A business’s website represents its public face and voice and can be a powerful tool for sales, marketing, and public relations. The copy is just one of many components that make up the site, but it’s a key vehicle for your company’s message. How then do you write killer website copy?
Most of us recognize bad website copy when we see it—it’s too long, it’s boring, and it doesn’t supply the information we’re looking for. While it’s easy to critique web copy, it’s a little harder to write it. I’ve been creating web copy for businesses since 1999, and I’ve watched the form evolve from text-heavy brochure pages to attractive, streamlined sites that engage visitors and support the sales process. What follows are the most useful lessons for small business owners distilled from my years of web writing.
Writing web copy is a form of sales writing—never forget that. When you write copy for your site, you’re creating an experience for your customers or potential customers. Keep these four questions in mind as you brainstorm and write your website copy:
1. Who are your customers?
To craft successful web copy, you must understand the people who will be visiting your site. Web marketers often create personas, which are fictional characters that represent typical customers, to help them understand their target markets. Try creating personas for the types of people who might visit your site: pick three or four, and define their characteristics: gender, age, income, educational background, family size—any kind of demographics that are relevant for your business. If you’re selling B2B, consider who makes the purchasing decisions for your customers, what pressures they’re experiencing, and who they answer to. Think of your personas as real people: give them names, and flesh out the details of their lives and jobs. Imagine how they’ll interact with the site.
2. What do your customers need?
Working with personas can help you pinpoint customers’ needs. Why has Arielle come to your site? What does Lewis need? What problems are they encountering? Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, and be as specific as possible when you brainstorm about this question. Say you own a window replacement company. Tim and Steph might not actually be shopping for windows when they come across your webpage; they might just be looking for ideas about how to save on energy costs. Understanding that distinction can help you craft copy that will make them think, “Hey. New windows!” Say your business is payroll. Ingrid might be looking at some of the large, comprehensive HR packages and wondering if they’re worth the investment for her small company; your copy might help her realize payroll is where she really needs the help.
3. How does your product or service fill that need?
Once you’ve taken the time to understand your visitors’ needs, let them know exactly how you can help. What solutions do you offer them? Be specific. Do customers like Tim and Steph save an average of 15% on energy bills annually? Don’t just tell Ingrid you offer “superior payroll solutions for small businesses.” Let her know your system is built specifically for companies like hers, can be fully automated, and can be run from an easy desktop application that updates in real time.
4. What do you want visitors to your website to do?
Good web copy includes a call to action. What would you like site visitors to do? Make a purchase? Book an appointment? Sign up for a newsletter? Contact you for more information? Make sure your copy directs visitors to take the next step.
These dos and don’ts can help you as you plan and draft your website copy:
• Limit the amount of copy that appears on each page. Think visually, and make sure your copy is easy on the eye.
• Use short paragraphs and bullet points to break up your text.
• Use short sentences. Make the copy easy to scan and understand.
• Take it easy with technical details and background. If you’re a chiropractor, for instance, focus less on the history and theory of chiropractic and more on the benefits your clients can expect to receive from treatment. If you want to provide background information, or if your business depends on particular technical specifications, consider creating a special page for that information rather than cluttering the homepage with it.
• Make sure the most important content appears at the beginning of each section, and that benefits to the reader are clear.
• Always preview your copy in the design. You must see the copy as your prospective customers will see it. People look at websites before they decide to read them. If your copy looks bad—if it’s too long or sits badly in the design—people won’t read it, even if your content is great.
• Ask others to review it for you. Rather than asking people generally what they think (they’re likely to provide amateur pointers on your design), direct their review by asking specific questions: Is the copy too long? Is it easy to scan? Are your key messages clear? Be flexible and willing to listen to the feedback you get.
• Proofread carefully. Typos and other errors can undermine your message and make you look careless. It would be a shame for people to click away from your site because of preventable mistakes like this.
• Don’t weigh down your pages with large blocks of text. People will not read them and will click away from your site. Make the copy inviting and easy to process visually.
• Don’t focus on features rather than benefits to the reader. Don’t just describe what you have or what you do—let readers know what you can do for them.
• Don’t overuse jargon, especially on the homepage. Your copy should be accessible to your site visitors.
• Don’t treat all your pages the same. There are different requirements for landing pages, catalogue pages, etc. Think about the purpose of each page, and write the content accordingly.
Doing a good job on your company’s website is a big undertaking. It’s very common for people to lavish attention on design and images and shortchange the copy. Taking the time to write great copy can set your business apart from the competition and move customers along in the sales process.
Laura Brown is the author of How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide (W. W. Norton, 2014). Her website is howtowriteanything.com.
[Editor note: This is a great book!]