“Omit needless content.” –The Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane.

Three words. Huge implications for online business communication. Insight from a smart woman with pink hair.

Erin is the author of a “brief book for people who make websites” published just a few months ago.  She’s the former editor of A List Apart magazine and knows a thing about information architecture, user experience, content strategy, editing, usability, and a whole bunch of other geeky web stuff that as interwebs users, we take for granted until we find ourselves staring a site that sucks.

When web things work, we don’t notice them. We focus on our intent, the task we’re on the site to perform. That thing we’re there to do.  Every page, every word, every link simply, beautifully, enables.

Conversely, when things don’t work – when a site is visually distracting or chock-full of salesy stuff before even a tenuous thread of trust has been stitched – we focus on the clutter in our path, the stuff in our way.

Not only are we detained or derailed from doing what we’re on the site to do, but now we’re irritated. Our irritation at the site has a way of glomming on to the brand by association. Hey, if such-and-such’s website makes my life difficult, then I kind of jump to the conclusion that their product/service won’t fare any better. Negative perception born, just like that.

Clickty-click, I’m headed to another site. Probably the competition.

Giant sucking sounds

LANGENHORN, GERMANY - JANUARY 13:  Piglets suc...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

When we land on a site that sucks, we mutter broad-stroke things like ” Why can’t I find what I’m looking for?” or “I just want to know ____.”  To these black thoughts I toss in a little mouse-against-table banging along with a squinty-eyed laser stare and throaty “Grrrrr” or two. For blog owners, this type of user frustration usually results in few page views, low time on site, and high bounce rates.  <shrugs shoulders> Little matter if the blog’s just a hobby.

But for a company in business to sell stuff, a sucky website can be a serious problem.

Cart abandonment. Few eNewsletter subscriptions. Nascent contact form submissions. Low numbers of recommendations. Infrequent white paper downloads. Low conversions.

Are you squirming uncomfortably in your chair yet?

Now that’s irritating

Stop leaving your website visitors with the impression that:

A)  No one from the company has looked at the website page-by-page in the last 27 months. (“set it and forget it” yeah, that’s a good strategy)

B)  The company is completely out of touch, clueless or uninterested, even, with what matters to prospective buyers. (try doing something with the mouldering files of customer feedback, ‘kay?)

C)  Your web team consists of the super sophisticated, MacBook-toting college-age kid of one of the vice presidents. (as if a Dreamweaver course covered usability standards)

D) Your CEO or president is a boorish blowhard who thinks we buy stuff because of his huge “trust me” smile and personal welcome message. (did you see that suit? I’m not interested in helping him buy another Armani)

E) Marketing upchukked every pamphlet, data sheet, approved message, statistic, testimonial, and standard language it could scrape together and plaster on the site (yeah, there’s this concept called a user persona? you’re supposed to strategically plan content according to a research-based assumed progression through the site?)

I could go on, but you get the point. Right now your site sucks, and it’s irritating visitors. You know it, and I know it. All the well-timed tweets in the world won’t make people happy when they land on your site. Take some tips from Erin (her powerful book is only 70ish pages and a very digestible read). Stop allowing bullshit zombie copy any presence on your company website.

  1. Your site uses internal language and writes from internal hot buttons to communicate with external audiences.  Think mission statements, vision statements, core values.
  2. Your About Us or News Room pages read like the stack of required retirement portfolio crap chucked in your mailbox each quarter.
  3. Your legal team ran amok with disclaimers and legalese, causing pages to be more than a couple of short paragraphs in length.
  4. There are pages full of feature lists with no context that don’t aid decision-making.
  5. Your CEO (or worse,  your CEO and his prize schnauzer) is front-and-central on a video set to auto play.
  6. Awards and certifications abound. From 2008.

Go forth and edit.

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About Heather Rast

Heather Rast

Heather is Principal of a boutique Cedar Rapids digital marketing company. She develops brand positioning strategy and marketing communications plans to distinguish small businesses from the competition and attract their ideal customers. Her content planning, writing, and online community-building work helps larger businesses better serve their audiences with useful information that solves problems as it builds affinity for the brand.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Jesse

    Wow…Some of this is hard to stomach but if you want to advance, you gotta eat it!

  • http://www.alecdifrawi.com/ Alec Difrawi

    Wow heather.. tough but true. I’ve seen to many websites these days that simply just lack the ability to keep me interested. It feels like I’m watching a commercial more than I’m browsing the web. If you can’t keep up with the ever changing internet trends, then you need to re evaluate the industry you’re in.

  • http://www.alecdifrawi.com/ Alec Difrawi

    Wow heather.. tough but true. I’ve seen to many websites these days that simply just lack the ability to keep me interested. It feels like I’m watching a commercial more than I’m browsing the web. If you can’t keep up with the ever changing internet trends, then you need to re evaluate the industry you’re in.

  • http://www.smartmarketingnow.com Mark Merenda

    Don’t know who Erin Kissane is, but her words (and her book title) are a direct ripoff of — or is it homage to? — Will Strunk. I assume she gives credit where it’s due. The idea of “needless” is very subjective. One of the things that search engines reward is the sheer volume of material on the site. Sites with lots and lots of content do better in search ranking than those with not-so-much content. If we omit all that is “needless” what will we have? What is interesting and valuable to one visitor, might be boring and useless to another, no?

    • http://www.secretsushi.com/ Adam Helweh

      Mark, 
      The premise is more about understanding the art of reduction. Learning how to reduce, combine and breakdown what you write is a skill very few folks have. I think much of what Heather says is also related to content in general. Do you really need that image, file, page? Will it be easier for your customers to find what they need if you cut down the content? Yes, it is relative, but even so… most folks don’t do it. And to your last sentence “What is interesting and valuable to one visitor, might be boring and useless to another, no?”. We cannot always be all things to all people. It really is about understanding who your audience/customer is and speaking a common language. Would you agree?

      • http://www.smartmarketingnow.com Mark Merenda

        Yes and no. Even within my practice area, there is content that is important and interesting to some of my clients/potential clients, and other content that is not interesting to them, but is fascinating to another group of same. Look at a site like, say, AARP. “Almost everything of interest to seniors” might be a good description of their content. Should they reduce what’s offered there? The idea behind stores like The Home Depot is “everything is here” — that’s part of the value. Paring it down would not be helpful — quite the opposite. As King Lear said: “Argue not the need.” In my view, less is not always more. Joyce’s Ulysses is not written in the spare, economical style of Hemingway, and yet it is one of the great works of literature. War And Peace exceeds a thousand pages in most editions. It would be hard to argue that each word or scene or chapter HAD to be there. Brevity can be a virtue in our time-pressed age, but brevity, as Dorothy Parker once said, is the soul of lingerie. 

        • http://www.secretsushi.com/ Adam Helweh

          Hahaha… I can appreciate your intelligent response. I think I focused my comment too much on omitting content, but this post is much more about thoughtful content. I agree with you that omitting content for the sake of having “less” can be a diservice to your audience. There has to be an appropriate signal to noise ratio and it must be wrapped into an easy to use experience so that each party can tune into the signal they are looking for. Thanks for keeping me thinking Mark.

        • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

          Wow, it’s interesting that you reference both AARP and big-box stores. I’m having trouble placing my finger on the exact reference, but Erin and her peers Kristina Halvorson (Content Strategy for the Web) and Colleen Jones (Clout: the Art and Science of Influential Web Content) touch on examples like those. If I remember correctly, the Home Depot reference examined the importance of context and adopting the cognitive frameworks of users. “Publishing content that is self-absorbed in substance or style alienates readers,” wrote Erin. “…many sites are still built around internal org charts, clogged with mission statements designed for internal use, and beset by jargon and proprietary names for common ideas. If you’re the only company offering a desirable product or service, you might not see the effects of narcissistic content right away, but someone will eventually come along and eat your lunch by offering the exact same thing in a user-centered way.”

          I understand the points you’re making, Mark (and I thank you for challenging my position). I just can’t take up the flag on this one for several reasons. You do raise an interesting point about fine literature and excessive content – admittedly different medium, different eras, different cultural norms.

          Thanks again, Mark!

      • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

        Dude (germ of a post idea developing), I’m so gonna steal that.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      I believe neither ripoff nor homage, although I strongly sense (having read her book, many of her blog posts, and listened to her speak) that Erin freely references the intellectual work of others, thereby shining a generous light. We all take what we’ve learned, twist it, slice a piece off, build on it, and make something better, yes?

      The small section of her book I quoted is meaningful to me and the many permutations of my profession – web writer, project manager/client service liaison, digital strategist and brand marketer. It’s a starting point from which to center my thoughts – omit needless content. It’s easy to prattle on or to drop in a lot of content the company deems relevant or important. It’s quite another to ruthlessly drill down to the meat important to primary user personas without regard to egos of internal creative staff or marketing heads. I don’t recommend creating a site with stark, austere microbits of content any more than I’d recommend an overdose of Flash or JavaScript. It *is* possible to create an attractive site with usable content that’s useful to readers without putting them in a coma or frustrating them to the point of abandonment. It takes process, concern for users, client education, and work.Also – The book has a great resources section in the back. On page 78 Erin references three editorial influences, each with a distinctly different style. Indeed the 3rd listed is Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” and she kindly included a link to a full text version of the 1918 edition.

  • http://www.secretsushi.com/ Adam Helweh

    Excellent post Heather! As someone who works a lot with clients in this realm I have to say that you are spot on. Everything is marketing/branding. I find that many time business owners and decision makers find it hard to understand the entire picture, the overall experience. There is a point of departure, journey and destination. They are too busy focusing on the destination to think about just how much the other two influence the perception of the destination.

    Thanks for referencing A List Apart. I have two of their ebooks. Looks like I am going to grab the others now that I know they are available.

  • http://www.smartmarketingnow.com Mark Merenda

    OK, I’ll give it one more shot and then agree to disagree. You are welcome to the last word. I don’t think the issue if the amount of “stuff.” It’s the quality of the stuff. If it’s really good, then we would all like as much of it as possible, wouldn’t we? How many TV channels are too many? If it’s crap, 10 is too many. How long should a book be? If it’s great, we’ll read (how many Harry Potter books are there, not that HP is my idea of great) as much as there is and beg for more. John Updike wrote about 60 books. I’ve read them all and wish there were more. Shakespeare wrote 38 plays (more or less, depending on your position on Cardenio and Henry VIII). Don’t we wish there were more? I know I do. When it comes to the structure of a sentence, I agree with Will Strunk. But a website is not a sentence. As Heather herself notes, that’s a different medium. When it comes to websites, less is not more. More (assuming it’s quality “more”) is more. 

  • Ozio Media

    There are too many websites out there that need to heed your advice. From a consumer standpoint the second I read fluff or click on a website that fails to give me up to date and relevant information that I am looking for, I’m off to another site. I think anyone building a website for their business needs to think in terms of what the consumer wants and what brought them to their website in the first place. Always think in terms of quality not quantity. 

  • http://twitter.com/HotSpotPromo Darlene Hull

    Thanks for addressing this!  So many people just have their nephew or brother build a site without even thinking through what it is they want to accomplish.  Good points and ideas here.

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