Writing for mobile: why just ‘making it shorter’ won’t always work

The way we consume copy is constantly evolving — in the last few years alone, we’ve moved en mass to swap weighty books for slim line Kindles, abandoned the morning papers for constantly updated news websites and substituted print-heavy magazines with image-laden blogs.

The rise of the smartphone has, of course, shifted this evolution up a gear, and I recently went along to Sticky Content‘s ‘Writing for Mobile’ course to get some extra pointers on keeping up.

During the three-hour session, we looked at some stats surrounding mobile browsing and how these can inform our work. By the end of the afternoon, the main theme that had emerged was the importance of remembering that customers often want different things from your website when they’re browsing on their mobile as opposed to desktop.

We primarily browse via our phones when we want to access information instantly (weather, maps, product reviews, price comparison, etc.), or to kill time (social channels, games, videos, etc.). And we all know, if only from our own personal experience, that us mobile browsers are hard to please — quickly distracted and easily frustrated if we can’t immediately find what we’re after.

Our obsession with mobile browsing presents a particularly complex quandary for retailers. While more and more of us are making purchases through our mobile, security fears are still a major barrier (particularly for retailers of higher value goods like large appliances and holiday). It’s no wonder, then, that 90% of us are regularly ‘sequential screening’ — that’s starting an online buying process on your mobile and them finishing it on your desktop. For example, if you’re thinking about getting a new washing machine, you might start looking into your options on your commute home, but you’ll then go on to make your final decision and actual purchase on your laptop as it feels somehow too risky to do the whole thing via your phone.

And, naturally, at different points in this buying process, you’re looking for the retailer’s site to fulfil different functions for you. Let’s use the washing machine example again: when you’re doing your initial research on your mobile, you’ll want to quickly see what it looks like, easily access reviews, and get an overview of the spec. By the time you get to desktop, you’ll want more detailed information, maybe to see ‘zoom in’ pictures taken from a few different angles and, eventually, to be able to make your purchase quickly and easily.

This can equally be the case for non-ecommerce website, too. Mobile visitors to the Transport for Greater Manchester site, for example, are usually looking for ‘on the go’ information, like finding their nearest stop and news about any travel disruptions; desktop users are more likely to use the journey planner or download timetables.

So writing for mobile isn’t just about making copy shorter; it’s about making it as useful as possible to your smartphone user. And that sometimes means that the copy of your mobile site needs to be different — or at least prioritised differently — to that on your desktop site.

Having to create two entirely different sets of copy can seem like an involved (and expensive) job, but there is an especially effective way of creating text that can then be used across multiple devices… Employ some clever copywriting and you can produce content that can easily be carved up into sections to suit the needs of different devices and channels. This specialist skill is, pretty inelegantly, referred to as ‘chunking’.

All in all, the course was yet another reminder that the best way to adapt desktop copy for your mobile site should be a considered part of your strategy, rather than an afterthought. Mobile browsers expect more, demand more, and will be quick to go elsewhere if your website doesn’t provide them with what they need within a few ever-precious seconds of their time.