Developing Useful & Engaging Content
Creating brand-new content for your website can seem like a nearly impossible task, especially when you have other things on your to-do list. But with some forethought and our helpful tips, you can develop useful, engaging content without increasing your workload.
Know Your Audience
You could have the best website on the block, but if it doesn’t serve your users’ needs, it’s not going to be worth your time or theirs.
Identifying your target audience is the first step in determining what type of information to make available. Are they a homeowner or a renter? Do they have a family, or are they single? Do they own a business or want to start one? Even if you have a diverse group of potential users, imagining a typical user will help you focus your content on what that user – and, by extension, all users – wants and needs.
Understand the Purpose of Your Website
Your users aren’t likely to be idly surfing the web when they find your website. They’re on a mission – to find information, to give feedback, or to learn about your organization. As such, there are tools and information that they want and also pages that they don't care about.
When considering what information to include, put yourself in the place of your user. Your department mission statement may be important to you and your employees, but is that what the average user is trying to find? Is there information the user would expect to be there but isn’t?
While space is not at a premium online, your user’s attention span is. Getting the most relevant information out there in a way that’s easy to find is essential. If a user has to dig through unrelated information to find what they’re looking for, they may never start searching for it at all.
Above all, remember the goal of your website. With every page and tool, decide if it will be important to your end user and let that decide what information you share and how you share it.
Writing for the Web
When writing for online communication, keep things short and simple. You can use links and subpages if you need to expand upon a subject, but try to keep your main pages to the basics. Users won’t take the time to read through long, busy paragraphs to find what they’re looking for.
In no other media is time more of a factor than online. Users expect current, up-to-date information and will lose confidence in your organization if they run into outdated information that is no longer correct. Try routinely checking older pages for information that has changed or is no longer accurate. If you know something will be incorrect past a certain date, you can even make an entry on your calendar reminding you to readdress that content.
Finally, it is vital to avoid dead-end pages. These are pages that don’t answer the client’s need and provide no way to find more information. Luckily, these can be avoided in two ways. First, read your page thoroughly – are there any questions raised that are not answered on the page? For instance, does a page about garbage and recycling not tell me how to find out when my trash will be picked up?
The second way to avoid a dead-end page is to provide contact information in the form of a phone number or email address. That way, if you have not addressed your user’s need, there is a dynamic way for the user to request more information.
Quick Tips for Highly Usable Content
Avoid Jargon – The website should only consist of plain language. For example, the Public Works Department knows exactly what services it provides to the public but the average citizen may not know to go to that section of the website for information about trash and recycling, street and sewer maintenance, or even how to report a pothole or a street light outage.
Chunk Your Content – Content should be easy to scan so people can immediately find and jump to the information they are looking for. This is done by breaking up content with subheads and bullets, bolding information, and putting information into tables to call out the most important information on the page.
Don’t Publish Blank / Under Construction Pages – Nothing frustrates a site user more than being led to a page where they think they have found information, only to find a blank / under construction page. This will most likely result in an unnecessary and upset phone call or visit to the government’s offices.
Double Check Before Publishing – Make sure to always proofread your content before publishing it. The CivicPlus content management system comes with its own spellchecker tool and is also compatible with the dynamic spellcheckers included in various web browsers. Pages can also be previewed before going live.
Information Hierarchy – The use of subheads, bulleted lists, and bolding is the easiest way to ensure vital information is not lost in the text. Remember though: Overuse of bold / all-caps text will annoy users by actually making the text harder to read.
Information Overload – There is no limit to the amount of pages you can have on the website, but that doesn’t mean every minute detail should be there. The average citizen is not looking for the smallest detail of their local government. For those citizens that are looking for all the details, an online form, phone number, or email address where they can request these materials should suffice.
Make Sure Content is Accessible – All content should follow Americans with Disabilities (ADA) guidelines. These include, providing alt tags for links and images.
Prioritize Contact Information / Closing the Loop – Each page on the website should contain some form of contact information such as a phone number or email address. Pages should also be focused around a purpose for users, not fluff.
Use Intuitive and Specific Naming Conventions – The use of well-written subheads, links, and page titles will help direct users to the information they came to the website in search of, which should cut down on unnecessary phone calls or office foot traffic.