Digital hasn’t only changed the way we receive information, it has forced us to re-think the way we write it too.
You may have spent many years writing for print publications but, with digital-first strategies becoming the norm, you need to not only keep up but also get ahead.
At the beginning of October, Glamour magazine announced that it would be axing its monthly print editions and focusing on its online presence with bi-annual publications instead. This resulted in Jo Elvin, the magazine’s editor stepping down from a position that she had held for the past 16 years.
This followed the news, in 2016, that The Independent would become the first national newspaper to embrace a global, digital-only future. In November of that year, I attended an ‘SEO for Journalists’ training day and one of my fellow trainees explained she was at this due to being made redundant from the now digital-only newspaper, after a decade, due to her lack of digital skills.
Similarly, in a report commissioned by the National Union of Journalists, it was found that there was a net loss of nine UK regional titles between November 2015 and March 2017. Plus there has been an approximate average decline of 11 per cent in local weekly print circulation between 2016 and 2017 while digital circulation has risen substantially and, in the same period, 418 journalism jobs were lost.
You might know how to write and you may well be very good at it but writing and writing for digital are two different things. There are elements that are of equal importance - such as writing an introduction that hooks in the reader and sets the scene as well as ensuring that content is both relevant and current. But, you will also find there are skills that need to be tweaked to work for digital and brand new skills that you never needed in print.
So, this post will help you understand what you need to do to improve your copywriting skills to ensure that they are up to scratch in a digital world.
First, however, you must understand that we read digital and print text differently, which helps you to understand why we need to change the way we write:
Print: Leisurely, linear reading format, few distractions.
Digital: Task-driven activity, multiple-direction reading format, many distractions.
You will spend some time leisurely reading through your print edition and are likely to have loyalty to a particular publication, perhaps even purchasing it regularly. When it comes to digital, however, you may be searching for a particular answer or directed to a piece of content from social media. This could be read on smartphones or tablets, while on-the-go. Therefore, this content needs to do one of two things: provide us with the answer to our question or be an interesting and informative read so we don't click away.
Now we know that the expectations, habits and motives of readers is different when it comes to digital and print, what does this mean for writers?
In print you have to come up with a clever headline that gives the reader just enough information to know what to expect without giving away too much. You want them to read on and find out more. This is the same when it comes to digital content, but instead of using the headline to encourage readers to pick your magazine or newspaper up from the newsstand, you want them to click through to your link from Google or social media in the first place.
This means you have to think more carefully about the words you use because you need your content to appear when searched for and, to do this, it must include the primary keyword. Take The Sun for instance; whatever your thoughts on the paper, it does write clever headlines.
However, headlines such as 'Don't cry for me ... Argie Cleaner' when reporting that Argentinian footballer Carlos Tevez had been sentenced to 250 hours of community service back in 2013, may work for print but it would not work for digital. Headlines such as this are attention grabbing and might intrigue you enough to want to read the story but you would never search for those specific words on Google.
Headlines in print can be more indulgent because they have context and they don't have to tell the whole story. You will notice now, if you look at newspaper websites, that they don't use these print headlines there, opting instead for informative and descriptive ones. They do still start these with a pun however, to keep their style and tone consistent.
This moves us nicely on to SEO and keywords. This isn't something you have to consider at all in print but is very important in digital. As mentioned above, you need ensure your content comes up when searched for and if you fail to take SEO into account it is unlikely that it will.
In a digital world, you are no longer just competing against the other titles on the newsstand. Your competition now comes from all types of content from across the world. For example, Glamour won't just be competing against the likes of Cosmopolitan to get eyeballs on its fashion pages, it will also be up against the blogs of brands such as ASOS as well as fashion bloggers. Luckily, there are tools available to help you determine the correct keyword for you to target and this will often help determine what you write about too.
Remember, content should still be natural, this isn't a case of stuffing the keyword into your content as many times as possible, it is simply a case of knowing and using them.
Once your words are published in print they are static and unchangeable, if you wanted to add to them you would have to write a follow up story. When it comes to digital you should go back to older content and refresh it. It could be a very small change - ultimately this could help to keep the search traffic – just make sure you aren’t misleading. The best way to refresh content is by initially creating analysis or explainer pieces that have long-term search value and can easily be updated.
The closest you can get to linking stories in print is by mentioning that you have written about it in a previous edition, but it is unlikely the reader will go back and dig this out and this is more for reference. However, when it comes to digital you can physically link your stories to each other. So, by simply clicking a button the reader can be taken between various pieces of content. This can expand their knowledge, back up your point and keep them on your site for longer.
A simple way to refresh your site is to link from a new story to an old one and vice versa.
You know what they say, an image can speak a thousand words and while they are important in print, they are imperative online. Did you know that, on Twitter, photo tweets are 94% more likely to be shared than text based ones?
Many publications will do a ‘Week in pictures’ – which the BBC explains as “our selection of some of the most striking news photographs taken from around the world this week”. Likewise, your story can now be accompanied by video and it should be. According to a blog on Hubspot,
43% of people want to see more video content from marketers and 51% of marketing professionals worldwide, name video as the content with the best ROI.
Although you might not be responsible for the photo or video yourself, it’s important to identify opportunities to create and use these.
In print you might start the day by looking through a variety of newspapers and magazines to see what they are writing about and how they have covered it. While your competition will have increased, finding out what they are doing is easier than ever before. You no longer need to just look at what your direct competitors are doing either, you can look at a wide range of content across brands and publications to see what works and what doesn’t.
Again, this is easier to find out than it was with print - and you can target readers effectively by using data. They may be very different to what you have been presuming.
At Zazzle Media we use Facebook Insights, Comscore and GWI to build an idea of our clients’ audience – once we have built up a picture we create personas to ensure that every piece of content we create is suitable for one of these people.
You will already have a tone in print. The only difference online is making sure that you keep this tone not only throughout your content but across your social pages as well. You may want to create a style guide to keep this consistent across teams who may well be writing content for various areas of your website and social pages.
It is vital that you break down the wall of text, or the reader will click away before they even attempt to read it. You would never have a wall of text in print, but you would also be far more limited in terms of space.
When it comes to digital the structure should be easily scannable.
According to a study only 11% of users read a webpage line by line instead looking at it in an F-shaped pattern.
You need to make sure the important information is at the top and you use short paragraphs to keep their attention.
The typical online user only reads between 20% and 28% of copy before they scan the rest.
Breaking up the text online can also be done using the following:
Plenty of whitespace will help the reader stay focused on the content and it increases their comprehension by 20%.
It also takes readers 25% longer to read text online than in print - hopefully you are still with me because readers only tend to read the first 20% of a webpage containing more than 600 words. This is why you need to do everything you can to keep them interested and encourage them to read on. It is worth noting though, that Google favours content over 300 words, so you don’t want it to be too short either.
In October 2016 51.3% of pages were loaded on mobile devices, surpassing desktop and laptop for the first time.
When writing you must now take into account that the way people read on a mobile device is different to the way they read on desktop. Although there is currently no set date, Google do intend to roll out a mobile-first index, which means they will rank your mobile site and even results on desktop will be based on the mobile index. In short, your site must be mobile optimized and formatting it correctly is a must for mobile friendly content that will be consumed on a small screen.
Your print edition may have come out once a week or even month but online this is not a one-off, you need to be posting regular useful content throughout every day.
You need to consider what types of content will be read but also shared – which means keeping in mind content that your audience will enjoy and find useful. This is even more relevant in digital than print because the reader can quickly click away from your page and potentially never return. Something you might want to think about is the question and answer format that Google favours which will only become more significant with the rise of voice.
Promoting your digital content is far easier than it is with print. Sure, you can use social media to let your audience know your print edition is out but you need to rely on them actually going out and buying it. With digital, they can click straight through and read it there and then. Promote it right and your reader will help build your following and get even more eyeballs on your content by sharing it with their own audience.
When it comes to print you are able to determine your circulation figures but with digital you can know where the reader discovers your content, how long they spend reading it, whether they click straight away or not, if they share it with others and so on. This means you can get a comprehensive understanding of how your content worked to improve going forward.
If you are moving to digital and want to improve your copywriting skills to keep up in the fast paced world, check out Zazzle Media’s Ultimate Guide to Blogging for your Brand which will take you from setting it up right through to sharing it.
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