I recently turned down a project because the client--an otherwise smart, experienced businessperson with a terrific idea for a start-up--just didn't get it about writing for the web.
The client had in mind a web site of at least 100 information-rich pages--probably 30,000 to 50,000 words--with lots of internal links and a clear structure that would allow average Joes and Janes to make sense of important content. The client had a decent business plan and exhibited a good understanding of the roles of publicity, search-engine optimization, and design.
I've written content for similarly complex, text-heavy sites, and I know how much work they involve. I based my estimate on that experience and on the special requirements of the new site. It was a very reasonable estimate. Trust me.
The client's response? "But...but...I'm just a start-up! I can't afford to pay this!" And then the client did something that would have astonished me if I weren't beyond astonishment in such matters: the client advertised on Craigslist for a writer or writers to write the content for free. "I know it'll be bad," the client told me, ever so matter-of-factly. "But then maybe I can pay you by the hour to fix it up."
Maybe? I don't think so.
What's sad about my little story is how unexceptional it is. Writing--a k a "content"--is all too often the poor stepchild of web site development, an ill-conceived, underbudgeted line item that inevitably demands three or four times as much time and labor as the client originally imagined.
You don't have to take my word for it. According to this survey by British-based Next Communications, only 10 percent of website projects give top priority to writing, while 75 percent put design in first place. Yet "when asked what caused website launches to be delayed, 55% cited ‘content not ready’ or ‘content not suited to web pages’ as key reasons." (I've added the boldface for emphasis.)
In summing up, Next Communications director Barry Monk made what I'd usually flag as a language-usage error: "It’s easy to underestimate the enormity of the content task for a new website and assume it can simply be ported over from an old site." If Monk meant "huge size and scope," he should have said "enormousness." But perhaps he really did mean "the quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness"--the definition of "enormity."
Hat tip to Matthew Stibbe at Bad Language, who cites the study and adds his own "web manifesto," which includes:
- Put writing first. "Plan, budget, and resource writing for the site as if it were the most important thing, not a bolt-on, go-faster, last minute extra."
- Writing is a specialized skill. "You don't get a plumber to do your wiring so why get a design firm or a marcomms agency to write?"
- Bad writing is expensive. "If your customers can't find what they are looking for, can't understand it when they do find it, or are so confused or bored they don't read it, you lose."
Read Matthew's entire post for more insights.