possible.
- Break text up into short sentences and paragraphs.
- Make each paragraph a self-contained statement, and ensure that the statement is worth reading.
- Use headings and sub-headings to help break up blocks of text.
- Use bulleted lists wherever possible.
Here are a few more tips for writing the body text of marketing emails:
- Always have a clear aim for your email and write with that in mind. Your reason for writing - e.g. to make a special offer - should always be crystal clear, both to you and the recipient. Rambling will drive down response rates. Many Internet users will quickly scan your email to determine if it's worth reading. If it's not immediately clear what your message is about, many prospects will simply delete it and move on.
- Keep the tone chatty and conversational, with plenty of 'you copy'. Email marketing is not a hit-and-run medium. It works best when used to build relationships with prospects and customers. Each time you write an email marketing message, remember you are building a relationship in addition to trying to generate a lead, hit, or sale. Avoid using too much 'hype', therefore.
- If your email includes email addresses or website URLs, be sure to double-check them. A single missed or transposed character will mean the link in question fails to work, leaving recipients irritated and frustrated.
- It is not a good idea to include attachments with marketing emails, as they make it more likely the email will be blocked or rejected. If you have something like a leaflet you want customers to see, it is better to post it on your client's website and just include a link to it from your email.
- At the end of the email, you should include the company name and address and other contact details, e.g. telephone number. You should also include some method for recipients to opt out of receiving any further emails. This is a legal requirement.
One last tip is to try to ensure that the name in the email's 'From' field is either the company name or the name of an individual, as appropriate. Emails showing the sender
as 'Admin' or 'Info' create a poor first impression, and may increase the risk of the message being blocked by spam filters. It is easy enough to change the sender name in all modern email programs, so there is really no excuse for this. Of course, if you aren't sending out the emails yourself this may be outside your control, but you may want to remind your client about this if required.
We will now go on to look at ezines and email newsletters. These terms are pretty much interchangeable, although ezine tends to be used to refer to more attractively formatted electronic publications. From now on we will refer to them all simply as newsletters.
Newsletters use a variety of formats. Like emails, some use plain text, although as newsletters tend to be longer than emails, the limitations of this approach can become more apparent. Plain text newsletters are not as attractive to the eye as those formatted in other ways, neither can they incorporate photos, graphics, banner ads, and so on. A growing number of newsletters are nowadays produced in HTML, therefore, possibly accompanied by a plain text version which will display (you hope) if the HTML-formatted version doesn't.
Some newsletters, also, are produced as word processor documents or PDFs and sent as email attachments. The results can be attractive but, as discussed earlier, there is a greater risk that such newsletters will be blocked by spam filters or people will just not bother to open them.
If you are asked by a client to produce an email newsletter, therefore, the first thing you should establish is the format in which it will be sent. If it's plain text, all you will have to think about is the words (as that is pretty much all you will have to work with). If you are asked to produce an HTML-formatted newsletter (or one in PDF or word processing format), you should normally be provided with a template to use. This is a pre-formatted page with a standard masthead, logo, columns, and so on, into which you enter your text and other elements such as photographs. Once the newsletter is written - probably using web design software such as Dreamweaver - you will end up with an HTML page that can be copied and pasted into an email program, ready to be sent out.
The usual principles for writing for the web apply equally when writing newsletters, i.e. be concise, use short sentences and paragraphs, and keep the tone chatty and conversational. You have a little more leeway with newsletters, however, as people subscribe voluntarily to them and generally look forward to reading them.
Here are a few additional tips and guidelines to apply when writing copy for newsletters:
- Start your newsletter with a list of contents, so people can see at a glance what it's in it.
- Put in plenty of headings and sub-headings, especially in longer newsletters. They aid readability by breaking up the text and helping people see where they are in the document. Likewise, use bullet point lists freely.
- Include links to interesting sites wherever possible. The ability to include hyperlinks is one of the big advantages of electronic newsletters, and you should take full advantage of it.
- As with emails, however, be sure to check all URLs and email addresses carefully. Otherwise, you or your client may find yourself in the embarrassing position of having to send out a follow-up email with corrections.
- When preparing copy for plain text or HTML newsletters, it's best to use a text editor such as Notepad. If you use a word processing program such as Microsoft Word, you will need to switch off features such as smart (curly) quotes, as they may not display properly in a subscriber's email program. This does not apply to newsletters written in Word or PDF, of course.
- Whatever form your newsletter is produced in, send yourself a test copy by email first before it is sent out to subscribers. Doing this should reveal any problems such as broken lines, incomplete URLs or characters failing to display properly.
- Ensure that in every issue there are some means for readers to unsubscribe if they wish - this is a legal requirement. Dedicated newsletter distribution software will usually add such a link at the foot of each issue automatically, but otherwise, you may need to add this information yourself.
As well as the technical aspects, it is, of course, important to understand why your client wishes to produce an email newsletter. In general, as with printed newsletters, the purpose is public relations rather than outright selling. An email newsletter will normally be sent to clients and potential clients who have opted to receive it - and they can just as easily opt out. It is therefore essential to provide useful, interesting content for readers, while at the same time portraying your clients in a favorable light. An effective newsletter will help build readers' confidence in the company, so they are more likely to become (repeat) buyers.
If you are asked to handle the distribution of the newsletter as well as write it, we recommend using a specialist service such as the web-based YMLP (Your Mailing List Provider - www.ymlp.com). Such services are inexpensive (or even free) and will handle subscribe, unsubscribe and change of email address requests automatically on your behalf. Otherwise, as the newsletter's subscriber base grows, you will find yourself swamped by an ever-growing torrent of administrative requests.
Finally, in this article, we need to say a word about SEO copywriting.
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It describes the process of trying to ensure that a website appears high in the search engine results when people enter a particular search word or phrase. For example, a company selling solar panels might want to rank high when someone enters a term such as 'buy solar panels' or 'best solar panels' in a search engine.
SEO copywriting typically involves producing short articles 'optimized' for anything from one to three keywords (a term which can also include phrases). As an SEO copywriter, you will normally be told the keywords your client wants to target and will be expected to produce tightly-written articles that incorporate them. Many SEO articles are only 500 to 700 words long, but they can be longer than this if required.
In the early days of the Internet, it was common to see websites where the text consisted of little more than a string of keywords, endlessly repeated. While this tactic might have worked well at one time, the search engines soon grew wise to it. They devised ever more sophisticated methods for analyzing the relevance and quality of web pages. Sites that use 'keyword packing' today would be heavily penalized by the search engines and might be excluded from search results altogether.
Your aim in SEO copywriting should be to repeat the target keywords enough so that they constitute between 3% and 5% of the article. This is the keyword density now recommended by most experts. More than this, and you risk being penalized by the search engines; less, and you risk not getting found. In addition, you should try to make the article sound as natural and interesting as possible, while still maintaining the required keyword density. This is really the key aim of all good SEO copywriting.
Here are a few additional tips:
- Give your article a title that includes your main keyword. If possible, use your other target keywords as sub-headings.
- Try to ensure that your target keywords are especially concentrated at the start and end of the article, as words in these positions are given particular weight by the search engines.
- Write the articles according to the principles of Internet writing set out in this article, with short sentences and paragraphs, and plenty of use of white space.
- Where appropriate, give keywords added emphasis by putting them in italics or bold. Such terms are given more weight by the search engines (though again this device should not be over-used).
- Be clear on the purpose of your article. Remember that simply attracting visitors to the site is not an end in itself. You (or more precisely your client) will want them to do something as well. This is something you need to clarify with your client.
- If you have access to the web page HTML, ensure that your target keywords are included in the meta-tags. Refer back to the section 'Essential HTML for Copywriters' for more information about this.
- Likewise, if you have access to the HTML, ensure that your main keyword is contained within the <TITLE> tags. For example, if your client's company is called Computerville and they sell computer parts and accessories, instead of the page title just saying Computerville, it should say something like, 'Computerville - Computer Parts and Accessories'.
SEO copywriting is not difficult if you follow the principles set out here, and it can provide you with a steady source of income. It is not normally as well paid as writing website sales pages (discussed in the previous section), however.
BLOGGING AND MICRO-BLOGGING
Finally, let's take a look at a field where opportunities for copywriters are increasing rapidly.
A blog is a special type of website where contributions (or 'posts' as they are called) are added regularly and displayed in date order, usually with the most recent one at the top.
Blogs typically use ready-made templates for their design, making it easy for even non-technical people to create them and/or write for them. They are a bit like online diaries. Another important aspect of blogs is that they are usually interactive. This means it is possible for readers to comment on any post, ask questions, make suggestions, and so on.
Businesses are very much into using blogs as another way of connecting with existing customers as well as potential customers. Like newsletters, they are really PR tools and involve little if any direct selling. Rather, through their blogs, companies attempt to project a positive image and build relationships with people in their target market segments. A typical company blog might include news stories about the business, information on new products and services, helpful hints and tips, case studies of satisfied customers, news of awards/prizes received, special offers, and so on.
The aim of a company blog is to build a group of people within the business's target market who keep returning to read the latest posts. Most blogs also offer readers a range of ways to 'subscribe' to them. For example, readers may be able to enter their email address to get each new post sent by email, thus saving them having to keep returning to the blog itself.
A blog, like a newsletter, can help project a positive image for a company, and make it more likely that readers will turn into buyers. Another important aspect of blogging is that, as mentioned above, it is interactive. A blog, therefore, provides a channel for people to express any concerns they may have about the company, and make suggestions about its future direction, new products, and services they would like to see, and so on. It can thus be a useful tool for market research.
There is no great mystery about blogging. The basic principles of writing for the Internet discussed earlier in the article still apply. In other words, you should write in mostly short sentences and paragraphs, use lists and bullet points where appropriate, and aim for a friendly, informal style (though the style must, of course, also be appropriate to the readers your client is targeting). Modern blogging software makes it easy to incorporate photos and even videos, and it can be a good idea to do this when the opportunity arises, to give the blog added interest and break up the columns of text.
Running a company blog can be an enjoyable and not too taxing assignment, with the added bonus that - if all goes well - it will continue over a period of months or even years. In the beginning, you will be largely dependent on your client to feed you with news and information to turn into posts, but over time as you become more familiar with the business and start getting feedback from readers, you may well be able to generate many of the ideas for posts yourself.
By micro-blogging, we are referring to services that allow users to post very short updates, not just by computer but by mobile phone. At the time of writing, the best-known such service is Twitter (http://twitter.com), though other micro-blogging services do exist. Twitter allows users to send updates or 'tweets' up to 140 characters including spaces.
A growing number of businesses are nowadays using Twitter, and it is perfectly possible that as a freelance copywriter you may be asked to operate a Twitter account (or several) on a client's behalf. So how should you approach this?
When Twitter first started, the typical private individual used it to update friends on their daily doings - 'having breakfast', 'reading the paper', 'going shopping', and so on. Clearly, no business is going to pay you to produce a series of 'status update' messages like this on their behalf!
Twitter is used by businesses for a range of purposes. These include:
- driving users to the company blog/website
- canvassing customer opinions
- promoting special offers
- highlighting relevant news stories
- networking with other businesses
- injecting some 'personality' into the company's image
If you are asked to run a Twitter account for a client, you should resist the temptation to use it solely to brag about the company's successes. If you do this, no-one will want to 'follow' you (subscribe to read your updates). Rather, you must aim to share information that is relevant and interesting to people in your client's target market, even if some of this generates no direct benefit to the client. You will also need to be willing to interact with other Twitter users, ask and answer questions, and generally contribute in a positive way to the Twitter community. Obviously, your client will expect you to include some updates promoting his business, but all such promotion needs to be done in a subtle way, interspersed with other, non-marketing-directed information.
One other thing you will need to learn is the correct Twitter etiquette. This includes 'retweeting' posts from other users that you think would be of interest to your followers, and learning how and when to reply or send direct messages to other users. None of this is rocket science, and you can learn most of what you need to know from the Twitter website at http://twitter.com (where you can also sign up for an account if required).
Operating a company Twitter account, like running a company blog, is a job any copywriter should be able to perform, and like blogging it has the advantage that the work is generally both interesting and ongoing. With Twitter becoming ever more 'mainstream', we expect to see a growing range of opportunities in this field in the years ahead.
There are several websites that regularly advertise paid blogging jobs. Probably the best known is the Problogger Jobs Board at http://jobs.problogger.net. Rates of pay are not especially high, but such jobs can be a good way to gain experience and start building your portfolio of online work. For reasons of supply and demand, rates tend to be higher in subject areas requiring specialist knowledge.
In this article, we discussed how to write copy for the Internet.
We began by explaining why writers are needed for the Internet and set out some basic principles of online copywriting. We included a section on essential HTML (the main language in which web pages are created). We explained how to write, edit, proofread and/or update a web page, and also looked at the art of writing commercial emails and ezines.
After that, we looked at the website sales pages. There is a particular demand for writers who can produce copy for such pages, so we examined this subject in some detail, setting out a simple, seven-point plan. We discussed SEO (search engine optimization) copywriting, another task that online copywriters are often asked to perform. And finally, we looked at the growing range of opportunities offered by business blogging and micro-blogging.