Don’t make it about you (an introduction to copywriting for the web)

{Keep reading for my free web copywriting cheatsheet}


Warning: I’m about to bruise your ego.

It’s going to hurt a little.

But it’s for the best, I promise.

Here goes…

Your clients/customers don’t visit your website because they like you.

And they don’t care that much about your latest news, your new hire, or your cute studio dog either.

Ouch.

What are your customers interested in then?

To quote UX designer Samuel Hulick on this:

"People don’t buy products; they buy a better version of themselves" {Click to tweet this}

And I think the same holds true for service-based businesses too.

Companies aren’t interested in what you do; they’re interested in how you can make them more awesome.

I’ve noticed that design studios and freelancers often structure their websites something like this:

  • Home
  • Projects
  • News/Blog
  • About
  • Contact

It’s a tried and tested formula, and it works… ok.

But unless the copy is very carefully constructed, there’s a vital piece missing from the picture:

THE CLIENT.

D'oh!

Think about why a person might come to your website in the first place.

In the case of a design studio, it’s usually because they need a better website, logo, or brochure.

Or to be simplistic: because something is broken, and they want it fixed.

Yes, your potential customer wants to know that your studio creates great-looking designs. But ultimately they are looking for a solution to a problem, not evidence of how cool you are.

(I’m not saying that perceptions and first impressions don’t matter — but that the emphasis is wrong).

So...  

You need to switch the focus of your copy

Teehan+Lax (a design studio who are sadly now defunct) used to do a great job of explaining their work by telling stories.

Here’s how they opened their case-study for Shipwire:

"Imagine you’re a company with an incredible new product. You’ve been perfecting your idea, growing your business and marketing. Now people are placing orders, and you need to send your products around the world—thousands a day to dozens of countries."

You don’t get to see any of Teehan+Lax’s visuals until halfway down the page. (Almost 600 words later).

But this makes sense…

You need that background information to understand their thought process, and thus their design work.

Designers aren’t the only people overusing ‘we’ on their websites of course — I’m just starting with the industry I know best.

So let’s switch focus from services to products now.  
 


 

What superpowers does your product give people?

This might seem like an odd question.

Don’t worry though, it isn’t about skintight lycra outfits…

Have a read of this opening paragraph from the description of a new cycling jacket:

"We’ve gone all out to produce the finest waterproof in cycling. We’ve re-thought how to keep you comfortable. When the rain comes and doesn’t stop, this is the jacket. We have spent the greatest amount of R&D time ever on the Gills Jacket, and we’re hugely proud of it."

Count them: four mentions of “we”… and only one of “you”.

This is the copywriting equivalent of shouting “Me! Me! Me!”

Yes, it’s reassuring to know how much R&D time has been put into the jacket. But the reader is more interested in how the jacket will make him feel, not how the company who made it feels about it.

I see this problem with a lot of copy on the web…

It’s back-to-front.

So how do we fix it?

Basecamp's Jason Fried nailed it with this 3-sentence blog post:

"Most copywriting on the web sucks because it’s written for the writer, not for the reader. Write for the reader. That is all." {Click to tweet this}

Improving your copywriting really is this simple: construct your sentences with the emphasis on “you” rather than “I” or “we”.

Make it about your reader, not yourself.

Let’s circle back to that “People don't buy products; they buy better versions of themselves” quote from Samuel Hulick. Here is how he illustrated his point:

people-dont-buy-products-buy-better-versions-themselves

He then went on to elaborate:

"When you're trying to win customers, are you listing the attributes of the flower or describing how awesome it is to throw fireballs?"

In other words: to write better copy, think about the implicit reasons for using your product or service, not the explicit ones.

The first iPod wasn’t marketed as “a 5GB MP3 player” (boring/techy) but as “1,000 songs in your pocket” (wow/that’s cool).

Olark doesn’t bill itself simply as “live chat” (meh), but as a way to “make your customer’s happy” (win).

And it’s not “LinkedIn: a social network for business” (yawn), it’s “LinkedIn: Be great at what you do” (because who wouldn’t want that?)

These same principles apply to blogs as well…  
 


 

How to fix your about page

I know it’s not easy writing an about page.

The struggle is real.

And I’ve been there myself.

My old CycleLove ‘About’ page was only six sentences long, and opened in unsuitably pedestrian style:

“Hello fellow bike-lover! CycleLove was founded by London-based graphic designer James Greig early in 2012, and is dedicated to bringing you the very best of cycle culture: art, design, photography, style and heritage.”

I was halfway to engaging with the reader, but I never managed to get the page flowing how I wanted.

In short: the problem was that my copy was me-centric.

But there is a better way to write an about page.

Can you guess what I’m going to suggest?

Yup!

Don’t make it about you.

Start by thinking about the purpose of your about page.

If it’s a company blog, your about page is there to humanise what might otherwise be a faceless business entity.

And if it’s a personal blog, your about page isn’t just for telling your story, it’s also there to reassure your readers that they’re in the right corner of the internet.

(Which is why my own about page now opens with a series of questions, designed for the mindset of my readers, rather than with my personal blurb).

Tips for a better ‘About’ page

Think of your ‘About’ page as an ‘Am I on the right website?’ page for your readers, and you’ll have an instant advantage over your “Me me me” competitors:

  • Don’t start by talking about yourself. Describe the worldview of your target audience; engage with their problems and desires.
  • Match your copy to the objectives of your about page (one of which might be getting people to sign up for your newsletter)
  • Consider giving some social proof about why people should trust you (in the form of quotes or testimonials)
  • Once you’ve covered all of the above, then and only then is it time to dive into your personal story
  • End with a call-to-action or a thought-provoking question.




How to get inside your customer’s heads

If you’re new to copywriting, you might be wondering how to engage with your customers using just words.

Here’s what professional copywriters suggest:

Use the language that your customers use.

Literally.

Steal it from them.

Firstly, find the places where your customers hang out online. This might include: forums, the comments section on articles, Amazon reviews, or the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

Secondly, open up a spreadsheet or text document, and copy and paste in phrases that catch your eye. Look for reoccurring phrases, pain points and emotions. This is your copywriting gold dust; collect enough of it (it will take hours, perhaps days) and you’ve can melt it down into 24 carat copy.

Watch the video below of Amy Hoy’s awesome Sales Safari technique to see this approach in action:

Now, I’m not a professional copywriter so don't just take my word on this.

Joanna Wiebe is, and guess what? She recommends a similar approach:

> "You shouldn’t write copy. You shouldn’t look inside your head for the messages that will convince your prospects."

And she has some great tips for figuring out what makes your potential customers/clients tick:

  • If you have customers you can connect with, you can interview them, record the convo, transcribe it, and scour that transcription for juicy tidbits
  • If you have visitors to your site, you can do on-site interviews and mine their open-ended responses for gold.
  • If you know exactly where your prospects hang out, you can go there, sit quietly and pretend to play with your phone as you secretly record their convos… then transcribe, scour, etc.
  • If you have an engaged email list that’s not uber-tiny, you can email a survey to them and mine their open-ended responses, again, for gold.

Once you’ve built up a sizeable store of soundbites, work them into your text. Some quotes can be used word-for-word as headers, and others will need to be tweaked slightly so that they integrate into your copy.

If you haven’t written anything of length since your school days though, getting back on the writing pony can seem daunting.

But — with a little practice — it’s easier to get back in the saddle thank you think.

Of all the advice about writing I’ve read, this one-liner remains my favourite:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
> — Elmore Leonard

On the practical side of things, my advice would be to write as often as possible. Exercise your writing muscle every day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.

And if you want to step things up a gear, try taking my 30-day writing challenge. It uses accountability hacks so that you have no choice but to write every day, however bad a case of writing-excusitis you might have.


Ten ways to make your writing better

  1. Write like you talk. If you get stuck, record yourself talking about a subject (to a friend if needs be, or just to yourself). Conversational language is more both engaging and more easily digestible than business lingo.
  2. Keep sentence short. But do vary the length of both your sentences and your paragraphs. Rhythm matters.
  3. Remove unnecessary words. If it doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence, you probably don’t need it.
  4. Don’t be afraid to break a few rules. Start a sentence with ‘And’ if you need to. (If you listen to how people talk, a lot of what they say isn’t grammatically ‘correct’, because we’re beautifully fallible humans, not robots.)
  5. Avoid exclamation marks(!) Use a strong word or a more descriptive metaphor instead. Give it verbal punch rather than peppering it with punctuation.
  6. Get multi-sensory. Evoke feelings, sights, sounds and textures in your writing. The more life-like the world that your writing conjures up, the more it will stick in the mind of your reader.
  7. Use formatting to make your copy more scannable. That means headers, sub-headers, and bold text where appropriate. People tend to skim-read on the web rather than read everything, so do everything you can to facilitate this.
  8. When you’re done, read it out aloud. I sometimes use the text-to-speech option on my Mac to check my copy over for glaring errors: Clicking Edit->Speech->Start speaking will read out everything on the page, or whatever text is currently selected.
  9. Consider using an online tool like Grammarly to check for spelling and grammar mistakes, and/or enlisting a proof reader.
  10. If you get stuck, hire a copywriter. A well-written website is an investment, not an expense.

Download these tips as a handy PDF:

GET MY FREE WEB COPYWRITING CHEATSHEET
 

Suggested reading for better writing

Here's a thought: like Bert and Ernie, reading and writing are inseparable bed-fellows.

Which means that the more you read, the better you will write:

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

— Stephen King

So to finish off, here are a few of my favourite destinations for writing tips.

(They’re not exclusively about copywriting for the web… because that would be boring).

Phew.

This article just passed the 2000 word mark.

A few years ago I couldn’t have imagined writing anything of this length. (All those essays on Shakespeare and Chaucer at school killed off my enthusiasm I think).

But when I started CycleLove, I found myself being slowly reeled back into the habit of writing.

Before I knew it, two-paragraph blog posts became two-page essays.

I began to enjoy the limitation of working only with words, instead of having to consider colours, type, fonts and photographs.

And more than that, I realised that words are the building blocks for almost everything:

“You can make anything by writing”

― C.S. Lewis

If you’re new to writing online, I hope that what you’ve just read was helpful.

(And I'd love it if you could share this article using the button below. Thanks!)

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