Copywriting 101 For Web Designers
If you are working on a marketing site for yourself or a client, your goal is to sell something.
Now selling doesn’t always mean that a purchase is made, you could be selling a product that is free (download my app!) or that is purchased using an email address (sign up for my newsletter!).
The important thing is that there is a specific action you want the user to take and your design needs to lead them to it.
Now, there are all manner of ways to accomplish this from a design perspective. But just as important as the design, if not more so, is the language you use to direct your user.
Designers loathe spending any more time on copy than absolutely necessary. My job isn’t to worry about what is said, just how it looks, right?
Design in general, and web design, in particular, is all about text.
In fact the only thing you need when building a website is text (hypertext to be exact).
Granted text without design won’t look great, but the meaning of the site (it’s purpose) will still be communicated.
Design without text? Beautiful yes, but practical? Not so much.
Remember, the web is fundamentally a communication medium, so form follows function in this case.
The good news is that your form can be all the more impactful if you embrace the beauty and art of that function.
Copywriting, like design, is an art, not a science. And like any art it appeals to our emotions, our feelings, and our desire to have a compelling, enjoyable experience.
4 rules of copywriting that all web designers should know:
1. Emphasize benefits, not features
One of the mistakes I frequently see designers make is that they describe the features of a website rather than its benefits. This is only natural because as a designer you are hyper focused on designing those exact features and figuring out how they come together to build the whole.
Unfortunately, almost no one buys for features, per se. Of course the features matter, but only in relationship to what they have to offer the user.
When a user lands on your page, they are asking only one thing: What’s in it for me? How will this web application / designer / app / newsletter solve my problem?
Your goal therefore isn’t to describe the bells and whistles you have spent so much time perfecting but focus entirely on how those bells and whistles will make life easier / better / faster / longer for your user.
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Whenever you find yourself wanting to describe a feature (Analytics! Easy template creation! 10,000 video library!), rewrite the sentence to clearly state how that feature will benefit the user. And then consider cutting most of the language about the feature itself.
Crazy I know!
Look you need to describe the product enough so that the user clearly understands what they are buying, but everything else is just clutter, and what designer likes that?
2. Don’t fail the we test!
This test is a corollary to features vs benefits rule, but this mistake is so common and so pernicious that it merits its own section.
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In Richard Price’s 2008 novel Lush Life, the main character, a cop working New York’s Lower East Side named Matty Clark explains what cop’s call the I test:
“When we’re interviewing somebody who claims to be a witness but we think was maybe a little more…involved than that? It’s called an I test. You sit them down and take their statement, written, dictates, whatever, and when you’re finished, you count up and divide the pronouns. If a girl gets shot and the boyfriend’s story consists of sixteen Is and mys, but only three hers and shes?–he just flunked.”
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In all seriousness, running your copy through a quick we test is the easiest and quickest way to diagnose your biggest copy mistakes.
I am not saying that you can’t ever use we, but if you find yourself using it more than two or three times in a page, you are in the danger zone.
But don’t worry, this is easy to fix! Simply re-frame every sentence so that you are using the second person (you) and voila! 90% of your problem will be solved.
Oh and make sure you don’t just swap out “we” for the name of your company. It may pass the we test, but its no better!
3. Headlines! They are everything so make ‘em sexy.
This is actually one copywriting rule that most designers can get behind.
Headlines are to copy what logos are to the overall design. Yes, word count wise they make up just a small portion of the total, but they are easily the most important line of copy you will write.
In fact, many copywriting specialists encourage you to spend 80% of your copywriting time on the headline, alone.
When it comes to writing an excellent headline that will pique a user’s interest and drive them into your sales funnel in hordes, the key is to err just on this side of completely outrageous.
This might be a little hard to swallow since most web designers believe in the fine art of subtlety. But there is no room for subtlety in headline writing.
You want your headline to be compelling, emotional, specific, and most importantly, curiosity inducing.
Your goal with a headline is to keep the person on the page. So the more tantalizing and provocative the better.
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4. When in doubt, A/B test
How do you know when a website design is heading in the right direction?
Most web designers describe this general feeling of being in “the zone” where things start to fall into place.
But sometimes, you can’t find “the zone” or your fantastically beautiful design falls flat because it isn’t right for the audience or purpose.
The same thing is true of copywriting. You might find yourself writing dozens of headlines, none of which sound quite right.
Time to call in the A/B testing!
The truth is simply that you won’t always know and you won’t always be right.
That’s ok! You aren’t all knowing. Better to admit it up front and use the tools at your disposal.
And what’s even better is that A/B testing copy is 10000x easier than A/B testing design.
So if you find yourself fighting with a co-worker, client, or just yourself, about some copy, just test it.
Great copy resources for further reading:
- Web Copy That Sells, Maria Veloso
- 5 Secrets to Non-Sucky Copy, Laura Belgray
- Words That Sell, Richard Bayan
- 52 Headline Hacks by Jon Morrow
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FrontPage Image: Fake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of the word Copyright via Shutterstock