Common mistakes people make when writing for an online audience

You are reading this on your phone, or possibly your tablet, maybe even a laptop.

You are not sitting on the bus, train or plane, flicking through the glossy, shiny pages of a magazine or turning the crisp white pages of a paperback.

You are browsing, surfing, tapping, swiping, glancing and clicking your way around a mass of digital information.

I, on the other hand, am sitting here tapping into my PC and watching the stream of consciousness called my thoughts appear right in front of my very eyes. (There was a pause back there while the coffee brewed.)

Apart from drinking said coffee, I have to ensure that you are still with me by the time I get to the end of this sentence.

Still there?

Good because I get very weird glances if I continue talking to myself.

A lot of my time is spent communicating with groups of people who like to receive their information online. Which means there are certain ground rules to follow and common errors to avoid when it comes to writing for an online audience.

#1: Not knowing your audience

Mistake number one when writing for an online audience is to forget who that target audience is, and how, when and where they like to receive their information.

So let’s start with the mobile users – or Millennials. There is a great deal written about the Millennial generation, which refers to those born from 1980 onwards.

They are the mobile centric generation; they shop, entertain, communicate and live their lives using their smartphones as their main point of contact. They prefer blogs to newspapers, so if writing for this group of people, using a news format or something that would appear in print media is not going to cut the mustard. They favour blog articles, images and eBooks, and avoid White Papers where possible.

The Baby Boomers of the 1960’s, on the other hand, have their interest piqued by reviews, comments and blogging, seeking out information mainly on world news, politics and entertainment.

The Generation X, born after the sixties (1965-76), also like the blog and prefer case studies, particularly around healthy living and technology, so linking your content to relevant up to date case studies will keep their attention focused on your writing. Don’t forget to acknowledge your sources!

(BuzzStream and Fractl surveyed over 1200 individuals from across the three generations in order to provide you with this information.)

The challenge, therefore, is to incorporate a balanced approach that cuts across all levels of consumers. Take a look at Bernadette Jiwa’s blog, “The Story of Telling”. This is a really good way in which to reach out to a number of online readers and give a meaningful account of company brands to online consumers.

#2: Not knowing your topic

Be very careful when it comes to writing content, because if it is not fit for purpose, this is where you will lose the audience you have worked very hard to attract in the first place. Often the topic is given to a writer, but it is always useful to keep a list of good content ideas and be ready to do some legwork before starting to write. It is important to stay in research mode and keep yourself up to speed so you can produce quality content.

Researching the content, so that it is up to date, recent and relevant, is a key part of the task but it is surprising how many writers fail to grasp this basic principle (that and plagiarism, which is a big no-no). If you are going to quote someone else’s work, then do just that, in parenthesis and with acknowledgement. Remember the famous quote by Wilson Mizner, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”

#3: Not understanding the client’s style guide

When given a topic for an article that is targeted at a particular website, online journal or news page, don’t forget to do the client research. Most of these sites receive a high number of articles on a daily basis, and the first thing they are going to do is see if you meet the criteria they set out.

These criteria will usually give guidance on whether they want you to write in the first or third person, the use of grammar or how they prefer numbers and dates formatted, plus references to other articles or areas of research.

#4: Not differentiating between offline and online content

There is no point in setting out an essay worthy of a Master’s degree for those readers who look for their information online. Online audiences skim read, so make sure the information given is in bite sized chunks and use appropriate headings to break up the content.

Forgetting to insert the appropriate keyword or call to action (CTA) is another mistake writers make as well. You want the audience to like, click or navigate to another page, or leave their email details or buy something, and this has to be worked into the piece. Tailoring the work to include these CTA’s or allowing for hyperlinks to be added will increase the engagement of the reader; ignoring the fact that this is an interactive piece of work means less bounce back.

Keywords have moved on quite a lot as well, so instead of stuffing your content with a lot of keywords at the beginning and the end of sentences, a.k.a. the “sweet spot”, make sure you incorporate them in a natural way. Online audiences use search engines to ask questions and not just type in the keyword anymore, so it makes sense that your writing evolves to do the same.

#5: Not planning and proofreading the final article

Finally, a good story should have a beginning, middle and an end, and this is no different when it comes to writing an online article. You have an introduction, then follow through with the body of the work, and end with a conclusion. You need to pull all the threads together, which can turn into a Gordian knot (opportunity for a hyperlink here!) if you haven’t followed through in a clear and concise way. Always remember to do your planning, preparation and proofreading before hitting the send button.

As someone a lot wiser than me once wrote, “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.” Avoid the pitfalls and perils listed above, and you will avoid the most common mistakes people make when writing for an online audience. Good luck!

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