How to write copy that converts

Do you have to write compelling marketing copy, the kind that generates sales or signups? Are you like most people and don’t know where to start?

No matter what kind of website you run, at some point you’ll have to think about copy.

What is “copy,” anyway?

If you’ve ever visited a website or opened a magazine you’ve encountered copy. It’s the text contained within a composition of a page or a webpage.

So, what is marketing copy?

Marketing copy is simply copy written with the specific aim of encouraging your audience to take an action. This action could be to buy a product, sign up for a service, or to sign up for your email newsletter.

While marketing copy should, of course, be well written, the main thing it should be is convincing. When writing copy with an aim to convert, you are educating your audience and promoting a product or service. You are not trying to show off writing prowess.

If you consider yourself a great literary writer, save the purple prose for your novel – chances are, your audience won’t appreciate it.

“But what if I’m not a great literary writer; what if I’m not a writer at all? Shouldn’t this kind of thing be left up to actual copywriters?”

Ideally, yes. But sometimes hiring a professional isn’t feasible, especially if you’re a small business owner just starting out online. Every website needs copy, and someone has to write that copy. Sometimes that person is you--even if the extent of your writing experience is instant messaging and tweeting.

In this piece we’re going to cover these main points:

  • Getting to know your ideal customer

  • Copywriting techniques you need to employ

  • Copywriting habits to avoid

  • Copy styles you can use

  • Making readability a priority

  • Online tools you can use to make your copy better

  • Testing and optimizing your copy


How to write copy that sells – even if you’re not a writer

When diving into the world of writing copy, it certainly helps to have some writing talent. But there are ways to get around it if you don’t. Chances are, you’re probably more capable than you think

Copywriting techniques you need to employ

If you approach copywriting bearing some key approaches in mind, you’re sure to produce copy that converts. These techniques are:

  • Focusing on one main idea

  • Addressing customer needs

  • Using technical details to support your claim

  • Predicting customer objections and addressing them directly

  • Injecting copy with personality

  • Using headlines and subheadings wisely

  • Utilizing customer testimonials

  • Writing persuasively

Read on to find out how to implement each one in your writing

Focus on one main idea

There are probably endless reasons why your offering is the best out there. And it would be a mistake to include them all in your copy. That’s a recipe for overwhelming potential customers, and the last thing you want to do is overwhelm potential customers (unless you for some reason want to scare them away). This is why your copy should target one main idea.

Ideally, this will be the first thing your customer sees. Depending on your medium, this could be:

  • A headline

  • Tagline

  • Subhead

For example, for our gardening friend looking to for email newsletter subscribers, the headline on their sign-up form could be as simple as, “Become an expert gardener.” The body copy would then simply detail how their newsletter will help their audience become just that.

Think back to the list you made in the last section when you identified what makes your offering unique. What problem is it solving or what sets it apart from everything like it? The answer should be your main point. Cut any copy that doesn’t support it.

Address customer needs

Following on from the previous point, addressing customer needs is more than just listing the main features of your product and calling it a day

More often than not in advertising, you are not selling the product itself, but the lifestyle it will help you achieve or the kind of person it will help you become. Think of Maria in the last section. It’s not only about looking younger, it about enhancing a luxe lifestyle.

Use technical details to support your claims

Including specific details about your offering is a great way of making it stand out. It will:

  1. Convey how your product is different from others like it, and;

  2. Establish your brand as an expert voice in your field.

While we did say not to focus on technical details in the last point, but that doesn’t mean you should cut them out completely. The key is using them correctly. You need to contextualize them, connecting them to the one main idea you’re focusing on.

Skincare brand The Ordinary does this successfully. Their tagline is, “Clinical Formulations with Integrity." Talking only about their formulations is key to their marketing strategy, which you learn quickly from their copy.

Their copy is mostly concerned with technical details, specifically as a reaction to ad campaigns from brands that dishonestly play up the benefits of their products. And it works.

Predict potential customer objections and address them directly

This where having a specific angle to write from becomes really important. Directly addressing your customers’ concerns doesn’t mean giving them a list of reasons as to why they’re wrong.

It’s a strategic way of using language to highlight the benefits of your offering, despite their concerns.

In regards to your luxury skincare brand, one objection could be that it’s too expensive. How do we tackle this?

Your skin care is an “investment." Perhaps it may cost a little more than similar products, but you use less of it, so it lasts longer. The technical details outlined in the last section will also reinforce why your skincare range is worth buying. The products aren’t cheap, but cheaper products aren’t half as good as these.

The aforementioned personal trainer’s copy could address his potential clients’ fears and objections of not being in shape already by talking about how he takes all fitness levels into consideration.

Inject copy with personality

This personality, sometimes called voice, may not be yours, but it should be “someone” your customer would respect, trust, and relate to. Don’t be afraid to use some colloquial language that might appeal to them, even if it breaks some grammar rules (but don’t go too nuts, there can be a fine line between relatable and obnoxious).

Don’t underestimate the power of headlines and subheadings

If your marketing copy format of choice has headlines, make the most of it. Here is your opportunity to grab your audience;’s attention immediately.

Utilize customer testimonials

If you’re already somewhat established, using quotes and testimonials from real customers can boost your copy with minimal effort.

Write persuasively

  1. Personal

  2. Actionable

The words you use matter. We’re going to stress this time and time again. Because it’s true. Certain words can mean the difference between a welcoming vibe or an impersonal one. Certain words can also persuade more successfully than others.

One of those words is "you".

When writing copy, you should address your customers directly. Don’t underestimate the power of “you." By using “you” throughout your copy, potential customers will begin to imagine themselves using your product or service.

According to CopyBlogger, other essential words for adding a persuasive edge to your copy include: Free; Because; Instantly; and New.

Last, but definitely not least, one of the most important elements of persuasive copy is encouraging customers to take an action. In marketing speak this is known as the “call to action," or CTA. A good CTA actively tells customers what to do next and how they can do it.

For our luxury skincare brand, the CTA could be an “add-to-cart” button. For our personal trainer, it could be a hyperlink that says, “click here to find out more!” For our email capturing gardener friend, it would be an email opt-in form.

Copywriting habits to avoid

You can be certain that good copy doesn’t involve any of the following.

Over-hyping

When writing copy the temptation to go all-out can be huge. But saying “This thing is the best thing EVER!” is not only obnoxious, but it’s also non-specific. It fails to address your customers’ wants or needs or a problem they want to solve. It also makes your brand come across as a tad full of itself.

If you get more specific with your claims it *might* be a little more acceptable. Mr. Personal Trainer could maybe assert that you will, “Lose weight and feel great in one week - guaranteed!” But you must be able to back it up, perhaps with data or testimonials from customers.

Still, hyperbole can be off-putting generally, so tread carefully.

“Text speak” and Internet slang

Nothing comes across more old fogey and trying to sound “down with the kids” than the use of text speak in marketing copy.

Text speak can encompass anything from replacing common words with numbers (“to” with “2” is a classic) or commonly used acronyms like “LOL," “YOLO," or “OMG." The thing is, slang is constantly evolving, and kids can smell a rat in seconds. By the time a writer has even heard of a certain acronym or phrase, it’s likely already old. They’ll have moved on to the newest ridiculous phrase that you won’t know about until it’s too late.

This is not to say that it never works, but unless you are indeed well and truly down with the kids or even have a kid to hand to help you out (and they are also your target audience), it’s best to avoid.

Including irrelevant information

As a rule, cut anything that doesn’t support your one main idea that we talked about earlier. No exceptions.

This type of edit can be hard; we understand that. When you’ve spent a lot of time crafting and honing a particular piece of copy, separating yourself and seeing things objectively is tough. You become attached. It’s what William Faulkner was referring to when he said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings." You can’t help but think of something you worked hard on as your darling, even if it’s all wrong.

Let’s take our personal trainer again as an example. The main point he wants to convey is that he is understanding and welcoming to those who aren’t comfortable with going to the gym. So, cluttering your copy with information about the great athletes he trained is not helpful in this context. It’s impressive, certainly, but it may put off the kind of customer he’s trying to attract.

Not proofreading your copy

It can be tempting to hit publish as soon as you’re finished writing something, but that’s a surefire recipe for unreadable and unprofessional copy. Not even the most seasoned writers get it right in just one draft.

Writing isn’t just getting the words down on the page. Writing is editing, editing, and editing some more.

Read your copy again. Then read it again. And again. Get someone else to take a look at it if you can. It always helps to get some fresh eyes on a piece.

Remember, if your copy is full of grammatical mistakes and spelling errors, nobody will buy what you sell.

The different copy styles you can use

There is a plethora of different types of copy to opt for. Which you go for will be dependent on factors like brand voice, medium, and what it is you’re offering.

Here are the most common copy styles with examples of each:

Short copy and microcopy

Short copy is – you guessed it – short in overall length. It’s best suited to mediums where space is limited, or where you want to attract your customers’ attention quickly. Examples include platforms like Twitter, product descriptions, and paid ad copy in places like the Google search engine results page or Facebook.

Short copy also can also be used into blog posts or landing pages that consist of a headline, some subheads, and a few short paragraphs. It’s best for when you’re offering something simple and straightforward.

Let’s take Google AdWords as an example. If you search for “how to improve writing," the top ad result is for an online tool called Grammarly (which we will discuss more later). The copy is simple yet effective. It lists its benefits and features and attracts with a personable headline that addresses you directly.

Even shorter than short copy is microcopy. Microcopy refers to the very short text on a website or app interface that communicates a message in as few words as possible. It is often used to guide users as they navigate, providing instructions or hints of what to do next. A very common example of microcopy is an error message.

While microcopy is often nothing more than a short sentence or a single word, it can provide ample opportunity for a brand to convey personality.

A good example of effective microcopy is Twitter’s “What’s happening?” message in the social media site’s tweet section.

It’s short, casual, conversational, and instantly drives home the intent of the site – to keep its users up-to-date with what’s currently happening all over the world.

Long copy

If you need more room to explain your offering, long copy is the way to go. Long copy can be tricky to navigate. You need to make sure it actually is necessary before opting for it. People’s attention spans are lower than ever these days, after all.

This kind of copy is best suited to formats like case studies, advertorials, blog posts, and sales pages. If you’re selling a complicated product or service, or something that’s on the more expensive side, you will probably need more words to convince people that what you’re selling is worth buying.

Skillcrush – an online coding school aimed at employees who wish to upskill – uses long copy excellently on their website’s Blueprints enrollment page.

The page begins by discussing the aim of Skillcrush’s Blueprint programs and why they are beneficial. As you scroll down, it presents each program you can apply for and what they involve. After that there is a testimonial from the CEO, discussing why she launched Skillcrush and what she has achieved in the time since.

The page then discusses how Skillcrush works and included features, before swinging back to why you should enroll in their programs, emphasizing why you should “invest in yourself."

It is necessary for this page to be long, as a shorter length would have failed to effectively paint the whole picture of why someone should invest their time and money into enrolling for one of their courses.

Long copy affords you the chance to position your brand as a leading voice and to share your expertise with your customers. Just be sure that this is what they want.

Plain copy

Plain copy is no-frills prose that gets straight to the point. It doesn’t get bogged in narrative or style considerations but talks solely about the features and benefits of a product.

We have said to avoid simply listing these things earlier in the article, but sometimes that’s all the marketing of a product or service might require. Namecheap’s homepage, for example, exemplifies this. It doesn’t waste time with decorative verbiage for the most part, with its focus being on talking about what it can offer potential customers. There’s no messing around with clever puns or wordplay, just a straightforward presentation of what Namecheap can do for you.

There are even different tabs you can click on, depending on whether you’re an individual, business, or reseller. Each tab contains the key information a potential customer needs, with a link to finding out more should they want to.

Staccato copy

The staccato style of copy features deliberately short sentences that get straight to the point. This kind of copy features no excess information or unnecessary fluff, and can sometimes be as short as one word. This style of writing is ideal for focusing the reader on your main message. Take this Spotify Premium ad as an example:

It doesn’t mince its words. That’s why it’s so effective.

Conversational copy

In a conversational piece of copy, the narrator has a kind of conversation with a reader. It gives marketing copy a more human element, making it more relatable.

Instead of talking like a salesperson trying to sell something, your aim is to speak like a person person, who wants to help someone.

A brand that makes a conversational tone work is the drinks brand, innocent:

As you can tell from this excerpt of its About Page, the brand uses a casual, unfussy language style to address its customers (and doesn’t think too much about capital letters either).

Storytelling copy

Storytelling has long been an effective advertising method, from print to TV ads. It can (and has been) be implemented successfully in online marketing copy too, from landing pages to social media posts.

Traditionally stuffy mediums like case studies and white papers can be made less formal and more accessible through storytelling. By telling a story, your copy will have a more human element, instead of just focusing on general customer success or an in-depth industry report without any names or faces. This best practice builds an emotional connection, where customers can relate to what you have to say on a more personal level.

Like any good story, storytelling copy will introduce an interesting, relatable character who has an obstacle they must overcome. To make it easy, just think of the classic three-act structure:

  • The setup - this is where we meet our main character and learn about what makes her tick; her desires and motivations, as well as her relationships and the world she lives in.

  • The confrontation - this is where conflict occurs and out main character battles to overcome it.

  • The resolution - Things come to a head before events are ultimately resolved (hopefully happily).

What helps our main character overcome the conflict? Ideally, that would be the product or service you’re offering.

Salesforce implements the storytelling structure perfectly in their customer success story on luxury car brand, Aston Martin.

The customer success story outlines the problem that the company wanted to overcome (wanting to base business decisions on customer and business data rather than just the company’s opinions), and how Salesforce helped them overcome them. In the end, it’s all tied together with a positive outcome.

They also effectively use testimonial quote from the company’s CEO as a compelling headline that makes you want to find out more.

Frank

Another name for frank copy is honest copy. It takes negative aspects of your product or service and puts them at the forefront. It addresses them head-on. Although highlighting your product’s failings might seem counterintuitive, being transparent can actually inspire customer trust.

This is a risky approach to take to copywriting, but it can work. One example of this is the marketing campaign for budget Amsterdam hotel, Hans Brinker. Each advertisement highlighted the fact that it isn’t the nicest of hotels. The tongue-in-cheek approach makes it all the more memorable.

Make readability a priority

Focusing on making copy readable is not only a great way of ensuring it gets read but will also hide the fact that you may not be that gifted a wordsmith.

But how?

Let’s begin this answer with some cold, hard facts: the majority of Internet users skim and scan a page before they commit to reading it. If your copy isn’t skimmable and you don’t give readers an instant idea of what your core message is, customers are unlikely to read it.

As for hiding your lack of writing ability, take a moment to think some of our most lauded literary heroes. Some of the greats, from Shakespeare to the Bronté sisters and James Joyce, are known for their wordplay, descriptive and even avant-garde writing styles. It’s admirable and interesting to unpick if you’re into that kind of thing, but that’s not what you want for online copy. If you’re going to emulate anyone, look to Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway is known for producing prose that was concise and direct. He coined the “iceberg theory” to describe his style of writing, which was formed from his years working as a journalist. The main principle of the iceberg theory is that less is more in writing.

Remove irrelevant information and words. Sentences should be short.

While this theory was referring to how the themes of long fiction don’t need direct explanation, it also applies to marketing copy. Short sentences can pack as much – if not more! – of a punch as longer ones. Marketing copy is not the place to express your inner poet. It should be clear, easy to read, and easy to understand.

Make your copy as readable as possible by following these tips:

  1. Stick with short paragraphs

    Short paragraphs are key to the readability of your copy. With overly long paragraphs your piece is in danger of suffering from the dreaded wall-of-text syndrome. Scanning a wall of text is hard work. Absorbing information contained in a paragraph of two or three lines is not.

  2. Write short sentences

    The shorter the sentence, the better. Writing instructor, Gary Provost, said it best when he talked about the power of five words:

    “This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

    So, not every sentence has to be super short. But make sure there is some variety in there to keep the reader engaged.

    Think back to the staccato style of writing we mentioned earlier. A sentence of one, two, or three words can be more effective and memorable than one several times that length.

    Really. I mean it.

    Broken sentences are all right, even though they might seem all wrong (especially if you remember anything about the English grammar drilled into you in school). But it works. If you find it difficult in the first draft, reread your piece upon completion. See if it’s possible to break down longer sentences into two or even three shorter ones.

  3. Remove excess words

    Remember we told you to kill your darlings? Well, that wasn’t just in a narrative sense. Look at what you’ve written. Does every single one of those words really need to be there?

    We can all be guilty of going overboard with adverbs. An adverb is a word that modifies or describes a verb or adjective. As an example, in the sentence, “the girl walked quickly,” walked is the verb and quickly is the adverb, the word describing the verb.

    In his book On Writing, Stephen King famously said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” I don’t want to get quite so hyperbolic about it, but do you really really need to describe something as being “really very extremely fast”? You can just say it’s fast. Or better yet, use a word that implies incredible speed, like “rapid” or “speedy." Take a trip to Thesaurus.com for some ideas (but don’t do anything to obscure, that’ll make readability worse).

    Other commonly used redundant words you could stand to remove from your copy include:

    • Just

    • Completely

    • That

    • Then

    • Definitely

    • Literally

    Also, watch out for needless repetition. Using two words when one would have been sufficient is a common writing error. Take the phrase “absolutely essential," for example. The word essential in of itself implies that it is “absolutely essential," so it’s fine just to leave it as plain “essential." For a list of 200 more common repetitions to avoid, check out this helpful article from ThoughtCo.

  4. Replace complicated words

    Yes, yet another point about words. As it turns out, carefully considering words is important to writing. Who knew? As mentioned previously, marketing copy isn’t the place to show off your verbosity. You may have a dictionary for a brain, but Internet readers don’t care about how clever you are. Using obscure words will just distract from the topic at hand, that topic being successfully promoting your offering.

  5. Think about design

    This article may be about writing good copy, but what is the benefit of good copy if poor design renders it unreadable? Just use a little common sense here. You’re probably aware that black text on a navy background isn’t ideal. Neither is using a distracting ornate font. Fonts like Arial, Georgia, and Verdana are considered to be the some of the most readable ones.

To keep your writing readable, just keep telling yourself throughout the process that brevity is key.

Online tools to make your copy better

With it being the Internet age, you’re picking a pretty fortunate time to try your hand at writing effective copy. There are numerous online tools you can use to enhance your copy. Here are four of them.

Grammarly

Grammarly is an online writing assistant that scans your work for common grammar mistakes, from simple spelling to more complex grammar considerations like adjective use and subject-verb agreements. It comes as a free add-on for Google Chrome and Firefox browsers, as well as a native app and premium versions. .

Yoast

We haven’t talked much about SEO in this article, but thinking about it is a must if you want to get found by search engines. (For more information, take a look at our articles on SEO for small business and how to conduct keyword research).

Yoast takes the pain out of keyword research by suggesting them for you. It scans your copy and tells you how SEO-friendly it is and how it can be improved. Not only that, but it also rates the readability of your copy and makes suggestions on how you can make your text easier to understand. If WordPress powers your site, you can’t go wrong with this free plug-in.

CoSchedule’s headline analyzer

Headlines are an important element of most marketing copy styles and formats. CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer helps you make the most of your title. It will analyze your headline for the right word balance and suggests optimal word length as well as the type of headlines that tend to captivate audiences.

Hemingway App

Minimalize your copy with the Hemingway App. It works by color coding different sections of your copy, each color representing a specific suggestion on how to make it more readable. For instance, a section highlighted in red means that it is too difficult to read, while yellow suggests spitting your sentence in two. You can paste your work into the online editor or download the desktop app.

Sales copy template

We’ve spent a lot of time going through the ins and outs of writing copy that converts. It’s okay to feel a little overwhelmed; it’s a lot to take in.

Now we’re going to focus a little more on sales page copy specifically. Whatever product or service your offering online, the sales page is where actual transactional conversions take place. While other page copy might focus on collecting emails, generating leads or building brand awareness, a sales page is where leads become customers. A sales page provides the opportunity to educate potential customers about your product, supporting your claims with persuasive copy, eye-catching images, and social proof.

The following is a sales copy template to help you get started. The anatomy of most good sales pages do the following:

(Be sure to save it for future reference!)

  • Have snappy headline and subheadings

  • Address your customers’ needs

  • Explain how your offering can help

  • Effectively describe your offer

  • Inspire trust with data and testimonials

  • Include eye-catching media/imagery that supports your claims

  • Contain one or more strong CTAs

Although this is a template for a sales page specifically, this template will also work across different marketing copy formats with a few tweaks, as it encapsulates everything we have discussed in this article previously.

For example, if you were to use this template for a sales page, the copy and final CTA would be written specifically with encouraging a purchase in mind. However, if it were a landing page where generating leads is the main focus, the CTA would focus would be on collecting emails, perhaps in exchange for a free ebook or webinar.


The importance of testing when writing copy for websites

So you’ve followed all the rules laid out in this article and you’ve gone and written some (hopefully convertible) copy. You’re pretty satisfied with what you wrote. Now it’s time to sit back and forget about it, right? Wrong.

Unfortunately, writing is half the battle. You need to see if what you’ve written works. What you’ve written could be great, but you’d be surprised at how often a simple word change can transform a potential customer into an actual customer. This subtle fact is why continuous and rigorous testing is so important.

By testing what works and what doesn’t, optimizing copy after publication is not as intimidating as it seems. Instead of guessing what might work, you’ll have hard data to back it up.

Before you start testing, you need to establish what your KPIs (key performance indicators) are. KPIs are what you measure to determine the success of your goals. Without establishing KPIs you won’t have a clear idea of what factors indicate a success. KPIs could include the number of purchases made, how much traffic visits your site, or the number of emails email addresses collected.

A/B Testing your website copy

The most straightforward way of testing whether your copy works or not is through A/B testing. A/B testing compares two versions of a webpage and tests which performs better. Through A/B testing you can easily gauge which variation of copy elements work and which don’t.

Copy elements you should test include:

  • The headline

    As we’ve said before, headlines can make or break a page. By testing different words and font sizes, you can see what grabs your readers’ attention and what doesn’t.

  • The call-to-action

    A snappy headline is no good without a call-to-action that actually inspires users to take that action. You can test the wording of CTAs, as well as the style (color, font, button, or text link) and even the placement on the page.

  • Copy style

    Maybe you thought your audience would respond well to frank copy, but actually they’re much more interested in storytelling. You won’t be able to tell without testing it.

  • Copy length

    Shortening your overall copy length could mean the difference between your copy getting read and not getting read.

One thing to remember when it comes to A/B tests is that you should always stick to changing just one element at a time. It may be tempting to go all out and change the whole thing, but in doing so you won’t be able to pinpoint the exact cause of any performance changes.

How to execute an A/B test

A/B testing may sound a little intimidating to the uninitiated. Luckily there are a plethora of online tools out there that make it easy. These tools will show different versions of a webpage to your visitors at random, and analyze the results.

  • Optimizely

    Optimizely is an experimentation platform that allows even the most novice experimenters conduct a successful A/B test on their landing page.

  • Google Content Experiments

    With Google Content Experiments you can test the performance of up to 10 landing pages to see which version improves conversion rates the most.

  • Google AdWords

    If you want to see how well your PPC ad copy performs in comparison to variants, Google Adwords makes it easy. Google Adwords gives you the option of rotating ads indefinitely, to see which version of an ad performs best.

  • Visual Website Optimizer (VWO)

    VWO is a platform specifically aimed for A/B testing and improving conversion rates, and claims to do so without reducing performance.


Conclusion

If you’re new to writing copy, hopefully, any fears you had have been put to rest. Taking a considered approach to what you put on the page can go a long way. To sum up what we said in so many words, writing copy that converts can be boiled down to the following:

  1. Knowing your product

  2. Knowing your audience

  3. Picking the right format

  4. Keeping it simple

  5. Testing it rigorously

Now, time to get writing!

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