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October 13, 2006

Web writers: What are we? Journalists? Marketers? Information Providers? Opinion makers? Scholars?

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One of our bloggers wrote me this week with some questions regarding the choices we make in the content we include and the responsibilities that may affect those choices. As I was responding to his questions, it occurred to me that these choices are really determined by the goal of our Web site or blog, and the role we play as writers. Today I would like to explore the different types of writers that may be posting content online, and what their roles or responsibilities may be. In a future entry I'll discuss how these roles can impact our content decisions.

As you read this keep in mind that most of us will take on multiple roles in the course of our online writing.

Journalists

When we think of journalists, we think of people who go out into the world, gather facts, and then present them to the reader via newspapers, magazines, online venues, television and books. Our sense is that a journalist should be accurate and objective—not influenced by personal bias. For some reason, many today think that objectivity requires some sort of "balance of coverage" in which equal time is given to opposing viewpoints, even if one side deserves more weight than another. I find that odd because often times "balance" can take us past the facts and into a world of opinion.

For example if I were writing an article about the Holocaust, I would not try to balance my story with input from both a WWII historian and a neo-nazi historical revisionist. The facts of the holocaust are well-documented, so to bring in an opposite opinion would only serve to undermine the accuracy of my story. In August, Mano Singham wrote about the problems of balance in regard to science reporting. His entry may give you more insight into this issue.

When reporting news and information on Web sites and blogs, I think it is important to keep in mind the distinction between objectivity and balance. Yet, if you focus on carefully researching the facts, you probably won't even have to worry about it.

Additionally it is important to consider the editorial slant of your site. For example, the BBC and Yachting Magazine both report news, but they have very different editorial goals. In addition to straight reporting, each publication may also choose to offer opinion pages. Whether this is someone's opinion on the Iraq war, or another's thoughts on the best way to trim the mainsail, these articles can offer additional insight into a topic—so long as they are clearly marked as opinion rather than fact. For more information you may wish to review Wikipedia's entry on journalism.

Marketers and Copywriters

The role of marketers and the copywriters who write their advertising, direct mail and Internet marketing pieces is to get the reader, listener or viewer to make a decision and act upon it. Back in my previous life as a direct marketer, my role was to sell legal research materials to attorneys and others through direct mail, print advertising, telemarketing, catalogs, and the Web. In doing this, either in directing a campaign or writing my own copy, I would focus on understanding the features of my products and explaining how those features would benefit my intended buyers.

Features such as indexes, tables, annotations, author experience, accuracy, timeliness and price might allow my buyers to reap the benefits of reduced research time, professional insight, easier ways to understand an issue, cost-savings, etc. You see the feature/benefit focus in most consumer advertising ranging from side-impact airbags making safer Volkswagens to user-friendly software that lets Macintosh users become their own video producers.

But marketing isn't all about commerce. A student's personal blog may serve to market her communications skills to a potential employer. My American Music Masters Web site should help you decide to attend the Roy Orbison conference on November 4th. For only $30 you get a day's worth of insight and entertainment—learning about Roy Orbison through his colleagues and associates in a way you never would through books and music alone. And if you are a Case student you can attend for FREE!

As you can see, we all have something to promote, whether it be a favorite event such as AMM, an academic program or your personal political opinions. When writing in this fashion, you should still stick to the facts, but you will also add additional information that will help your reader to make a decision appropriate to his/her needs.

Information Provider

I break this out into a separate category from journalism, because it is a bit more basic, and something that we all do. It's just about the facts and nothing more. Examples of this would include posting your office hours, your location, directions to your building, the syllabus for your class, a list of courses you teach, your departmental policy on lawn ornaments, meeting schedules, your e-mail address, etc.

Fiction Author

"Last week when I got on the elevator in Adelbert, the car went down instead of up. Given that I'd entered on the ground floor, I found this rather strange; but that wasn't anywhere near as strange as the Purple Polar Bear who grabbed me when the door opened into a subterranean cave. Giggling all the while, the bear led me to a cozy chair in front of a bowl full of Gummi People. He then explained that I wasn't allowed to leave until I had removed and eaten all the purple ones. (Being the same shade as his own fur they apparently creeped him out.) Finally, with my tongue a bright shade of indigo, I was allowed to return to my office."

In other words, fiction requires little explanation; just make something up. But if you are going to post fiction online, make sure that your reader can tell that it is fiction. While we can easily infer from the absurdity of my polar bear tale that it isn't true, many stories can sound real. If that is the case for your site, just post somewhere (on the same page) that the work is fiction. Otherwise you may find your composition becomes the stuff of urban legend or some other form of misinformation.

Scholarly Writing

Whether you just finished high school or have a Ph.D., you are all probably quite familiar with this form of writing. As more faculty are encouraging their students to blog, or contribute to the Wiki, it is worth remembering that you should maintain the same care in research, hypotheses, composition and grammar as you would if writing for a scholarly journal or class paper.

As different procedures apply under different circumstances, I would foremost recommend that you follow the guidelines of your instructor, department, advisor, publisher, or whatever other entity may be applicable. That said, I have noticed two areas in which we as Web writers are sometimes lax.

  1. Inconsistencies between premise, text and conclusion. If we're deeply mired in our subject, we may forget that the reader, be it a professor or someone else online, is not privy to our thought process. Explain your premise up front, present your reasoning for this premise in the text, and bring it all together again in the conclusion.
  2. Lack of supportive materials. While your opinions and reasoning ablility play a key role in your discussion, don't forget to include supportive materials. Readers need to know what facts, data, critiques, and other materials influenced your reasoning, and where you got them. Mano Singham's article on citing other people's work offers more information on this issue.

Academic writing often covers gray areas, such as philosophical issues that are not clearly right or wrong, or scientific inquiries that we are still exploring. This makes it especially important to present a clear hypothesis and well documented support for our arguments. The SAGES Peer Writing Crew offers additional resources on this topic.

Other

Are their other types of writing that I have missed? Could they fit into some composite of the above? How do you think these distinctions affect our content choices? I'll discuss such choices more in a future entry.

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Posted by: Heidi Cool October 13, 2006 04:37 PM | Category: Content , Heidi's Entries , Writing

Comments

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We run an article marketing business and have a team of contract writers from all over the world. Your articles on ethics are right on. We have to constantly police for many of the issues you site. And I learned about a couple more I better keep an eye on. thanks.

Posted by Arnie on November 30, 2006 11:14 PM

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How about political writing? Can that fit in any of the web writer categories you mentioned here, or does it belong under it's own category? I would be interested on your opinion about this type of writing on the web, especial on blogs set up by political candidates or those already in office and their responsibilities.

Posted by Internet Marketing View on March 29, 2007 01:24 AM

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I think political writing could fall under either journalism or marketing depending on the site. Candidate's blogs are essentially marketing tools, yet they could include journalistic and other informative content.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years how the Internet plays an increasing role in politics. The rise of political blogs can create a more personal presence for candidates, but so can the proliferation of online video. NPR recently discussed how uTube videos made not only by candidates, but by their constituents, may change both the way messages are presented and who controls the message.

Posted by Heidi Cool on March 29, 2007 11:52 AM

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I would think that I would be a "Marketer" writer. As I do work online, and I do write articles and emails that are sale letters, but I also have an Internet Marketing blog, which I do not necessarily "sell" from. I write about different topics, in hopes to brand the site and maybe in the future sell from it.

Posted by Joel on April 27, 2007 02:40 AM

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Interesting questions we'd not thought of before. We are both internet marketers AND scholars, oddly enough!

Posted by Vincent Harrison on April 27, 2007 08:14 PM

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Good poser..I guess an Internet writer is all of that rolled into one. Internet as a medium is increasingly becoming so strong and life changing that a writer has graduated from just being a scribe to a whole new entity adding value, forming & changing opinions, arousing communication transcending international boundaries.
Speciality writers are becoming the order of the day. Thanks to Heidi & Case Western for bringing this interesting topic up.

Posted by Tim Dillard on June 5, 2007 09:21 AM

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Nice post!
Web writers are all in one.They are doing a great job keeping in mind about the impression of the visitors.

Posted by Binod on June 18, 2007 07:22 AM

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I think the most important thing you should do as a marketer is provide what the people want. And usually this is information.

I read a lot about copywriting and one of the golden rules is that you should give a lot of value upfront, before selling them the product. This is what really worked in my internet marketing:

Give away the best parts of your product as a teaser. Then people will love what you gave them for free, and will feel nearly guilty they didn't buy anything from you.

Posted by Jarod - Area 51 Marketing Review on August 1, 2007 05:52 AM

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I've been learning how to start an internet business and it goes on about creating/writing good content for your visitors. I never thought writing quality articles would be an important part in internet marketing.

Posted by Kevin on October 24, 2007 12:05 AM

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What role does long form copy writing have in writing B2B copy for the internet? I must say I am confused. The 'weight' (if not quality) of opinion from largely self-proclaimed internet guru writers is that long form works. I find it hard to accept that such obviously manipulative tactics snare orders from even the most gullible consumer. Love to hear your views ...

Posted by mike edwards on November 30, 2007 03:44 AM

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Mike,
You pose an interesting question. "Long form" is a term often applied to sales letters but it also can apply to copy on the Web. I too have seen studies showing better results with longer copy, but I don't think length is the real issue. The main thing is to provide the reader with enough information to make an informed purchasing decision. In business to business marketing, I think long often works because the product or service is so complex that it requires more words to explain the features and benefits.

If one writes long copy to inform it needn't be manipulative. If one is writing longer copy just because they heard they should, and that copy is padded with marketingese then it serves neither the seller nor the buyer.

Posted by Heidi Cool on December 5, 2007 10:47 AM

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The point I was making was a about self proclaimation. If enough internet copywriting hacks (aka gurus) claim that long form works, does that constitute 'evidence' that it does? Does any Fortune 500 company use long form B2B? If so, what is their experience? I see no examples and therefore assume that either F500 Marketing managers are f*ckwits OR (most likely) long form just does not work ...

Posted by Mike Edwards on December 6, 2007 09:50 AM

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Mike,
No, I don't think such proclamations constitute evidence. There are too many factors in play. They can put up a chart of results comparing short form to long form, but if we don't know what the actual copy looked like, to whom the site was promoted, what the item for sale was, how can we really analyze the success? Testing is great but everyone needs to do it themselves to analyze what works in their circumstances.

I wrote a follow-up to your question at http://blog.case.edu/webdev/2007/12/05/shortlong . In the end I think we need to tailor our copy to our goal, the goals of our audience and our product or service.

Posted by Heidi Cool on December 6, 2007 10:42 AM

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I have often found that articles related to online marketing are posted by the thousands, some are outdated shortly after they are posted, many contain information which is ill-informed and even blatantly misleading. Anyone with the time and inclination can become an expert in a given area as far as the global online audience is concerned. When browsing the information found online, consider the source, consider what motivations live behind the opinions being expressed, quite often there are marketing messages attached to blog posts, forum posts and articles. The interent doesn’t have to be considered a Pandora's box but a healthy amount of scrutiny is certainly justified.

Posted by Internet Marketing in Australia - Jeff Palmer on December 8, 2007 06:18 AM

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remember jakob nielsen's advice on writing for the web. basically, keep it short, simple, and make it interesting.

Posted by Jansie Blom on January 3, 2008 03:41 PM

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Writing for the web involves many different types of content development skills. Catchy headings, short concise sales pitches, client content and then a few hundred words with keyword rich seo content. Its a continuous change of mindset.

Posted by Goran Web on January 24, 2008 05:38 PM

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I do think Internet writers should be aware that their content cannot just contain me, me, me brochure ware. Web readers scan and if they don't find what they want in a few seconds then they are outta there. If you catch their eye with targeted, benefit driven content then you'll keep their attention.

Concise headings and subheadings, bulleted points, bold, italics and no big paragraphs will greatly improve your page web readibility and the capability for your readers to find what they are looking for.

Posted by internet marketing, seo on April 13, 2008 07:15 PM

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Website writing doesn't have to be an art form - just writing clear concise content and structured with solid simple logical navigation that is easy to get around will go a long way in keeping visitors on your website more than a few seconds. Using clean simple graphics and two colors that are not too loud for contrast will also be effective.

Posted by websites for sale on June 19, 2008 11:43 AM

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It all depends on your target audience. You may be blogging just for entertainment or for dispensing information. However, you may also be trying to sway opinion. In any case, you will need to not only customize your style, but your content for that audience.

Posted by Ron on September 22, 2008 09:28 PM

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Posted by: hac4 (Heidi Cool) October 13, 2006 04:37 PM | Comments (19) | Trackback