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Writing for the web: old wine in new bottles?

Writing copy for the web – or emails – is a completely new discipline. Or is it? Andy Maslen looks at a few basic truths for digital copywriting.

A while ago, I gave a speech for the UK Newsletter and Electronic Publishers’ Association. The theme? ‘Copywriting in the digital age’. There’s a suggestion in that title that somehow, copywriting is different now, because of the Internet. But is it?

Regardless of the medium, we’re still trying to do the same old things we’ve always tried to do:

  • Persuade people to OPEN our communication.
  • Encourage people to READ our communication.
  • Convince people to BELIEVE our communication.
  • Drive people to ACT on our communication.

The Internet and its associated technologies have changed things. But not in the way most people think. They haven’t meant copy matters less. (In fact, it matters more.) Nor have they changed the way people respond to copy.

What the internet has done is increase the amount of rubbish directed at consumers and businesspeople. It has given the illiterate, the irrelevant and the idiotic equal billing with your carefully crafted marketing campaigns. Why? Because it’s cheap. What does it all mean for us? Simply, this. Copywriting in the digital age is harder.

Whether you’re writing an email, a sales letter or an ad, you have to fight to be heard above a mounting cacophony of badly written messages foisted on an unwilling readership by everyone from get-rich-quick hucksters to beady-eyed spammers. So, let’s have a look at a few simple, timeless truths that have worked, do work and will continue to work.

Five tips for good e-copywriting

  1. On the web or in an email, you need to hook people. Quickly. That means a compelling headline. And that means benefits. Puns, obscure references and strained connections to arbitrary and clichéd images won’t work.
  2. You need to keep people reading. That calls for a relentless focus on the things that interest your reader. Back to benefits again – they’re asking you, ‘what’s in it for me’.
  3. You mustn’t lose them through poor writing. If you introduce errors of style, spelling, grammar or punctuation, your reader will either miss your point, trash your email or leave your site. Which is a bad thing.
  4. You have to make a compelling case for your product or service. Using words like ‘exciting’ and ‘amazing’, ‘unique’ or ‘important’ won’t help. Nor will tired old clichés like ‘cutting edge’, or business jargon like ‘bottom line’.
  5. You need to keep your reader in front of you at all times. Start writing for yourself, your boss, your shareholders or your colleagues and you are failing the big test of all copywriting: is it relevant to your reader?

I want to add a sixth, that long copy still outpulls short. But this point deserves a bit more space.

Long copy, I myth you

It’s funny. Even people at the self-proclaimed ‘cutting edge’ of copywriting – the web – turn out to be as fond of myths as their Stone Age (ie print) cousins. Here’s one of my favourites. “Long copy doesn’t work on the web.” This is usually uttered as an axiom so plainly true that no evidence is adduced to support it.

(I secretly believe that a more truthful statement would be, ‘Someone once told me at a conference that long web copy doesn’t work. We didn’t define ‘work’ and we were actually using our personal preferences instead of data, but since I never have enough time to write, let alone test, long copy, I go along with it.)

For a different perspective on the debate, visit the American Writers and Artists Institute’s copywriting page1. There, you’ll find a single page with 7,945 words. Or, to put it another way, 21 screens’ worth of copy. With no ‘back-to-tops’.

What is AWAI? They help people change careers and become successful copywriters and designers. Now you might say, fair enough, copywriters are fond of words, so this isn’t a valid example. Well, actually it is. Remember, the myth states, “long copy doesn’t work on the web.” Full stop. No caveats, no conditions.

Here’s an organisation whose principals have done more testing than most. And who have set up and sold million-dollar businesses using their own writing skills. So lets assume they do it because it works.

Yes, but is it interesting?

Truth is, we will keep reading. If we’re reading something that interests us. Something that connects with a deep-seated need. Something that promises to bring our dreams a little closer. The medium and the number of words are irrelevant.

The reason many people in the web-world are hooked up on short copy is, I think, threefold. One, they’re buying into the accepted wisdom pumped out by self-proclaimed gurus without doing any testing. Two, the copy they use is slotted in after the design is worked out. And many web designers are ignorant of the power of long copy and so design ‘one-screen’ pages. Three, they lack the experience or the support to produce compelling copy that will hold their readers’ attention.

Form follows function

But maybe it’s more complicated than saying, “long copy does work”. Maybe, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your website. Well, duh! If you’re just after a warm-fuzzy from your Board, your investors and your colleagues, maybe all you need is some slick Flash animation, a beautiful colour palette and some copy your IT guys C&P’ed from your last corporate brochure. But…

If you’re trying to get people to DO something. Like, oh I don’t know, actually buy from you, there’s a slim chance that they might want more. Words, for example.

Obviously it depends what market you’re in. If you’re selling high-ticket management courses, you’re going to need to say more than if you’re selling garden bird feeders. Remember this though. You can’t sell to people who are worried about doing business with you. So reassuring your online customers is one of the biggest challenges you face as a writer. Indeed, as an organisation.

Overcoming buyer resistance online

People often abandon an online purchase through fear. It’s true. I’ve done it. Maybe you have, too. And millions of potential online customers continue to do it, every single day. I don’t mean the fear that they haven’t understood the point of the animated pile of autumn leaves. Or the terror that comes from trying, unsuccessfully, to read yellow type on a light blue ground. Or, indeed, the anxiety that arises when they can’t find the log-in button.

No, I’m talking about the good old-fashioned fear of making a mistake. They’re suffering from what-ifitis. Here’s a little guide to online buyer psychology…

What your online customers are thinking

“What if I click this link and I can’t go back?”

“What if I give them my credit card details and they pass them on to the Russian mafia?”

“What if I don’t like what I’ve bought?”

“What if they go out of business tomorrow and I lose everything?”

“What if the widow of Nigeria’s former energy minister doesn’t send me my huge commission after I hand over my bank details?” (OK, I made that one up.)

And so on…

How to offer reassurance

So, how are you going to allay their fears? Simple. You have to reassure them that it’s safe to buy from you online. And believe it or not, the more you say, the more reassured they feel. Here are a few ideas.

Give them the disinterested testimony of other (satisfied) customers. If you don’t have any testimonials…go out and get some. Make your order form/payment pages as clear as you can possibly manage. Then have your Auntie Mary fill them in. If she’s worried or confused, go back and take another look. Offer your customers a money-back guarantee. And sound like you mean it. (Which you do.)

Have a ‘normal’-sounding street address somewhere obvious on your site. It’s not that your customers want to come and see you at 123 High Street, Anytown. It’s just that they like to feel there’s a bricks-and-mortar presence somewhere where they could.

Look at every point on your site where you ask your customers to click. Now ask yourself, ‘Is there an unanswered question here? A what-if?’ If there is, then you need some copy to answer that question. Tell them what happens when they click. And tell them what won’t happen.

It might sound like a lot of work. And it might be a lot of work. But you set the site up. Now it’s your job to make it as frictionless a slope as possible. From entry page to order confirmation, you want your customers sliding down with a beatific smile on their faces as they go. And it’s only words that will do that for you.

Because it turns out that copywriting in the digital age is a lot like copywriting in the steam age. It’s a powerful combination of two old-fashioned skills: salesmanship and good writing. If you know what makes people tick and you can express that knowledge in plain English, you’re halfway there. (Of course, there are plenty of tricks and techniques you can employ, but that’s another story.)

And if, having attended an Internet marketing conference, you find yourself saying “XYZ doesn’t work on the web”, stop for a moment. Ask yourself, “Where did I hear this?”, “Have we tested that for ourselves?” and “How much did the person who said it know about our business, our customers, and our buying process?” Or to put it another way, test it!

Categories: Email copywriting and Web copywriting.

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