Web Writers, Post Thyself

When I interview candidates for marketing communications positions, I ask three key questions: Can you juggle many, many assignments? Are you a quick learner? Can you write? (I usually ask the third question more than once. If I see the candidate blink or look askance, I know the ability to put two sentences together may be lacking. Red flags go up.)

Recently, I’ve considered adding a fourth question to the grilling: Can you post your content on a Web site?

Why is it important for marketing communicators to learn simple code? I’ve come around on the topic over the years. For a long time, I believed as long as one could write a decent sentence, someone else could do the posting. Now, I’m not so sure. In an age in which the Web is a critical part of a marketing communicator’s toolbox, a certain amount of HTML knowledge is increasingly important.

For those who cut their teeth on print, bluelines, and color matchprints, don’t panic. Basic HTML isn’t tough. (Getting a printer to make a correction on a blueline without charging an arm and a leg for the privilege is tougher, fellow old-schoolers.)

Many content management programs do coding for you, if you don’t want to learn HTML. Many of these are not 100 percent reliable. It’s often better to learn certain skills the old-fashioned way, just in case automated methods fail. (I tell my son this every time he whines about his “boring” penmanship lessons.)

How hard is it to learn HTML? Much easier than the Russian lessons I took as an undergraduate. You don’t have to spend hours trying to discern when to use the instrumental and dative cases (ahh, Russian 101). I’ve tried to sit through a few tedious HTML courses at my local university. It’s easier to take advantage of tutorials available on the Web. Check out Dave’s Site; Writing HTML (also features lessons in Spanish, Icelandic, and Japanese); and Webmonkey’s HTML Guide. Webmonkey also includes a cheatsheet that’s near and dear to many marketing communicators’ hearts. The University of Michigan’s Internet Public Library even publishes an HTML tutorial for kids. (To save yourself embarrassment, better you learn coding before your 12 year old does.)

What’s nicest about all the tutorials above — and others on the Web — is they reassure those of us not schooled in programming that HTML is quite easy. To quote Webmonkey, “HTML is just a series of tags that are integrated into a text document. They’re a lot like stage directions — silently telling the browser what to do and what props to use.”

Stage directions? Here’s where an English major (who wrote countless papers on Shakespeare) can relate!

What it really boils down to is marketing communicators need to have more than just good writing and editing chops these days. In an age of downsizing and squeezing the last remaining staffers to multitask enough to make their heads spin, it helps to be a Jack or Jill of many trades. In the words of online marketing consultant Matthew Johnson, who wrote after reading one of my columns on copywriting, “Honestly, the future of the copywriter is dependent on knowing basic HTML.” I couldn’t agree more, Matthew. It’s time for us all to learn more skills.

When my mother was growing up, young women were advised, “Learn to type. It’s something to fall back on if all else fails.” Thank goodness the days of the all-female typing pool are long gone. Even the stuffiest execs pound on their own keyboards (and buy their own Starbucks, I’m told).

The updated version of “learn to type” is “learn basic HTML.” A person who can write wonderful Web copy, meet deadlines for multiple assignments, get along with others, and post her own work to the Web is a real find, even in these not-so-sanguine economic times.

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