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Why are they reading this page in the first place?

I’m going to talk today about a very general way of writing web pages, but one which might fundamentally change the way you do things. In the past, I’ve often recommended the ‘news story’ way of writing (start by cramming who, what, when, where and even why into the first paragraph) to ensure that you grab the reader’s attention. That’s still a good approach, but here’s something else you might consider:

What question is the page answering, and does the copy tackle that from the outset?

Imagine you’re writing the words for a product page about a blue widget. The ‘news story’ technique would recommend beginning by stating clearly what the name of the product is, what it can do for the reader, and under what circumstances. Something like: “BlueWidgetCo’s Blue Widget offers a 50% increase in throughput in aerospace manufacturing by shortening the distance between the flange and sprocket”.

So that technique works fine. Now let’s consider the page in terms of ‘what question it might be answering’.

Why would people come there? It could be because they knew BlueWidgetCo and wondered if it sold Blue Widgets. But that question has already been answered, either through the listing in the site navigation or the Google result which got them there. Does BlueWidgetCo sell Blue Widgets? They don’t need to click through and read the product page to see that it does. So that’s not the question. If they’re now reading the page, they want to know more, and in the case of a product, that can only be to find out something about it.

For potential new customers, the questions will probably be: “What can this Blue Widget do for me?” or “Why is this Blue Widget better than other Blue Widgets?”. For existing customers, they will almost certainly be the (often neglected) questions of how the Blue Widget should be operated, maintained or replaced.

Once you’ve decided what questions the page needs to be answering, it becomes a lot easier to write with clarity and correct priority. You may not come up with copy that varies significantly from the ‘news story’ approach, but it might be a way to get there which you find easier to apply.