Kurt Vonnegut, one of the heavyweights of 20th century literature, once said that every single sentence of a story should either reveal something about a character or advance the action.
You might not be crafting traditional narratives on your website, but Vonnegut’s timeless advice still holds true whether you’re helping people learn a new skill or selling plumbing fixtures.
Every single line of copy on your website should help your visitors accomplish or learn something, and in this post, I’ll show you seven ways to write more engaging, compelling website copy.
These tips and techniques aren’t specific to any one particular type of website, so whether you’re in ecommerce or run a nonprofit, or whether you have a complex or basic website, there’s something here for everyone.
One of the most common mistakes companies make with their web copy is spending too much time talking about how great they are. While it’s understandable to want to highlight the accomplishments, distinctions, and aspects of your organization that make it great, this is not why your visitors came to your site.
We’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – people don’t care about your company, they only care about how your company can solve their problems.
That’s not to say that none of your visitors care about your company. Some, like your fiercely loyal brand evangelists, may in fact care about your company quite deeply. That doesn’t change the fact that most visitors are looking for a solution to a very real problem.
Let’s take a look at the differences between benefit-driven copy and feature-driven copy.
The screenshot below was taken from the Infinity website.
As you can see, this particular page tells the reader about Infiniti’s rear-view camera and proximity sensor technology, and features several high-resolution images showing this tech in action.
This is all well and good, but the copy – and the overall framing – doesn’t mention any benefits explicitly. You could argue that the benefits of this technology are obvious or implied; having a 360-degree field of vision around the entirety of the vehicle will definitely make parallel parking easier, but the copy doesn’t tell us that; we’re left to assume what the benefits of these features are.
The screenshot below is taken from Slack’s website.
As a communications platform, Slack could have focused on the bells and whistles that people like about Slack, such as private chat rooms, emoji responses, and the service’s many integrations. However, Slack knows that its ideal customers aren’t interested in that – at least, not as much. No, Slack’s potential users want to save time and hassle, which is why Slack’s primarily benefit-driven copy is so persuasive. Who wouldn’t want to receive almost 50% fewer emails or spend 25% less time in meetings?
By leading with the benefits, Slack is answering the user’s most important question – how will this make my life better or easier?
Emphasizing the benefits of your products or services doesn’t stop you from mentioning features completely – it’s just a simple matter of priorities. By all means include copy that tells visitors how great your products are, but don’t do so at the expense of explaining clearly and concisely why using your products or services will make visitors’ lives better.
By showing visitors exactly how your offerings will make their lives better.
Tone and style are crucial when it comes to website copy, as they define the voice of your brand across multiple channels. However, as important as style and tone can be in establishing and maintaining editorial consistency, we can take it one step further to serve as a powerfully persuasive way to reach prospective customers with your copy, known as the “voice of the customer.”
As Brad McMillen explains in his excellent primer on the technique, the voice of the customer is a technique commonly used in market research, which “focuses on customers’ (and prospects’) wants and needs, then prioritizes them into a hierarchical structure before prioritizing them in terms of relative importance and satisfaction with current alternatives.”
Simply put, VOC is a way to describe your customers’ experiences with and expectations for your products or services in their own language.
What does this mean? Let’s take a look.
An example of web copy written using the voice of the customer.
You can find examples of your customers’ real language in a number of different ways; for example, reading customer reviews and conducting surveys are two of the best ways to gather this data, as they provide customers with ample opportunity to tell you about their problems in their own words.
Before we can create a profile to begin crafting our voice of the customer, we need to identify several key data points, including:
Identifying common pain points should be among the first things to look for in your customer research data. This likely includes the frustrations that are common in your industry; think labyrinthine automated customer service helplines, hidden fees or opaque pricing structures, lack of competition, that kind of thing.
Following on from this, you should identify the things your customers want in a company or service provider like yours, such as responsive customer assistance from an actual person, or a simple, easily understood pricing structure.
Once you have this data, you can write copy that addresses each of these elements in order of importance. All the information on your site – from your About page to individual product descriptions – should address one of the dimensions you identified in your market research. This means that, wherever a user happens to be on your site (or within the traditional marketing funnel), your copy is speaking to something that your prospective users have identified as a priority for them.
In the website example above from FreshBooks, the copy mirrors common customer pain points, such as the time-intensive nature of some bookkeeping workflows, as well as the solution that these customers want, which is simplified, streamlined accounting software that lets them get on with actually running their business.
By showing visitors your speak their language, you’re on their level, and you understand their problems.
These days, many companies have jumped firmly on the “corporate values” bandwagon in an attempt to attract top talent. However, brand values aren’t just what you say they are – they’re just as much a byproduct of how your customers and audience views your business. How can you discover what values people associate with your brand? By conducting customer surveys.
Image via Lynda.com
Similar to the market research you conducted to gather data to create the voice of the customer, surveys and questionnaires are an excellent way to learn how people perceive your brand with regard to brand values. Just as there is often a considerable disconnect between how we think users behave and how they actually behave, there can sometimes be a similar gap between the brand values you think your company exemplifies and how prospective customers actually see your company.
At the heart of this process is a concept known as “brand attributes.” This refers to the characteristics that people associate with your brand. For example, philanthropy and charitable giving is a brand attribute of companies that have embraced ethical marketing, such as TOMS shoes. Similarly, glamour and opulence are brand attributes commonly associated with brands such as Rolex or Swarovski.
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One of the greatest challenges of conducting brand value research is that it is primarily qualitative, meaning that the responses necessary to create this kind of profile are often much more in-depth and personal to the person taking the survey. Quantitative research, on the other hand, usually relies on larger data sets often involving standardized questions, typically presented as yes/no or agree/disagree scenarios or multiple choice questions.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Although this type of qualitative research can be tremendously valuable, it’s also significantly more time-consuming to gather than quantitative research data, and it asks a great deal more of your respondents. To offset this, many companies offer incentives such as discounts, coupons, freebies, and other goodies to tempt people into completing these surveys.
However you decide to structure your questionnaires, consider the following:
Fortunately for you, WordStream recently conducted this research for our own use, so I can show you exactly what this process looks like.
We asked respondents to select five brand attributes that they associate with the WordStream brand. Here’s what they told us:
As you can see, the top five attributes respondents associated with WordStream are:
This data was not only immensely useful to us, but also very rewarding. Our aim is to make digital marketing and PPC accessible to businesses of all sizes – small businesses in particular – by providing valuable, actionable, and insightful content. The participants’ responses tell us that we’re succeeding in this goal, which is awesome.
We didn’t stop there, however. We also asked participants which attributes they want to associate with the WordStream brand in the future:
This is almost as revealing as our initial results. Based on these responses, we know that the top five brand attributes people want to associate with WordStream in the future are:
This tells us several things. For one, people want to see WordStream as a creative brand; we like to think we’re on our way, but it’s clear we still have room to improve. Secondly, trust remains a highly desirable brand attribute, and it’s one that we’re constantly striving to cultivate. Finally, this data tells us that what we’re doing is working and that we need to not only diversify and branch out into more creative avenues, but also that we need to continue to develop the influential, helpful, and friendly/educational brand values people already associate with the WordStream brand.
In just two slides of actual audience response data, we’ve gained incredible insight into how our audience perceives us, highlighting how useful and actionable this kind of market research data can be.
By ensuring that your writers reflect the brand values that your valued customers want to see on your site.
You’ve probably heard of news agencies such as The Associated Press, or AP. The AP began as a newswire service, meaning that it provided newspapers around the world with syndicated news content produced in part by regional reporters known as stringers who work exclusively for news agencies rather than newspapers themselves.
TFW an Associated Press story doesn’t adhere to AP style.
Since the AP was founded long before the advent of online content, space in newspapers was (and still is) at a premium, meaning no space – typically measured in column inches – could be wasted. This necessary brevity resulted in the creation of the AP Stylebook, a bible for journalists and copyeditors alike that states how certain things should be written and formatted.
Of course, your own brand style guide doesn’t need to be as detailed as the style guides that newspapers use. Instead, you want to use the brand values you established in the last exercise to create some guidelines for all your content writers and creators to follow. This can help them make decisions like how formal to be, and whether it’s ever OK to swear (say, on your blog).
The first thing you need to do when creating an in-house style guide is to meet with your editorial team and relevant stakeholders and identify the priorities to be addressed by the style guide.
Voice and tone have an incredible impact on the entire experience of using your site, so it’s important to settle on an appropriate brand voice for your company that aligns with the business goals of your copy and content.
MailChimp has a particularly good in-house style guide that covers a range of content types including technical documentation, social media content, general copy, and also features a section dedicated to voice and tone. For example, it includes this list of guidelines for how to nail the MailChimp voice:
One way to think of our voice is to compare what it is to what it isn’t. MailChimp’s voice is:
This is an excellent resource for marketers hoping to create their own style guides, and should give you an idea of the kind of things a solid style guide should cover.
By establishing brand standards that all your writers can reference for a consistent user experience.
Nobody knows your customers better than you do, but that doesn’t mean you should gamble by making decisions based on how you think your visitors will behave. Just as you would (or should) test crucial elements of your campaigns such as landing pages, you should be regularly A/B testing the copy on your highest-value pages.
Before we go any further, it’s important to mention that even if you have the resources to do so, it’s probably unnecessary to A/B test every single word of copy on your site – you just need to focus on the pages that really bring home the bacon. Maybe your product overview page has a killer conversion rate, or maybe it’s your FAQ page or product documentation. Whatever your strongest pages are, those are the pages you should be testing.
Some web copy elements you might want to test could include:
Actually conducting an A/B test on your web copy is largely similar to the way you’d split-test pretty much anything else. Begin by identifying those high-value pages using Google Analytics or similar data, then create two versions of the page, each with its own unique copy. Send approximately 50% of your total traffic to the control version of the page (the original page as it exists today), and send the other half to the variant (the page with the new copy). Allow the test sufficient time to ensure you’re working with a statistically significant data set, and see which page converted better. Easy, right? Well, kinda.
Image via VWO.
Since you want to figure out which copy performs more strongly, you need to test copy that actually asks the user to do something. This could be a prompt to download a guide, sign up for a free trial, subscribe to a newsletter – some kind of clearly defined call to action. If you don’t focus on actionable copy with a true call to action, it’s harder to determine if the variant of your copy is any better than the control page. However, since your highest-value pages are likely already associated with a defined conversion pathway, this shouldn’t be an issue but it’s worth bearing in mind.
By giving you data, rather than assumptions, on what copy really resonates with potential buyers.
We’ve talked about commercial intent before (as well as the wider topic of intent marketing), but it amazes me how few websites seem to factor in user intent into their web copy.
User intent refers to what a given person intends to do when they reach your site. Sometimes this intent leads to a clearly defined action – such as buying something – while other times it may not.
Although the underlying problems your users are trying to solve are likely quite diverse, there are only a few reasons a person visits a website. These align with one of the three primary types of search – informational, navigational, and transactional – and include:
Obviously, it’s impossible to account for every user’s intent in your web copy, and you definitely shouldn’t attempt to. However, considering user intent should inform every aspect of your web copy.
Whether you’re writing the copy for your website yourself or hiring someone to do it for you, it’s crucial that you consider user intent from the outset.
Picture yourself in your prospective customers’ shoes and ask questions about your copy:
Considering user intent can be challenging, because it can be difficult to truly divorce yourself – and your considerable industry knowledge and expertise – from the reality of the experience of using your site. To this end, it may be worth conducting qualitative market research by asking laypersons who aren’t familiar with your business to use your site and provide feedback. This can highlight gaps in both your web copy and your awareness of these gaps, allowing you to craft web copy that better addresses these issues.
Image via SuperX Growth Hackers
Writing from the perspective of the user, on the other hand, is a little easier than trying to preemptively solve for user intent. Whenever you’re writing any copy – or content – ask yourself whether your copy follows our variant of Vonnegut’s rule: does every single sentence of copy reveal some useful information about your products or services, or advance your visitors’ understanding of what you do?
Many people mistakenly assume that focusing on user intent or benefit-driven copy means there’s no room to talk about their company’s achievements. This isn’t true at all – you just have to consider where and when to wax lyrical about how great you are.
For example, if you’d never heard of a company and weren’t familiar with their goods, you probably wouldn’t care about how that company is a great place to work, or how many awards it has won – none of this information answers your questions or helps you solve your problems.
If, however, you’ve already done some research into the company, like its products, and can visualize how patronizing this company will make your life better – essentially at any point during or beyond the “consideration” stage of the classic sales funnel – information about how great the company is might be a powerfully persuasive tool. That’s when you want to hit your visitors with your innumerable accolades.
It all comes back to thinking about the user and what they want, rather than what you want.
By giving your visitors what they want to see, increasing their satisfaction and encouraging them to stick around.
Not so long ago, blogs and bloggers were rightly seen as amateur ventures whose passion and enthusiasm were faultless, but whose actual credibility and authority were suspect. Not so today, when some blogs and independent bloggers have become on par (or even surpassed) “traditional” journalism and media outlets.
However, the little guys still have to work harder than the bigger players, and one of the best things you can do to establish (or enhance) your credibility and authority is to use statistics, quotes, and original data in your web copy and content.
An example of WordStream’s original research data.
One of the reasons that the inclusion of statistics, quotes from industry experts, and original data is so persuasive is because it strengthens the points you make in your copy considerably. It’s one thing to make a vague assertion about, say, Facebook’s growing ad revenue, but it’s another thing to say that Facebook’s total revenue increased by 56% and ad revenue increased by 59% in 2016.
This technique works so well because it’s an established journalistic convention, and readers expect this kind of citation in their content. However, it’s not without its downsides.
There is no doubt that including statistics, quotes, and original or third-party data in your copy can significantly increase the authority of your site. Overreliance on this kind of data, however, can have a detrimental effect.
Image via Jorge Cham/PhD Comics
You’ll already know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever read a blog post in which every other statement is cited or begins with, “According to…” Relying too heavily on cited stats – no matter how well-sourced or relevant – can dilute the authority of your copy because it suggests either an inability or reluctance to make an assertive, original statement. People don’t want to read copy or content that reads like a book report written by a nervous high-school student – they want to hear original thoughts and opinions that challenge their ideas or help them learn more about a topic.
One way to offset this without losing the authority that comes with including and correctly citing statistical data is to use original research. Here at WordStream, we devote a great deal of time and energy to producing original data and research. This isn’t just a ploy to increase our authority; it’s a way to reinforce our copy and content with research that other publications want to link to.
Granted, creating original research requires sufficient data to draw from (which we’re lucky to have in abundance, something not every business has) or the financial means to commission professional researchers to produce original data, but as far as assets go, it’s hard to beat in terms of return on investment. Our original research has generated millions of unique visits and hundreds of inbound links over the past several years, making it one of our most consistently valuable and strongest-performing content assets.
By making your brand more trustworthy and dependable.
Writing web copy that converts like gangbusters is a lot harder than it looks. However, by making just a few adjustments to how you view and approach web copy, you can provide your audience with a much more useful, relevant, and ultimately actionable experience.
Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.
See other posts by Dan Shewan
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