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Field Notes

4 Ways to Make Jargon-Heavy, Nonprofit Content User-Friendly

Over the last six months, we’ve been working with the reDirect Foundation to develop their brand strategy and redesign their website. Don’t let the word “foundation” fool you—unlike a typical foundation, reDirect takes on the roles of funder, consultant, and researcher. Their mission is to share and advance a particular academic framework that helps nonprofits bring out the best in their people by building more supportive environments. If that unique positioning wasn’t challenging enough, they also describe themselves as “pointy-headed academics.” In other words, the framework they promote and their brand messaging were riddled with jargon.

By the time we finalized their brand messaging, I was confident I could tell their story in a clear and compelling way—despite the complexity inherent in their academic work. But as we moved into site design and content development, I quickly remembered that writing for the web is far less forgiving than writing brand messaging. The word counts are shorter and you need to grab peoples’ attention faster. Add in the challenge of turning jargon-heavy, academic content into user-friendly content and, well, yikes.

The challenge of developing user-friendly web content for organizations whose work is inherently academic or otherwise complex is by no means unique to reDirect. And while it’s true that different audiences can handle different levels of complexity depending on their familiarity with the issue, it’s generally best practice to use more simple and engaging language on the main pages of your site.

Now that we finalized reDirect’s content (woot!), I’ve been reflecting on the strategies I used—consciously and unconsciously—to help me turn jargon-heavy content into user-friendly content for the web.

1. Collaborate with designers during wireframing

In my humble (and admittedly biased) opinion, the person writing a website’s content needs to be involved to some extent during the wireframing phase. Websites are just a collection of content, after all! Thankfully, collaboration between strategists and designers is a normal part of Constructive’s process. For reDirect, the design team and I worked together during wireframing to solidify the purpose of each page on the site, what content needed to be there, and what didn’t. Collaborating like this before copywriting was helpful in two ways. First, it ensured every content block on the page was intentional. It was there for a reason, and designed with that reason in mind. Second, it gave me a headstart on copywriting because I understood in advance the purpose of each page in conveying the brand’s narrative and the ways the content blocks needed to work together to convey that message.

TLDR: When copywriters are involved in wireframing, their job becomes easier. Instead of focusing on fitting content within a pre-existing structure, they can focus on what actually matters—writing content that engages and informs audiences about who an organization is and why their work matters.

2. You don’t have to explain everything—right away

When developing brand messaging for reDirect, I had to enmesh myself in academic literature and research to truly understand what they do and why it matters. This level of familiarity can be a blessing and a curse. And when it comes to writing website content for a website’s top-level pages, it’s mostly a curse.

During wireframing, we established reDirect’s homepage as the page that would provide a bold vision of what reDirect’s work helps nonprofits achieve—rather than use it to explain the details of their academic framework. The structure of the page set me up for success, since there was no real opportunity to provide any more context than was useful. Even still, I found myself wasting words trying to explain complex ideas that would be better suited on another page of the site. Only when I stripped back each content block to the essentials, without worrying about the extra fluff, was I able to land on something effective and engaging.

TLDR: Complex issues require a lot of explaining. Resist the temptation to provide too much information on the top-level pages of your site—particularly the homepage—and lead with the most compelling/thought-provoking ideas. That way, audiences become organically interested in engaging with your more complex content.

3. Outcomes are more impactful than challenges or details

This may be the simplest strategy for making complex content more engaging: lead with positive outcomes instead of challenges or wonky details. One of the trickier pieces of content on reDirect’s site for me to write was a block on the homepage labelled “challenges we help solve” in the wires. I knew this block needed to demonstrate how exactly reDirect could help nonprofits, which hadn’t yet been mentioned on the homepage. So I started describing the problems nonprofits face that reDirect can help with. But this didn’t feel right. It felt like I was explaining problems to nonprofits who had a much better understanding of them. Plus, it felt like a downer.

One day, I had a revelation. Instead of talking about the problems nonprofits face, I’d try talking about the outcomes reDirect could help them achieve. A header that read “Preventing burnout” became “Supporting & uplifting staff.” Leading with outcomes is a more aspirational, and optimistic approach. It’s also a better way to engage with audiences, who might be more in touch with their goals for their organization than the problems they’re facing.

TLDR: It’s easier to write engaging, clear content when you lead with positive outcomes.

4. Use your voice

As I was writing (read: wrestling with) content for various pages on reDirect’s site, I stumbled upon a slightly weird and incredibly helpful strategy—imagining that each page was a mini conversation I was having with someone unfamiliar. Yep, this means I sat there and read each page out loud as if I was talking to someone about it. This helped me answer the following questions: What information would I lead with? What context needs to follow? What examples might I provide to illustrate their work?

I found that turning each page into a brief conversation makes content gaps abundantly clear, and helps simplify language choices.

TLDR: Imagining each major website page as a conversation with an unfamiliar person will help simplify your language and structure the information in an organic and useful way.

Final thoughts

At times it can feel like there’s no way to make complex content clear and effective—especially online. But writing content for reDirect’s website reminded me that it’s both possible and essential to develop copy that meets your audiences where they’re at. More times than not, that means presenting clear and engaging copy on the main, top-level pages of your website. In the case of reDirect, doing so was essential to encourage audiences to dive deeper into the more academic content. With the four methods outlined above, you’ll be equipped to start making your jargon-heavy content more user-friendly.

About the Author

Allison Murphy

Allison Murphy

Allison brings a diverse perspective from the government, nonprofit, and social entrepreneurship sectors to her role as a Senior Brand Strategist at Constructive. A passion for writing paired with extensive experience in marketing, social media, events management, and research guide her efforts to lead Constructive’s digital and content marketing strategies, establish and maintain new partnerships, and apply a strategic communications-lens to client engagements. Prior to Constructive, Allison worked at Third Sector Capital Partners in Boston, MA supporting the Communications and Business Development teams. She received her BA in Political Science and International Affairs from Northeastern University.

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