The Importance of Good Copy | December 4, 2003

I work in the same building as a very talented direct mail copywriter. I'm constantly amazed at the amount of work that goes into creating a successful direct mail campaign. One of the interesting things about direct mail is that it's quite easy to measure success rates. For instance in most campaigns they will send out 2 or more versions and then see which produces the best results. This has lead direct mail copywriters to get very good a writing copy that sells.

When I talk about copy selling, I don't necessarily mean that it actually shifts products. In many instances it's as simple as getting the recipient to respond to the direct mail. Basically all the copy on the direct mail is there for a purpose. It's been designed to get people to follow a particular action.

Now it strikes me that writing for the web is very similar to writing for direct mail. With direct mail you've got to get the persons attention immediately. Once you've got their initial attention you need to spark their interest. The copy and design needs to say, read me and you'll get something out of it.

Once you've got the reader involved with your copy you need to build up their desire. Good copywriters do this by painting a picture, explaining values and letting the readers know what the benefits will be in an language they understand. Most DM copy will have a very strong value proposition and will be benefit, rather than feature led.

Once the desire is there the last job is to get people to act. Any good salesman will tell you the call to action is the most important part of a sales pitch. You can have the best product, let people know how useful it's going to be to them, but unless you actually get people to act it'll all be in vein.

In the DM world this process is called AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire and Action) and it's a technique that most good DM copywriters will use on a daily basis.

Essentially it's about writing persuasive copy. Copy that provokes the desired response. On the web that could be anything from getting people to read the next page or follow a link, to signing up for a service or buying a product. The bottom line is that good copy sells and a good web copywriter is literally worth their weight in gold.

Unfortunately the state of copy on the web is pretty shocking. A large amount of web copy is recycled from brochures, mission statements and other marketing material. It's usually dumped on the web team because the commissioning company involved either doesn't see the value or doesn't have the resources to write specific web copy. This type of copy has inherent usability problems. It's generally too long, feature or organisation focussed and written in a language only an MD or marketing department would love.

Instead you need to write copy that is user focussed. Look at the words your visitors use and use them yourself. A great way of doing this is to look at your search logs and feedback forms. By speaking the same language you make your readers feel comfortable and it gives them the impression that you understand them and are on a similar level. Using the same language is also key to getting good search engine rankings. In fact good copy is the most fundamental part of a good SEO campaign.

Unfortunately what goes on a website is often more about company politics than joined up thinking. To keep the marketing department happy they'll want to put one thing on the site, to keep the MD happy they'll want to put on another thing. You end up creating a site that the company love. That is until they realise nobody is using the darn thing. To get around this you need to have clear goals from the start. Then when the MD wants to put a message on the home page (complete with board room picture and signature) you can say what a nice idea you think it is, but that you're concerned that it doesn't support the goals that she and the board set down in one of the many long meetings you had a few months back. You'd be happy to do it, but it would mean changing the goals in the project document and getting the change signed off.

We all know that web users have the attention span of a goldfish. We scan read, we have multiple pages open a once. If the copy doesn't grab our attention and spark an interest we'll move on. Keep mission statements to end of year reports and business plans. Nobody wants to read them on the front page (or any page for that matter) of your website.

Web copy needs to be more like DM copy. It needs to be short and sweet. It needs to be written in a language the reader identifies with and not in an obscure dialect of marketeese. The copy needs to be value led rather than feature led. Don't tell me why your offering is the best. Tell me what that means to me and how i'll benefit. Then close the sale with a call to action. Don't just lay your cards on the table, cross your fingers and hope the person knows what to do next. Give them a hand. Point them in the right direction.

Fundamentally web copy needs to put the reader at the centre of focus and in this respect there is a lot we can learn from Direct Mail.

If you're interested in learning more about writing web copy and building persuasive websites here a few possibly useful links.

Posted at December 4, 2003 10:13 AM


Shaun Inman said on December 4, 2003 12:21 PM

Excellent. You’ve been chockfull of useful information lately Andy, cheers. What are your thoughts on hyperlinks peppered throughout copy? While being one of the most useful features of the web, it also encourages the low attention span of most web users and potentially interrupts AIDA. I think the approach you used in this article with the additional information links at the bottom is a perfect alternative.

The Scholar said on December 4, 2003 3:13 PM

Many excellent points Andy. Part of the thing that makes the web so difficult is that the copy of the site does not give the best idea as to what the website’s intentions are. We will ask many companies if they need us to write their content for them, but they insist on keeping “costs” low so they hand us a brochure and expect us to just cut and paste from there. The problem is that no costs are being cut, but more are being added, because you will lose many more customers through useless information on a website. People who do research on the web expect to find long articles. People who surf the web like to flow in and out from website to website as easily as the tide comes in at the beach.

Another glaring problem is how designers themselves overlook the importance of copy. Just because we are designers and we only design the look of a site does not mean we should not take care of what content gets added to those pages. The design molds around the content and not the other way around. If the content is not crisp, then the design is wasted anyways.

ste said on December 4, 2003 3:28 PM

Another good article on writing:

Sencer said on December 4, 2003 8:44 PM

I recommend this discussion:

It discusses an excellent piece of copy which you can find/read here, it is from 1925 and does a great job of AIDA:

David House said on December 4, 2003 9:10 PM

Yes. Corporate information on the web is copied ruthlessly and is sometimes not even relevant, but the world is moving toward a more web-based environment, with more and more companies being completely online and virtual.

When the dotcom bubble burst (aargh! Far over-used cliché!) people got scared. They took the easy way out — rolling in customers with posters and flyers, and having a website only for a problem-answer interface and because ‘all the other companies have one’.

Zelnox said on December 5, 2003 12:24 AM


I agree with Shaun. Additional links are good.