Writing great copy for websites is unlike writing copy for other media. Here we examine ways for you to boost your engagement and improve your visibility on results pages by looking in depth at the style, structure, and content of the copy on your website.
But first, a little history.
Copy and paste are two of the greatest tools in a writer’s arsenal, but back in the early days of the internet it was chronically overused when it came to creating website content.
Web designer: So we’ve wireframed the website for you, and done the basic build. Can we have that content now, please?
Company Manager: [feeling smug about being able to use technical language] Yes, absolutely. I shall copy-and-paste the text from our last brochure and email it to you.
An exaggerated example to be sure, but very representative of the mindset and process of businesses who were sorting out their online presence for the first time. The concept of online marketing was still in its infancy, and little thought was given to the target audience.
So Why Is Copywriting For Websites Important?
In a nutshell, “content is king”.
The copy you write for your website fulfils three roles:
- Sales: Your content is what is going to convince visitors to your site to buy your product or service
- SEO: Your content is what Google and other search engines are going to look at to work out how relevant your product or service is to the visitor’s search query
- Publicity: Your content is what people are (hopefully) going to share, driving more visitors to your site.
Images are powerful, and they are great for illustrating a point or helping elicit an emotion in the reader, but they’re not searchable. While worth “a thousand words”, are they the exact words you want your reader to hear? You can’t necessarily guarantee that, as what your visitor sees and thinks with any given image is entirely subjective and out of your control.
Out of your control, that is, until you give them context. The context you provide with your copy.
To write not just for the web, but for your ideal customer, you need to know who they are. Research them thoroughly either through questionnaires on your existing site or social media, or by contacting past customers and asking directly.
- Why did they buy your product/service?
- What would make them buy it again?
- What would make them never buy it?
- What problem did it solve for them?
- What features drew them to it?
- What didn’t they like about it?
- Where did they hear about it?
- What other products did they look at before settling on yours?
The answers to these questions, and more, will inform you what to include in your product/service descriptions and any surrounding articles you write. You’ll find out what you’re doing right, and what you can highlight as major features and benefits. You’ll also find out problems – those things you either need to address in your product or make allowance for in your copy.
Additionally, you’ll find out where they get their information from, and what your competitors are doing. Take note of the words they use to describe or complain about things. You’ll need that sort of linguistic information when it comes to talking about your products in their language when we get down to style.
Before style and structure you have to have content, otherwise, there’s nothing to hang the other two elements on.
The first thing to consider when it comes to writing copy for your website is the goal. What is it you want to achieve from the piece? What do you want people to do? It might be to buy one of your products, hire one of your services, subscribe to your email list, download a catalogue. Then again, perhaps your primary aim is simply to add fresh, relevant content to your site to help keep it active on search engine listings.
Each one of those possible goals will inform what it is you’re going to write and your goal is to deliver that content in such a way that the reader, almost without thinking, does what you want them to do at the end of it.
Fundamentally, people are driven by feelings. They act on emotion rather than rational thought. Rationalising your actions usually comes later. Above all else you want people to have an emotional reaction to your writing.
When it comes to selling your product or service, the focus is key. Not on what is important to you, mind, but what is important to your customer. Listing the features of your must-have fashion accessory or advisory service is all well and good, but a list of features doesn’t speak to people, it doesn’t make them feel. It’s dry and factual.
The person visiting your site is looking for something specific – the solution to a problem. If you know what the problem is, tell them how your product will solve it, what it will do for them.
Take the large printer/copier as an example: the visitor to your site is sick of the machine running slowly and breaking down leading to costly repairs. Your new model:
- Outputs 150 pages per minute
- Is made of the latest hardened polymers
- Comes with a 7-year warranty
In listing those features, you are not solving their problem. You’re just stating facts – useful, but uninspiring. Turn those features into benefits, however, and it’s a different story. You’re telling them what they want to hear, what it does for them…
- Is one of the fastest copiers on the market giving you more time to focus on the important things
- Queuing time at the machine is reduced, improving the overall efficiency of your company
- Is incredibly durable, so you don’t need to worry about it breaking down.If the worst comes to the worst, you won’t need to pay for parts
You know your business and what makes it special, you know your products and services inside out. Don’t just look at the content change there, listing the benefits rather than features; note the use of “you” – appealing directly to your customers.
Turn your features into benefits.
Don’t talk about you.
Do talk about them.
One of the great ways to draw people in is to start with a question. What is the question they’re asking when they come to your site? Do you have a good answer for them? Encourage them to think about their problem and the solution you propose, but keep your answers simple, emotive – you don’t want them thinking too much. You want them feeling.
The biggest feelings we have are hope and fear. Like the carrot and the stick, people will move towards hope (the carrot) and away from fear (stick) – the important thing is that they’re moving in the direction you want them to go.
- Tell a personal story about how you came to start the business – sell them the tale of your dream, make them believe, make them want to be a part of it. Let them share in your success.
- Tell a personal story about the terrible time you went through because something wasn’t available, and how you’ve made it your mission to make sure no-one goes through that again.
The stories needn’t even be true. Create a case-study based on your ideal customer – just make it credible or, if you can, use the real-life story of one of your customers who bought your product or used your service. A photographer might tell the story of a client who hated cameras, had huge self-confidence issues, but started to feel better about themselves following a make-over and photoshoot.
Emotions like hope and fear, and humanising the story to make it relatable and trustworthy, are more likely to nudge people in the direction you want.
Copywriting for websites needs to be different to other media as people consume information on the web in a wholly different manner. They know that if they can’t see what they want quickly, they’re just a click or two away from another website that probably will have it at a glance. They are impatient. They scan before reading properly, so your style of writing should be engaging from the outset, encouraging them to read further.
Through your research, you should have a pretty clear idea of who your ideal customer or reader is. You know and understand the problem they have that you are able to solve, you know where they get their information and influences, and again – all of that will inform the language you use.
- Think about your tone: are you friendly? Upbeat? Enthusiastic? Authoritative? Approachable? Your word and phrase choice will affect your tone accordingly. There’s nothing wrong with being authoritative, as long as you’re not condescending along with it.
- Make your reader your imaginary friend, and talk to them as you would a friend
- Make it a conversation, talk TO them, not AT them
- Engage with them and question them, using their language
- Don’t confuse them with jargon – keep it simple – you don’t want to alienate them
- Make your points concise, but show your personality – don’t make your business a faceless shell – show them the person behind it, relate to them so they relate to you
- Tailor your tone according to your content and your audience
While we’ve already mentioned it in the section on content, your use of questions and stories also comes down to style. If delivered in a conversational style, those stories are going to be more trustworthy and ultimately have a greater impact on the reader.You can answer a question directly, or you can answer with a story – tell your imaginary reader the way your business had an impact on someone’s day and the way it solved someone else’s problem. Make them imagine that they are that person. It’s a softer sell, and taking the next step will feel more like their idea than yours.
The structure of your copy will influence the way people read it. As we’ve already mentioned, people looking at websites tend to be impatient and will scan a piece loosely before reading it fully, or choose not to. That’s why it’s important to make sure you make clear use of headings and subheadings. Without going too technical, these are best based on the hierarchy of HTML heading tags with <h1> tags being the most important and <h6> being least.
The way you use them, however, will depend on the type of copy you are writing. If you’re writing to describe your product or service and what you offer, you’re going to need to relate these headings to the key features and benefits of your product.
For a product or service, you will likely have just one heading and subheading, then bullet points and a short paragraph to engage the reader.
- Product Name <h1>
- Heading <h2>
The unique selling point. What makes it special, what sets it apart from your competitors. Clear, concise, and credible.
- Subheading <h3>
This can be a little longer. A sentence outlining the benefits of your product to your reader, tell them in a few words what it will do for them and how it solves their problem
- Bullet points
Highlight the key features with another few words on the benefits it brings. Also, use these to address any concerns such as ongoing costs – highlight the value for money.
On the other hand, if you’re writing a blog post or publicity piece, those headings should be tailored to the key points and sections of the post. Taking this article as an example, the structure looks something like this:
- Heading/Title <h1>
The title of the piece.
- Subheading <h3>
A quick sentence outlining what people can expect to see in the article
The first paragraph of the piece, written as a further introduction
- Subheading <h2>
The first major section.
The content relating to the above subheading
- Subheading <h2>
The second major section
- Subheading <h2>
The third main section
[…and so on…]
The purpose of this kind of layout is to enable the reader to see at a glance what the key points are and assess whether or not the article is going to at least loosely have the content they require. If you want them to stay and hear what you have to say, you need to grab them quickly with appropriate markers.
It’s also worth mentioning image captions and pull-quotes. Even if your reader is scanning quickly through your document, there’s a good chance they will read the captions on your images, infographics, or other artwork.
Keep your captions relevant, so they get a sense of the point it’s making. It’s also a great opportunity to let your personality come through outside of the main body of the text.
Pull-quotes can be a great way of drawing the reader’s eye to a key point that you’re making as they skim through. Choose wisely and it will probably be the kind of information they are looking for.
These rules are not hard and fast, of course, and according to your content and audience should be tweaked, bent, or broken accordingly. The important thing is that it’s written and structured in a fashion that will suit your reader.
Concluding Your Piece
You set out with a goal in mind. You know that goal, but your reader might not. Call them to action! You’ve been leading them to this point throughout your text:
- Through your organised structure guiding them through a thought process.
- Through your relevant content highlighting the benefits to them
- Through your delivery, making them feel comfortable and familiar, while still nudging them in a direction through an emotional response
Tell them what you want them to do. “Buy Now!”, “Get In Touch Now!”, “Sign Up To Our Newsletter!”, “Get One Of The Last Slots!”, “Download Our Catalogue!”.
If you’ve done it right, that click will be a no-brainer.
Concluding this piece
Right back at the beginning of this article we mentioned SEO, but haven’t really touched on it since. You see, that’s the mark of great copywriting. The keywording and optimisation should be natural and inherent in your writing. If you are focusing on the relevant content, the keywords will simply appear because it’s your subject matter. You don’t need to shoehorn them in, and your headers will also contain them.
There is, of course, much more to visibility on the web than simply keywording, but well-written and structured copy is an absolute keystone of it.
And finally: a note on spelling and grammar: Check it.
Twice. At least.
Then get someone else to do it for you as well.
Running it through spellcheck in Word or using a tool like Grammarly is a great start and good for picking up obvious mistakes, but a comprehensive read and re-read will allow you to gain a sense of flow. Remember, this is a conversation with a friend… read it out loud… if it doesn’t sound natural to you, change it. This is your voice!
Spelling and grammar mistakes are easily made, either through an obscure bit of knowledge that you lack, or simply tired fingers. Nonetheless, people will spot them, and even the most forgiving reader will instantly start to mistrust your brand.
These mistakes really can cost your business money in lost revenue. Check out this article from the marketing guys at HubSpot citing examples from the BBC, Topshop, and the Australian Navy.
If it all sounds like a lot of work, and let’s face it, it is. You could always hire a professional copywriter – like us. We know how websites work, we know how marketing works, we know how people work. Whatever your messages, Merlin’s Mule is not afraid to shout. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today.
We hope you’ve found this piece useful, and hope you’ll check back soon for other useful bits of web design and copy inspiration.