• led by the Digital Experience Team at Renfrewshire Council

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Six simple steps to writing website content for your council service

Designing content is more than just writing information and publishing it online. It’s important to keep in mind the purpose of your content, and where it fits into all the other content that’s online. Not just your page or section of the council website, but all the other millions of pages and websites that are out there.

6 questions to get your content right

If you’re unsure where to start when writing online content, answer these six questions to help you get started:

  • Why?
  • Who?
  • What?
  • How?
  • Where?
  • When?

If you can answer these, you will have your basic framework for structuring and writing your content. Don’t just sit down and start composing text off the top of your head. Web pages for council services are instructions, guides and updates, not novels.

Why are you sharing it?

This is probably the most important question to ask yourself before you write anything. Why are you sharing the information?

Is it something your customers, clients or colleagues need to know or need to do?

Is it a legal requirements?

Or is it something about you, your team or service want to tell people about?

These are not necessarily the same thing. Telling people what you do is not the same helping people find your service, use it or give feedback about it.

Web pages are not dating profiles. How your service works, who does it or what has changed is irrelevant unless it directly affects the people using it or there is a statutory or legal requirement to tell people about it.

Sometimes you *don’t* need to tell people and therefore you don’t need to create any content at all.

A good guide is: if they don’t need to know, you don’t need to tell them.

Who is it for?

If you don’t know who needs to find your information, then you are not writing it for anyone.

There is rarely an instance when it’s for ‘everyone’.

Not everyone pays council tax, not everyone puts out their own bins, not everyone has children that go to the local school. If you think it’s for everyone, then you will muddle your messages.

If there are different groups who need to know different things, then create separate instances of content for them specifically. This can be in the same page and section. Just make sure you label it clearly, for example “if you’re a council tenant, you should…” or “if you have a licenced premise, you need to…”

Your content could be for one or several groups, such as:

  • residents
  • customers or service users
  • parents or carers
  • local businesses
  • clients and partners
  • voters
  • colleagues or peers.

If you can’t define who needs it, you won’t be able to specify what they need to know or what they need to do.

The other reason why it’s important to clarify who your content is for is to make sure that you are seeing it from their perspective. If it’s about a local school for example, then your main audience will be parents and carers and possibly the pupils themselves.

Will a parent or carer waiting at the school gate have the time, patience, and ability to download a 20-page pdf about the school on their mobile? What may be a convenient way for you to create and present your information may not be helpful to the people you are trying to reach.

What do you need to tell people?

This may sound like an obvious question, but it can be a more difficult question to answer than the others.

Web pages don’t need preamble and introductions. State explicitly at the start what the page is for and what people will find there. Use words that people are familiar with or will understand and avoid using official council terms and acronyms. This includes the words you use for the title and description of the page.

Cross reference your page title with other pages on the website. Calling your page ‘feedback’ is not descriptive enough and it’s very likely there are other pages across the site that have ‘feedback’ in the title too.

It can help to write a list of the things you need to tell people about. For example:

  • what goes in your green bin
  • what doesn’t go in your green bin
  • how often the bin is collected
  • what happens if your bin is full
  • what happens if your bin is not emptied
  • how to get help with leaving your bin out
  • how to ask for a new / replacement bin.

This list can then help you begin building your page or section. If it’s not on the list of things people need to know, you don’t need to include it. Leave out ‘nice to know’, historical or background information about the service or process. It doesn’t matter if the list of acceptable items for a green bin changed in 2020, it only matters what I can put in the bin now.

How do they do it?

As well as telling people what they need to know or do, you need to be clear on how they do it.

This means giving clear instructions for each step they need to follow.

They may need to:

  • ask us for something – ask for a home adaptation
  • tell us something – tell us your change of address
  • pay for something – pay your business rates
  • apply for something – apply for a primary 1 school place
  • book something – book a taxi vehicle inspection
  • report something – report a missed bin collection
  • find out something – find out changes to council rents
  • feedback about something – give feedback about proposed new cycle lanes in your neighbourhood.

Your ‘how to do it’ information should also include guidance and options for people who are not online or who do not have the ability or means to interact with your service online.

Do the telephone test – could you explain the steps to someone over the phone? Could they follow your instructions even if they can’t see or use the webpage or access the online application form?

Don’t rely on booklets or images or videos for instructions. If you can’t explain it in simple text, then it’s going to be difficult for your users to follow your instructions.

If you do include other media types besides your webpage content, you will need to include text to accompany them, so you meet the accessibility regulations required by law.

Read the blog article: web accessibility is everywhere and everyone’s responsibility.

Where do they do it?

Your audience may use or find out about your service online, by phone, email or post or face to face. If there is more than one way to use your service, give the details for each way of doing it.

If there is something they need to do where they are, or where they live, tell them how. For example, how to report litter in a park. Be clear when writing your content, what the person can expect at the next step.

Give the next steps, actions, or instructions clear call-to-action names, such as:

  • apply online for a council tax reduction
  • download the licence application form and return it to us at [email / postal address]
  • enter your postcode to check your bin collection day
  • tell us what you think about the new cycle routes
  • speak to the headteacher at your child’s school about additional support.

If the way of doing it changes, it’s your responsibility to update your information where it’s available. This is particularly important during coronavirus restrictions.

When does it apply?

Your customer or service user may not need your service all the time. There may be times of the week, month, or year when your service is not available, not required, or certain conditions apply.

If your service has a deadline or a specific registration window, state this clearly on the page before they proceed to the next step. If they can’t apply at the time, make sure you remove links to online forms or take down printable forms and give guidance on what happens after this date.

For example: “The application window for community grants closed on 31 March 2021. We will consider applications received after this date for the next round of funding in June 2021.”

If your service has set hours, or your team are only available at certain times, let people know.

If the time period has passed, either update the content to say it has finished or remove the content altogether. It is better to remove out of date content rather than leave it online, as this will frustrate your users and make your service look careless and unconcerned.

If you have added content to the website, either by publishing it yourself, or making a request to have it published, it’s your responsibility to keep your information up to date, accurate and relevant.

Our residents, local community and businesses are not coming to our website to browse. They are coming here to do something, get it done and then leave.


Ask yourself why you are adding it to the website, who it’s for and why they need it.

If you can’t identify a user need, then it’s not required.

Explain what it is, what they need to do and where and when they do it.

Make the steps as simple as possible, provide everything they need to do it upfront and tell them what will happen next. Don’t make your user do all the work.

Think about the person reading your web page. They may have never used your service before, or they may only need it once. They might have a disability; they are not comfortable with technology or they don’t speak English as their first language. They may not have the time or means to spend looking for the information they need.

Don’t add irrelevant, nice-to-know, background information that doesn’t help people complete their task.

Every unnecessary piece of content you add, makes it more difficult for people to interact with the council and with our services and teams.

Read this article: To add is expected, to subtract is design by Kim Bellard.

Catherine O'Regan
Catherine joined Renfrewshire Council in August 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. She aims to make online content clear and easy to understand, so everyone can access council information equally.