A lot of web copy is written by copywriters who aren’t trained in writing for the web—and much of the rest is written by people who aren’t trained writers at all. If you’re a designer who can consult intelligently on basic copy improvements, you can gain a substantial business advantage. This article is designed to help you do just that.
To sell or not to sell?
If a client asks you for copy input, your first task is to decide on the function of each section of the copy. Is it to improve navigation of the site? Or is it to sell the company’s products or services?
If the copy is a signpost to content located elsewhere on the site, it should be stripped down to short descriptions and links, summarizing the essence of what’s on offer and allowing visitors to access what they require fast.
If the copy aims to sell, it should “talk” to the individual visitor, and motivate the visitor to continue to the next stage of the buying process—be it a direct sale, an enquiry, a consultation, or a free trial.
The art of selling online
Persuasive, benefit-driven copy is essential when selling any product or service, offline and online. But the traditional direct approach to advertising (“here’s the product, this is why you should buy it”) is not geared to online selling. Website visitors expect to choose their own route to the information most relevant to them when they evaluate a product.
That’s why websites that sell products work best when they marry sales-inducing copy with an element of choice. The 37 Signals website is a good example of this technique—a hard-sell approach, disguised by relinquishing control to the visitor, allowing users to decide how to engage with the site.
But even when the sales message of a site is softened, persuasive copy is essential for holding the visitor’s interest, eliciting desire to buy the product, and encouraging the visitor to take some kind of action.
Writing headlines that sell
Headlines provide busy visitors with an immediate measure of your site’s relevance and can also help designers unify a website’s look with its voice.
A good headline will seduce site visitors. It should grab their attention and convince them the information on the page is worth investigating.
Below is a selection of conventional techniques for writing headlines. Use them as idea-starters if your clients’ website copy fails to inspire your design—or if your client specifically asks you to suggest basic improvements to the copy.
Website visitors are looking for information fast. The best headlines for the web immediately communicate facts. If you can feed site visitors’ hunger for knowledge, you will be rewarded with more hits.
Use “How To” phrases
People often go online for quick, easy guidance. Headlines like How to…, 10 reasons why…, and 50 top tips for… promise the reader valuable tips, and they help you to highlight the key benefits.
Use a quote
It’s not easy to gain the trust of site visitors, especially when you have only three seconds to communicate your authority. That’s why messages of endorsement can make good headlines. Testimonials from respected people allow you to do that.
Lead with popularity
You can gain people’s trust by saying how many other people have benefited from the product or service.
Guarantee the product
A guarantee dissolves any skepticism people may have about the reliability of the product. Guarantees can be based around customer satisfaction, results, quality, durability, strength, fixed price promises, a commitment on behalf of the company, and lowest price claims.
Give a direct command
Commands speak directly to people and help you go straight to key benefits.
Create a need—then show how the product fulfills it
A proven way to position a product is to show how it solves a need or a problem.
Ask a tantalizing question
By asking site visitors a direct question, you are creating a need for the information on the page. You are also engaging them at a personal level, so the message is more direct, arousing curiosity and drawing wandering eyes into the body copy.
Focus on the product’s unique selling point (USP)
A USP can be a fact about the product (such as sales history, brand reputation, or product origination)…
…It can be a product feature (something the product has that no other product has)…
…Or a USP can be a benefit (something a product does that no other product does)…
Announce something new
The word “new” is one of the most powerful words in advertising. Sometimes the most effective message is simply to announce the product’s newness.
Announce some news
You could use the format of a newspaper headline to make the copy seem more immediate. “Newsy” headlines are effective if the body copy relates interesting research, if the copy release coincides with a timely news story that relates to the message—or if the market has been waiting for the information on the website.
Announce how much and where to buy
If the product is particularly good value for money, you can’t go wrong with “the three Ps”: show the Product, show the Price, and show where to Purchase.
Just state the offer
People are always looking for a bargain, which is why the word ‘Free’ is another powerful word in the advertiser’s lexicon. If you have a good offer to tell people about, lead with it.
Put the product to the test
You can “test” the product to highlight its key features such as convenience, strength, versatility—or to show how the product compares with the competition.
Use a case study
Case studies prove validity by showing how people have already benefited from the product in the past. They are particularly useful for highlighting success stories, before-and-afters, or for demonstrating the versatility and universality of the product.
Start a story
You can present a section of copy as you would a story. Stories always grab attention because they appeal to our natural desire to be entertained or informed. Tip: End your headline with an element of suspense, encouraging visitors to continue reading the body copy.
Headlines that reveal a trade secret or confront a taboo can make the website look refreshingly honest—and therefore never fail to grab attention. Warning: this only works if your target audience welcomes the information, consciously or unconsciously.
The most controversial websites and blogs are often the most popular. That’s because people like subversive news. If you can install contentiousness into your headlines (without being offensive), you can guarantee site visitors will carry on reading.
Take an original point-of-view
You don’t have to write in the third person. Your headlines can mimic the voice of anyone or anything that benefits from the audience using the website’s product or service.
Headlines that play on words can make a website memorable. Make sure the pun reinforces the message so it works on more than one level—as a clever idea and as a sales pitch.
Really clever headlines incorporate an element of surprise; setting up an expectation, and presenting the message in a way that breaks it.
Associate the product with a connected idea, feeling, or emotion
Metaphor is commonly used in consumer advertising, corporate-identity, and brand-building collateral. It can be particularly effective in activating an archetype that connects an emotion with the brand.
Bonus pointers: body copy
There may be times when you need to revise body copy as well as headlines. Where do you start?
First, evaluate the existing copy by asking the following questions:
- Does the copy get to the point quickly?
- Is the copy shy about the offer or incentive?
- Is it easy to respond to?
- Does the copy overcome every objection to replying, leaving the reader with no choice but to act?
- Does the copy use simple words?
- Does the copy use active language (does it address the site visitor as ‘you’)?
- Is the copy broken down into simple sections and bullet points?
Next, revise the copy based on your answers. Here are a few simple guidelines to get you started:
Make the text really simple
People read 25% slower on screen, so keep your sentences and paragraphs ultra-short. Highlight keywords to make the messages jump out. If the website is offering something, make sure the offer is simple and transparent—and be clear about what you are asking people to do if a response is needed.
Put important messages before the fold
Anything that appears “above the fold” is immediately visible when the web page loads. Site visitors will use this information to make an instant decision as to whether the site is useful to them—they will only scroll down if you have successfully grabbed their attention and aroused enough interest in the product. Do this by being upfront with your offer and product benefits.
People are online to save time, so respect it
Website visitors are restless. They spend more time scanning and clicking than reading, and they expect quick progress once they have decided to make an order. Your copy should:
- Shout the offer—most people are looking for something free, first, or forbidden.
- Be specific—the first five words must have meaning.
- Make the news stand out—don’t bury your message.
- Signal where to go—make the actions visually clear, ensure the click-through paths follow a logical sequence, make sure visitors can go straight to the key information, and above all, don’t ever ask your reader to think!
Speak to the individual, not the audience
Try to personalize your web copy as much as possible. Build a picture of your readers. Are they likely to be familiar with the product on offer? Are they likely to be regular internet users? Are they in regular communication with your client’s company? If any of your answers are “yes,” integrate that knowledge into your copy to make your reader feel more connected and understood.
If you don’t know the answers, give visitors a choice of avenues so they can access more targeted information. (You might include things like links to detailed product information, company news updates, and detailed ordering instructions for people who may be unfamiliar with e-commerce conventions.)