Guides in this series
Website copywriting has but one function only. It serves to PERSUADE the visitor to take action by clicking a button.
Every tactic described below is aimed at this one function. Your website, your product, your competitors, the entire industry you work in: all are realigned to focus on this primary goal, of getting further engagement from your visitor and converting them to a customer.
Copywriting is thus not to be confused with explanatory writing, or content writing. This article, for instance, is content writing. It engages in full descriptions and explanations without any direct aim of persuading the reader to take action. It fulfils a different function on the web, that of informing and discussing rather than selling.
Copywriting is also not to be confused with copyrighting, which serves as legal control of an idea, and could be described as a form of patent.
Copywriting for effective websites is all about how to persuade visitors to click. However, before this becomes relevant there is the task of getting visitors to visit the site in the first place. To do this requires making sure your site is carrying the keywords visitors will type into a search engine like Google to look for the kind of product or service you offer.
To get this right requires preliminary keyword research. This research will enable your copywriting to be optimised for searches. In other words, you will be doing SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) for your site.
Keyword research for SEO copywriting
Keyword research is how you find the best keywords to optimise your site for being found by visitors on Google looking for a service like yours. This is a complex task that requires a dedicated explanation. A full how-to can be found in our article on how to do keyword research.
For a deeper technical overview of how SEO works, read our DIY guide to SEO.
How to persuade
The science of copywriting is a breakdown of the Art of Persuasion perfected by advertisers and marketers during the last two hundred years. This vast body of experimentation offers one universal finding, which is that what works best is to engage emotions and persuade via the heart, rather than supplying only facts and using logic.
After a couple of centuries since the invention of advertising, people are used to having marketers make up their minds for them. From small ads in the local newspaper to lavish television ads for Mercedes Benz, advertising is a trillion dollar industry in which copywriting plays a central role
The development of the internet has generated a new role for copywriting, called ‘inbound marketing’. Traditional advertising can be described as ‘outbound marketing’ in that it announces products in public spaces to general consumers who may see the advertisement in passing. Places like highway billboards, sides of buildings, lamp posts, shopfronts and park benches are sites for traditional advertising.
A slightly more niche form of this outbound advertising is product placement in movies, or television commercials. These advertisements are crafted to particular audiences who flock towards particular movies or television shows. Advertisers are aware that fans of blockbuster action movies have different tastes to fans of arthouse movies. Likewise, television commercials change visible depending on whether they are pitched at daytime, family time or late night viewing.
Traditional outbound marketing differs markedly from inbound marketing, putting a whole new spin on copywriting for the web. Compared with niche viewers of television commercials, an even more niche visitor self-selects themselves by typing keyword into a search engine. This visitor is not a casual passer-by. They have decided what they want and they are going online to get it. You need to let them know immediately if they have come to the right place.
At any time, your competitors are just one click away. Therefore, you need to do everything in your power to keep their attention while you have it.
Get to know your audience
To really persuade someone, you need to press their emotional buttons. To do this, you need to know what those buttons are. By far the majority of the work of copyrighting is finding out who you are targeting.
Take time over this phase and do it carefully. Getting to know your customers and what they want from you forms the substrate of every word you will write. This will help you reach them at a level that is both engaging and comfortable for them. Web copy is all about them and who they are. Whatever you offer can only be sold to them once they, not you, are satisfied that they have come to the right place.
Engage with your client or, if it is your own website, yourself, and formulate answers to as many of the following questions as realistically as you can. This should enable you to form a typecast of your most desired customer, so that you can write copy with them in mind.
- What might be their name?
- What do they look like?
- What age, what social background?
- What do they aspire to?
- How would they like to be seen by others?
- What do they think they need?
- What do their friends think they need?
- What are their priorities in life?
- Who do they admire?
- Who do they envy?
- Who do they loathe?
- How much money do they have?
- What do they usually spend money on?
- What would they refuse to spend money on?
- Are they part of a large local community or are they loners?
- How would you describe their perceived community?
- What language or dialect do they speak?
- What are common features of their daily speech?
Having found as many answers as you can to the above questions, start brainstorming your copy. Write and rewrite your messages with your ideal customer in mind. As the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Keep working until your copy is reflecting their style, and not your own. The site should reflect their comfort zones and anxieties, not yours. This is like character-acting in the movies. Your own character should fade into insignificance and theirs should take up the central focus.
It’s not about you, it’s about your visitor
Instead of becoming caught up in original ways to describe your own genius, remember that the visitor doesn’t care about you. They care about their own needs, and only want to know if you can meet them. This makes copywriting much less stressful than purely creative writing, and produces results that are cleaner, more effective and less cheesy.
Even if your product is a brilliant game-changer, it is not important to the reader that it may be the first of its kind. What is important is their needs. Tell them how much time it will save, how much effort it will save, how it will make their life easier. Quantify the difference it will make, using statistics if you can.
Strategies for persuasion
Over the couple of centuries that marketing has existed, various theories have developed about what the best tactical approaches are for persuasion. Here are a few handy acronyms that have been assembled over time. Under each acronym, the words it stands for are listed and briefly described.
Note the narrower focus of the web-copy standard, AIDA, compared with SSS, which describes a typical story arc of feature films. The wide disparity of uses for these strategies should help you understand the vastness of this field, which encompasses the entire of Capitalist culture and beyond, into the past and into other economic systems. From Shakespeare to CNN, from history to health-warnings, it is almost impossible to find any form of public entertainment, news or discussion that is not working to overtly or covertly persuade us to subscribe to particular politics and pleasures.
This should tell us that our visitors are not naive. They have been subjected to persuasion their entire lives, and arrive at your website carrying the cumulative effects in their heads. This is why understanding what they already know, and what they want to find out, is so important. This makes copywriting a challenging skill to do well.
This is the best known, most universally successful strategy for web copy.
- Attention “Get their attention.”
- Interest “Get them interested.”
- Desire “Describe how they will feel when they get what they desire.”
- Action “Tell them exactly what to do next. Click the CALL TO ACTION button.”
- Feel “I know how you feel.”
- Felt “I’ve felt the same way.”
- Found “I found this solution that worked for me. Click the button.”
- Problem “Describe their existing problem.”
- Agitate “Step up dire predictions relating to their problem.”
- Solution “Solve the problem for them. Click the button.”
This strategy is a bit like movie script writing in that it involves a story arc.
- Star “We are introduced to the main character and what they need.”
- Story “This is the story of all the challenges they faced getting their need met.”
- Solution “To get their need met, click the button.”
Create tension by describing an information gap between what they know and what they want to know. Keep them waiting for release. Keep them curious as long as possible and satisfy them later. A famous example of this is the curiosity piqued about the public display of the next product from Apple.
This means the ‘Rule of Threes’ as it occurs in writing and storytelling. This is epitomised in tales that events occur in threes. For instance there is the notion of “third time lucky” where the third time something happens is the time that a solution will come. This is implied when we invoke this rule in writing.
This is a strategy for getting attention by breaking an expected pattern. An example would be to start out with “You are usually wrong about this.”
Eject them to a surprising place somewhat out of their comfort zone by telling them something they, as a seasoned target of marketing strategies, are not used to reading.
Low concentration span skimmers and scrollers
Say what you want to say in less words than you would use offline. Web users are notoriously jaded and have a particular focus in mind. Make it easy for them to scan your copy quickly, so that they can be sure whether they want what you are offering.
Here are some tips for drawing in the skimmers and scrollers.
- Be concise and clear.
- Keep your paragraphs short and your sentences shorter.
- Sum up paragraphs in subheadings.
- Bold text to draw the eye towards crucial phrases.
- Where possible, info boxes or bulleted lists instead of longwinded descriptions.
How to write your tagline or heading
The main heading is the hardest part of any website copywriting. 90% of visitors will click away to another site after seeing this heading, as most are lazy readers who will skim, scan or scroll rather than read all your copy. So your headline must grab their attention with a minimum of well-chosen words.
The pressure to write an attention-grabbing headline often results in copywriters trying to be too clever and coming up with incomprehensible nonsense. To avoid this, it is worth discussing what the visitor needs from the heading.The visitor is trying to meet their own needs and doesn’t care how clever you are. They are thinking “What’s in it for me?” and “How can I get my needs met with the least hassle?” They need to know exactly what the site offers, so they know if they have come to the right place.
Some tips for headings
- Be clear rather than creative.
- Use statistics where possible (“80% of homeowners use this.”)
How to write your subheading
The subheading expands and explains the main heading, but this is not all. The subheading should also suggest why the visitor should choose you over competitors, as well as explain what benefits can be expected from using your product.
The CALL TO ACTION button
Persuading a visitor to click this button is the aim of all other copy. You can imagine, therefore, that the words on the button itself are crucial. The word on this button need to be part of your motivating strategy, not a letdown. Use positive, affirming words that inspire action like “Get in touch”. Avoid negative, boring or undermining words like “Click” or “Submit.”
Create all the trust you can
The deepest and most lasting trust is created from testimonials of previous customers who have bought your product or service. Many successful sites have testimonials right up on the home page. They also have Google star ratings which plummet with negative reviews. Other means of creating trust are demonstrating (often with video footage) how well your product works, and demonstrating that your products are superior to those sold by your competitors.
Our theme of reason over hyperbole also applies to testimonials. Most potential customers shop around and read reviews before buying a product. So, your review needs to inform at a suitable level.
Saying that your product is a great time-saver, and that they love you, doesn’t help the customer make a choice. What helps them is tangible information, like that your product saves them about 10 hours per week. This quantified information is best followed up by a real name, job description and photograph. A testimonial signed only “A. Smith” does not carry weight.
If pertinent, show video footage of your product doing a great job. Make sure the footage looks professional. It must be well lit and edited.
Explain why your visitor should choose you over the competition
Your competitors are just one click away, so you need to be convincing. The following examples won’t all apply to any single service, but they comprise an easy checklist to make sure you have mentioned every aspect of what makes your product special.
- superior technology (in other words faster, better and more reliable)
- superior experience (track record of supplying, installing, advising)
- quality customer support
- speedier results
- anything that comes for free (advice, add-ons, shipping)
- lower cost, better return on investment
- money-back guarantee
- higher quality, less hassle fixing it, lasts longer
- wider range to choose from
- more accessible (longer hours, easier)
A winning layout formula
Copywriting is such a crucial element of sales in general and web sales in particular, that in its short history formulae have already arisen about how best to place it within a web layout.
Landing page copy
Within 5 seconds of landing on your website, a visitor should know if they’re at the right place and if they are, click the button. Thus, your landing page, or home page, should have:
- Call-to-Action button
‘Below the fold’ of the home page
If the visitor needs further convincing, they will scroll down the home page.
The phrase ‘below the fold’ refers to what is below the landing area of your home page. This phrase comes from old broadsheet newspaper tradition, where the paper was sold folded in half and the main headline was ‘above the fold’ followed by content below.
Below the fold, your copy should present an argument aimed at persuading the visitor to click on the button, which appears again at the conclusion of your argument. Here is where you use the tips and tricks of persuasion beyond heading, subheading and button. This is where you tell a longer story and engage stronger emotional response.
Make every effort to ensure this content satisfies “scanners and scrollers” who are the majority of your readers. Paragraphs need to be short and succinct, and announced by clear, forthright subheadings. Reading the subheading alone should give scanners an idea of your argument, enticing them to read more closely.
Keep your visitor’s eye busy and entertained by using layout tools. These include
- Shifting the position of text columns across the page
- Information boxes.
- Bulleted lists
- Frequent subheadings
- Changes in colour, font etc.
- Illustrations, including both decorative and informing.
Once one has the hang of what all these tips are aimed at, they are easy to remember as they all reinforce one-another. The central aim of all of this is to use your copy to persuade visitors to your site to click your call-to-action button, and thus convert to customers.
In a consumer-driven culture like ours the ubiquity of persuasive copy is dizzyingly universal, it is easy to be distracted by bright splashy advertising seen all around us and forget what we are really doing here. These time-tested tips and tricks should help us regain focus and concentrate on what we need to achieve.
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