This article first appeared in issue 230 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
The internet’s mark is forever; a saying that has plagued the minds of copywriters and web designers for the duration of the modern web. A flippant scrawl on a notepad or piece of paper is disposable, the internet’s ink is permanent.
This isn’t a bad thing though. This unequivocal notion forces and encourages us to be more thoughtful and precise about how we portray our services and messages across the web.
We create websites for people, because websites are read by people: people don’t like to be treated like Google bots or spiders crawling content. A bot can’t understand a subtle joke or catch a movie reference, a person does. This is important as you get the opportunity to think about who you want your intended audience to be.
Recently, I created a ‘hire me’ page for my personal freelance site. I started listing my services and writing placeholder text for form inputs and had a slight eureka moment. I realised that I only wanted to work with certain types of people, people who would catch my reference to Mad Men and Back to the Future. I’m happily employed as a full-time web developer, but when I do freelance, I want to work with people who are like me and understand my humour. So I ditched my current copy, which sounded like I was listing skills on LinkedIn, and created flowing prose.
When you are looking to get hired in the field you work in, your site is likely to be read by people who do the same thing as you: generally a developer’s portfolio will be analysed by the head of development or a senior developer. It’s not going to be read by ‘Joe the Plumber’. If you want to slip in that you can complete a Rubik’s Cube one-handed then fine. You’ve created targeted content. A recruiter will read your skills from your CV and match you up to a job based on keyword/ programming languages, but a developer or designer will hire you. You’re not trying to impress a computer or search engine, you have to converse with a potential future employer without verbally communicating with him or her.
One thing that has impressed me recently is the user experience at LinkedIn rival Zerply. Especially the way that they communicate with the user, through a variety of mediums. For instance, I love that the email address they use for notifications, reminders, and so on is firstname.lastname@example.org. When I first saw it, my brain instinctively read email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. When I got the joke, I didn’t take any important action or immediately respond congratulating them on their email address choice, but what I did do was come away with a warm, fuzzy feeling about Zerply and knew that it was the kind of service that I wanted to use.
Another good example of lovely human copy is Stellar.io, an organisation tool for your favourites on Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo and YouTube.
The first thing you read when hitting their homepage is: “What is Stellar? Good question! We’re still figuring that out” – again, not a revolutionary piece of content but straight away I feel like a man or woman has typed that to me. I feel a hastened sense of trust, the service has flaws/ imperfections and they’re fine with telling me this.
Their small print is carefully crafted. The company even injects some small pearls of humour into it, saying: “Stellar will never post any tweets to your account or delete your photos or anything like that. Never ever ever. Ever”. On some websites this sort of humour just isn’t appropriate. On Stellar, made for internet power users, it is, and that’s why they stand out.
Working on the web is important. Communicating well on the web is even more important. Conveying your human side through copy and interactions is key to conquering this transparent medium.