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MP Classic: 10 Online Writing Concepts That Work Wonders Offline, Too

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After all the agonies we suffered some years ago when some tried to make offline text work online, we've finally turned the tables. Now we can borrow back a number of online writing concepts and use them to sharpen up our paper-based marketing communications.

Remember how early Web site text could make you cringe? Squinting at all 2000 solidly crammed words so obviously lifted straight from an equally cringe-making corporate brochure? Peering at that fat, uniformly gray column of garbage scrolling hypnotically up through the browser window?

Well, nearly all of that has gone to the Great Delete Tab in the sky, thanks to people like Jakob Nielsen (and many others) who showed us how to get real and write for the Web as it should be done.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Now, though, there's evidence that Dr Nielsen's chickens are coming home to roost back in the old offline barn.


First of all, there's a cosmetic trend for online notions to powder the nose of paper-based communication... Web and email jargon, smiley faces, text abbreviations (U h8 txt 2?), and more are turning up in printed material every day.

More usefully, many of us who write for a living are applying some online writing techniques and approaches to our offline work, too. In fact the very "fashionableness" of all things online has given us the excuse we needed to clear out a lot of the awful old junk that's been cluttering up some clients' offline text for years.

Online to Offline: Key Connections

1. It's essential to have clear objectives. Any piece of online communication that doesn't have clear-cut objectives comes over as chinless and indecisive. Many printed documents have gotten away with being chinless and indecisive in the past, but no more—possibly due, in part, to online influences. If they're going to be taken seriously today, printed comms need clear objectives too—driven by what you want to achieve, not just what you want to say.

2. People often prefer to scan and go back to get detail later. Although online text has championed scanning, people have been scanning offline text like brochure copy since long before the WWW came to be. Online, to facilitate scanning we break up text with highlighting, bold type and crossheads which enable readers to get the gist of our message in a few seconds. Paper-based messages can be improved dramatically when given the same treatment.

3. People do not always read in a linear fashion. We don't expect people to view our Web site pages in any particular sequence. This is not new. For years people have been leafing through brochures starting at the back, skipping to the front, dipping into the middle and back again. Longish offline content benefits greatly from being organized on a non-linear basis to cater equally to the linear readers and the grasshoppers.

4. Not everyone needs or wants the technical stuff. Even with high-tech business, we often put the techie details in their own little cubby-hole on a Web site, or in a downloadable PDF file. That way they're there for those who are interested but don't obscure the main marketing messages. Offline messages gain in the same way, when you box off technical data or append it to the back of a document.

5. Visual clutter confuses readers. In the same way that people loathe Web site home pages that bristle with shouting headlines and graphics and other grinning gargoyles, they hate cluttered print and press ads that shriek "busy, busy." If it's hard to find your message in amongst garish junk, online or offline, they'll just flip or click over to your competitors' information.

6. BS is boring. Everyone sees through hype now. The online environment makes it look even sillier than ever. Readers of any marketing communication, online or off, expect your writing to talk directly to them, as one human being speaks to another. If you wouldn't insult a customer by using boastful, pompous hype face-to-face and online, why do it offline?

7. Complex thinking doesn't work. Although the long copy often works online, the writing style itself needs to be very economical and uncomplicated. Every word has to earn its keep. Sentences and paragraphs should be short and free from convoluted notions. And that's an approach that also works wonders to clarify and enliven text for brochures, print newsletters, and other longer marcomms.

8. Lists in the form of long sentences don't get read. Online, if you have more than two or three items to list you're advised to create bullets, rather than run them together in a long sentence. If that makes them quicker to absorb online, think what a beneficial effect it can have on lists in offline text...

9. Headlines and crossheads must be relevant, not cutesy-clever. In the online environment these lines often have to stand alone (e.g., as email subject lines) so must be directly relevant. Although abstract headlines are acceptable in some press ads, in longer offline text the headlines are what people latch on to while scanning. This means they also have to be directly relevant, so they're instantly understood.

10. Cut the c*** and get to the point. Not only do online comms demand uncluttered information, but also relevant information. People haven't got time to wait 10 minutes while your incredibly creative animation downloads, and equally they haven't time to figure out the meaning of a literary quote over an artsy picture when they're in a hurry to find out about your diesel generators. In our high-speed business culture, direct is beautiful.

Note: This MarketingProfs classic was originally published on April 8, 2003, as "10 Online Writing Concepts that Work Wonders for your Offline Marcomms, too."


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Suzan St Maur (www.suzanstmaur.com) writes extensively on marketing and business communications and is the author of the widely acclaimed Powerwriting.

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