A recent project for a higher education client led me to research their competitors to see what they were doing well and not doing so well. My research led to writing a framework for best-practice content design and copywriting in the higher education space.

As I compiled the report, it struck me that many of the things higher education providers were not doing well apply beyond the higher ed space. They might equally apply to your site or your client’s.  

Here’s my list of 10 things to check to make sure a website is not committing a web crime and driving users away.

1. Targeting no one and everyone

This is usually a symptom of a bigger branding issue. It’s not a quick 5-minute fix-it job.

But if you have a client with a website that is taking the spray and hope it sticks approach, it would be worth having a chat about their bigger branding woes and doing the work to nail their target audience.

Some higher ed providers were using the same space to sell an MBA in leadership as a childcare qualification.

Being able to communicate to a specific audience makes copy so much more engaging and relevant. It also helps from an SEO perspective—being the squeaky wheel that gets the Google grease.

Some businesses are afraid that defining an audience will then exclude everyone else and that this means lost sales. But in reality, ‘everyone else’ represents the non-buyers, anyway. Instead, a business is possibly failing to convert those in their target market by not directly speaking to them.

Or perhaps your client started with one vision but after launching, they’ve modified their offering and figured out who their audience actually is. But they’ve not yet reflected this change in their copy.

I’m putting my hand up as guilty of this web crime. This website needs a copy overhaul, key message tailoring and a restructure to better communicate my services to my target audience. I’ll get onto that during my next project lull. Pinky swear!  

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2. Being generic

When competitors all offer the same benefits, how do you get a site to stand out?

Being generic is also usually another symptom of failing to define a clear target audience.

With the higher ed sites, some of them offered the same benefits—like being able to study online and not have to sit exams. And these are important benefits. But if that’s all you’ve got, how do you separate yourself from 100s of other providers?

To engage an audience, you need to show them what’s different and what value you bring that others don’t.

For copywriters, we all write words. But what makes us different? Is it who we write for? Is it our style? The types of copywriting we niche in?

For a higher ed provider, it could be unique student support, graduate placement opportunities, or the chance to work on projects with their highly coveted industry partners.

Whatever that point of difference is, shout it loud or the website will sound like everyone else’s.

3. Failing to provide key information upfront

This one is easy to fix… if you know your target audience well.

When working on the research part of a project, I love trawling through call centre data or talking to call centre staff. They know what key information people want or are not finding — that’s why people contact the call centre).

For my higher ed client, it was a matter of taking the buried information about tuition fees, course duration and study modes and putting that information at the top of the page. It seems like a no-brainer, but so many of their competitors weren’t doing this and those that did, structured their information well.

Is there key information you need to put front and centre on a certain page? Looking through your audience lens, you’ll have a different perspective of what information needs to be most prominent. And it’s almost never what the client thinks needs to be most prominent.

4. Show vs tell

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, you’ll no doubt be familiar with this concept. We need to convey information and emotion by showing our reader what our characters are thinking and feeling, not telling the user what they’re thinking, feeling and experiencing.

For example:

Sandra felt nervous before she forcefully opened the door to a room full of howling zombies.

Vs

Sandra’s hand hovered over the door handle. She took a deep breath and grabbed the handle, pulling it towards her with such force the windows rattled and zombies howled.    

I got my zombie reference in! 🧟‍♀️ Yay!

The same concept applies to sales copy.

Don’t tell users how wonderful your product or service is, show them. You can do this by:

  • framing the benefits for the user rather than focusing on the features
  • including testimonials from real customers who used and enjoy the product or service
  • switching adjectives for action-oriented verbs that describe the outcome

5. Adding a strong call to action

This is easy to fix. If your client’s page doesn’t offer a strong call to action (CTA), they’re missing a chance to guide a customer to do what you want them to do.

CTAs come in many forms and could be to subscribe to a newsletter, download a thing, read a related page, buy something or even share something.

I was surprised by how many higher ed providers didn’t offer a clear CTA on their course pages. You’d think they’d want people to either apply or contact the university about the course.  

Look at your client’s key pages and make sure they have a strong and obvious CTA.

6. Hiding core information in a PDF download

I’m not talking about freebie opt-ins here—the PDFs you package and swap for an email address. Some of you might have ended up on my mailing list by downloading my epic ‘Better blogging template’.

I’m talking about hiding the core information a user needs to decide whether to buy a product or service.

So many of the higher education providers hid course details behind a sign-up form, like what subjects you’d study and what your learning outcomes would be.

I get why they do it—they want to talk directly to people, as that typically has a higher conversion rate. But how many people returning to Google to find the course they want with all those details provided?

7. Using unfamiliar Jargon

Do you know what CRICOS means? Or OLS? Probably not.

But higher ed providers don’t seem to realise that. They insert that jargon without saying something like:

  • This is a CRICOS course, so we can enrol eligible international students.
  • Our Online Learning System (OLS) …

Check that your client isn’t using jargon or acronyms their target audience doesn’t know.

8. Fluffing text with marketing waffle

This one ties in closely with show vs tell. Sites that fluff out their copy with waffle turn off users. People scan web pages. Slabs of text that don’t actually say very much but are full of colourful platitudes.

Is there a better way to communicate what you want to say?

  • Would a short bullet list work better over slabs of text?
  • Will icons and other visual elements support the design and communicate what you want to say?
  • Will a CTA button work better than just a link?

These are all things we can test and refine.

9. Burying key content in video only

It’s great that sites are incorporating more and more video into their site as this is a popular way for users to consume content. But I was surprised to watch several videos on different higher ed provider websites where the key benefits and other bits of critical information were in the video but not covered elsewhere on the site—particularly home pages.

I would never assume that users watch the video and certainly not all the way through.

So, I advised my higher ed client to ensure their videos do not hoard the key messages that should be strong and clear throughout their content.

People don’t consume content in a linear way. And they don’t consume every piece and type of content on a page.

Check your client’s videos to make sure they’ve not buried the gold that would sell the course in the video only.

10. Lacking social proof

One of the best ways to sell a product or service is via word of mouth. Get others to sell it for you.

When it comes to selling via a website, testimonials go a long way to convincing others that this will be the right purchase for them. Good testimonials can counter common objections and provide social proof that this is a good product or service.

I was surprised to see many of the higher ed providers I visited didn’t include testimonials. Or they included generic testimonials that you could have written about any course. Specificity is important. Website visitors don’t care to read a testimonial about a student studying childcare when they’re on an MBA course page.

If your client isn’t already gathering testimonials, encourage them to build this into their process so they can build social proof.

Over to you—can you think of other common web crimes people regularly make? Let me know in the comments below.

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