But in reality, writing good web copy (or any copy) is a process of discovery and thoughtful storytelling, matched by good editing and a willingness to test things out (and fail). So while it’s not a magic bullet, it can be a bit of a magical process—if you approach it from the right mindset!
So that’s where we start, with tip #1, which is a mindset tip. Ready?
(Oh, and if you want to see a larger version of that image, click on it to see it on Pinterest)
¬†#1 Decide your copy is as important as the visuals.
Companies often pour a lot of money into the design, only to leave the copy as an afterthought. Visuals matter—a lot. But so do the words. We’re a visual culture, but we also want great storytelling. Please please please don’t leave it to the designer to just “fill in” the copy. And don’t just give it to the person who sometimes “tackles” marketing tasks either (unless writing really is their brilliance).
As a copywriter, I supposed I’m biased toward quality content. But it’s not just me saying this: it’s the biggest search engine in the world saying it. Google’s latest algorithm update, Hummingbird (which took effect in 2013), represents a shift in the way Google thinks about search. It’s not just about keywords anymore: it’s about showing people the content that adds the most value and best answers their search query. Thin, low-quality content has been devalued, and “optimizing” your copy now means writing really good copy.
So . . . before you do anything else, make a decision to really care about your copy. Be strategic about the words you use, because words and visuals are a team.
#2 Know your target market.
Who is your client or customer? If you haven’t already, create a dossier for them, paying specific attention not just to demographics, but also to what they care about (if you’re not clear on this: ask them). The thing is, your copy isn’t about YOU. It’s about them. You write it for THEM. So you have to know how they want to be talked to. Do they want to be challenged? Comforted? Inspired? Made to feel like you can make all of their problems go away?
It’s also helpful to think about how most people are getting to your site. Will the majority of people be “warm” leads—meaning, they’ve been referred to you (or you’ve already met them) and they’re coming to the site to check you out? Or are they search leads—meaning they found you through searching for the service or product you offer, and may have never heard of you until that very second? (Google Analytics can’t tell you what they searched for to find you, but it can tell you if it’s organic search or referral). This may affect the story you tell, because you might need to talk to warm leads and search leads differently. Are they coming because Google pointed them here, or are they coming because you’ve been on their mind?
#3 Write with a (real) voice.
You can’t write with a voice if you don’t know who you’re talking to—which is why you have to be clear on #2 before you tackle voice. Here’s the deal: to some extent, good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing (see tips #6 and #7). But voice is the X-factor. Voice trumps grammatical rules. Voice is why fragments, slang, and completely made-up words can work.
By voice, I mean that your copy should sound like the way you actually talk to and relate to your customers. It could be funny, wry, empowering, provocative, or any number of things. Take time to describe the voice of your copy (tip: think of it as if it were a person). Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of saying: “It’s just a professional voice.” If you can’t describe the voice in more detail than that, then you don’t have a voice. And keep in mind, voice is where smaller companies can really shine, because their personalities haven’t been squashed by compliance or run through a huge marketing team.
Example (because voice is better shown than described):
“Professional” voicelessness: “We sell stylish clothing for women. Whatever you’re looking for and whatever your body type, we have what you need. Plus, shipping is free with orders of $50 or more.”
Playful voice: “What has your closet done for you lately? Let us help you stock it with pieces that hug your curves, love your lines, and flatter your style. Spend $50 or more, and the shipping’s even on us! Now that’s happiness on a hanger.”
#4 Write about stuff that matters.
There’s a great book by Simon Sinek called Start With Why, and I think he’s spot on when he says: “People don’t buy WHAT you do. They buy WHY you do it.” (His TED talk also explains this.) The problem is that most companies just want to talk about WHAT they do, because talking about WHY requires (1) actually having an answer to WHY, (2) being vulnerable enough to give the real answer, and (3) being able to clearly communicate the answer in a way that it becomes a benefit and others identify with it. The best marketers aren’t just in touch with WHY, they also work hard to express it. Sinek argues that you should “start” with why. I agree in theory, but practically speaking, I don’t think you literally have to start all of your copy answering why. But it should definitely underpin the story you’re telling.
#5 Keep your “About” page story-based.
It’s a sad truth that “About Us” pages often feel more like placeholders for a story than an actual story. In reality, the About page is a company’s biggest opportunity to tell its story, because people purposefully click on this page to understand what your company is about. In the haste to establish credibility, to follow industry standards, and to outline the company history, many companies forget to say what they’re actually about (did you read tip #4?). This is all to say: spend time crafting your story. Maybe it’s chronological. Maybe it’s more manifesto than narrative. Or maybe it relies heavily on visuals to tell the story. This tip isn’t so much about the structure (because there are many different ways to tell a great story). It’s about the content—which should be far more than a timeline, a glorified resum√©, or a brief statement that describes what your company does. So ask yourself this: will anyone want to share this story when they are finished reading?
#6 Avoid jargon.
“Jargon” covers a wide area. Literally, it’s business-speak that barely says anything, such as: “Client retention should be strategically linked among various key business units within the enterprise to most effectively achieve key business objectives . . .”
It’s technical explanations where there should be lay explanations. It’s language that sacrifices clarity for the desire to sound smart and credible. It’s an overabundance of adjectives. It’s long bulleted lists of pain points about all of the ways you are not stepping into your power, living your dream, claiming your space, or any number of other nebulous phrases (popular among life coaches).
Jargon is word clutter. The way to bust it is to focus on writing the clearest sentences possible. It doesn’t mean stupid. It doesn’t mean you can’t engage with big, meaty concepts or use interesting words. It means you can’t rely on industry-standard language or boilerplate statements written by committee.
#7 Choose active voice (most of the time).
Active voice moves the action. By contrast, the action is slowed by passive voice. (Yes, that’s me using passive voice to be clever.) In general, passive voice lacks rhythm. It sounds wordy and staid. It’s harder to read (and definitely harder to scan).
In case you still don’t know what I’m talking about, this is passive voice: Sales goals were reached by the team.
This is active voice: The team reached their sales goals.
It’s a small tip. But it can make a big difference in making your copy more lively and better for the web.
#8 Edit web copy with your reader in mind.
Once you have a strong voice, you’ve cleared the clutter, and your language is active, you can start to really refine the copy. Editing is so much more than slicing and dicing and fixing punctuation. It’s reading with a critical eye. It’s getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t serve your customer or client. Here’s the thing: the better writer you are, the harder this is. Bad writing is easy to spot and get rid of. Good writing is trickier. It might be the most charming anecdote ever. But if it’s not about the person reading it—if it doesn’t serve them in some way—then it doesn’t belong. This is how copywriting is very different from other types of writing, which are creative expressions of a person. Copy should be creative—yes! Please! But when you’re a marketer, it’s about service. Even the most beautiful sentences often have to go. (This crushes me, too.)
#9 Take an organic approach to key words.
As I said in tip #1, the people who care about words are winning. Good writing—in a strong voice that reflects your brand and is about real things your clients, customers, fans, or members will be genuinely interested in—should be your basic keyword strategy. Should you include keywords in titles, headings, and alt tags? Sure. Should you use the keyword planner tool on Google to get an idea of what people are searching for? Sure. That’s smart stuff. But what’s really smart is to write great web copy that by its nature will already have 85 percent of the keywords because the key words are the heart of the information you’re providing.
#10¬† Include specific calls to action.
Most of us oscillate between including an overwhelming number of calls to action (“Follow me on every single social media platform and share this post on all of them too!”) or none at all. It’s about finding the balance between overwhelm and timidity, and you get there by aligning your copy with your business objectives (tip: make sure you have clear business objectives).
For example, one of my objectives is to get more readers, because I believe that I have helpful and interesting ideas to share: that objective shapes my call to action for posts like this. So . . . here is what I want you to do when you are finished with this piece (assuming you like what you’ve read): either read more of my ideas right here or look over to the right and download The Best of the Story Economy Blog (which will add you to my list). That’s it. The call to action is to get to know me more and see what you think about my ideas.
With your business objectives in mind, add a call to action to each of your pages—even if it’s just to read the next page. If your call to action for a particular page is to click on another page, one way to measure its effectiveness to check your bounce rate on Google analytics (bounce rate reflects visitors who come to your site, look at one page, and then immediately leave). If the bounce rate is high, it’s an opportunity to revisit the page and make some improvements.
I hope this post was helpful. You know what to do to hear more from me.
Let’s create some kick-ass web copy, okay? The world will be better for it.