Making your website work

18 May 2022

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It should be clear to Gill Andrews from my enthusiastic (bordering on puppyish) comments on her LinkedIn posts that I’m a fan. Copywriting Conference 2020 amplified Andrews’ fan base, as an audience of writers like me discovered the no-nonsense style of her website advice.

Making your website work – a book that delivers on its extravagant promise

Making your website work: 100 copy and design tweaks for smart business owners is a book that delivers on its promise.

It’s hard to find the time, when you’re a business owner of any size, to build and maintain your website, to keep your online presence competitive. But it’s do or die. 

As Andrews says in her introduction:

Whether you take care of your website yourself or hire people to do it for you, as a smart business owner, you can’t afford not to understand what makes web copy effective, how to spot bad design or what mistakes to avoid in your website structure. Otherwise, you risk spending years wondering why you don’t get enough business through your website, even after you’ve paid others a lot of money to beautify it.

The good news, she says, is that you can learn all you need to know about what makes a website work and what doesn’t from her book.

It’s a bold claim, but I think Andrews has pulled it off, and it’s great to see both the book and its author the accolade they deserve. Because when it comes to identifying and resolving real website problems, Andrews has written a how-to bible.

A practical guide to websites, and so much more besides

Not surprisingly, I read Making your website work as a practical guide, as did other copywriters and designers in my network. It proved indispensable when writing my own website. I pulled out tips on each type of web page – such as the homepage, about and service pages – and stopped my website from tumbling headlong into the pitfalls Andrews identifies.

But there’s so much more to this book than lists of tips and tricks. Rereading it for the purpose of this review brought home to me how skilled Andrews is at expressing ideas, not just bullet-style tips. Because embedded in her checklists are some bigger points that lay down the groundwork needed to write a successful website. 

In tackling the bigger issues of website marketing, Andrews is completely comfortable about taking apart received wisdom. 

According to the golden circle model, value proposition and messaging start with the why, not the what. Simon Sinek, who devised the golden circle, explains that it’s the ‘why’ that will inspire an individual or organisation to take action. So you ‘start with why’ to explain your purpose, why you do what you do. Sinek draws on neuroscience to validate this, arguing that it communicates with the limbic brain to foster crucial feelings such as trust and loyalty, whereas ‘what’ engages only with the neocortex, i.e. the rational part of our brain.

This remains a highly-influential framework. Indeed, messaging guru Diane Wiredu recently referenced it in a Marketing Meetup presentation, How to find the right message.

Why does Andrews take issue with this? Well, because as a starting point, website visitors and prospects need to know what you do, more than anything else. And that’s particularly true in today’s attention economy. They will bounce off your website in seconds flat if they can’t work out the ‘what’.

Along these lines, then, tip #83 advises us, with every web page, to think about prospects asking “What is it?”. She also offers tips #14, “How to discover (and eliminate) self-centred copy on your website”, and #50, “When you should ditch storytelling and get straight to the point”.

Everyone does a bit of ‘why’ storytelling. I know I do on my About page and also on my video. But the last thing you want is for someone to land on your homepage and struggle to see what your products and services are. ‘What?’ comes first.

Less of the one-line paragraph

For my money, Andrews is at her iconoclastic best on #12 when she takes fire at the trend for one-line paragraphs. You must have noticed these; LinkedIn is full of posts that are a long, drawn-out series of one-line paragraphs. To my delight, Andrews parodies such posts here:

“Are you using one-line paragraphs on your website?

Ah these trendy one-liners!

The breath of fresh air.

The cold pack for the eye.

In your face, every English language teacher out there!

I say let’s write in one-line paragraphs only.

Just kidding, of course. Let’s not. Here’s why.”

Andrews proceeds to explain that boredom and visual monotony are the archenemies of the website copywriter. Introduced as a novelty factor to surprise the reader, the one-line paragraph has in fact become the new normal and looped back to the same old monotony. But please, no going back to lengthy, Dickensian-style sentences and paragraphs. It’s all about readability.

Reminders of marketing best practice 

Although happy to go against the flow where needed, Andrews is no contrarian and lends her support to marketing orthodoxies where they still have value. 

On page 12, Andrews recalls a rehearsal for a dance concert when she was at high school, and drew on her ballet past to perform a grand jetee (split jump), which she says, “had the grace of a hippopotamus jumping over a puddle”. Trying to play it cool, she turned to the teacher and said “Awesome, huh?” There was an awkward silence.

That awkwardness comes from making incorrect assumptions about your audience’s feelings and reactions. It’s easily done, especially when trying to empathise with your audience’s problem as a precursor to selling them the solution. But the skill is to achieve that without actually telling them how they feel. 

Andrews suggests a number of ways around this, including the use of credible testimonials, leaving it to your satisfied customers to express the emotions you’re looking for.

A guide that scores high on usability

Making your website work is easily the most practical marketing book I’ve ever read. Not just because it’s full of useful tips, but because of the way the book is organised. It contains 100 tips and uses handy icons to categorise each one. So if you’re a designer, and you want to focus on design considerations, you just look for a big Ⓑ at the top of each tip. 

Andrews divides her tips into these five clear and manageable categories:

In Making your website work, Andrews has really packed in the guidance you need to create a successful website. It’s written in a clear and lively style, just like the high-quality websites that the book promotes.

What author Gill Andrews said in response to this review

Usually, when you ask an author why they wrote their book, they tell you that they wanted to make a difference. Or to express themselves. Or to become famous.

Frankly, I wrote “Making Your Website Work” because I got mad.

Mad about all the superficial website advice on the internet that made creating a functioning website look like it’s a matter of sticking to 7 “how-to” points.

Mad about glorification of a beautiful website—a masterpiece of web design and wordsmithery—as the “must have” for your website to be presentable (not to mention successful).

Mad about the fact that so many business owners with great ideas weren’t seeing their businesses grow just because they didn’t understand what made a good website.

From my experience of reviewing and redoing many websites, I knew that creating a good website is easy. Creating a great website isn’t. But getting 70% there is possible, even if you’re taking care of your website yourself. And often, “70% there” is enough to stand out and make your prospects choose you.

All you need to do is to understand:

You won’t get away with sticking to 7 “how-to” points, of course. But you also won’t have to take an expensive course , read a ton of books, or pay someone a truckload of money to get there.

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