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Field Notes

Creating Accessible Content for Nonprofits: 4 Ways to Engage Audiences With Complex Issues

Recently, the reDirect Foundation partnered with Constructive to develop their brand strategy and messaging platform, and then translate this work by creating content for a website that they were having created. reDirect is an unusual capacity-building foundation, in that they take 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 nature of their work and framework they created to advance that work is riddled with jargon. And while their message may resonate with expert audiences, when it comes to the broader community of nonprofit professionals that they are trying to engage? Well, not so much.

By the time we finalized their brand messaging, I was confident that we 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.

Since we’ve finalized reDirect’s brand strategy and messaging, I’ve been reflecting on the strategies that our team used—consciously and unconsciously—to help me turn jargon-heavy content into user-friendly content for their website.

1. Collaborate with Designers During Wireframing

In my opinion, the person writing a website’s content needs to be involved to some extent during the wireframing phase. After all, people primarily visit websites for their content. At Constructive, collaboration between strategists and designers is essential to our process. Part of this stems from my personal background as both a designer and a strategist/writer. It’s important for both aspects of a website to be co-created together if we want the result to be holistic and harmonious.

For reDirect, our brand strategy team worked with their web design team 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 getting into the actual website 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 us a head start on writing because we 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, our team had to go deep into heady 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 the digital strategy and wireframing process, 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 us up for success, since there was no real opportunity to provide any more context than was useful. Even still, our team found themselves wasting words trying to explain complex ideas that would be better suited on another page of the site. Only when we stripped back each content block to the essentials, without worrying about the extra fluff, were we 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 Memorable 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. We knew this block needed to demonstrate how exactly reDirect could help nonprofits, which hadn’t yet been mentioned on the homepage. So, we lead with describing the problems nonprofits face that reDirect can help with. But this didn’t feel right. It felt like we were explaining problems to nonprofits who had a much better understanding of them. Plus, it felt like a bit of a downer—a goal of our brand strategy was to be uplifting and inspiring to help nonprofits meet complex organizational and capacity challenges.

One day, we had a revelation. Instead of talking about the problems nonprofits face, we’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 grab audiences’ attention when you lead with positive outcomes. Then you can dig deeper into the true nature of the problems and how to solve them.

4. Use Your Voice

As we were writing website content for various pages on reDirect’s site based on the brand strategy our team had created, we stumbled upon a slightly weird and incredibly helpful strategy—imagining that each page was a mini conversation we were having with someone unfamiliar. How to turn that experience into website content? We read each page to people on our team who weren’t working on the project to see how it resonated. This helped us answer the following questions: What’s the most important information someone should lead with? What context needs to follow? What examples might we provide to illustrate their work? Using this simple communications strategy hack, we 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 us that it’s both possible and essential to develop content 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. And with the four methods outlined above, you’ll be equipped to start making your jargon-heavy content more user-friendly.

About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

Matt believes in servant leadership, working with Constructive’s clients and teams to make sure that we stay focused on what matters, and that both our partnerships and the work we produce meets our shared expectations and the highest standards. With 25 years of experience as a designer, brand strategist, and writer for the social impact sector, Matt helps Constructive’s teams design processes and practices that create brand value for nonprofits and social impact businesses—elevating how mission and purpose are translated into brand-aligned strategy, messaging, and designed experiences.

Matt contributes to the field of nonprofit design, serving on the Leadership Team for the NY chapter of The Communications Network, writing, speaking, mentoring, and conducting workshops. His work has been recognized for excellence by numerous organizations such as The Webbys, Communication Arts, Print Magazine, The Case Awards, Graphic Design USA, The W3 Awards, The Communicator Awards, and others. Matt earned his BA from Sarah Lawrence College in Writing & Visual Studies, and then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.

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