By Ben Dean, PhD
Context: In the Summer IP, we discussed ways to market a virtual coaching practice (a coaching practice delivered by telephone, fax, and E-mail) to a market that encompasses at least all of North America (Dean, 1999a). In addition, we examined:
The importance of marketing to a tightly focused market niche;
A model of virtual marketing (The Funnel of Trust) in which one initially attempts to build a relationship of increasing trust with one’s target market by providing prospective clients with free, useful information on a repeated basis; and
One strategy, among many, for doing this—publishing a free E-mail newsletter that speaks to the concerns of your prospects in a clear, compelling manner…month after month.
Here we’ll examine ways writing an E-mail newsletter differs from writing for print, and we’ll suggest specific ways to make your newsletter web worthy.
The Research: A growing body of web usability studies indicates that reading from a computer screen is quite different than reading from paper (Dillon, 1994; Shum,1996; Morkes and Nielsen, 1997, 1998; Spool, 1997; Killian, 1999). For example, people approach the web with an air of impatience and urgency. In fact, with E-mail and the web, people rarely read—they scan. And when they do read online, their pace is slow – 25 percent slower than when reading print (Nielsen, 1998). Further, they distrust “marketese,” language that seems like marketing hype. They prefer factual information. As a result, writing for the web should be succinct, easy to scan, and objective (rather than promotional) in style (Morkes and Nielsen, 1997).
Tips on Writing for the Web
I’ve now helped a number of colleagues develop their own E-mail newsletters as they’ve added virtual coaching to their practices. Based on this experience, my own newsletters (Dean 1999b, 1999c), and Web usability studies, I’ll list nine tips for writing a reader-friendly E-mail newsletter:
1. Your E-mail Newsletter Begins With a Wisely Selected Target Market. Effective marketing to a North American or global market requires a narrow focus. Good niches meet a number of criteria that include, but are not limited to, a burning need, an underserved population with discretionary income, and prospective clients with whom you enjoy spending time. In your virtual marketing plan, you should plan to help a specific target group solve a set of significant problems and/or reach important goals. In your E-mail newsletter, you will focus on the most meaningful problems and opportunities of people in that target group.
2. A Single Idea, Concisely Treated, Is Enough. A single focus per issue, treated in as few as 700 to 900 words, is enough. Multi-section newsletters are fine if they are succinct (see # 7 below), but they require more time, the busy clinician’s scarcest resource. Many successful E-mail newsletters use a single focus per issue.
3. Write in Plain Text. Your E-mail software, like mine, may allow you to produce text replete with italics, bolding, true ‘ and ” signs, underlining, even color and full html. But many of your readers can see only plain text and will receive your grace notes as gibberish. Discipline yourself to stick with plain ASCII text. To be safe, take these seven steps:
Write your newsletter in your word processor, for example, in MS Word.
Save it as “text” or “text with line breaks”.
Close the file.
Reopen the file. Now you have a pure plain text file.
Eyeball it for any problems.
Copy and paste it to E-mail.
Send it to yourself as an E-mail as a final check for unexpected problems with line lengths or formatting.
4. Use Narrow Line Widths. Keep your line widths at 60 columns (i.e., 60 characters), roughly the width of this IP column. If you use lines that are wider than your reader’s screen widths (say, 70- or 80-columns wide), their software may cut the line off or it may wrap the excess around to form a short next line. Thus the appearance of your newsletter will be jagged for many viewers with alternating short and long lines. Sixty columns is a safe value for any software.
5. Use “Hard Carriage Returns.” This expression, a vestige of the typewriter era, means simply to press the “enter” key at the end of every line of text. This increases the odds that your 60-column lines will be reproduced accurately on your readers’ computer screens. At the risk of overwhelming you, let me suggest three ways to do this:
You can manually press the “enter” key at the end of every line of text.
If your software allows (as MS Word does), you can save it as “text with line breaks” which will enter “hard-carriage returns” at the end of each line for you.
Or you can use TextPad‘ to both easily set your line widths and make sure that “hard-carriage returns” are inserted at the end of each line. For me, the hassle is getting the line widths right, and TextPad®‘eliminates the problem. (For more information on TextPad®’, see the “Resources” section at the end of this article.)
6. Understand the Importance of the Subject Line. Readers will not automatically open your E-mail newsletter. They make a decision about whether to open it based on your Subject line, just as newspaper readers decide whether to read an article based, in part, on its headline. However, unlike web users, newspaper readers have many cues to help them interpret a story’s headline (e.g., pictures, captions, the headline’s placement, for example, on the front page or in sports, the story itself, etc.). In contrast—and with the exception of information in your “From” field—an E-mail subject line stands alone, devoid of context.
Thus you should:
• Use plain language and make the Subject line an “ultra-short abstract” of the associated newsletter (Nielsen, 1998).
• Consider using as your Subject line the primary benefit provided in the issue:
Example: not “Therapist as Coach-Vol.3, #10”. But rather “Seven Models of Virtual Coaching.”
• Avoid using your newsletter’s title as the sole content of your Subject line. This is the most common mistake of newsletter publishers, making it impossible to know if the issue is of particular interest. And it makes it hard to locate specific issues if your reader has archived them in an E-mail mailbox. I suspect publishers of multi-section newsletters may feel this is their only choice. But it’s not. Such newsletters could use as their Subject line the major benefit in their lead story, the strategy used, for example, by the highly successful, daily newsletter, Jesse Berst’s Anchor Desk (1999).
• Avoid cryptic, teasing, or humorous Subject lines. These are fairly typical mistakes for novice E-mail newsletter writers with Subject lines such as “When in Utica…” (cryptic); “The One Mistake to Avoid” (a teaser); or “The Sales Clerk as Babysitter” (a teaser with attempted humor).
• Avoid acronyms and shorthand expressions that some readers may not understand.
• Do not use leading articles such as “the” or “a” (Nielsen, 1998).
• Instead, make the first word in the Subject line an important, content-laden word. Not “An Introduction to Negotiating for Mid-Life Career Changers,” but “Negotiating Tips for Mid-Life Career Changers.”
7. Be Succinct. To be safe, assume your e-readers will not print out your writing. Assume they’ll read it directly from their computer monitors. Understand that web users read text 25 percent slower from a computer screen than from paper (Nielsen, 1997). This is probably due to the relatively poor resolution of computer monitors—only 80 dpi (dots per inch) compared to 1200 dpi resolution for print of typeset quality. Further, users report that online reading is “unpleasant” when compared to reading print. Finally, many users approach their mountain of E-mail and their web browsing with an air of impatience. They want to move quickly.
So be concise.
Assume your e-readers will tolerate only half the text they would in print. Aim to make it 50 percent shorter than for comparable content on paper.
8. Write for Scannability. Web usage studies have consistently found users rarely read—they scan. They skim down their computer screens picking out initial sentences, subheads, and key words as they troll for useful information. So focus on making your newsletter easy to scan. This is second in importance only to writing useful content.
To increase scanability, you should:
• Never, ever use large blocks of unparagraphed text. Rather, break large blocks of text into smaller chunks by using subheads; short paragraphs; frequent one-sentence paragraphs; occasional one- or two-word paragraphs; and numbered and bulleted lists.
• Use journalism’s “Inverted Pyramid.” Simply stated, one should begin with the conclusion, then the important supporting information, and, finally, the background. (Nielsen, 1998). Use the inverted pyramid for the article itself and within each subhead as well.
Most of us who have received our Ph.D.’s are stuck in the traditional APA method of gradually presenting information until it has built to a culmination. In an E-mail format, however, it is more appropriate to begin with the summation. The reason this approach is popular for journalists is that the reader can stop at any point and still have understood the important points of the piece, which is exactly what you desire as well. This also increases the chance that scanners of your newsletter will find your most important points.
Put a summary at the top. Summarize the heart of your newsletter in a few succinct sentences that stand alone at or near the beginning of your newsletter. This still-uncommon practice is very effective and welcomed by busy users. What you don’t want is for the reader to have to scroll down your newsletter, past paragraphs of promotional material or unrelated text to find the article referred to in your Subject line.
Instead, first give the reader an accurate ultra-compressed abstract of your newsletter in the Subject line. Then right at the top of the page—under either the newsletter title itself or the table of contents—distill the heart of your newsletter. I appreciate it when the e-writer has done this. It aids my scanning, helping me to decide quickly whether to go further. And an initial summary is still so rare—so often I must scroll through irritating promotional fluff—that this formatting itself predisposes me to take the newsletter seriously.
Use a simple table of contents. When your newsletter has multiple sections, even if they are short, use a simple table of contents. If you don’t, potentially interested scanners may stop after the first few sentences of your first section and miss the gold you left for them at the end. I like to number the sections in my table of contents and then use that same numbering system to designate the sections in the body.
Understand the importance of first sentences. Scanners skim the initial sentence of each paragraph, looking for useful information. Use topic sentences and put them first.
Use only one idea per paragraph. Assume that including two ideas will guarantee the second one will be missed by most readers.
Use subheads to break long information into smaller chunks. This is a key aid for scanners who will, if nothing else, read your subheads.
Make those subheads scannable. On a web page you can do this by using large type, bolding, or color. But with the plain-text-only format of E-mail, you cannot. To make subheads distinctive you can:
Capitalize the first letter of each word in the subhead. Although you can put subheads in all caps, it’s better not to. On the web, writing in all caps is perceived either as “shouting” or as unattractive.
Underline the subhead. Even though in plain text one cannot use the underline function, you can create its analogue by putting a second line of dashes or some other character on the next line directly under the subhead. For example:
Five Coaching Interventions
The arrangement of non-alphanumeric characters into pleasing borders is a minor art form that can be learned by observing skillful E-writing. I find some borders unattractive and “noisy” (e.g., the single use or most combinations of #, @, $, %, ^, &, +, *, <, or >) and others cleaner and more agreeable (e.g., the single use or some combinations of ~, _, -, and = .).
• Use numbers. Break long blocks of text into numbered points when they occur in serial order. You can increase scannability even more by using a subhead at the beginning of each point (as I have in this article).
• Use bullets, perhaps separated by white space, to list points in random order.
9. Be Objective. Make your writing objective rather than promotional in style. Users distrust “marketese.” language that seems like promotional hype (Morkes and Nielsen, 1997). Writing in marketese is one of the most frequent mistakes made by commercial web sites and E-mail newsletters. This markedly reduces the perceived credibility of your writing. It also adds to the user’s cognitive burden—users must scan more slowly, with more skepticism, doubly careful about the validity of the content.
So be sparing with superlatives. As you edit, remove hyperbole, subjective claims, exaggeration, and boasting (even honest enthusiasm can be misperceived). Rarely use exclamation points.
The bad news is that “marketese” is widespread on the web. The good news is that psychologists are trained to write with accuracy. By writing objectively—sometimes even understating our arguments—our writing often gains power and credibility.
If you’re going to market your virtual coaching practice with an E-mail newsletter, it’s important to learn good, solid E-mail writing and formatting techniques. Your useful, accurate, clear information will increase market trust on a monthly basis, building your practice and helping real people.
Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability Dubbed by the New York Times as “the guru of web usability” (Richtel, 1998) and as “one of the web’s ten most influential people” by web journalist, Jesse Berst (1998), Jakob Nielsen writes “Alertbox,” a helpful bi-weekly newsletter with an estimated 200,000 readers per month. This is a free newsletter available on the web at http://www.useit.com/alertbox/. All issues are archived. Highly recommended.
Designing Websites with Authority: Secrets of an Information Architect Nielsen’s forthcoming book (due out in October, 1999) should be superb. While focused on web design, it will include and model tips on superior e-writing.
Writing for the Web Crawford Killian’s book is a useful source of online writing tips (1999). Many, although not all, of his observations about the web translate to text-based E-mail newsletters.
TextPad® TextPad® is a useful shareware word-processor which allows the user to easily set line length and make sure that “hard carriage returns” are inserted at the end of each line. It can be downloaded in trial version at http://www.textpad.com.
While TextPad‘ has many features, the most important things to know about it are how to set line length and hard-carriage returns (also called “hard breaks”). In order to set line length, go to the top menu, click on , then choose , then make sure you’re on the tab, then make your desired selections at the bottom of the tab under the heading “word-wrapped text.” If you choose to “save with hard breaks” you should actually save your document as a file before you cut-and-paste it into a different (e.g., word-processing or E-mail) program. In this area, you can also select the number of characters per line you wish to have in your text.
Say What You Mean on the Web This web site offers another good source for writing clearly and logically on the Web and is located at http://www.ronscheer.com
Berst, J. (1998). The web’s 10 most influential people. Jesse Berst’s Anchor Desk http://www.zdnet.com/anchordesk/story/story_2557.html/
Berst, J. (1999). Jesse Berst’s Anchor Desk. (A free daily E-mail newsletter available on the web at http://www.zdnet.com/anchordesk/index.html/)
Dean, B. (1999a) Marketing a virtual coaching practice on a national scale. The Independent Practitioner. 19 (3), 112-115.
Dean, B. (1999b). The Therapist as Coach. (A free, monthly E-mail newsletter available on the web at https://www.mentorcoach.com/ or by calling 301-986-5688).
Dean, B. (1999c). The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide. (A free, monthly E-mail newsletter available on the web at http://www.ecoach.com)
Dillon, A. (1994). Designing usable electronic text: ergonomic aspects of human information usage. NY: Taylor and Francis.
Kilian, C. (1999). Writing for the web. Bellingham, WA: Self-Counsel Press.
Morkes, J., and Nielsen, J. (1997). Concise, scannable, and objective: how to write for the web. http://www.useit.com
Morkes, J., and Nielsen, J. (1998). Applying writing guidelines to the web. http://www.useit.com
Nielsen, J. (1997). Be succinct! (writing for the web). Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability. http://www.useit.com/alertbox
Nielsen, J. (1998). Microcontent. Alertbox:Current Issues in Web Usability. http://www.useit.com/alertbox
Nielsen, J. (1999). Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability. (A free bi-weekly newsletter available on the web at http://www.useit.com/alertbox)
Nielsen, J. (Forthcoming). Designing websites with authority: Secrets of an information architect. NY: New Riders Publishing.
Richtel, M. (1998, July 13). Making web sites more ‘usable’ is former Sun Engineer’s goal. The New York Times.
Shum, S. B. (1996). The missing link: Hypermedia usability research & the Web. http://kmi.open.ac.uk/~simonb/missing-link/ml-report.html
Spool, J.M., Scanlon, T., Schroeder, W., Snyder, C., & DeAngelo, T. (1997). Web site usability: a designer’s guide. North Andover: MA: User Interface Engineering.
Ben Dean, Ph.D. is a psychologist with a combined clinical and coaching practice in Bethesda, Maryland. He also owns MentorCoach®, a company that trains clinicians who are adding coaching as a practice specialty. He may be reached at 301-986-5688, a href=”mailto:email@example.com” target=”_blank”>firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the web at https://www.mentorcoach.com/.