Creating effective web copy is a lot like creating an effective logo: in each case you’ve got to make it memorable but keep it simple. Easier said than done, especially when it comes to the former—considering the demand for fresh content these days it’s no wonder the web is littered with ungrammatical and unmarketable copy. (Incidentally, you could call it memorable, but not for any of the right reasons.) But there’s a better reason to fuss over the finer details: your website’s success depends on it.
As much as humans rely on technology to make their lives foolproof, mistakes aren’t yet a thing of the past. Some are small, like misspelling a word in an email to a colleague; some are big, like falling asleep on your keyboard and accidentally transferring $293 million instead of $80 (true story). When you’re trying to establish trust in your brand, though, the stakes are always high.
The web is notorious as a wasteland full of clichés, tasteless puns and just plain bad writing; that the query “grammar help” produces over 150 million results in Google is either encouraging or alarming. And although most people can forgive a typo or two in web copy, with every mistake that comes to light you’re risking what precious brand authority you’ve managed to drum up in the first place.
Lower Expectations or a Higher Form of Expression?
Spelling and grammar have taken a big hit in recent years, thanks in no small part to the rise of texting. But in the online world, where web content has become the new differentiator, mistakes show a lack of care and professionalism. The issue boils down to quantity versus quality: the expectation of a never-ending stream of web content simply doesn’t leave enough time and resources to filter out the trash (i.e. the mistakes).
Whereas print publications have traditionally been supported by a team of editors and a series of checkpoints, few websites get anything close to that level of treatment; there’s neither the time nor the money for that. Larger companies, at least, can afford to scrutinize their web copy, but they’re also held to higher standards and have more to lose than others. Their brand identity is too valuable to be jeopardized by sloppy writing, and indeed most well-established companies treat their brand like helicopter parents treat their kids.
But what about smaller companies, those with fewer resources to second-guess their web copy? One of the most important things for a brand to do is to establish credibility, whether selling an inexpensive knickknack or a highly specialized service. In the online world, credibility comes from a website that looks professional and up to date. Once visitors begin to delve deeper—reading the copy, processing the visuals—they have presumably already formed a positive opinion about the site and the company behind it (or, if not positive, at least not negative). However, the ease with which consumers can access products and services today makes any links to brands tenuous—if they’re the least bit skeptical about one company or its offerings, they won’t hesitate to move on to the next.
Naturally this is more worrisome for smaller companies, since they have yet to earn the trust of consumers. Here, typos and other conspicuous errors raise doubts about security, trustworthiness and product quality.
Exceptions to Every Rule
Although blogs and social media interactions face less scrutiny, even among the bigger brands, marketing material is held to a higher standard. This is the chance to convince someone to spend their money here and not somewhere else; this is the elevator pitch, where opportunity can be measured in seconds, not minutes. Blog articles are given more leeway because they’re expected to be timely, not to mention conversational. But it’s assumed that web copy used for marketing purposes has been carefully conceived, reviewed and refined. These are the pages that have to make a strong first impression for the brand and provide some sort of value proposition.
Part of the problem is that companies are relying almost entirely on text to make their sales pitch. Videos help, and so do images, but never before has so much weight been placed on the written word to both hook the consumer and close the sale. Mistakes are out there in the open, sometimes literally in bold letters. At the same time, bad habits from texting and social media are carrying over into other spheres.
What’s the Damage?
It’s difficult to gauge just how damaging typos and grammatical errors can be to a brand’s reputation, or to a consumer’s readiness to make a purchase. Small-scale studies and anecdotal evidence have shown a correlation between mistake-riddled web copy and lower sales, but there isn’t enough evidence yet to draw a strong conclusion.
Instead, you can place yourself in the shoes of someone visiting your website and draw your own conclusions. For example, would you provide your credit card information to an ecommerce website loaded with typos and grammatical errors that not even a grade-school student would make? Probably not. In fact, like many people, you might go so far as to suspect a scam. You might also think the company is operating overseas, even though they claim to be located around the corner. In either case, it sows a seed of doubt where there shouldn’t be one.
Consider these simple tips for cleaning up content:
- Compose all web copy in a word processor that has spell-check (never write directly in a CMS or paste from a source that doesn’t have spell-check)
- Flipside to the above: if you find yourself becoming too reliant on spell-check, compose copy in a plain text editor first
- Have someone other than the writer proofread web copy
- If you’re going to break the rules, first make it clear you know what they are
- Know yourself—make note of certain words or constructions that trip you up most often, then gradually weed out those issues
- Monitor bounce rates and conversion statistics—if everyone is leaving your website at a certain page, it could be a sign of something that turned them off
- Have a dictionary (online or old-fashioned) handy so you can examine different usages
- Don’t assume it’s correct just because you’ve seen it before—always be skeptical
- Brush up on the basics—take advantage of the countless free resources available online (here’s another good chance to practise that skepticism)
- Unlike in the print world, it’s never too late to correct a mistake online, so never stop looking
- Hire a proofreader for higher-level marketing pages, if not your entire website
Casual: Not the Same as Lazy
Still, despite the surplus of cringe-worthy web copy out there today, consumers appear to be warming to brands that drop the façade of invincibility and behave in a more human way. Like the flawed hero, brands today can be imperfect and still be admired—or, more accurately, they shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge those imperfections. Self-deprecation and humility go a long way toward presenting a more inviting image.
What this means is that consumers probably aren’t going to head for the exit the first time they stumble upon “there” when it should have been “their” (or “they’re”), and they probably won’t pay more for a competitor’s product just because you overlooked a dangling modifier. But think of it this way: with so much competition for web traffic today, why give anyone a reason to leave your site?