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Web copywriting realities: what your reader wants

Consider these three statements…

“When people read online they lean forward because they are actively seeking information.”

“When people read online they are busy and have lots of other sources competing for their attention.”

“When people read online they have a more informal and personal relationship with the sites they visit.”

You’ll hear them a lot if you attend a “training course” on web copywriting. (By the way, if you do, ask the trainer how many websites they’ve actually written.) But what do they mean for us as copywriters?

Do we need to yell at our reader to keep their attention? Like this…

Hey you! Want to make a million working part-time from home? [Imagine this set in all caps.]

Do we, perhaps, need to use different language? Like this…

Dude! Like, here’s this way awesome financial reporting software that, like, totally rocks!

Should we get straight to the facts and avoid “selling copy”? Like this…

18.5% ROI in year one. Galvanised steel outer jacket. 45 to 50 times more resistant to Kryptonite.

Those three opening statements do reflect the way a lot of people use the web. And web copywriting is different, it’s true. The question is, different to what? (And if you want to discuss different to versus different from or, even, different than, see this month’s Your teacher would be so proud).

Let’s look at the three statements.

“When people read online they lean forward because they are actively seeking information.”

Yes, they do. If that’s the mode they’re in and that’s what they’re doing online. Add in the difficulty of reading on screen and it’s a fair bet.

But that’s great news for copywriters. Because it means our reader is engaged. In other words, we already have their attention: it’s now ours to lose. Shouting is unnecessary. In fact it’s counter-productive.

All we need to do to hold their attention is answer our old friend, “What’s in it for me?” A simple storytelling style will do it. Like this…

Six months ago, Cindy Patton came to me with a problem. Her mortgage was in arrears. Her car had been repossessed. And her kids were going to school in patched uniforms. With the skills I taught her in a single afternoon, Cindy began to turn her life around. I showed her how to make her living as a freelance copywriter.

“When people read online they are busy and have lots of other sources competing for their attention.”

Also true. Though reflect for a moment on your own life. Even when you’re not online, if you’re at work or juggling a social life, chores, kids maybe and family relationships, you’re busy and feeling busier every day.

So ANY copy you read has to be pretty immediate and to the point if you’re going to keep reading.

As an example, here’s a simple technique guaranteed to stop your reader clicking away to another site.

Ask them a question. Like this…

Which would you rather have – a top manager’s salary you earn working from home or a second income you can use to supplement your full-time wages?

“When people read online they have a more informal and personal relationship with the sites they visit.”

This may be true. Speaking for myself, I often have little or no relationship with the organisation or its site that I happen to be visiting. I don’t mind being addressed as an individual, however.

What isn’t true is that you must adopt some sort of generic web-speak. You might think you sound lush, awesome or random but your reader thinks you sound like a trendy vicar.

Instead, try writing down what you’d say to your site visitor were you to meet them in a coffee shop.

Be yourself and be mindful, also, of their expectations. If you run the communications department of a merchant bank, your reader will expect a more serious tone of voice than that used by the editor of an extreme sports magazine.

And I’m telling you this because

The web, through its ubiquity, has popularised some of the rules us old DM hands have been banging on about for years. Namely, you must write copy that engages your reader. Copy that answers their questions, quickly. And that promises an end to whatever pain they are suffering – physical or metaphorical.

It’s possible that you could get away with bland, generic copywriting in the world of print. [Actually I don’t believe that. You could write it. But it wouldn’t work. Ed.]

In the world of web copywriting, though, your copy must be crystal-clear. It must be sharp. It must convey your message in an instant. And it must speak to the reader. Hmm…sounds like direct mail copy.

Categories: Maslen on Marketing and Web copywriting.

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