Maslen on Marketing, Web copywriting

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A little later this month, I’m giving a speech for the UK Newsletter and Electronic Publishers’ Association. The theme? ‘Copywriting in the digital age’. There’s a suggestion in that title that somehow, things are different now, because of the Internet. But are they?

I think a lot of web ‘designers’ (you know, those crazy folk who think rotating graphics and tiny reversed out type make users happy) believe they are. Otherwise, how can we explain their predilection for content-light, graphics-heavy sites and tricksy navigation systems. But those of us who cut our teeth in boring old direct mail think otherwise. (Well, I do, anyway.)

What are you trying to achieve?

In fact, regardless of the medium, we’re still trying to do the same old things we’ve always been trying to do:

  • Persuade people to OPEN our communication.
  • Persuade people to READ our communication.
  • Persuade people to BELIEVE our communication.
  • Persuade people to ACT on our communication.

The Internet and its associated technologies HAVE changed things. But not in the way most people think. They haven’t meant copy doesn’t matter any more.

Nor have they ushered in a new era of ultra-brief copy. (Please, never believe anyone who tells you people don’t read long copy online. There are plenty of case studies that show the opposite. People don’t read–and have never read–BORING copy, whether online or in print.)

Being heard

What the internet HAS done is increased the amount of rubbish directed at consumers and businesspeople. It has altered the signal:noise ratio; and not in a good way. It has allowed the illiterate, the irrelevant and the idiotic equal billing with your carefully crafted marketing campaigns–because it’s CHEAP.

Remember this next time you are considering how to ‘reach’ the same number of people as direct mail, but for less money. Yes, the initial numbers look attractive, but the impact and response rates are significantly lower.

What does it all mean? Simply, this. Copywriting in the digital age is harder.

Whether you’re writing an email, a sales letter or an ad, you have to fight to be heard above a mounting cacophony of badly written copy foisted on an unwilling readership by those whose pride in their work is roughly that of nest-building swans. (Have you SEEN a swan’s nest?)

So, let’s remind ourselves of a few home truths:

Five tips for good copywriting in the digital age

  1. You need to hook people. Quickly. That means a compelling headline. And that means BENEFITS. Puns, obscure references and strained references to arbitrary and clichéd images won’t work.
  2. You need to keep people reading. That calls for a relentless focus on the things that interest your reader. Back to benefits again – they’re asking you, ‘what’s in it for me’.
  3. You mustn’t lose them through poor writing. If you introduce errors of style, spelling, grammar or punctuation, your reader will either notice your error and start looking for more (if they’re literate enough), or they’ll simply miss your point. Which is a bad thing.
  4. You have to make a compelling case for your product or service. Using words like ‘exciting’ and ‘amazing’, ‘unique’ or ‘important’ won’t help. Nor will tired old clichés like ‘cutting edge’, or business jargon like ‘bottom line’.
  5. You need to keep your reader in front of you at all times. Start writing for yourself, your boss, your shareholders or your colleagues and you are failing the big test of all copywriting: is it relevant to the reader?

This month’s message

It turns out that copywriting in the digital age is the same as copywriting in the steam age, a powerful combination of two old-fashioned skills: salesmanship and good writing. If you know what makes people tick and you can express that knowledge in plain English, you’re halfway there.

[Readability statistics for this article]

Sentences/paragraph                 2.5
Words/sentence                         12.0
Characters/word                         4.8
Passive sentences                      2%
Flesch Reading Ease                  58.8/100
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level        7.9


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