::by Michael Penner
Different audiences expect different approaches regarding the tone of written web copy. A children’s museum might use exciting language (“Check out this rock, it’s over 2 billion years old!”) to take the tedium out of technical subjects, while a website about a muscle stimulation machine for physical therapy might take a more formal tone. The muscle stimulation machine website might have content for two different audiences; physicians and patients. The physician needs clinical information written for them (“The device uses a sine waveform with one of the lowest signal-to-noise ratios in the industry, developed by NASA engineers, to address edema over several sessions. “) while the patient needs something with less jargon (“This FDA-cleared device uses the latest in muscle stimulation technology that effectively addresses edema.”)
Though this may seem rather obvious, writing good web copy with appropriate tone can also challenge the writer’s assumptions about the audience and what that audience expects. That’s why building an audience profile before you start writing is so important. That profile will tell you which words to use and which to avoid. Jargon is the easiest to root out or put in, depending on how technical the audience is.
It gets more difficult when the subject matter deals with social issues, and you are trying to reach people that you know object to what you are producing. They will read bigotry or ignorance into the text where none exists. In communication theory, we learn there is no such thing as a silver bullet: just because someone reads it doesn’t mean they agree with it or even understand it. In most cases, it takes many exposures to a piece of information in different contexts (because humans learn by contrast) before someone will even consider putting in the time to understand it, much less believing it or acting on it. Writing web copy here includes an audience profile with at least one objective: educate, don’t alienate. If the people that would object to your web copy are the people you are trying to reach (in other words, you aren’t preaching to the choir), a review of similar websites and how they use tone is a good idea. You’ll find the common denominator in such situations boils down to respecting your audience, especially if they disagree with you.
In fact, respecting your audience begins when you develop the audience profile and is a good disposition regardless of what you’re about to write. This profile can be a simple thing; a list of words and phrases to use and not use, written assumptions about how your target audience is likely to react to your web copy, problems they face that your service or product solves, and the values you think they hold. There are plenty of templates online for helping build an audience profile, and they can get rather complex depending on the writing assignment.
The goal is to communicate, knowing that communication is difficult at best. But it’s always worth it to reach your target audience, earn their trust, and attract them to your organization. Good web copy will help make that happen.