Ernest Hemingway is considered one of the greatest writers in American history. Here’s what he said about higher ed website content.

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

Alright, so maybe he wasn’t talking about website content, but he makes a good point.

As higher ed marketers, we are constantly faced with new technologies that force us to change the way we do things. A school's website is a perfect example of a highly visible marketing platform that must constantly evolve. It can be tempting to simply follow along with the latest design craze or add as many HTML5 videos to your site as possible. That said, while it's good to stay on top of trends and new functionality, the foundation of great web content is great web writing.

The following list of best practices will help ensure that your web content is as masterful as possible.

Put your audience first.

In our experience, one of the most common mistakes that web writers make is to think only about the message (what they want to say) and not about the audience’s needs. When we forget about the audience, content becomes less engaging and significantly less effective.

Start by imagining one person who represents your larger audience. Then, keep that single reader in mind as you write and make content decisions. We recommend creating personas, or fictional characters that represent key subsets of your target audience groups. Along with noting each persona’s basic demographic information (age, background, goals, concerns), give each a brief backstory that include motivations and decision-making factors. This information will help hold you accountable to writing content that “real people” can use.

Have a purpose for every piece.

Every page of your website and every section within each page should have a clear and intentional purpose. A good trick is to remember the “so what” factor. You never want a reader to look at your content and wonder, “So what?” Before starting any new piece of content, ask yourself, “Why should they care?” and then let the answer drive what you include and what you leave out.

If you’re not sure about the purpose of a specific page or section, it might be a good idea to revisit your website goals and information architecture. In some cases, the page in question may not be needed and the content can live somewhere else.

Think about the next step.

The purpose of writing great content isn’t just to inform your audiences. Truly great content engages them and deepens their relationship with your institution. A key part of engagement is understanding what next steps the reader needs to take and making it easy to take those steps by providing clear “calls to action” (CTA). Sometimes the next step is clicking to another related page. Other times it’s a more critical action, like starting an application process, making a gift or scheduling a visit. Anticipate your reader’s next steps, and let that intended action shape both the content and the CTA on the page.

Keep it short and sweet.

You’ve probably heard that users “don’t read” web content. The truth is that they do read web content, they just read it differently. Rather than consuming every word in the intended order, readers tend to scan web pages for headers and clues to determine whether the content is interesting and relevant. Think of someone opening a print newspaper and browsing the headlines before deciding what to consume.

The advent of small-screen mobile devices has only made this “scan and scroll” tendency more prevalent. The bottom line is that when it comes to writing web content, the chunkier, the better. When you do need to include more in-depth information, consider how you might break that content up into sections to make the page more scannable. Here are a few tips to creating scannable content:

  • Nail the lead by putting the most important information in the first 1-2 sentences
  • Use short sentences and keep paragraphs to a maximum of 3 sentences
  • Use bullets, bold text and italics to set important information apart

Let your page layout work for you.

When writing for the web, remember that you have more than a blank white page to start from. You can use elements like the navigation, sidebars, and tables that are a part of your page template to help tell your story.

  • When you write your content, consider where it will live and consider the following page elements that could work in your favor:
  • Promo boxes or sidebars can call out and reinforce  important information
  • Accordions or collapsible modules make longer content easier to navigate
  • Video, images and other media will help you tell your story

Use small words to describe big ideas.

A unique challenge for higher ed content creators is that the conventions of great web writing happen to be very different than those of great academic writing. As a result, many higher ed websites fall victim to unnecessary complexity across their marketing content. However, on the web it’s better to communicate big ideas in terms that are simple, readable and relatable. Strive to use active, conversational language and, when in doubt, choose the smaller word.

Make it easy for users to find the page (SEO).

Having the world’s best web content is only useful if people can find it. That’s where Search Engine Optimization (SEO) comes in. SEO is about crafting and packaging content in a way that makes it easy for engines like Google to crawl and index your website. Top SEO scores go to the sites that do one simple thing: give readers what they’re looking for. True SEO mastery can take years, but there are a few simple ways to use good web writing to make your site more search-friendly:

  • Give each page a unique name
  • Use clear, meaningful headlines and subheads
  • Keep each page focused on answering one question, or addressing a single topic
  • Use words and phrases that readers might actually search for on Google
  • Link to other relevant pages on your website and to other credible sources

Make your content accessible to everyone.

It’s important that our site is accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities or needs. We recommend that every school aim to maintain a WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility rating. While it’s one of the most stringent ratings, this will mean that anyone who comes into contact with your website can consume your content and engage with your institution. While much of the compliance with these standards depends on your website’s code and structure, content also needs to be accessible. Keep the following tips in mind to maintain your accessibility rating:

  • Create concise, but unique and informative page titles
  • Use headings and subheads that convey meaning and communicate page structure
  • Make links descriptive (“Learn about XYZ” vs “Click here”)
  • Use captions and alternative text for images
  • Create transcripts or captions for any slideshow or video you include
  • Write in short, clear sentences

Ask for a second opinion.

Before publishing any new content, have someone else edit it. Your reviewer should look for typos, but also provide a fresh perspective to help you determine if the content serves a goal, answers the reader’s questions and gives a clear next step.