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Here’s why it’s so hard to write convincing copy

What is copy supposed to do?

We believe this: copy is your online salesperson. If it’s not selling, it’s not doing its job. If it’s not turning prospects into leads, leads into sales and sales into referrals, it’s honestly not doing its job. Which means that, generally speaking, copy is not doing its job.

Is copywriting broken?

The thing is that we’ve gone and made it hard for copy to do its job.

Check out what I mean – and tell me if you agree that these 2 problems are making it harder to write convincing copy. Let’s start with the first problem…

By focusing on “scanners,”
we’ve enabled bad-for-biz behavior

Back in 1997, Jakob Neilsen taught us this: “People don’t read online.”

And I’ll never forgive him for it.

Lemme back up: I’ve been writing copy for the last 13 years. To put that in perspective, most of today’s startup CEOs were taking eighth-grade algebra while I was writing home pages. I’ve been reading NN Group and quoting Don’t Make Me Think for a gajillion internet years. tldr: my opinions on reading vs not reading online aren’t crazy hunches but pretty decently informed by, like, years of studying and years of practice. Cool? Cool. Let’s continue…

So the arguments against reading online go like this:

  • Screens tire our eyes
  • The web is a user-driven medium (that is, our lizard brains like clicking shit)
  • All the other pages are calling to me!!!
  • Life is so hectic that no one can prioritize processing information

Let’s look at that first argument: screens tire our eyes.

I appreciate that reading on a screen is a different experience from reading a piece of paper. It is. Just like reading a piece of paper is a different experience from reading a stack of papers. And reading a stack of papers is a different experience from reading a novel. And reading a novel is a different experience from reading a newspaper. And reading a newspaper is a different experience from reading a teenager’s angsty love poem.

Everything written that can be read creates its own reading experience. Have you tried reading a novel while lying in bed? Your arms get sore; you keep turning your head back and forth as you switch from recto page to verso page; your thumbs even start to hurt from holding the book above you.

But people still read novels while lying in bed. It is a suboptimal experience, but we do it.

When I look at all four of those arguments above – chiseled into digital stone here – I can’t help but think they make web users sound like stunted, immature squirrels. Which maybe we are.

……But do we have to be?

Are we perhaps this way because our destructive inability to pay attention is enabled by the “best practice” that is to write for scanners, not readers?

Attention spans are certainly getting worse – there’s no denying it, and there’s data to support it (here, here). Author and researcher at Microsoft Research, Danah Boyd noted that young people in particular:

“are growing up in a world that offers them instant access nearly everywhere to nearly the entirety of human knowledge, with incredible opportunities to connect, create and collaborate. While most of the survey participants see this as mostly positive, some said they are already witnessing deficiencies in young people’s abilities to focus their attention, be patient and think deeply.”

Instant access to digital stimuli is harming our ability to focus and think deeply.

And it’s getting worse.

Y’know what else is getting worse?

Obesity in Asia. (Stay with me here.) Obesity in Asia is almost as bad as obesity right here in North America. Y’know what makes us fat? Doing the frictionless thing that feels good in that moment. This is not rocket surgery: if you sit in a chair gaming for 10 hours while eating processed foods, you will get fat. The more you sit in your chair gaming and snacking, the harder it is to stop. We all want to do the frictionless thing that feels good in that moment.

When our websites cater to the frictionless thing that feels good in that moment – like scanning for an image we can rest our eyes on – we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that people read less… and less… and less…. And we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re able to focus on getting something done (like starting a trial or going through onboarding) less… and less… and less….

Case in point:

Eyequant attention mapping click tracking

As seen on the Eyequant blog

See what people are reading and, more importantly, what they’re not? The only elements getting attention are the big shiny ones. But what about body copy? It’s so unread, it should just be taken off the page. But that would put all of the persuasion pressure on the headlines, crossheads, button and pictures. Which means the copywriter is asked to convince the prospect using little 6-word phrases scattered around the page.

It starts to feel like the job of the copywriter is to catch flies with chopsticks. Little bits of attention pop around the place, and the copywriter has to chase that attention with astounding soundbites. If you manage to convince 2% of visitors that way, you’re a fucking genius.

When we write for scanners, we are enabling and encouraging an increasingly poor ability to concentrate ON OUR VERY OWN MESSAGES.

If people don’t read the copy, they can’t consume the message. Copy is broken.

Case in point: the Copy Hackers course page. When some fabulous person signs up for our course, we tell them that they’ll need to be signed into their Copy Hackers account before they can access the course. Pretty straightforward. We explain this important point to them in an email; and we repeat it on the course sign-in page:

Scanning eyes

Yet even with very clear directions given repeatedly, we receive “help me – I can’t sign in” emails on a rather regular basis. People try to go straight to a course without signing in first. (Side note: yes, we’re changing our course delivery system. :) )

Failing to read instructions often means that our users fail to complete tasks. Those failures are not their fault. They’re ours, and they’re the fault of every site that panders to scanners and rewards low attention spans. …Which is not to say that we need to put our visitors to work. That’s not the solution. But we do need to ask important questions before we jump to “people don’t read online.” Those questions are:

  1. Are our best prospects scanning for bite-sized information?
  2. If they are, do they ever reach a stage where they switch from scanning (or light foraging) to reading (or consuming)?
  3. If they do, at what stage in the funnel do they make that switch? – and are our pages and emails at that point optimized not for scanners but for readers?

Writing for scanners may be effective when those scanners are 1) prospects with 2) lower awareness of our brand, product or offer.

But should we still write for scanners when we’re deeper in the funnel?

Which brings me to Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is the king of pandering to the scanners. You might recall that, after Obama’s final State of the Union address, Trump tweeted that it was “boring” and “too slow”:

Is ol’ Drumpf an idiot with no attention span? (Don’t answer that.)

Or is he perhaps pandering to scanners because he’s still at the top of the funnel in the race to be POTUS?

Trump stages of awareness

Maybe he’s just, um, being really thoughtful about the whole thing?

When we communicate for scanners, we’re more likely to hit more of them.

But are those masses actually the decision-making prospects we want to “hit”?

Is it wise to write for everyone when, in fact, everyone is not the same? When each individual prospect changes as she moves from unaware to pain to solution to product to most aware? When the lead that didn’t even know your software’s name a month ago is now talking to his manager about starting a trial?

Which brings me to the second big reason I believe it’s harder than ever to write convincing copy…

The home page sucks up every marketer’s attention.

I’d be hard-pressed to find a prospective client that hasn’t asked me to rewrite their home page.

Home pages get tons of traffic – often the most traffic of any page on a site. So they seem like the perfect starting point when it comes time to optimize our copy.

But here are three reasons why home pages are a total pain in the ass to try to write killer copy for:

  1. They welcome – and have to try to connect with – an extremely diverse range of visitors.
  2. Those visitors are in any of the five stages of awareness.
  3. We don’t really know what a home page exists to do. So, short of looking at bounce rates, we don’t know how to be sure if it’s working or not.

Let’s explore that last point for a moment: why do home pages even exist?

I had a really hard time finding an answer to this problem. Seth Godin says they don’t need to exist. And according to this site, home pages exist for these two reasons:

  1. To establish trust
  2. To move people off the page

…Which really means home pages exist to establish trust. (Because I find it hard to believe anything needs to exist just to move people away from it.)

So we have this page that a ton of our traffic goes to, and it exists to build trust so people will go find the right page to be on…

…Well why the fuck don’t we just put them on the right page to begin with?

Why do home pages exist?

Okay, well, while I picket outside websites for the mass removal of The Superfluous Home Page, there are two other [related] problems to address: 1) home pages get tons of diverse traffic that 2) runs the length of the awareness spectrum:

Unaware –> Pain aware –> Solution aware –> Product aware –> Most aware

At each stage of awareness, your prospect needs different information. How her info needs change looks a bit like this:

How long does your page need to be?

So lemme get this straight: allllll those people in allllll those stages with allllll those different info needs are supposed to be fed the same information / copy on your home page… and then act? Really? Really? How could your home page copy possibly serve and convince so many people to act? What would your messaging hierarchy look like? What would you lead with? What features would you list, if any? What benefits or motivators would they ALL need to see? What would your headline look like?

In Great Leads, copywriters Michael Masterson and John Forde teach us what to lead with on a page based on the visiting prospect’s stage of awareness:

  • If the visitor knows your product, then lead with your product.
  • If the visitor knows not your product but rather what he wants, then lead with his want.
  • If the visitor knows his pain or problem but not much more, then lead with that problem (and turn it into a specific need).

…So what do you lead with on a page that welcomes everyone in every stage? How are you supposed to write your home page headline? You’d have to lead with everything. 

Little wonder we get so many requests for home page copywriting help.

“Here, copywriter – write our home page.”

Value propositions are often the go-to for home page headlines. For good reason (i.e., value props are big for conversion). But not for great reason (i.e., why do home pages exist?!!).

One of the best solutions I’ve been part of coming up with for a home page is this one:

Four Eyes copywriting

It’s not a home page. It’s a streamlined view of the app that’s hosted on the brand domain (in this case GetFourEyes.com). You don’t read or scan marketing copy; you just start doing what you came there to do. Is this sort of home page the best solution for lower-awareness visitors? Nope! But a please-everyone home page headline is, as I’ve mentioned, impossible. And this solution is fantastic for any visitor in any stage of awareness that’s tasked with creating a survey. …And that brings us briefly to jobs to be done. Which brings us briefly to the need to think of the actual a job your visiting prospect wants to complete on your home page.

(Side note and bonus points: That FourEyes home page is an incredible demonstration, which is the secret tool of any copywriter.)

Home pages as they are today suck.

Home pages are broken.

And they’ve taken copywriting (and design and UX) down with them.

Instead of working on the hub that brings in vast ranges of traffic, I encourage my clients and students to write better copy for more landing pages that are targeted at prospects in each stage of awareness.

Every business needs more and better emails than it’s got.

Every business needs more and better landing pages than it’s got.

Every business needs more and better demonstrations than it’s got.

Ecommerce businesses need to work on the copy for each and every product description they’ve got.

And yet…

Most businesses treat email as a set-it-and-forget-it-thing, rarely rewriting older drips and rarely planning new ones.

Most businesses reuse existing landing pages or drive ad traffic to their home page.

Most businesses rely on easier-to-create static photos, testimonials and marketing copy alone to “demonstrate” the product.

Ecommerce businesses complain that they have too many SKUs to write custom copy for each one.

The copywriting work that is most likely to pay the bills – that is, emails, landing pages, demos and custom sales copy – gets deprioritized. Why? I assume it’s because it takes work to customize a lead-gen page for X audience; it’s easier to drive X, Y and Z to one page (and it’s extra-easy to make that page your home page – it’s already written!). Even though we can duplicate any of our landing pages and quickly customize them in any landing page solution – like Unbounce, Leadpages and Kickoff Labs – we don’t. And worse yet: our copywriters don’t urge us to. And they absolutely should urge us to because they’re the ones that put fingertips to keyboard and actually try to bring ideas to life on the page. If those ideas are too vague because they’re trying to serve too many masters, your copywriter knows. (Or should know.) And your copywriter needs to tell you. And you need to listen.

To fix your copywriting:
Join my mastermind or enrol your copywriter in it

But let me leave you with a little optimism. A lot, actually.

Because for all the places copywriting is broken, I think there are a ton of places where it’s better than ever.

There’s room for optimism… if we could just solve the scanning thing and the home page thing.

Here’s why I think we’re just scratching the surface of what copy can do for startups. Have a read (not a scan):

delightful copywriting

If you use Slack, you’ve read the light, easy and fun copy Anna is responsible for writing / overseeing. It’s a combination of creative and moving. It’s the best of conversion copywriting.

The thing about most copywriters is that we started out as writer-writers. We still wake up at 4am to get a few hours of writing in before the workday begins. We go on writing retreats. And we read everything we can get our hands on. All that to say this: we are very creative people. Even though we respect and practice the science of copywriting, we also respect and practice the art of it. We could bring a lot more creativity to the table… which could do cool shit for your business.

~jo

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"I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have."
~ Thomas Jefferson

About Henry Lake

Over 16 years of Internet Marketing experience with focus on list building. Enjoy sharing ideas with other marketers.

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