How Persuasive Is Your Website’s Copy? A Simple, Five-Step Checklist

by on 9th August 2010 with 37 Comments

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?

screenshot

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:

  1. 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’.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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”.)

  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Conclusion

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.

Like the article? Be sure to check out the author’s bio page.

Comments & Discussion

37 Comments

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  • http://www.eastdevonit.co.uk Dan

    Great article and very well written. (Funny that)

  • http://blog.rethink-design.com Daniel Winnard

    Fantastic article, great tips which I will be taking on board in my next project.

  • kunle olayinka

    Nice article, love it

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  • http://pollyfolio.com/ Polly

    I love this blog. One more mind-orgasm.

  • http://www.katefosson.com Kate Fosson

    Thanks for the tips! Always love reading your articles :)

  • http://www.imkevintan.com Kevin Tan

    One of the most informative post I’ve read today. These awesome tips will surely help in my coming blog’s copy. Thanks D Bnonn.

  • http://chipps.ca Adrian

    Fantastic article. Most informative and unique post I’ve read in weeks. Definitely checking out your website!

  • Nathan

    Great article. Love the piece on headlines – which apply to so many contexts. As a small design agency owner, however, I disagree with your assertion that a contact form is appropriate or even preferred as a way to make contact. Conversation is vital, and a contact form is too indirect, asynchronous and not presumed to be responded to by people that can make decisions.

  • http://www.onetwofive.co.za Sean

    Great read!

  • http://www.devolute.net Ian

    Thanks, a decent guide for me. As a web developer I am forced to write my own very crap copy and I think these simple rules might make it a little less crap.

  • http://www.music-explained.com/ John Barnes

    This article is spot on, best one I have read for ages.

  • http://www.mikemccready.ca/blog/ Mike McCready

    This is so true. This is a great list. I particularly love the graphic, as I work in a higher education web environment.

  • http://informationhighwayman.com/ D Bnonn Tennant

    Howdy everyone, and thanks for your comments. Nathan, I’d like to address what you said:

    As a small design agency owner, however, I disagree with your assertion that a contact form is appropriate or even preferred as a way to make contact. Conversation is vital, and a contact form is too indirect, asynchronous and not presumed to be responded to by people that can make decisions.

    I can see where you’re coming from. A lot of contact forms do give this impression; they’re generic and you don’t really know where your message is gonna end up.

    But take my advice about contact forms in conjunction with my advice about speaking with a single, clear personality. If you own an agency, there’s no reason you can’t speak directly to prospects on your website. And if it is you speaking, rather than some unidentified “we”, then that will carry over to your contact form as well. For instance, you won’t write, “Fill in this form to contact us.” You will write, “Leave a message right here to contact me immediately” or similar.

    In summary, yes, contact forms can be abused like any other part of your copy—but generally speaking there is a way to make them work strongly for you.

    Kind regards,
    Bnonn

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  • Cay Moore

    Thanks for this article. I am currently working on my website (trying to build it on my own) so these tips and hints will come in very handy.

    Best wishes
    Cay Moore

  • http://darrennegraeff.com Darren Negraeff

    Fantastic advice. Thank you for inspiring me to review our copy today. I must begin while the advice is still fresh in my mind!

  • http://one-step-ahead-parenting.com Billie Carrington

    I just learned about this website in Pam Brossman’s Fast Video Results course. Thanks for such a clear message and the diagram makes the point clearer. I particularly appreciated your response to Nathan about the Contact Form. I had never considered a Contact From from Nathan’s viewpoint and more importantly, how you can customize it to overcome the negative association Nathan (and others) may have with them.

  • http://www.goldendog.com bcotier

    Be interesting to do A/B testing on clicking a link to launch a contact forms compared to launching the visitor’s email application for small businesses such as designers.

    Large businesses the test demonstrates that people prefer the form. Test indicate that there is a feeling that it will be responded to quicker than a generic mail box.

    I personally prefer sending a request via my personal email so that I have a record of the interaction and a follow up email.

    We have done A/B testing on personalizing the contact information with a person’s name instead of info@. The name draws 78% higher response.

    Interesting article.

  • http://informationhighwayman.com/ D Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Bonnie, that’s a good point. But I think you’d also need to analyze the types of messages being sent in order to get meaningful data from the split tests.

    For example, if I’m requesting some kind of service from a website, I would prefer to use an inline form. I feel more confident using the form than emailing, because I know the form has been created for exactly the purpose of requesting what I’m after. On the other hand, if I have a more specialized kind of query, I’ll generally look for an email address to contact someone in person.

    Another thing to consider with email addresses is that a lot of people these days use webmail. Most of them don’t know how to set up their browser to launch their webmail when they click a mailto link—so they have to copy and paste the text in order to email someone. For impulse conversions, an inline form is going to be a lot better for those people.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  • http://www.maheshrajmohan.com Mahesh Raj Mohan

    Excellent advice. Another option is to hire a freelance writer to edit, develop, or rewrite the copy. It goes back to that old business chestnut of “do what you do best and outsource the rest.” A good writer can pay for her/himself by freeing up your time. And you’ll like get exceptional content out of it. :-)

  • http://www.zanmarketing.com Alex

    #2 really strikes home.

  • http://www.gxjansen.com Guido Jansen

    Thanks! Nice read and very useful.

  • http://informationhighwayman.com/ D Bnonn Tennant

    Mahesh, yes, I would definitely advise anyone to hire a good writer rather than try to learn how to write. If you’re a designer and you’re charging your time out at $100 an hour, and it takes you say 20 hours to come to grips with the basics of writing good copy (probably a rather conservative estimate which really assumes you can find a comprehensive and systematic source of good information), you’ve put yourself out a potential $2,000. For that money, you could hire a copywriter to create your core content, and he would do a much better job which would ultimately lead to better lead generation, and so more sales for you.

    But of course, that’s a little outside the scope of the article—and saying this would have seemed rather self-serving.

    Another thing which I don’t see designers doing much of, but which is a really smart move, is forming partnerships with copywriters. Very often, designers and copywriters have exactly the same clients, but they’re providing different services. Designers don’t want to take on writing copy, and copywriters don’t want to take on design work—but often a full web project for a client will require both. So forming partnerships like this benefits both the designer and the copywriter, since they can both theoretically work half as hard on sales, because they’re covering each other’s backs.

  • http://www.maheshrajmohan.com Mahesh Raj Mohan

    Hey Bnonn, those were my thoughts exactly. I’ve had really good partnerships with web designers, and the skill sets seem to dovetail nicely. The covering each other’s backs is one of the best parts! Thanks for the response.

  • http://Www.Laura-Kinoshita.com Laura Kinoshita

    Not only was this post one of the most useful and concise I’ve read (to echo comments above), but even the info in the comments section has been useful, too! Wow! Now that’s rare! Keep up the great work!

  • http://nexus-copywriting.co.uk David

    Some very sound advice in here – particularly because it encourages people to adopt a particular mindset about their web writing rather than just tick-box details.

    My only quibble would be about headlines. I think what you say is sound advice in relation to blog articles but less so for business websites.

    The priority there is to get people to the website in the first place and that’s where SEO is vital. Your page’s main H1 headline must be keyword rich. That involves having your primary keyword as the first or second word, plus keeping the title short so its power is not diluted.

    This isn’t simply for the benefit of search engines, though. If people are searching for goods or services then they are entering those keywords themselves, so when they click through to your business site they’re actively looking to see if this place provides what they’re looking for.

    A short, clear headline with the keywords they’ve used provides reassurance that this site could be helpful and they will read on. You then have the body copy to work on them!

    What I would add as advice for web copy is to remember that most surfers scan pages – their eyes want to move restlessly. So it’s important to keep things brief and break information up with short paragraphs, sub-heads and bullets. Stress the most important points in bold so that it catches those wandering eyes and stops click-aways before the final call to action.

  • http://informationhighwayman.com/ D Bnonn Tennant

    Hey David, that’s good advice. To expand on what you’ve said a little:

    You don’t necessarily have an either/or situation as regards keywords. In fact, what you’re describing sounds more like a masthead, and I’d always recommend that you have one of these on your site as well. It should include your main keyphrases, for both of the reasons you state: SEO, and orienting users.

    However, that’s a site-level header. I’d also recommend using “article-level” headlines. For example, if you check out my own site (click my name at the top of this comment) and look at the code, you’ll see that I have an h1 and h2 element in an hgroup in my site-level header which appears on every page; and I have a different h1 in my article element, which changes per page (I’m using HTML5, and I’d recommend anyone do the same unless they’re going to have JavaScript support issues).

    Also consider that not everyone uses SEO as their main source of qualified leads—so the importance of keywords can vary for people. For freelancers, word of mouth referrals are often far more useful than SEO; especially in an arena like web design, which is so competitive that ranking for any significant keywords is immensely difficult.

    Kind regards,
    Bnonn

  • http://nexus-copywriting.co.uk David

    Hi Bnonn. I didn’t realise you were a copywriter yourself – I stumbled on this design blog and assumed you were an enlightened designer!

    I entirely agree about the either/or question. Indeed that’s one good reason for hiring a copywriter, who’s likely to be pretty good at ‘multi-tasking’ language and making sure it’s attractive to both humans and machines.

    It’s of course also true that SEO is only ever one part of any business’s marketing strategy but I always think it’s worth making it work as hard as possible.

    Where we could debate endlessly, I suspect, is over the masthead question. Personally that wouldn’t be something I would advise for clients because of the SEO dilution for each page. Whilst it wouldn’t necessarily be true for every site, in general a good rule is to optimise each page of a site for different searches. If you then include other, more general material it can undercut the effectiveness of those keywords.

    This would relate in particular to having more than one H1 tag on a page. It’s a debatable area but I’m in the one-per-page camp.

    But that’s the wonderful world of SEO for you, where none of us knows for sure exactly what the likes of Google are looking for anyway! It’s a little like navigating your ship through fog with only a distant, disembodied foghorn to give you a clue.

  • Dale E

    Great article, but one quibble: an Oxford *professor* would be extremely unlikely to write a dissertation; a doctoral student writes a dissertation in order to become a professor.

    And I think it’s a bit unfair that you charge academics with writing inflated, bombastic and ultimately imprecise language: writers in the business world are the main culprits here, not scholars!

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  • http://www.startbusiness-spain.com/ tas

    hi,

    I am doing a new web page for a company, i am tryng to do a very persuasive web page, here u can see the link http://www.startbusiness-spain.com/
    What do you think about? someone can said me or give me some advice for undrstand better?
    thanks a lot

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