Tuesday, August 09, 2005

How to Write a Great Website: Part I So What?

Make no mistakes about it. You can hear all you want about how cool and visual the web is. You can talk about all the interactivity, and the multi-media. You can talk about podcasting and streaming video.

The web is still a text-driven medium.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but how can you tell what order they’re in? What will draw a customer in and get him excited about your product? What will catch a person’s attention and make her feel welcomed and comfortable? Pictures help, but pictures alone, without words, lack clarity and purpose.

So, you have to write your website. And to that end, I’m launching a three-part series on the processes of writing a great website.

The first part is often the scariest part. Before you type that first word, while you’re staring down that blank screen, you’ll need to figure out what you want to say. Often, that’s what hangs people up the most. They struggle not to put words on the page, but to find the thoughts to put into words. Once the thoughts and ideas are there, the words themselves tend to flow pretty naturally.

So, a great place to begin coming up with ideas is your product(s). That’s what you want to communicate, right? That’s what you want to sell! To write about your products, you’ll need to know what their features and benefits are.

A feature is some basic, inherent quality that a product has. It’s blue. It stands three and a half feet tall. It’s compatible with both Windows and Mac. There are lots of things like this that describe the products. They’re often called “specs”.

The trouble is, they’re boring. They don’t capture the attention or the imagination. They don’t show why I, the customer, should care! That’s what the benefits do. They talk about what the product is going to do for me, how it will make my life better.

Sometimes, benefits are obvious, sometimes not. In either case, there’s a way to draw them out. It’s a brainstorming game called, “So What?” Imagine yourself as an annoying little 6-year-old brat. You’ll start the game by picking a product, and then a feature of the product, then the brat joins in. Here’s how it works.

Your Adult Self: I’ll start with this Left Handed Wind Shifter. The feature is that it’s made for left-handed people.
The Brat: So what?

Your Adult Self: Well, that means that left-handed people can use it.

The Brat: So what?

Your Adult Self: Well, they can shift the wind, now, without having to get a right-handed person to do it for them.

The Brat: So what?

Your Adult Self: So, they have more control over their environment.

The Brat: So what?

Your Adult Self: So, they can get more accomplished without the wind getting in the way.

The Brat: So what?

Your Adult Self: So they’re more productive

The Brat: So what?

Your Adult Self: So their life is happier!

We went through a string of basic benefits, until we finally arrived at the “Ah Hah!” benefit: Life is happier. And as we played the game, we wrote the benefit ideas down. We’re forming a list of the benefits.

The Left-Handed Wind Shifter has other features, too. You can play “So What” with each of those benefits. What about your other products? What about the Right-Handed Rain Repeller”? It has features and benefits, too…

The more you play the game, the longer your list of benefits grows, and so, you have more things to write about. More things to write about, means easier writing. Look over your long list of benefits and see which ones repeat, or which ones stand out. Assemble these concepts into sentences and paragraphs, and there’s your first draft for the main page.

Only a first draft!? What changes should we make?

That’s next time!

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