From the September 2001 issue of Startups

As a busy Web copywriter and content strategist (translation: a guy who writes the info that companies use to build their brand and sell their goods/services on the Internet), my favorite assignments are the ones where I get to work with start-ups. Creating banner campaigns, marketing e-mails and other Web projects for the Fortune 500 clients of big ad agencies is boring, boring, boring: The parameters are too precise, the instructions are too clear, and to top it off, there's always way too much background info. Exasperating? Irritating? Oh, you have no idea.

But working with start-ups...ah, now that's fun. The innovative ideas! The youthful enthusiasm! The giddy mayhem! It's kind of like being a counselor at a camp for the talented, gifted and dangerously over-caffeinated.

Start-ups hire me to organize and craft the content for their Web sites, such as their company information (history, management, alliances, investors, etc.), product/service information and contact information. While the technology, features and design of a start-up's site can be elaborate, the content has to be snappy and simple in order for potential customers to understand and act on it. And since snappiness and simplicity are included with my writing/strategy services, start-ups are extremely eager for me to snappify and simplify where necessary.

So what advice can I give to start-up troopers who'd like to have a go at creating Web site content that's convincing, to the point and user-friendly? First, get outside more-sunshine is good for your brains, not to mention your overall health. Second, follow these tips, which are based on my many colorful experiences:

  • Justify your existence. Before you start shaping the content for your site, ask yourself and your staff these questions: What is our company's mission? What does our brand represent? What are the benefits that can be promised by our brand and delivered by our products or services? Who are our customers? To better understand your organization, these questions must be answered. Sure, there'll be some intense discussions, probably a few arguments. But once the dust has settled and the paramedics have stitched everybody up, the resulting insight will not only allow your start-up to operate more strategically, but it will also aid in the crafting of Web site content that's consistent, credible and agreeable to everyone who works on it.
  • Select your sections. The fewer site sections that customers have to wade through to find what they want, the happier they'll be. As far as the names for your sections are concerned, choose ones that most accurately and clearly describe the content that customers can expect to find there. For ideas on which sections to include and what to name them, click to the sites of your competitors and rip off, er, analyze their approach.
  • Assemble and tighten your info. When collecting content for your site, select the information that makes the most convincing case for your brand and products or services. Don't overload potential customers with lengthy bios, profiles, white papers, case studies, testimonials, etc. that won't directly contribute to their decision to click, call or buy. If such content is necessary as reference material for current customers, investors or the press, organize it in a way that won't baffle potential customers who are simply trying to learn who you are, what you do and whether they should work with you. Once your essential content has been picked, it must then be cut down and re-written for easy online readability.
  • Empower your words. Since you're trying to communicate maximum message with minimum words, anything that's unnecessary will slow down-or even kill-the interaction between you and potential customers. Keep your content tight and persuasive by deleting empty clichés, vague industry jargon or excess text that gets in the way of promoting and selling, including such goofy gibberish as "robust" (a descriptor for soup, not software), "compelling" (isn't this better suited for a review of the latest John Grisham novel?) or "end-to-end" (what happens on a crowded dance floor, yes; the comprehensiveness that a new technology offers, no).
  • Identify your benefits. The unique benefits that your brand promises and your products or services deliver have to be creatively, strongly and frequently emphasized throughout your site. Explain them, refer to them, and document them in as many sections as is relevant without being obnoxious.
  • Bullet your info. Rather than forcing long streams of information (benefits, features, etc.) into paragraphs, convert them into bullet points. Your content will flow faster and read easier.
  • Think like your customers. Your Web site's content has finally been selected, organized and edited. But before you quaff that celebratory triple espressoccino, you first have to give your masterpiece a final audit from your customers' point of view. Is the voice of the content consistent with the voice of your customer (i.e., conversational, dignified, youthful)? Have you included enough information to encourage a click, call or buy-or too much? Does the content make an understandable, informative, irresistible argument for your brand and products or services?

The challenge of creating successful site content can be a bit overwhelming, especially for folks who are newcomers to the massive communication, interaction and commerce capabilities that the Internet offers. But if your goal is to provide convenient access to concise information that promotes your brand and sells your product or service, your start-up's Web site will be a valuable resource for your customers, a profitable investment for your company, and an accomplishment worthy of a round of no-foam, mochaccino-frappa-lattes (with whip, of course) for you and your team.