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How to Write Microcontent for the Web
Headlines, decks, buttons and links help get your word out.
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 by Ann Wylie
President, Wylie Communications Inc.

Ann WylieLittle things mean a lot. Especially online.

Microcontent or the headlines, decks, subheads and other "small" pieces of Web copy actually do most of the communicating on your Website.

Handled poorly, microcontent can confuse and frustrate Web visitors. Here's how to write microcontent to communicate to instead of discombobulating your readers:

What is microcontent?

Microcontent is a Web page's presentation copy. It gives readers an at-a-glance overview of what the page is about. Microcontent includes:

  • Page titles
  • Taglines
  • Indexes, tables of contents
  • Navigation bars, buttons, links
  • Headlines
  • Decks, or the one-sentence summary that follows the headline
  • Subheads
  • Bullets
  • Bold-face lead-ins
  • Highlighted text

Why is microcontent important?

Microcontent helps readers:

Search, find and save. Have you ever received a search result that read as gobbledygook?

Do you have any bookmarks that say: "Welcome to XYZ Corporation?" (Or worse, "Untitled Page"?)

Have you ever tried to figure out which link to click in an index listing "Issue 1, Issue 2, Issue 3"?

If so, you've been a victim of poorly written microcontent.

Microcontent is likely to get picked up, listed and linked. Your page title, for example, will show up in search results and bookmarks. And your headlines may be listed in indexes. That means these elements must be clear regardless of whether the reader sees them within the context of the rest of the Web page.

Choose. Online communication doesn't offer the same kind of visual cues about a story's significance placement, headline and length, for example as print communication does. Instead, online readers must rely primarily on the topic and placement in an index.

That makes the words you choose particularly important.

Scan. Because reading online is so onerous, readers are more likely to scan than read. Good headlines, decks, subheads, bullets and bold-faced lead-ins make it easy for readers to get the gist of the story without reading the text.

What makes good microcontent?

Make your microcontent:

Short. (That's why they call it microcontent!)

Readers need to understand microcontent at a glance. Make it as tight as you can without sacrificing clarity. That means, for instance, limiting headlines to eight words and decks to 14 words.

Explanatory. I love clever, cryptic headlines in print. But they don't work online.

One huge telecomm company's Website features such links as "Openness the road to success" (a conference), "A sign of attitude" (cool phones) and "Change your perspectives" (jobs for IT folks.) If you're writing about conferences, phones and jobs, those words should appear in the microcontent.

The point here is to communicate, not to intrigue. So strive for clarity instead of creativity.

Scannable. Online, readers don't read; they scan. Microcontent should make it easy for readers to get the gist of the page by scanning.

So pass the skim test. Have a colleague read just the microcontent the headlines, decks, subheads, bullets, buttons and links of one of your Web pages. She should be able to understand the key points without reading the text.

Context-free. Can readers understand your headlines and page titles without the text, illustrations and supporting microcontent? If your headline says "On the move," readers might not be able to figure out whether this is a page about employee promotions, a piece on your company's relocation benefits or an article about the new headquarters building.

If they can't understand, chances are, they won't click. Good microcontent is easy to understand no matter where it shows up, in or out of context.

List-ready. Indexes and other lists are often alphabetical, so skip leading articles such as "an" and "the" unless you want your piece to be listed under "A" or "T."

Make the first word a potential search word to help readers scan for what they seek. So instead of "How to manage the approval process," try "Approval process: How to manage the review system."

Also, move company and publication names toward the end of the headline or page title. So "Invest Online . . . at H&R Block," not "H&R Block Online Investing."

(Tip: Check out your organization's index of press releases for a "how not to" example of making lists easy to scan. How does yours stack up?)

Limited. "Pages with too many microcontent elements are like a busy intersection with too many road signs," writes Amy Gahran, editor of

Use this approach, and you'll soon be writing microcontent that communicates instead of discombobulating on the Web.

Write microcontent that gets the word out on the Web.

Want to learn how to write microcontent that communicates to instead of discombobulating your readers? Look for Ann's upcoming teleseminars at

Ann Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers
and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more
about her training, consulting or writing and editing services,
contact her at
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Copyright 2003 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

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