As a web designer, you’re probably accustomed to obsessing over the layout and visual appearance of your designs. And if you’re like most, a site’s content is something you’d rather not worry about. But being able to identify weak web copy allows you to offer greater value to your client. By spotting major problems and helping him to solve them, you can position yourself as an expert who works with him…rather than as a labourer who works for him.
And if you know some basic principles for identifying and fixing weak copy, you not only increase your value to your clients—you increase your chances of getting them. Your own website will have stronger copy; more likely to persuade prospects to hire you.
So how can you tell if copy is weak? And what can you do about it if it is? Here are five foolproof questions to get you headed in the right direction.
1. Who is it talking about?
Whoever copy is talking about, that’s also who it’s talking to. Why? Because people are largely concerned with one thing: themselves. Thus, if you want to sell a chap on something, you need to talk about him. His problem, which you can solve. His needs, which you can fulfil. His desires, which you can help him achieve.
If your copy only talks about you (or your client), it will only be engaging to you. But if it talks about your prospect first, and then about how you can do something for him, it’s likely to be much more persuasive.
A good rule of thumb is that there should be lots of words like “you” and “your” for at least the first couple of paragraphs—and relatively few words like “I” and “me”.
2. What is it talking about?
Many websites talk about things their prospects just have no interest in. XKCD gives us a recent example. It’s funny because it’s true—but not so funny if you’re in charge of designing sites like that. Not funny at all if your own site is like that.
For example, many web designers talk about their “passion” for web standards (passion? Really?), their ability to produce valid HTML and so on. But do their prospects care about—or even understand—these things? More likely they care about how adhering to web standards produces websites which get more customers, by ranking higher in search engines; and sites which get more conversions, by working across all browsers. If possible, ask your ideal prospects what they care about. Then tailor your message to that.
Remember that you need to not only talk about the benefits you can offer your prospect, but also give him reasons to believe you. Proof is very important in persuading someone that you’re a good, safe choice. The three strongest types of proof are:
- Testimonials. In most instances, nothing is stronger than the words of a satisfied customer. If you’re not sure how to go about getting some good testimonials, check out Sean D’Souza’s article, ‘Six Questions to Ask for Powerful Testimonials’.
- Case studies. A case study is a story of how you helped a client become more successful. Many designers have portfolios which show a lot of their prior work, but with little explanation. Showing fewer examples, but with more explanation, is typically more powerful. (To get started writing case studies, check out Simon Townley’s article on the topic.)
- Articles. Nothing says “I’m an expert” like practical, high-quality articles about your area of expertise. Ideally, pick problems your prospects can relate to, and demonstrate how to solve them. As you give away more and more useful information, people assume you know more and more; and your value increases in their eyes. You don’t have to write often to use this tactic—even just once a month is plenty as long as you’re producing quality content. It’s even better if you can get published on sites which are recognized as authorities in your field (like this one). Whitepapers and free reports are great variants on the basic article.
3. Who is doing the talking?
The strongest copy has a single, clear personality. It’s not written as if a committee were speaking to a general audience. Rather, it sounds as if a single representative were speaking to a particular prospect. Your copy should read exactly as if you were having a conversation with a customer about his needs—about how to solve them.
Sadly, this style of writing is used by few businesses. And in a way, this poses a challenge for freelancers. We feel as if we must sound “professional” and “impressive”—and we think this means using the same style as most corporate websites. Speak like an Oxford professor writing a dissertation. Say “leverage” or “utilise” instead of “use”. But how appealing do you find that language? Oh, you think it sounds pompous and stupid? Damn right it does. So speak naturally instead, like I am right now. Advise your clients to do the same. If they dare, it’ll lift their response rates a lot.
4. How does it start?
You probably already know that your prospect will make a snap decision within a couple of seconds of opening your site: either stay and look, or close and move on. After that, you’ve still got only a few seconds more to persuade him to stick around long enough to be converted.
Although there are obvious design considerations which affect your prospect’s decision, the overriding factor is the headline. It’s the first thing your prospect usually reads—and what it says decides whether he’ll continue into the copy or not. So it goes without saying that the headline should be as compelling as possible. Yet many designers settle for big friendly welcomes that really don’t speak to a prospect’s needs or desires.
How do you tell whether a headline is good—without being a copywriting expert, and without just relying on your own (possibly unreliable) intuition? There are four simple questions you can ask. If the answer is “no” to one or more, the headline is weaker than it should be:
- Is it useful? Does it offer or imply a clear benefit for your ideal prospect (not some other guy) if he keeps reading? Does it speak to the issue which is foremost in his mind—the issue he came to your site to solve? Headlines which start with “how to” or “why” are usually very successful, because they imply that the copy will be useful.
For example, the headline Why most new websites fail will probably be very interesting to someone thinking of building a new website. He wants to succeed—so he really wants to know how to avoid being one of the “most” who fail! But we can make it even stronger by adding more usefulness: Why most new websites fail…and how to ensure yours doesn’t.
- Is it urgent? Does it get your prospect wanting to read on by appealing to his self-interest? Does it suggest some kind of undesirable outcome if he doesn’t immediately read what you have to say? Or some kind of desirable outcome if he does?
Urgency often comes naturally with usefulness—but you can increase it by trying to find the strongest way of saying what you want to say. For example, our headline can be made to sound more urgent by adding a bit of visual imagery: Why most new websites go belly up…and how to keep yours afloat. Check out thesaurus.com if you’re stuck. That’s what I do.
- Is it ultra-specific? Specificity increases both the credibility and the curiosity factor of a headline. Like, a lot. Watch what happens when we add some specificity to our imaginary headline: Why 78% of new websites go belly-up…and how to keep yours afloat.
That figure is pretty intriguing, right? “Most” could mean a lot of things…and we suspect it’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. But 78%? That’s clearly a figure based on some kind of research. A study must have been performed to find it out. We’re a lot more inclined to believe it straight up. Plus, it’s pretty high! Not only do we really want to know why so many websites fail, but we also realize that the odds are against us if we don’t read the copy.
But wait—there’s more! Specificity stacks: we can add more in to get even more credibility and curiosity. Like this: Why 78% of new websites go belly up within 18 months…and three simple steps to keep yours afloat. (Notice how I also added to the usefulness factor by specifying “simple steps”.)
- Is it unique? It doesn’t matter how useful, urgent or ultra-specific a headline is…if it’s not saying something your prospect hasn’t heard before. For example, if it’s common knowledge that 78% of websites fail within the first 18 months, our headline is never going to make much impact. Even worse if everyone knows the three steps to take to avoid this. (By the way, this is all totally fictitious—I don’t think 78% of websites fail, and I don’t know three ways to avoid it!) So make sure you have a unique angle. Be sure you know what your competitors are saying—so you can say something different.
If you’re interested in learning more about writing magnetic headlines, check out Brian Clark’s excellent tutorial series on Copyblogger.
5. How does it end?
Sandy Blum said,
Take a great beginning and a great ending…and put them as close together as possible! You now know what a great beginning looks like—so what makes a great ending?
It’s pretty simple really. Once you’ve drawn your prospect in, talked about his problems, and proved how you can solve them, you need to make an offer. Tell him exactly what you’d like to do for him—and what he has to do to accept. Generally, this means encouraging him to contact you. In doing this, make sure you stick to three vital rules for getting good conversion rates:
- Make it clear. Now that your prospect is convinced he wants the amazing benefit of your services which he’s just learned about, you need to be sure there’s absolutely no doubt in his mind as to how to make it happen. Make a strong offer, and issue a clear call to action. Make sure the CTA starts with a verb (an action); make sure it encourages him not to delay; and make sure it uses language he is expecting. The old classic, Click here to contact me now, is still hard to beat in terms of raw conversion rates.
- Make it easy. Surprisingly, a lot of businesses (including web designers) still only offer their phone numbers and email addresses on their websites. You definitely need to include those, because some prospects will want to use them. But an inline contact form makes it far easier for a prospect to convert. It also encourages immediate action; thus pushing conversion rates up. Be sure to only ask for information you absolutely need, though. People are very disinclined to fill in forms that ask for information that’s obviously not necessary.
- Make it a no-brainer. Your prospects are way more likely to convert if they literally cannot lose. Even more so if they get an obligation-free benefit. Strong guarantees, free gifts and the like will always increase conversion rates. Few designers offer any kind of guarantee—possibly because they don’t want to get taken advantage of. But it’s definitely worth considering. Similarly, although many designers offer free initial consultations (it’s hard not to as part of the sales process), few of them position this as a unique benefit. Rather than talking about a free initial consultation, why not take your existing evaluation process and turn it into a checklist—then offer a free site audit worth $97 or similar?
This is by no means the final word on spotting (and writing) strong copy. It’s just an introduction to some of the basics. But it should give you sound principles to rely on—principles you can use to add extra value to your services, and extra oomph to your own website. And hey, if that works out for you, there’s plenty more to learn. I’ll be following the comments here, so feel free to ask questions—or check out my website for a lot more information on writing better and more persuasive copy.
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