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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > January/February 2016

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Vol. 36 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2016
FEATURE

Twelve Tips to Better Writing for the Mobile Web
by David Lee King

Itís imperative that website content creators write in a way that helps mobile-focused customers quickly connect to your libraryís useful resources.
Today’s web-focused information professional is a writer, among other things. We have to write many things, including blog posts, press releases, descriptions of new services, and tweets.

That writing needs to convey much. We must get our point across and have the writing be engaging. And yet, at the same time, customers need to be able to quickly read and understand it. That writing also has to “look” correct on a variety of screens, ranging from a 27" desktop screen to a 4" smartphone screen.

Writing styles have to be adapted for the online and mobile smartphone era. Why? Because your customers still want and need your content. They just want it delivered on a variety of devices, smartphones included.

In fact, Pew Research Center recently found that 68% of American adults own smartphones (“Technology Device Ownership: 2015”; pewinternet.org/2015/10/29/technology-device-ownership-2015). That translates to a little more than two-thirds of your library’s customers who have the potential to visit your website using a mobile device.

It’s imperative that website content creators write in a way that helps mobile-focused customers quickly connect to your library’s useful resources.

To meet this challenge head-on, we need to brush up on the basics of writing for the mobile web. It doesn’t look all that different from writing for the rest of the web, except it’s even more important to engage and hold readers’ attention. This is no easy task!

Thankfully, there are some easy ways to update your web-focused writing that work great for the emerging mobile web. Let’s explore 12 tips to better mobile web content.

1. Write for the small screen. The biggest thing to remember when writing for the mobile web is that you are writing for the small screen. Because of this size difference, the ability to quickly scan content is important. Make sure your content “fits” on the page. Make sure the words on the mobile version of the webpage are large enough to read. If your website is built around a responsive theme, text should automatically adjust to fit and be readable on a variety of screen sizes, so you should be on target.

2. Touching the screen. Smartphone owners are used to interacting with their smartphones. They “touch” Facebook and Twitter when they use their fingers as a mouse. They can easily comment, Like, or share. They are used to direct interaction with websites of all kinds and expect to interact with your library’s website too.

What types of things get “touched”? Some examples include the page itself—when reading down a page, smartphone users touch and move a finger down the screen to advance the page. Links to other pages get touched in order to click the link. To start a video, the play button gets touched.

Touching works great, unless there’s an embedded scrollable box in the middle of the article or page. Then, the page gets a bit more confusing to touch. Instead of scrolling the whole page, you might accidentally touch the embedded content and scroll what’s in the smaller box, rather than the page. This can be confusing to some readers.

3. Mobile readers are easily distracted … squirrel! People reading on mobile devices can be easily distracted. Distractions come in the form of notifications and other pop-ups. If your organization’s content doesn’t load quickly, your reader will be gone as fast as his next notification. If it’s not engaging, readers are gone. If they don’t “get it” on first read, they’re gone.

Your task is to keep customers interested, reading, and engaged.

4. Think short. When writing for the mobile web, you need to think short. Unless they’re reading an ebook, your customers aren’t looking for long articles and descriptions of services. Instead, they are looking for short, get-to-the-point articles.

Skip the welcome message and the introductory paragraphs explaining the reasons for a new service. Instead, say what you mean in as few words as possible.

An easy way to do this is to focus on one idea, topic, or goal per page. If you have multiple things you need to get across, put them on separate pages.

And then, of course, edit, edit, edit. Every word needs to count.

5. Create strong titles. Strong, clear titles are important on the mobile web. Look at bbc.com for a great example of short, clear article titles. The BBC tends to use a maximum of five to six words per title, and the titles are very descriptive of the article’s main focus. Instead of cutesy titles, they are fact-based. The writers front-load the title with appropriate words to make the point of the article clear and understandable, even out of context.

For example, check out these titles I just found at the BBC:

  • “Audi’s 3D Printer Works in Metal”
  • “Four Countries That Don’t Exist”
  • “Tiny Lizard Fights off Coyotes”

With each title, you can quickly tell the main focus of each article. They are very self-explanatory. Compare those to three titles I just found on the main page of a larger public library’s website:

  • Explore a Universe of Fun
  • Celebrate with Us
  • Explore and Learn

None of these titles are self-explanatory. See the difference? The added benefit here is that succinct titles also work great in our favorite search engines—short, fact-based titles will improve website SEO!

6. Focus on the benefits. Most librarians have graduate degrees. We have been trained for years to focus on the details and processes of a service or a database, and we love sharing—in detail and in a narrative format—how to search or interact with the library.

However, instead of a formal narrative description that dwells on the features and the functionality, mobile-based writing needs to switch to a stronger focus on the benefits of using the product or service.

When writing about a new service, first tell the readers what the benefit is to them. Explain why they should use this new library service. Why should they care about it? Paint a picture for readers describing what they might get out of that new service.

7. Front-load the call to action. When writing anything for the library—a blog post, a press release, or even a Facebook post—make sure to include a call to action.

What’s a call to action? It’s simply providing some next steps for the reader. What do you want customers to do after reading that blog post or tweet? Tell them what to do next—that “next step” is the call to action. For example, if you posted a blog post about an upcoming author talk, the main goal of your article is probably to get readers to attend the event.

You can encourage this result by front-loading the content. In the journalism world, this is called the inverted pyramid style of writing. Using this style, the first paragraph you write should be stuffed with the most important content. Figure out what the main objective of your page or article is, and then put it in the first paragraph. After the main objective is spelled out, you can flesh the article out with further details if necessary.

So in the example of the author talk, your article about the event would start off by explaining who the author is—his or her credentials and that he/she is visiting the library. Next, you’d provide the date and time of the event and invite readers to register (and provide the URL for the registration page).

After the call to action, you could move into more details about the author’s accomplishments, what she thinks about libraries, or more details about what she will discuss at the event.

8. Make content scannable. On the modern and mobile web, people tend to skim an article rather than carefully read it. Usually, your reader is hunting for something—maybe looking for those next steps or a link, for example.

On the desktop-sized web, it’s well-documented that readers tend to scan the page in an F shape. They start in the top-left corner of the page, then scan across, and then down the page, etc.

On the mobile web, people tend to scroll quickly down a page with their fingers.

To make sure your content gets scanned and read, convert sentences with lists into bullet points. Bulleted lists help readers scan content. Headings and subheadings inserted into article sections also help to break up content into quickly scannable chunks.

9. Be conversational. On the modern web, people are looking for conversations and respond best to informal, casual language. So make sure to put your readers first, and speak to them rather than at them. Using familiar terms such as “we” and “you” will help convey a more conversational tone.

An easy way to achieve more conversational language is to type like you talk. This simply means to make whatever you type read like something you would say when speaking to a friend or colleague.

If this does not come easily to you, here’s a simple trick that can help convert your ideas into a more conversational tone: Type your content, and then read it to yourself out loud. Listen to yourself while reading, and ask yourself if what you just read sounds like something you’d say to another person. If it doesn’t sound like something you’d actually speak, rewrite it until it does.

10. Actively engage customers. On the modern and mobile web, it’s not enough to put out an idea and then sit back in hopes that someone will both read and engage in a discussion about the shared content. You’ll need to be more active in getting conversations to happen. Instead of writing something and then waiting until someone responds, actively work on engaging your customers.

There are some easy ways to get this type of engagement. For example, you can ask a question (people love to answer questions). Perhaps ask, “What are you reading now?” Then be prepared for your customers to answer the question.

You can also ask for opinions. For instance, you might ask an opinion about a new library service.

11. Use images. Remember how you loved books with pictures in them when you were younger? Most web content trends show that we still like images mixed in with our text-based content.

So add images to website and social media content. Make sure the image is relevant and supports the main content. For example, at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, we recently added a new microfilm reader to our history room. We wrote a news article about it (found at tscpl.org/history/new-addition-in-the-topeka-room) and included an image of a customer using the reader.

This way, more visual learners can tell, at a glance, that the “new addition” mentioned in the article’s title is the microfilm reader.

12. Ignore your English teacher. Most of us learned to write using a more formal writing style. On the modern web, we can finally ignore what our English teachers taught us (at least some of it; always make sure content is spelled correctly and is understandable).

What types of “English teacher rules” can we break? Here are a few:

  • “Sentence fragments are unacceptable.” No. Use them sparingly, but feel free to use incomplete sentences. They can help express feelings and can provide a stronger impact when used sparingly. Just saying!
  • “Spell out small numbers (one through nine).” No. Instead, use the numeral (i.e., use 1 instead of one). Doing this helps with scannability. People scan for numbers.
  • “One to two sentence paragraphs are unacceptable.” No. Remember, one of our goals includes better readability and white space. Especially on a mobile device, that three-sentence paragraph can look like a huge block of text. Breaking that block into smaller chunks makes the content more scannable and readable.

Writing for the web is a vital link with customers in today’s modern world. If you don’t get it right, people—your customers—will ignore you. So learn to write better content and improve your online communication.

Also, remember to have fun! You’re getting paid to creatively connect with your customers when they are outside of the building (or at a computer). Succeed in your mission and you’ll start conversations, generate interest, and inform and entertain your community.


David Lee King (davidleeking@gmail.com) is the digital services director at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Topeka, Kan. King uses these writing tips at his library’s website (tscpl.org) and on his blog at davidleeking.com.