Creating customer friendly web contentOverheard recently in a trendy Boston restaurant: “I wanted to try that new farm-to-table place, but when I went on their website I couldn’t find the phone number to make a reservation. Seriously, did they think I was going to spend 10 minutes going through every page? Not happening.”

This (real) customer’s experience is far from unusual. In creating or updating their websites, many organizations leave the work to others, who without guidance may sacrifice content in favor of a slick design and flashy features. The resulting sites may be striking, but for users looking for information they’re an exercise in frustration—which can translate into lost business.

Following are tips for creating web content that will serve your website visitors, let search engines find you, and boost your sales and visibility.

1. Put key information front and center

One of the costliest mistakes small businesses make in building or refurbishing their websites is to bury important information such as location, phone number, hours, and even what the business has to offer.

“We provide office solutions” may sound results-oriented, but what does it actually mean?

Your home page should provide a value statement that makes clear not just what you do but what you do for your customers. Be specific about how you can meet their needs. “We provide office solutions” may sound appropriately results-oriented, but what does it actually mean? Try something more explicit: “As the Northeast’s leading provider of skilled short-term office workers, we can keep your business moving forward when you need extra help.”

Other essential information, such as your address, phone number, email, newsletter sign-up, special sales, etc. can be repeated on each page so customers will always have access to it.

2. Think like a customer

Large web development companies often create profiles of the visitors to their clients’ websites—age, interests, likes, dislikes, buying patterns, etc.—and structure site content with these factors in mind. Completing this exercise yourself will help you learn who your customers are, what excites them, and what challenges they face that you can help with.  You’ll then be in a great position to speak personally and personably to your customers about how your organization can meet their needs.

This strategy will also help you avoid a mistake that’s fairly common even among big businesses: organizing information by internal structure rather than by customer orientation. We’ve seen service firms list offerings by employee skill, product companies offer goods by supplier, and knowledge companies break out information by organizational unit. This makes updating the site easier, but it comes at a tremendous cost—you’re losing out on making a meaningful connection with your stakeholders.

3. Make navigation easy

Menu items in your navigation should be simple, self-explanatory, and specific. For example, use Data Storage Systems, not just Systems. (Specificity will help get you notice by search engines, too.)

If your information can’t fit into a reasonably simple menu, go back to the drawing board.

Limit both the number of menus and the levels offered within each menu. Some businesses try to cram in every bit of information they can by using different top, bottom, and sidebar menus in addition to the main navigation. Others make customers plow through five or six layers of navigation to find specific products or services. Either strategy is more likely to annoy readers than to enlighten them.

If you have too much information to present with a reasonably simple menu, go back to the drawing board. Eliminate anything that doesn’t reinforce your brand, give readers information they need, or get your customers to take action. You’ll be left with just the essentials, which is what the vast majority of customers want. You can always link to specifics for those few who want to see everything.

4. Be brief (but not too brief)

According to a recent Forbes study, it’s optimal to include a maximum of three major pieces of information or options per web page. Any more than that and readers will begin to drift off. That means you can’t reduce menu items by making each page treatise-length. As with your menu items, you can limit page length by focusing on the aspects of your offerings that are most important to your customer base.

To keep readers’ interest, it’s useful to break up page text with headlines, bullets, and links. Chosen carefully, these elements will also help your search engine optimization (SEO).

Although you don’t want pages overflowing with detail, make sure that every page has something substantial to say. Both readers and search engines are leery of pages that have only a few lines of text. It may take some work, but try to walk the fine line between providing too much and too little information.

5. Provide a call to action

Once you’ve given readers the information they’re seeking, make sure they know what the next step is. Do you want them to place an order? Call for an estimate? Sign up to receive notifications? Offer a prominent place for them to do so, along with clear instructions.

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