Archer Malmo was selected to completely rebuild Baptist Memorial Health Care’s enterprise website. I was the project’s principal writer.
My assignment: Cut the old site’s page-count by half and the word-count by even more, “without leaving out anything important.”
Also: Shape the online brand voice and document it for hospital communications staff to use in site revisions (see below).
- My first step for editing each page’s content was to move the most useful piece of information to the first sentence or the headline.
- User personas: Most site copy was to be written in a patient/family friendly style with the understanding that prospective employees and network physicians would be reading the same content for different reasons.
- I also carried out SEO (search engine optimization) requirements or recommendations gathered in Google Analytics, especially for individual hospitals’ or clinics’ search visibility within their local communities.
My Web Content Style Guide
Like other first-rate hospital systems, Baptist mandates that the writing style in its external communications strike a tone that is serious and modest.
- You think I wanted to rip that rule up and inject some modern energy into the new site copy?
- First thing I did was double down on the serious/modest rule.
- That’s because it’s perfect for online content on this scale.
I wrote that serious should be interpreted as caring, informative and respectful, but not formal or technical. And that a modest tone is not only appropriate for health care messaging, but is also smart risk management.
These brand attributes — modest, informative, respectful — also support good practices for writing digital content for any organization. That’s because most people prefer to read web content that is short, easy to scan, and objective — rather than promotional. This goes for all audiences, as user research* has shown that even highly educated experts in any given field prefer content that is easy to scan.
So here’s the nuts and bolts of my advice to anyone at Baptist tasked with updating their site’s content:
Keep the language informal. Write your messaging with a natural, conversational tone. Here are contrasting examples of formal and informal introductions of health care services, compiled** by a user-experience research company:
“For over four decades, ABC Health has met the health care needs of the local community. Juxtaposed with clinical excellence and cutting-edge research, ABC takes pride in innovative treatments.”
“At XYZ Healthcare, we don’t just treat diseases, we treat individuals. We put our patients’ priorities at the center of our care.”
Both examples are serious and respectful, but “ABC” takes a formal and matter-of-fact tone while “XYZ” is casual and enthusiastic. The tone of the Baptist voice falls between these two, leaning closer to XYZ.
Where Baptist content differs from both examples is in the priority given to useful information. Our online visitors are not looking for advertising slogans or claims of commitment or excellence. They are looking for facts about our health care services.
Each page on the site starts with its most important fact. Place that fact in the headline, if appropriate. If the site visitor backs out of the page (most do, after three seconds) then they will still have learned the most important message on the page. This approach will also help to front-load that information into search results, speeding the visitor’s path to the right information.
Shorten. The best web writing comes from the DELETE key. If you are copying text from a printed publication or video script, delete at least half of the text. Repetition is important for reinforcing points in seminars, podcasts, and videos, but disastrous for web content.
Follow the rules of grammar, but don’t confuse grammar with style. Our English teachers graded us on consistency in point-of-view and verb tenses. But website visitors grade us on ease and simplicity — on text that flows like speech. So loosen up with these style suggestions:
- Choose a point of view (us, you, patients) for your text, but don’t be afraid to change halfway through a paragraph or page, if necessary.
- Change verb tenses wherever necessary. Facts appear in the past, present and future, and there is no reason to contort your writing in order to describe all the facts with the same verb tense.
- Active voice verb phrasing is often better than passive, especially at the beginning of a paragraph or when you’re asking the reader to take action. But don’t let that stylistic preference make you “bury” the most important word at the end of the sentence. (e.g. “The patient was released from Baptist-Collierville” vs. “Baptist-Collierville released the patient.”)
- Feel free to use contractions where they make the text flow better, but try to avoid using more than one contraction per sentence or starting a sentence with one.
- Format your text to be scannable. Elements that promote scanning include headings, large type, bold text, highlighted text, bulleted lists, graphics, captions, topic sentences, and tables of contents.
Sentence length: The original “Twitter limit” is a good goal (140 characters and spaces).
Paragraph length: No more than three regular-length sentences.
Left is right: Site visitors scan the left margin of a page for important information. Don’t hide keywords in the right side of a block of text.
Italics are for print: Do not set entire paragraphs or long sentences in hard-to-scan italics.
Bullet lists help, mostly: Avoid lists made up of single words or list-items longer than three lines.
Numbered lists: Only if the order gives the list its meaning.
List length: Most should fit within one screen view on a phone. Reorganize longer lists into shorter ones, separating them with subheads.
FAQs…keep them real: They seem dated, but site visitors still like to use these towering lists of A-Z information, especially when they don’t know the right words to use in a search. But FAQ lists only work if they are truly comprised of questions asked frequently by your stakeholders, and not made up for promotional tricks.
* Loranger, Hoa; Meyer, Kate. Writing Digital Copy for Domain Experts. Nielsen Norman Group website. 2017.05.23.
** Meyer, Kate. The Impact of Tone of Voice on Users’ Brand Perception. Nielsen Norman Group website 2017.08.07 (the article used different fictional names for the hospitals)