A lot of SEO advice out there focuses on how to use meta-tags, analyze keywords, spy on competitors and much more. But don’t forget who you are doing this all for, fellow human beings.
Online marketing can be very technical at times, but it’s just marketing on another medium. Connecting with people, grabbing their attention and tempting them to your website or even a physical store. We write texts that are so geared towards keywords and ranking, we lose sight of who will use it. Yes, we have persona’s, but even then, we get tangled up and act on autopilot. Content marketing is an art, creating a message that resonates with your readers. Your customers. Crafting the right message is not only about the subject, it’s making it understandable to your readers.
We’ve reached the point where a search engine can detect whether your grammar is correct and through subtle cues in its algorithm such as bounce rate and time on site will determine whether the message was clear and the user got what he or she came for. The search engine Bing stated way back in 2014 that poor grammar and typos may indeed hurt your ranking. That leaves us with the question, how do we make our text readable?
36 million people in the US can’t read a job application
First we need to ask ourselves; what is the average reading level? According to the National Literacy Directory 14 percent of the employed population in the United States have low literacy skills. That means 1 out of every 6 adults in the United States lack basic reading skills, which translates into 36 million people who can’t read a job application, understand basic written instructions or read the Internet. 2 out of every 6 adults in the United States cannot handle basic numbers, like working a cash register or understanding a transit schedule.
Those are some disturbing facts right there and signaling how important it is to make sure your texts are of an understandable level for most of your customers. Especially if you serve a cross section of the population. I believe as a company you should aim to not only turn a profit, but add value to that same community that keeps you in business.
Learning about your customer
As we’ve seen in the previous paragraph, there are a lot of internet users who might find reading texts difficult. I said it’s important to write simple, but how do we go about doing that?
A lot of good marketing revolves around knowing who your target audience is, while this is really obvious to most, it’s easy to forget. But some professionals have adopted this skill very well. There are lawyers in my professional network which operate on both ends of the spectrum. Some are able to clarify the law so easily, you have to share the content with your friends and peers. Others write in such complexity, even an educated graduate wouldn’t be able to decipher what has been written. I would recommend reviewing who you are trying to attract as a lawyer? Other lawyers? Obviously you don’t. People hire you for your expertise and they don’t care how complex you can write.
For you to attract your desired customer, you need to first understand who your readers are. I would recommend to determine the following basic details of your customer:
- Education level
These characteristics on their own should make it very, very clear who you are writing for. You’ll be able to determine which words you should use, which sentence length to apply. University graduates will overall have a more versed vocabulary compared to high school graduates. That does not mean our high school graduate cannot acquire the same knowledge, but in general this is the world we operate in and we have to adjust our language.
How to make texts easier to read
Content marketing doesn’t have to be a science and through some easy techniques you can keep your writing understandable and elegant.
Skip the jargon
Jargon is nice for opinion pieces in trade magazines such as AdWeek or The Journal of Psychiatry, but not when aimed at the general public. We believe jargon makes us sound credible, but the art is making the difficult accessible to all walks of life, may it be through metaphors or simplification. It is not achieved by disguising what we really say in jargon, creating a veil of intellectualism. When Carl Sagan speaks about the universe, you get a feel for its grandeur, turning the world into the famous metaphor of the Pale Blue Dot.
Limit sentence length
The government of the United Kingdom doesn’t write sentences longer than 25 words. Anything longer, and it becomes more difficult to understand. Make sure you also abide by this rule when you’re trying to reach a broad audience.
Use punctuation properly
I see this one very often in business emails and social media comments, less so in written content, but it’s worth mentioning. The dot and comma were invented for a reason, to make text readable. Try to use it. As a writer you are free to create either dramatic effect through punctuation or end a sentence for clarity sake.
Text optimization examples
I’ve been talking a lot about understandable texts and throwing facts around, but it’s time we look at some real life examples. I’ve taken a section from an investor letter from Tesla and Hostgator. I ran it through the readability checker from Readable, which instead of giving me a score I had to decipher, translates the result into human language, namely a simple grade, such as an E, D, or an A. Brilliant.
Tesla investor update
The original text I’ve used from the Investor document got a ‘D’ grade. Read for yourselves below. You’ll understand why it got the label hard to read.
“Local production and improved utilization of existing factories is essential to be cost competitive in each region. We remain on track to launch local production of the Model 3 in China by the end of the year and Model Y in Fremont by fall of 2020. We are also accelerating our European Gigafactory efforts and are hoping to finalize a location choice in the coming quarters.”
How I would optimize the text:
“Local production and better usage of our factories is needed to stay ahead of our competition in each region. We are almost ready to start production of the Model 3 in China by the end of 2019. Production of the Model Y in Fremont will start in fall of 2020. We are speeding up our European Gigafactory plans and trying to find a location in the coming quarters.”
Small adjustments turned the text from a ‘D’ graded text into a grade B. I’ve replaced difficult words such as “utilization’, ‘accelerating’ and ‘essential’, to optimize the text’s readability. They take away the pace of the piece and unnecessarily complicate the text. Obviously the text could have further enhancement, but considering the target audience of this piece, I expect it to be just right.
Web Hosting at Hostgator
The hosting sector is an interesting industry as it has very complex products that can be either hard or easy to implement. I found the following text at Hostgator:
“To prevent any downtime on a live website, the correct order of operations is: create new HostGator account, transfer a copy of your website files to the new server, update the DNS of any domain(s) to point to the new server, wait 24 hours and verify everything loads from the new server, cancel old hosting account, initiate domain registration transfer, verify the domain registration transfer completed successfully.”
The website Readable gave the text an ‘E’ grade.
“To prevent your website from going offline, you need to do the following. Create a new HostGator account and make a copy of your website on the new server. Make sure to update the DNS of any domain(s) to point to the new server. You have to wait 24 hours and verify everything loads from the new server. After you’ve done that, cancel your old hosting account and start domain registration transfer. Check if the domain registration transfer has been completed successfully.”
We’ve managed to optimize the text and get an A grade, which is a major improvement. I’ve replaced words such as ‘downtime’ to ‘offline’ and ‘transfer a copy of your website files’ to ‘make a copy of your website to the new server’. I avoided necessary jargon and added more dots instead of commas to cut off sentences, preventing them from becoming unnecessarily long. The crowd for website hosting goes far and wide from small mum and pop shops to software companies.
When not to write simple
We’ve seen how you can simplify and optimize a text, but is there a case in which you should not simplify your text? There sure is. When I worked in hosting years ago, there were two target audiences and one of them was the web developer, or network engineer to be more precise, who had a lot of technical expertise. Technical expertise which required jargon and highly detailed explanations of the offered products and services. Obviously the text should be written in plain English, or any other language, and in proper grammar, but there was no need to dumb down or beat around the bush with simplified words. Your target audience may feel disrespected if you dumb it down unnecessarily.
In the case of the basic web hosting page I was browsing on Hostgator, the customer can be either highly skilled or a complete novice to web hosting. This means you should find a steady middle ground and only use jargon at places where they are appropriate such as network infrastructure products where the average internet user will not venture.This brings us back to the core of the post, it’s about how to talk to your audience on a level they feel understood and you can properly convey what services you have to offer. Simplify where necessary, but remain knowledgeable where applicable.