Good content – a logical structure, plain language and effective visuals – helps people to understand information. What might be surprising is that good content can also affect your bottom line.
Content is everything that goes on a website or page: the words, the headings and structure, the photos and diagrams, the graphs and infographics. If all these elements work together, people find what they need and understand the information easily.
But if the content is dense, muddled or confusing, then people may get the wrong message, give up, spend time reading the information again, go to other information sources, or call or visit someone that has the information. This costs the people – and the government or business they are trying to get information from – time, resources and money.
How much money are we talking about?
Studies have quantified the difference that good content can make:
- A study of United States naval officers who read a plain or bureaucratic memo found that officers who read the plain memo had significantly higher comprehension, took 17–23% less time to read it and felt less need to reread it. The study estimated that, if everything the officers had to read in a year was plain, savings in their time would be worth $53–73 million.
- Federal Express rewrote its operations manuals and estimated that the new manuals would save the company $400,000 in the first year, just in the time that employees spend searching for information.
- The US Department of Veterans Affairs tested a new version of a form letter. Before the new version, they received 1,128 calls from 750 letters sent out. With the new version, they received 192 calls. The project coordinator estimated that the savings on this letter alone, if adopted nationwide, would be more than $40,000 a year.
- The Allen-Bradley Company rewrote its computer manuals with the help of writing consultants. When the new manual was released, calls to the company’s phone centre fell from more than 50 a day to only 2 a month.
- In the 1970s, the US Federal Communications Commission employed 5 staff members to answer questions from the public about regulations for CB radios. When they rewrote the regulations, they were able to reassign all 5 staff members.
Websites and online services are now the main way that we interact with government information – United Kingdom (UK) research in 2010 found that 70% of customers preferred to get information from their local authority through websites. That trend has only increased over the years, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research into United States (US) government websites found that there was an 80% increase in website visits from 2019 to 2020.
Importantly, the US research found that improved websites could create significant savings. They found that of the 10 billion visits to government websites annually, 1.2 billion visitors could not complete the task they came to do.
Of the 1.2 billion, 372 million people (31%) called the agency and 216 million people (18%) visited a local office. These calls and visits cost US$9.30 each. Making sure people could find what they needed in the first place would save almost US$5.5 billion each year.
These results echo the UK research, which found that poor websites were costing councils £11 million a month. On average, one-fifth of site visitors could not find the information they needed. Faced with badly designed or poorly written sites, 4.4 million people each month chose to either call their council or visit a council contact centre, at a cost of £2.50 for each call or visit.
How to produce good content
Good content is vital to effective communication, and the research shows that effective communication is important for everyone. Whether you are talking to the public, stakeholders, industry or other government departments, good content is the way to get your message across, engage people and build your reputation.
With any communication product, content isn’t an optional extra. Considering content from the beginning of any project and developing it in step with policy needs, user research and web design will make the whole product much more effective.
Listen to your audience.
Content developers and writers often think about what they need to say, and not what the audience wants to hear. Think about what your audience needs to know and consider their background and the language they will understand. And testing will make all the difference – check the structure, words and visuals with members of your audience and adjust till they all work.
Get the structure right.
Is your website or report set up according to an internal departmental structure or something your audiences will find logical or intuitive? How many times do people need to click or turn a page to find key information? Will they give up before they get there?
Get the words right.
The idea that ‘formal’ or ‘official’ language needs to be wordy and stilted is still common. For governments, shifting to simple language makes your content more relatable to your stakeholders and the public, and helps them understand your message.
The very best writing, whether nonfiction or fiction, speaks directly to us – it isn’t hidden in unnecessary syllables and phrases. If you think of the most memorable phrases from history’s greatest speeches, they are plain and simple: ‘We choose to go to the moon,’ not ‘We select the option that involves the transportation of a team of individuals to Earth’s nearest natural satellite.’
You may need experts to help, especially if you’re dealing with complex content. Content writers and editors can take dense drafts and transform them into clear content.
And don’t forget the proofreading. Making sure you have consistent information on different pages will prevent audience confusion. Poor content can be easily overlooked, for example in the 46 million banknotes with a typo, or mugs which misspelled the name of a world leader. Careful content design and review helps avoid mistakes and save money.
Get the visuals right.
Infographics that engage your audience; graphs that allow people to understand the data at a glance; and designs that support and don’t clash with your message, will all make a difference.
Bring it all together.
For large or complex projects, a content lead can help through every stage and work with policy, user testing, design and web teams to produce the best result.
If you would like to improve your content, help is available:
- Biotext are content experts specialising in complex content, including health and biomedical science, environment and agriculture. We provide content strategy and design, writing, editing, information design, data visualisation and infographics.
- Training courses in Writing and editing complex content, and Fundamentals of data literacy and visualisation are coming up in May and June, with further courses to be scheduled later in the year.
- The Australian manual of style is an online resource that provides practical information on how to engage your audience, and write, edit and show information.