I recently came across a not for profit website I don’t want to name that had sadly misjudged its audience and its language. I’d be extremely surprised if the website achieves its goals. In my opinion, it was a huge waste of good money. Here’s why I was upset — I’ve changed almost all the details, including the goal of the organisation to protect their identity.
New parents are their audience
The organisation want to reach and educate new parents and encourage them to get their baby vaccinated.
A scary picture isn’t a good look
On the home page is a big photo of a baby, with a vaccination needle about to puncture its arm.
That was the first mistake I think. Cliche as it is, a photo of a smiling, happy baby should produce a more positive response. Baby + needle is likely to create negative feelings.
Neutral and academic text alienates readers
A big heading proclaims ‘infant vaccinations’. That’s very neutral and academic, as is much of the rest of the text on the page. Other phrases on the home page include ‘the process’, ‘baby referred’, and ‘the health professional checks the baby’s…’.
Who are they talking to?
That neutral, academic, health-related language is very alienating. It’s cool, clinical and not at all inviting. Another phrase was ‘Health Services will contact the family’.
If the website was talking ‘to’ parents rather than ‘about’ parents that phrase would be ‘Health Services will contact you’.
Legal warnings are scary
At the bottom of the page is a prominent disclaimer:
Warning: This website and the information it contains is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation with a qualified practitioner.
The ‘legal’ language here is also off-putting. It’s a ‘warning’: stay away! Watch out! Be careful! You can’t trust us! There’s danger here!
Write for your readers
The rest of the text on the website is in the same vein. It’s medical, clinical, cool, alienating. It talks about ‘the baby’s’ health, as though ‘the baby’ is a thing that’s somehow lying around in the environment, disconnected from anything and anyone.
The site seems to have been written by health professionals for health professionals, yet its intended audience is new parents.
Picture your audience
I don’t have expertise in the area of parents of a first baby, but a moment’s reflection suggests they’re likely to be aged between maybe 12 and 50, generally probably in their 20s.
I imagine they’re extremely busy, probably scared, perhaps tired.
On every social scale they will cover the entire range: from poor to rich, brilliant to not too bright, graduates to those who left school the second they could, athletes to people with any disability you can think of, English speakers to those who can barely manage a Hello in English.
Use We and You and words your audience uses
A successful writer will picture who they’re talking to and choose their vocabulary and tone to suit.
The website that provoked me to write this Tip should throw out all its text and start again. It could dramatically improve its effectiveness by using ‘we’ and ‘you’: ‘your baby’, ‘we’ll tell you’.
It should ditch the medical jargon and use the kinds of words ordinary people use to talk about their baby and vaccinations. At least at first.
I don’t mean they have to use ‘baby talk’ — they should talk to their audience as adults — but save the medical jargon for a bit later as a backup to the ‘ordinary’ language.
Talk to your audience, not about them
Does your website talk to your intended audience? Go check it now.
Written by Miraz Jordan for, and reproduced from CommunityNet Aotearoa Panui, October 2011. This article has been modified for publication here.