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In: Columns > DigiSect

By Stephen Van Doren

Published on November 6, 2001

"This article will be 750 words long exactly, or you can have your money back."

Several months ago, I went into great detail about the process that I went through to design and develop a website for a client that I had at the time. I talked about planning, design, development and implementation issues. I discussed, at great length, the issues that I was having with cross-platform compatibility, and the clients' apparent disinterest in what we were doing.

This month, I need to revisit that, focusing on one particular issue that is often overlooked and even more often lauded. It something that is just as important (perhaps even more) as any other aspect of a website, yet strangely ignored.

Language. Terminology. Expressions. Words. Copy.

Content

On the web, we toss that word around like candy, as though it had no meaning, as though it was nothing more than copy. We lament bad content, and we applaud good content. But we never really know why. "I know good content when I see it," seems to be the mantra of content development online. "Do the design and development, we'll worry about the content later," seems to be the popular opinion of where it fits into the scheme of things. Sadly, this attitude is loud in the idea it expresses, and says very clearly to the web viewing public a message you do not want to convey: "I do not care about my business."

I want to keep this article at 750 words, because you, the readers of DigiSect, are my customers. I must convey my meaning as quickly and as precisely as I possibly can.

"...And having written 283 words, I don't have many left."

My freelance group recently acquired a client that I used as a test subject for a new content development method. They wanted to have descriptions that were vibrant, engaging, and interesting to the reader, and still keep true to the business that they ran – costume rental. They had no interest in renting to someone that didn't want any costumes, and they didn't want to appear to be desperate or "markety." No one at the shop was a writer, and none of them have a wealth of web experience. But like many clients, they knew what they liked. We had absolutely no idea what was important to people that rented costumes, and couldn't have been expected to know. But, like any consummate professional, we bravely trudged forward.

We had a tough job ahead. Our decision was to focus on the content, design, and development concurrently, to get the site up for testing and eventual launch as quickly as possible. (October is, as you can imagine, their busiest month.)

So, I used them as what can be best described as a focus group. I sat each down with a pen and paper, and had them write for ten minutes about the company, why they worked there, and what was important to them in the realm of costumes.

As you can imagine, I got a wealth of responses. I boiled them all down to several key issues, and came back to the client with a list of important words that I pulled out of the employees quips (which wasn't easy – one of them had absolutely atrocious handwriting). She read over them all, and pronounced them good, applauding her employees and their approval of what they were doing.

So I sat down with my trusty laptop and wrote sentences using the words and phrases that were important to the employees. As it turned out, they really did know their customers, and that gave us a head start in writing content they - our client - could be proud of.

After only two drafts, the client approved of the entire content, broken up into sections, and kept relatively brief and to the point. When we presented it to the people that helped me write it (the employees), each was impressed with it. Not only did it sound like their business, but it also sounded genuine and professional.

Because it was.

I tell you this story not because I wish to blow my own horn (though I am always fond of doing so), but because I hope you take this away from this article: If it weren't for content, what are you reading?

"It appears that I've written 727 words."

I leave you with a piece of wisdom earned through experience: Trust your client. They know their business. You should know yours, too.

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Stephen Van Doren is a software developer and graphic designer from Denver, Colorado.

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