To engage website readers, replace “we” with “you”

To engage website visitors, shift the focus from what your organization is doing for them to what they can do with your products and services.

photo showing people pointing to youWhen I edit a client’s website, the first thing I look at is tone. If the content makes the reader feel passive, powerless, or bored, I spice it up. Sometimes spicing it up involves adding more substantive, useful information. But, oddly, often all it requires is changing a few words. This has become so instinctive for me that I don’t often analyze how I’m doing it.

Recently a woman whose website I was editing asked how she could write copy that wouldn’t need to be edited and recast. This forced me to look at exactly what I was doing to enliven her copy. Here’s what I discovered:

I change sentences that leave the reader in a passive position (relative to the website) to sentences that focus the spotlight on the reader and his or her experience.

Example: “We have arranged for rapid check-in.” becomes “You’ll enjoy rapid check-in when you arrive.”

While this is natural for me, as an outside consultant, it’s difficult for in-house writers. That’s because they are so aware of how hard the organization has worked on a project they can’t resist the temptation to pat themselves or their colleagues on the back. They don’t notice that it comes across as subtly off-putting to the reader — particularly on a website where every topic begins with a description of how admirable the organization (“we”) is .

The cold, hard, fact is that the reader just doesn’t care; the reader wants to know what’s in it for him or her. Organizations like recognize that. They don’t tell you how they’ve been working their tails off to make the site convenient for you. They tell  you about all the things you can now do with their site.

Example: “We have chosen iPad photography as the topic for the next meeting.” focuses on the exclusive little group making decisions. It could be recast to use a genuine, inclusive “we”: “We’ll be discussing iPad photography.” Even better, it could focus on the website visitor:  “Bring your experiences and questions about iPad photography to the next meeting.”

My client recognized the change of tone that resulted, and said she was going to give it a try.

What do you think? Does shifting from the organizational “we” to a customer-focused “you” make a significant difference? Are there downsides to it?

How to lose at the social media game

Neglected social media accounts can tarnish an organization’s reputation.




I’m afraid that was the sound of my head hitting my desk. I’ve been dealing with people who have ambitious social media plans. They want to blog, start Twitter streams and Facebook pages, and run a Kickstarter campaign. They want to put forums on their organizations’ websites so their followers (what followers?) can have discussions with one another.

I go to their Twitter accounts and discover that they do, indeed, have 100 followers. However, they’ve never bothered to follow most of them back.

“Oh. Is that important?” they ask me.

Perhaps it’s just as well. Five of the followers turn out to be come-ons for porn sites.

Oh, you mean I can block those?

photo of a loserOn the one hand, I have to admire people who fearlessly wade in to Twitter and Facebook and never bother to figure out what any of the settings or tools can do. On the other hand, social media is not a game where you get points just for showing up. You have to learn how to play the game, as well.

Twitter streams overrun by spammers, Facebook pages full of leaderless followers, or social media accounts of any kind neglected by their administrators speak louder than a dozen clever posts or tweets. And, unfortunately, what they say can tarnish an organization’s reputation.

The good news is that there are solutions: Hundreds of online resources on how to do social media, most of them pretty good. The bad news is that most organizations don’t seem to realize that they have a problem.

Thoughts on managing a CaringBridge site

Tom Whitmore’s experiences administering a CaringBridge site for a friend who suffered a stroke led him to reflect on the principles of effective crisis communication.

Tom Whitmore has been administering a CaringBridge site for our friend Stu, who suffered a serious stroke in June. Tom works with Stu’s life partner to craft the web updates. After he posts the news, he monitors comments from the friends and family who read the site.

Listening to Tom talk about this work made me realize that he is discovering many of the principles of good crisis communications — something that very few people are trained in. I asked him to share his observations.

Tom writes:

It is my sincere hope that you will never need to use CaringBridge. It’s a web-based service that helps the families of people who’ve suffered a medical crisis set up a simple website and blog to keep friends up-to-date. While many people are on Facebook these days, there are still quite a few who don’t care to join. Having a single place like CaringBridge where everyone can check to see the latest news about an ailing friend or family member is really useful.

I’ve recently been serving as the administrator of a CaringBridge site for my friend Stu, who had a severe stroke in mid-June. While the system is technically quite easy to use, it turns out that the communications work itself requires some thought. On one hand, I’m serving an audience that has lots of questions and comments. On the other hand, I’m assisting Stu’s partner and need to be attuned to her perceptions and honor what she wants to communicate and when.

After three months of working with CaringBridge, I’ve come up with a five tips that I believe can make the service slightly easier for other people to use. Karen asked me to share them here at WriterWay.

  1. Have a CaringBridge account set up quickly after a medical catastrophe.
  2. Have someone other than the primary caregiver administer and manage the site.
  3. Update the site’s journal regularly and honestly.
  4. Update the original information (on the main story page) to reflect major changes.
  5. Keep your audience in mind.

For those of you interested in more, I’ll expand a bit on each of the five points:

1. Set up a CaringBridge account quickly after a medical catastrophe.

Speed is important. People want to know where to go for information, and having a CaringBridge site ready quickly makes a big difference in whether people will go there for information. I’d guess the window for getting a site started is between an hour and 72 hours after the event. Don’t wait to be certain whether you’ll need it: if the person is going to be in the hospital overnight or longer after an emergency, that’s a pretty clear indicator that people will want to know about it. And if the condition is imminently life-threatening (certain types of cancer, for example), you’ll want to start rallying support.

2. Have someone other than the primary caregiver administer and manage the site.

The primary caregiver is going to have his/her hands full dealing with the medical situation, and perhaps insurance issues and visiting relatives. Friends will ask what they can do to help. Someone with a combination of computer skills and people skills is the ideal person to ask to set up a CaringBridge site. CaringBridge is pretty easy to use for anyone experienced with online groups. In fact, if you’re reading this, you probably have the necessary skills to set up an account.

3. Update the site’s journal regularly and honestly.

People will come to the CaringBridge because they want to know what’s going on. A regular schedule is very helpful. I posted daily during the period when my friend was in Intensive Care from the stroke; when he moved to rehab, I noted that the posts would get less frequent. When he had to go back into the hospital, I increased the frequency. And if something major happened, positive or negative, I’d stick in an extra post.

It’s also important to be honest. If you don’t know something, say so. Things are going to be uncertain more often than they’re going to be clear. People still want to hear. And if something bad happens, say so. Don’t hope it will go away if you ignore it. It may go away (which gives you good news to post), but your talking about it won’t hasten that or give it extra power.

4. Update the original information (on the site’s My Story section) to reflect major changes.

A CaringBridge site has a top section called “My Story” where you can write a very short summary of what’s going on. Remember to update this summary when something major changes. I posted that my friend had had a stroke: two weeks later, folks coming in to read what was happening thought that this meant he’d had another one. Oops. Adding the date took care of this problem. Saying when he moved to rehab also helped keep things clear. This section is limited in length to a few hundred characters. It’s not Twitter, but it’s a place to be very concise.

5. Keep your audiences in mind.

If you’re the designated manager of the site, you have two very important audiences. The first is the primary caregiver. Your goal is to help him/her get all the information into a small package, figure out what her/his friends will want to know, and write it down. There will be things that it’s not appropriate to talk about (reactions of some visitors, other people’s fears, and such). Talking things out with the primary caregiver also helps him/her gain some perspective on what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to ask “How do we want to present this?”

The other audience is the people who want to find out what’s going on. Tell them as much as you can without either writing too much (1000 words per update is Too Much Information unless there’s something complex and specific to say) or saying inappropriate things.  Sometimes you should push the primary caregiver to say a bit more, but don’t insist: S/he is the one who has the most to say about what happens on the CaringBridge site. Remember to appreciate people who give you feedback about how the site is going, and don’t reject ideas that might improve your site management. Sign your updates so people know who is making the updates. Be accessible. Read the Guestbook comments to make sure no one is misinterpreting your journal posts.

It takes a village to deal with a major illness. If you’re managing the CaringBridge account, you’re the village reporter. It’s a serious and rewarding job.

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