A lot of interface design is writing copy. There are more words on a web page than anything else. The content is all words, words are in the navigation, it’s on buttons, in the headings, it’s everywhere.
I don’t think of myself as a copywriter and I don’t present my self as one, but it’s hard to draw a clear line between web design and writing copy. I have found myself having to learn more and more about writing effective copy as I design more and more applications.
I’ve put together a list of questions I run through when I’m putting words together. You don’t need to check everything off. This is not a recipe.
First Draft #
- Do they know what the thing does and what it’s obvious benefit is? An easy way to get your pen to paper is to call up a friend, or catch up over coffee, and tell them about the thing. Don’t do a sales pitch, just tell them what it is and why its interesting. It doesn’t have to be a riveting story but by the end of it they should know what the thing does and what it’s obvious benefit is.
Second Draft #
- Do you have a helpful headline? The second draft should rearrange things to make the writing more persuasive. Single out the most useful feature and use it as the headline. The fact of the matter is that people don’t read copy, they look at stuff that is either new, unusual or helpful. New gets old. Unusual can be good if it works. Helpful is a solid bet. A good headline is clear. Just tell people how you can help them. This is also a good way to filter out people you cannot help. You only want interested people to continue reading. Avoid getting people to read stuff only to discover that it doesn’t apply to them.
- Have you translated the features into benefits? You want to place the most interesting part of your first draft right after the headline. In most cases, this will be the features of your product or service. You make features more interesting is to translate them into benefits. A simple way to translate a feature into a benefit is to add “which means that…” to the end your feature sentence. For example: “Our products are only made with organic ingredients which means that they are good for you and they taste delicious”. When phrasing your value proposition always assume that nobody cares. If you want someone to care focus on what THEY will get. Focus on how THEY will feel after buying it. Focus on how THEY will benefit from your product. If you have more than three benefits it might be a good idea to limit yourself to your top three, the most interesting first and the least interesting second.
- Have you made the call-to-action super obvious? The thing you ultimately want people to do is called the call-to-action. A good call-to-action is obvious ten steps away from a screen. Once you have a clear call-to-action, you can also reassure people by telling them what will happen once they complete the action.
Third Draft #
- Have you made an exhaustive list of all the possible objections? Put yourself in the shoes of someone who would benefit from buying what you have to sell. Make an exhaustive list of all the objections, complaints, frustrations or concern they might have about your thing. If you have not already addressed these barriers to purchase now is the time to weave them into your copy. The idea is to reduce the need for an FAQ by addressing concerns before they get asked. You can also have an FAQ for practical reference but your shouldn’t rely on it for persuasion. This is a fantastic exercise because it forces you to take a closer look at who you are trying to persuade and where they are coming from. A lot of people think you should do this before your first draft but I find it a more useful once I have some content to work with.
- Have you exacerbated the problem? Take your list of all the issues that your thing can help with and then ask yourself what related difficulties these problems might lead to. You’re looking to uncover implied problems. You connect the initial problem to the implied problem so that you build it into a problem large enough to justify action. For example: How have the reliability problems affected your maintenance costs? Has this harmed profitability?
- Have you targeted as many buckets as you can? Bucket your audience into the competitive, the benefit-driven and the inspirational. Competitive people will respond to comparisons that allow your offering to shine. Benefit-driven people like numbers and will respond well to testimonials. Inspirational people relate to the possibilities of what you can do with a product. Unless you product only targets one bucket, gear different sections to different buckets so that content appeals to all three types of people. There is a link to a video in the footer than goes through examples of each of the above.
- Have you added credibility to your offering? When people are skeptical, they don’t buy. Testimonials are a simple way to add credibility to your offering. Testimonials demonstrate that people have bought your product before, that it works and that they are happy with it. If you don’t have a testimonial, then you can borrow credibility by using a name. Say you are selling a Typeface, you can use a quote from Steve Jobs describing his obsession with beautiful typography. It is strange that this works, and it is not ideal, but it’s better than no testimonial at all.
- Are you being as specific as you can be? People will expect you to put your best foot forward. They will excuse exaggerations born of enthusiasm. For the same reason, superlatives account for little. Instead, be as specific as you can. A specific statement is more persuasive because it is either the truth or a complete lie.
Fourth Draft #
- Have you used active, positive and definite sentences? Active means using the active voice. “I will always remember my first visit to London.” Passively this could be, “My first visit to London will always be remembered.” The passive voice is unnecessarily vague. When an entire web page is in the passive, people will have a hard time reading it. Their eyes glaze over; they lose interest. Too much passive and your voice becomes boring and difficult to understand. Positive means using the positive form. Instead of “He is usually never on time “ use “He is always late”. Avoid tame, colourless, hesitant, non-committal language. Definite just mean using specific, concrete language. Use specific over general, definite over vague and concrete over abstract. Instead of “a period of unfavourable weather” say, “it rained every day for a week.”
- Have you omitted needless words and sentences? Vigorous writing is concise. Always omit needless words and sentences. When you can, remove it.
Most of the links are affiliate links, please use them to show your appreciation for the time I spent putting this together.
- ‘The Ultimate Sales Letter’ by Dan Kennedy
- 'This book will teach you how to write better’ by Neville Medhora
- 'Scientific Advertising’ by Claude Hopkins
- 'The Boron Letters’ by Gary Halbert
- 'Spin Selling’ by Neil Rackham