Copy is Dead: Why Friendly and Simple Speech is Better than Marketing Copy

It may be hyperbole, but copy as we know it is nearly useless. Why is that? First we must define what copy is: copy is marketing text designed to persuade users to take action. Today, copy is less successful at persuading users and moving them forward than it has been in the past. Marketing and branding is changing, especially on the web.

Now value and brevity are more important than ever before as Internet users become more impatient, more cynical, and even more demanding. How do we combat such cynicism and increasing skepticism? The answer is clear text with interactive proof.

A different landscape

Nowadays I see hundreds of designers and marketing professionals treating websites like they are billboards, television commercials, or magazine ads. Copy as a marketing tool was developed for these more traditional methods where persuasion is everything. We cannot treat the web like it’s just another presentation medium.

The web has a powerful new ingredient: interactivity. The interactive element completely changes the game. Now customers can quickly evaluate and move on. We no longer have the luxury of pure brand exposure and time for product ideal-isms to simmer in their heads. Traditional methods of writing copy are losing effectiveness because the way they persuade is fundamentally about ideas and not about backing it up.

Credibility is harder to come by

The web as a medium levels businesses and products on to the same playing field. Before the Internet was born, having advertising in traditional spaces was enough because there was a financial barrier. The Internet breaks down such pricing barriers and allows smaller products and companies to speak with users on the same terms as potentially multi-billion dollar companies.

This means that you can no longer just speak with credibility — you must show it, support and feature it. Even as Internet scams become more rampant, users have gained access to tools that make it extremely easy to check into the validity of an offer.

Customers are experienced

Consumers are bombarded with a stream of advertising, marketing and sales pitches. In past media customers learned to expect advertising in certain places, but now they are subject to persuasive speech and image during most of their time on the web. In short, our users have become experienced and savvy when it comes to marketing. How can they not be? If familiarity breeds contempt then most users must hate marketing.

Copy usage on the web has become a multi-layered fight. First, we must break through the skepticism, fight the cynicism and address the reality. Great sounding text, slick promises and professionalism don’t get you very far anymore. Consumers are demanding more of marketing and in less time.

The road ahead

Okay, so I lied. Copy isn’t dead; it’s just outdated. The question now is what designers and marketing professionals need to do about it. The answer: adapt and build a better approach, and that approach is known as interactive copy.

Be Direct

Copy is no longer about just persuading the user. You have precious little time to capture attention and interest, so don’t mince words. When you communicate clearly and directly, users will respond.

Setting up the needs was a valuable tool in the past, but users no longer have the patience for it. Get straight to the point.

Be Brief

I could tell you that the new user doesn’t have a large attention span and that quick copy is a time limit issue, but that’s really not the case. You have limited time because users have gotten good at seeing through poorly crafted offers. Brevity does one powerful thing: it communicates confidence.

When was the last time an expert in their field had to convince people that he is good at what he does? Probably not too recently. Achievement breeds confidence. People are aware of this and recognize when it’s absent. If your copy is long winded, it can come off as desperate and feel like you are trying too hard to prove something. Be confident and be brief.

Prove it

Gone are the days when you could just convince a customer that your product or service was good. Users will ignore copy if it isn’t backed up by testimonials, portfolio, case studies, free trials, or more. “Take my word for it” is basically useless now. Users today are terrified of bad decisions and the Internet doesn’t have the best record for providing ethical companies that deliver on their promises.

You may look good and sound good but users are more skeptical than ever. You must offer tangible proof, and keep the user engaged and moving forward in the process.

Be Interactive

The web is an interactive medium. You have a powerful opportunity to not only provide the user with a path to your product or service but the ability to engage them. Never before have you been able to offer a promise and immediately engage the user to show them why it’s true.

Interactive Copy is all about momentum. If you can build it up by generating a valid question and moving the user to the next step, don’t leave them hanging with no direct way to get to the answers. Not only should copy be an active step in the process but it should act like it. Make your links and buttons react to user input and activity. Just like a confident and charismatic salesman can work wonders so can copy and calls to action that provide feedback.

Generate Momentum

With Interactive Copy, one of the new tools we can leverage is momentum. Building up urgency and process movement is critical to effective sales. The way to build up effective momentum is crafting scarcity into your calls to action. The user is not watching a TV show, driving or reading a magazine. They are on your website looking at your product or service. If you don’t call them to engage in the process then you are inviting them to procrastinate and think it over.

Scarcity breeds value and urgency. If they feel the offer is temporary, they’ll act sooner. This builds more momentum. Always move the user forward with urgency, calls to action, and justifiable intent.

Interactive copy is here to stay

While there are whole other articles (and even books) written about good copy-writing and marketing tactics, we are dealing with a new breed of user and a new approach with a brand new tool-set for persuasion. Engage your users, provide them with ways to interact with your copy, and the result will be momentum toward sales and, eventually, success.

Please take a minute to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Comments

  1. Richard DeVeau says

    Shawn,

    I believe what’s actually dead is your initial definition of marketing copy.

    Other than that, you make some great points in your article.

    But the truth is that any experienced web and interactive copywriter worth his or her salt learned long ago that the attention span of web readers is that of a caffeinated finch, and the copy we write should address this truth.

    In fact, you’ve got about one-second to engage a reader on a web page.

    But the reality is that a number of recent eye-tracking studies prove that people viewing a web page will notice the headline first, even if there is a prominent visual in the same location.

    Even with the added benefit of interactivity, copy is still king.

    And since web readers tend to scan headlines and copy and not fully read them, at least not at first pass, it means that those of us who write web and interactive copy need to front-end load headlines and copy points with the most important and provocative words, which, if possible, should also be your searchable key words.

    To your point about brevity, because we have about one second to grab a readers’ attention, good web copywriters know they need to lose the meandering setups, forget the “throat-clearing” copy and get to the point, and get there fast.

    If you want to catch a caffeinated finch, you have to feed it caffeinated finch food.

  2. says

    ADD kicked in about the second paragraph on the prev comment… wait what was I gonna say? Oh yeah.

    Great Article Shawn! Definitely looking back at my sick for any “marketing copy” verbage is there.

  3. says

    Great points Shawn. I think today’s buying experience is about the consumer arming himself with as much information as possible. Think “car buyer knowing more than the sales guy.” Providing helpful information, rather than trying to persuade, will always go much further. Secondly, using a more laid-back voice fits in perfectly with the social landscape as businesses become more personified through social media.

  4. says

    I stopped reading at “Now value and brevity are more important than ever before as Internet users become more impatient, more cynical, and even more demanding.” Value and brevity have never lost importance in marketing copy, and your social circles do not account for all Internet users.

    In other words, clarity and research are equally important as value and brevity.

  5. Gari Cruze says

    I’m a little confused by this article. Here’s why:

    On the Web, just as with traditional advertising, EMOTION is what moves people. And it always will. Emotion stirs people to want something, while facts and proof justify their decision to act on that emotion. So yes, facts are needed, but they’re not what excites people overall.

    With digital, yes, the format is somewhat different, and you have to write to serve that format (friendlier, more personal, etc.), but essentially nothing’s really changed about persuasion. We’re still using words to persuade people to buy what we’re selling. That’s what copy does.

    Short copy isn’t new. Take traditional billboards, for example. It’s possibly the most brief medium we have, online or off.

    “Take my word for it” isn’t just useless now, it’s always been useless.

    Testimonials have always been effective ways to persuade people too.

    Urgency and scarcity aren’t new either. They’ve always worked as persuasive tactics in advertising.

    Digital is the new revolution, indeed. And it’s clearly different than traditional advertising. But the human mind will always be moved by the same persuasive tactics that have been used effectively in advertising for decades.

  6. Eddie says

    I agree with Richard that your headline is slightly misleading in that copy is not dead at all, just the initial definition of it, but otherwise, great article and some great points raised, thanks!

  7. Gari Cruze says

    In several of these replies, and in the original piece, it seems like the thought of trying to “persuade” people is a negative thing. But I’d argue that providing helpful information is part of good persuasion, and always has been. We can still persuade while being open and honest and friendly while engaging in real conversation.

    Possibly what everyone really means is that “overt selling” is negative. And I’d agree, no matter what the medium. Everyone can see right through a huckster, whether it’s in the car dealership or in a written ad, billboard, website or social media platform, and no one trusts them.

    But ultimately, we’re all trying to persuade people we’re trustworthy and have something of value to offer them in exchange for money. And copy that excites people and offers them facts and proof that justify their choice to buy, has always been part of good copywriting, and always will be, even in the digital age.

  8. Anonymous says

    I agree that interactive copy is very valuable thing these days. But sometimes it is not easy to create call for action and provide good offer. Not always people are selling something on their blogs. For example, I am not selling anything, I just try to write interesting and useful posts. What would you suggest me to do to more engage my audience?!

  9. says

    Hey Rachel and Gari –

    I honestly don’t think persuasion is a negative piece of the puzzle nor should it be absent from Interactive Copy. The point is more that no longer can persuasion alone bring sales and conversion.

    For instance, if I say ” We build quality websites, get one today! We have a top-notch team of designers and programmers at your disposal.” Of course, I am trying to persuade you that you should get a website from me, with past copy approaches that would have sufficed. However, that doesn’t work. The text just sounds like white noise, its useless unless I make it interactive and move the user toward understanding why they should buy from me. So honestly, the above line of copy is just wasting time and possibly losing the lead even though its not bad.

    I didn’t say this in the article, but 37signals is a great example of what I am talking about. Their homepage says this :

    ” Making collaboration productive and enjoyable for people every day.
    Frustration-free web-based apps for collaboration, sharing information, and making decisions.”

    Followed by learn more buttons and rollovers about each app. Then right below that they hit you with ” Millions of entrepreneurs, freelancers, small businesses, and departments inside big organizations rely on our web apps.” and logos of customers and a unending page of customers.

    That is strong interactive copy. Would it have worked without the calls to action and immediate back-up? Probably in some cases. But, I would bet they have a super high click-through rate, because this approach SMASHES through a customer’s skepticism and cynicism. Its personal, concise and confident. 37 Signals doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, they have millions of customers but they aren’t arrogant. ( As a note, some of their other media is arrogant, but that’s not the point) They are easy to understand and they quickly let you know why they are so popular.

    Thanks for reading!

  10. says

    I’d highly recommend reading “How to Write Great Copy for the Web” (Rockable Press), which gives more insight and also some useful tips and examples of good/bad web copywriting.

  11. says

    “Copy is marketing text designed to persuade users to take action. ” Hmmm—whether it becomes more direct, brief, or conversational, copy still has the same goal – to capture the reader/viewers attention and pique their interest in the product/service. And considering the slurry of ads with mediocre messaging that flash across our monitors, engaging copy is more essential than ever.

  12. says

    I think a few commenters missed the spirit with which this post was intended. i.e. you’re not trying to give a course in copywriting ;)

    I’m a copywriter who will happily stand shoulder to shoulder with you on this one. Old school long copy is going the way of the dinosaur. People don’t want to be yelled at or preached to. They want to feel understood, validated, and then offered a solution in a way that feels great to invest in.

    And they also want the seller to offer up a little value before they click / buy / convert. Relationship marketing isn’t old school but some of the tactics still used in web copywriting are.

    Stay bold.
    Karri

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