7 ways a great copywriter crafts compelling web copy

Paul Boag

Every website tries to convince users of something and most rely on copy to do so. Yet most companies refuse to invest in it.

How important is your website to your companies success? How much do you rely on it to bring in business?

These days most websites are business critical. We rely on our sites to persuade users to buy from us or get in touch. Yet most of the copy on our sites are not written by web copywriters. We think we can do it ourselves. After all we write all the time. But just because we write press releases or business documents, doesn’t mean we can write good web copy.

We pay money for a content management system to hold our copy and a design to make it look pretty. But we won’t pay for the copy itself! How messed up is that.

A good copywriter knows how to write engaging, compelling copy. Copy that nudges users into taking action. They won’t only communicate information about your brand. They will make users want your brand.

Still not convinced? Still think you can sit down and knock out some decent web copy? Well here are seven things you will need to become expert at if you want to be a great website copywriter.

They write with humanity

When most of us sit down to write copy we turn into corporate bot 2000. In other words we stop writing like a human being and start writing like a soulless corporation. We think it makes us sound professional, but it only distances us from the user.

Take for example this copy from a University website:

As well as ensuring students make the most of their potential through their academic studies, University of Essex also provides an environment which caters for all of the needs of its students through providing a range of accommodation, catering facilities, an active Students’ Union, sport and the arts.

Setting aside that is all one sentence, it lacks humanity. It talks about students rather than referring to the reader. They don’t even talk about us, instead referring to themselves in the third person.

Even a quick and dirty rewrite can make all the difference:

Student life is about more than studying. We support you with everything you’ll be looking for: from accommodation and catering through to an active Students’ Union, great sports facilities and an engaging arts programme.

Now it sounds like a conversation between two human beings. And that is only my attempt. Imagine what a real copywriter could do!

They balance clarity with cleverness

A good copywriter walks a fine line. They know that their copy has to be engaging. It has to be clever, witty, and attention-grabbing. But they also realise it needs to communicate clearly too.

Marketers often trip up here. They come from the world of broadcast marketing. A world where grabbing attention is everything. They focus too much on being clever. They tease and play with the reader in an attempt to draw them in.

A good copywriter doesn't fall into the trap of being clever at the cost of clarity and usability.

But as I have written before, a website is not a traditional marketing channel. Good web copywriters know that. They know that users don’t have the patience for too much word play. They want the information and they want it fast.

A good web copywriter knows that they have to get to the point. That they have to aid scanability. They accept that people aren’t actually going to read their copy in any detail. They understand the medium.

They know when to stop

Another fine line that copywriters walk is over how hard to sell. When we write we tend to overstate our case. But when we do so several things happen:

  • Copy becomes long and verbose.
  • We start looking desperate.
  • We start repeating ourselves.

A good copywriter will know when to stop. She will make the case in a compelling way and then stop. She will know how much detail is enough and she will never repeat the same message more than needed.

Instead of desperate self promotion, she will focus on answering user questions.

They begin with user questions

While most of us fixate on what we want to say online, a good copywriter starts from a different premise. They begin with what the user wants to know.

When users arrive on your website they have questions. Yet we spend our time telling them how great our products and services are. We end up failing to answer their questions and so they look elsewhere.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ) highlight this problem. Too often FAQ sections fail to live up to their name. They only answer the questions that the marketing department wish users would ask. Questions such as “how can your product be so good at such a low price?

McDonald's Canada did a brave thing when they directly tackled the tough questions people had about their product.
McDonald's Canada did a brave thing when they directly tackled the tough questions people had about their product.

In fact we often go as far as avoiding the questions users ask because we fear they won’t like the answers. We hide delivery charges, fail to talk about pricing or skip over our small print. We attempt to evade or distract. A good copywriter knows how to address these issues in a way that users can accept.

They focus on benefits not features

Then there are features. We love to write about our features. Web design agencies who talk about Drupal. Gadget stores who focus on technical specifications. The list goes on. Almost every field does it.

A good copywriter knows that most people don’t care about features. Not in their own right. They care about the benefits those features can bring to them.

A good copywriter focuses on benefits and not features.
A good copywriter focuses on benefits and not features.

People don’t care whether you develop in Drupal. They care that their site will be fast and easy to update. They don’t care about connection speeds. They care that they will be able to talk to friends over Skype without it breaking up.

But a good copywriter won’t only list the benefits. A good copywriter will know how to weave those benefits into a compelling story.

They tell stories

Everybody loves a good story. A good story engages us. It draws us in. In fact research shows us that when we hear a story, the brain lights up as if it was real. As if we were actually experiencing it ourselves.

That is powerful, and a good copywriter knows how to harness that. He will share positive stories of your products or services. That is because he knows users will imagine themselves experiencing that.

Media Temple does a great job at telling the stories of its customers.
Media Temple does a great job at telling the stories of its customers.

But he won’t stop there. He will use stories to keep the reader engaged and interested. He will tell the story of customers, employees and even the company itself. He will talk about what it would be like to use the product or service. He will paint a picture with his words. Do you think you could do the same?

They understand how we think

You see good copywriters understands psychology. That they can use techniques such as scarcity, social proof, framing and more. Use them to nudge the user towards the desired outcome.

There are some great books to show us the power of psychology in convincing people.
There are some great books to show us the power of psychology in convincing people.

They know how to wrap a narrative around our most basic human needs. To frame your product as meeting one or more of those needs. Do you know how to do that? Do you have a solid grasp of psychology theory?

No more pretending

Don’t misunderstand me. I am as bad. I wrote the copy on my business website. But it is time we stopped deluding ourselves. Stopped pretending we are experts in something that we are not. That our copy is ‘good enough’ when it is so critical to our businesses success.

As I see it we have one of two choices. We can invest time and money in improving our copywriting skills. A worthwhile aim and something we should all consider. Or we can accept that we don’t have the time and hire somebody who knows what they are doing.