If a business has a website, it has web copy. And if a business has web copy, it has a problem.
What’s the problem? Simply put: how do you tell if your web copy is any good or not?
That’s a good question, and I’m going to answer it. But before I answer that, I’ve got a few other little things I’d like to address.
First and foremost: you might be scratching your head right about now and saying, “I’m not sure what web copy is, and at this point I’m too afraid to ask.”
It’s very important that we define what we’re talking about from the beginning, so here’s a rough definition: web copy is any written (or typed) communication on your website that’s meant to encourage your visitors to take action.
That’s not an official definition. That’s my definition. So if you think it’s a stupid definition, you can go ahead and take it up with yours truly.
(Don’t worry: I promise I’m going to get around to telling you how to tell if your copy is any good very soon.)
Here’s the thing: copywriting is all about action.
You’re not writing for your own personal expression. You’re not writing to tell the world all about your dreams, your hopes, or what you have nightmares about. You’re not writing to tell people what you think of the controversy of the week.
You’re not editorializing. You’re copywriting. And copywriting is about action.
If you fail to inspire action, you’ve failed at copywriting. Everything in copywriting is geared toward action.
Don’t forget that.
Kinds of bad web copy.
I know I’ve promised you I’ll tell you how to tell if your copy is any good, but that can wait.
First things first: how do you tell if your web copy is really bad? How do you tell if it’s so bad it’s not only failing to make sales, but it’s become a liability to you and your business?
I’ve come across three types of spectacularly bad web copy in my time. Let’s talk about them:
- Boring web copy.
This covers anything that doesn’t catch and hold the reader’s attention.
There’s a widely-cited statistic that says most visitors to a website only stay there for about 15 seconds. Companies that don’t want to put effort into their copy use that as an excuse for lazy writing.
Listen: some people don’t like to read online. That’s the way it is.
Write the most sparkling-brilliant web copy you can imagine. Write golden words sprinkled with angel dust. No matter what you do, your copy is never going to sell to people who don’t read.
But this is no reason to write bad web copy.
Good copy may not grab all the non-readers. But bad copy will alienate all the readers.
You’ve got to seduce your reader a little. Show you care. Show you see them. Show you know what they want.
Put real effort into your copy, and it’ll come back to you.
- Pushy web copy.
We all know web copy is written because it’s supposed to cause some action.
Your readers are smart people. They can tell if you’re trying to sell them something. They can tell if you want something from them. They can tell a lot more than you realize.
So there’s no reason to beat your readers’ eardrums by shouting, “Buy my thing!” in every other sentence.
They can tell you want something from them. Good copy isn’t about constantly reminding them of that fact. It’s about keeping their interest, inviting them to imagine buying from you, and giving them a positive emotional experience so they won’t resent you when you ask them to do something.
You’re going to have to invite them to take action sooner or later. But effective copy is written in such a way that your ideal reader has imagined doing the thing you want them to do long before you actually ask them to do it.
Even when we know we’re being guided to a conclusion, we like being allowed to feel like it was our idea all along.
- Completely nonsensical web copy.
The worst web copy—and I’ve seen this on more occasions than I like to admit—is the stuff that reads like it was written in a foreign language and run through Google translate.
It’s not only poorly written. It’s not only pushy or heavy-handed. It’s not only keyword-stuffed garbage.
It’s prose so awful you expect to read “All your base are belong to us” any minute. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t drive business.
It reads like it was written by an experimental computer program. And it drives away customers without as much as a second glance.
So that’s the bad stuff. What about the good stuff?
Good web copy works beautifully—but what is it?
I’m going to start out by saying something that probably sounds entirely obvious, but if you learn this one thing you’ll have learned the most important thing in all web copywriting.
This is central to everything. This is the alpha and omega of copywriting. Without this, you can’t hope to write the good stuff. With this, even a lousy writer can improve over time.
This is the North Star of copywriting.
This is the one point you can navigate by. In all the chaos and uncertainty of vague ideas, this is how you find your way. Out in the desert of not knowing how to get results, this is how you get results.
What is it? What’s the most important thing to know about copywriting?
It’s simple: good web copy improves your site’s conversions.
Good copy make customers more likely to buy from you. It makes prospects more likely to contact you. It makes visitors more likely to start a conversation with you.
Anything that makes it more likely that someone will buy from your company is good copywriting. That means you have to be intentional and experimental about your copywriting.
You don’t want your copy to be too short, because short copy doesn’t give enough time to create an effective emotional experience for the reader.
Here’s a tip: good copy is as long as it needs to be.
If it takes one word to skyrocket your sales, so be it. If it takes 10,000 words to get the same result, that’s just as good.
Our preconceptions cut our legs out from under us all the time. Don’t let your preconception of how long your web copy “ought” to be torpedo its effectiveness.
Good copy is about sales. Never forget that.
How do you write good web copy?
You know what you’re aiming for.
You’re aiming to make the kind of copy that will have clients with fat wallets drooling to buy from you.
You’re aiming to make the kind of copy that will send your business to the next level.
You’re aiming to make the kind of copy that will let you retire to your nice mansion in Honolulu where you eat gold flakes for breakfast.
Good web copy is a magnet for the green stuff. I hate the phrase “a license to print money,” but good web copy is probably the next best thing.
So how do you do it? How do you make your readers desperate to buy from you? How do you raise their buying desire to such a fever pitch that they’re ready to beg you to take their money?
It’s not hard. It’s complex, but not hard. With time, patience, and a little old-fashioned effort, you can do it for yourself.
Start out by getting to know your ideal customer in detail. You have to be ready to write for this person as confidently and as clearly as if she were sitting across the table from you.
You want to know this person. You want to know what they do all day. You want to know what they’re afraid of.
But most of all, you want to know what they want.
What do they want? What drives them? What is this person’s ultimate fantasy?
Are you selling sports equipment to an 18-year-old horndog? Show him all the gorgeous women who will be all over him the instant he buys.
Are you selling an investment plan to a woman who loves travel? Show her the canals of Venice or the rising peaks of the Himalayas.
Are you selling sandwiches to hungry people? Just show them the sandwich.
J.P. Morgan once said, “A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.”
When you write convincing, persuasive, seductive copy, it’s your job to know both. You want to entwine the good reason (“I’ll improve my income and be free of what’s holding me back.”) with the real reason (“I love the feeling of having someone go to great lengths to persuade me.”).
Good copywriting is all about understanding what motivates people. With a little time and effort, any clever person can learn that.
The best way to learn.
I’m not going to hype the best way to learn copywriting. It’s the same as the best way to learn any other kind of writing.
The best way to get better at it is to do it. A lot.
Start with your website. Then move on to volunteering with some nonprofits. If you do that for a while you’ll build up a nice portfolio with a lot of samples you can show to potential clients.
I’ll have plenty of more posts about copywriting in the future—in fact, I’m thinking about writing a whole series of pieces on copywriting methods. But the best teacher for copywriting skills is practice.
There are a million techniques I could mention right here. (If you’re clever, I’m sure you’ve noticed a few in this article.) But there’s no substitute for experience.
A natural talent for writing is nothing without diligent practice.
So if you’re a beginning copywriter, I’d advise practice. Lots and lots of practice.
But not only that: it’s also helpful for you to get in touch with some of the freelance writing communities gathered around the internet. If you’re looking for guidance, that’s the place to go.
And you could do worse than to let an experienced copywriter take a look at some of your work and critique it. I know some writers are awfully shy about their work, but (sad to say) writing doesn’t work very well if it never meets a reader.
It can be hard to submit your work to criticism. But if you give it to someone knowledgeable and trustworthy, it can be one of the quickest ways to improve your writing technique.
Best of luck to you. Copywriting can be an extremely rewarding profession, both personally and professionally. I love it, myself, and I hope I grow a little better at it every day.
Let me know if you have any questions or concerns about freelancing. I’m always trying to tailor this blog to your needs, so I’d appreciate the help.
And I know some of you don’t like to post publicly, so feel free to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d rather do it that way.
Good luck, and good copywriting!