Online copywriting has the same goals as print content, but there at least seven distinct points of departure between writing copy online and for print.
Online copywriting and print copywriting are very different. You hear that all the time. But that's an observation as unhelpful as it is obvious. What are the real similarities and differences between writing for the web and writing for print?
Similarities between Online Copywriting and Print Copywriting
Despite their differences, copywriting for print and online copywriting share some essential similarities, which are just as important to understand as the differences:
Communication: you're trying to get ideas across.
Quality: spelling, grammar, proper word choice, clarity of expression, and other marks of quality are generally the same.
Clear tone: the author's attitude toward his or her subject–authority, humor, cleverness, outrage, fascination, dismay, glee–should be clearly defined for the reader to involve him or herself in the writing.
Sales tactics: you still have to appeal to both reason and the emotions, provide calls to action, and employ the other traditional sales-writing tactics when you are writing for sales.
Differences between Online Copywriting and Print Copywriting
1) Most web and email newsletter content has to appear more informational than promotional.
Subtly promotional content usually does better than out-and-out sales copy. Site visitors and newsletter readers who aren't ready for a sales pitch–usually, that's most of them–may still be open to informational content that presents a problem and shows how it can be solved using the product or service being sold on the website.
As for readers who are ready for a sales pitch, they don't need to be told twice on two different web pages. Aim for one sales page per offering, unless you are testing out different sales pages, or unless you only make the link to one of the sales pages prominent, with the rest of the pages serving as landing pages for search engine traffic.
Purely informational content with no clear promotional angle should make up at least a few of your pages. The credibility of a website depends on solid information. Natural links will come more readily to pure information, too.
A sales or lead-capture paragraph or two in the sidebar of every promotional or purely informational page will also help you get responses from your library of informational content.
2) Web content must be easy to scan as well as read word-for-word.
"Scannable" means that the key ideas of content are clear at a glance, and statements make sense when read out of context.
Scanning for main ideas is preferred over reading word-for-word among a large majority of web users. Nearly all of the fully literate users scan. Even if inclined to read a page word-for-word, highly literate users will scan the page first to make sure it will repay their investment of reading time. As for less-literate visitors who cannot parse words quickly enough to scan, scannable content will usually be easier to read word-for-word since it tends to be simpler.
3) With web content, quantity is almost as important as quality.
If you try to make every page a killer sales letter or literary masterpiece, you will end up with 10 pages instead of 100 (or 100 instead of 1000, depending on your budget). Fewer pages mean fewer visitors, both new visitors and repeat visitors.
Besides, since most literate users will only scan the page, your investment in literary merit or sales tactics is largely unappreciated.
4) Syndication and content distribution add new considerations.
Thanks to syndication and content distribution (e.g., RSS and Creative Commons), web content is its own promotional vehicle. Other websites, RSS feeds, and email newsletters will reprint good content without asking anything in return. Unlike with traditional advertising and promotion, you do not need to buy space to send out your web content message. Unlike with public relations, you do not need to filter your message through reporters, either.
You do, however, have to write for publishers and gate-keepers as well as end-readers when syndicating or distributing content. Informational value becomes more important since something that is too promotional will not take wing. Other syndication-specific issues include syndication-friendly keywords, titles, page length, tone, style, and formatting.
5) Less-literate and less-fluent readership requires simpler writing.
Less-literate people constitute up to half of the population of the wealthy countries, and somewhat more in many of the less wealthy countries. Less fluent non-native speakers of English are also a huge part of the online audience.
An eighth-grade reading level is as literate as the essential pages of your site should get, unless they are aimed at an audience that is necessarily literate (as is this page).
6) International readership requires more universal terms of expression.
Cultural, legal, or local references and nuances, as well as anything written for effect, will make less sense to people outside your country or even your region.
North Americans writing for dramatic emphasis and Britons writing for pointed understatement will write right past each other. Complaints about sky-rocketing housing costs will resonate among North Americans from Montreal to Miami to San Diego, but less so among North Americans from Ottawa to San Antonio to Cheyenne.
Try to write in terms anyone would understand: birth, death, family, thirst, hunger, love, sadness, the sun, the moon, buzzing insects and singing birds.
7) Building trust is more important on the web.
At the very least, print takes enough money and effort to buy the paper and ink. Anyone at all can build a web page with little effort. Besides, the web is filled with misinformation. Make sure your web pages look trustworthy with solid facts and convincing logic, and no grammar or spelling errors.
In conclusion, Nobel-prize-winning literature may make bad web content, but that doesn't mean there aren't standards. Follow the standards for good online copywriting, or your visitors may go to another site.