Day in and day out, you’re surrounded by copy. You’re watching TV commercials, you’re seeing PPC ads in your search results, you’re visiting SaaS pricing pages, you’re shopping online for a new office printer… the list is endless.
It’s easy to look around and think, “Yeah, I could have written that.”
Whether you’re just getting started with copywriting or you’ve already written a few dozen landing pages, it’s important to know that copywriting mistakes are not few and far between.
To avoid making them yourself, it’s important to be aware of the most common (and costly) copywriting mistakes plaguing sites.
Table of contents
- What Is Copywriting, Really?
- Mistake #1: Hiring a Cheap Copywriter
- Mistake #2: Only Thinking About the Web
- Mistake #3: Not Following a Process
- Step 1: Understand Visitor Intent
- Step 2: Conduct Thorough Research
- Step 3: Organize Your Findings
- Step 4: Create a Wireframe
- Step 5: Put Your Findings to Work
- Step 6: Edit
- Step 7: Test
What Is Copywriting, Really?
Despite its popularity, there is still some confusion about what copywriting is and is not.
So, what exactly is copywriting? As Advertising Hall of Fame member Shirley Polykoff once said, “Copy is a direct conversation with the consumer.”
Essentially, copywriting is using written words to persuade people to take the action you want them to (e.g. make a purchase, submit an email, request a demo).
How do you do that, exactly? According to Michael Aagaard, it comes down to presenting an argument strong enough to convince visitors that what you’re going to provide them with (e.g. a product, an email newsletter, a free quote) is worth more than what they’re giving you (e.g. $9.99, an email, a phone number)…
While it seems straightforward, copywriting does go wrong. To find out where you’ve gone wrong and to identify high-value optimization points…
- Identify problem pages. Where are visitors dropping off in your conversion funnel? Which pages have a high bounce rate? Which pages is your live chat triggered most often?
- Look at the overall message and offer on each problem page. What does heuristic analysis tell you? Is it clear? Are there distractions? Is there friction? Conduct audience research using Wynter to identify problem areas in your copy.
- Focus on how you can improve copy that’s high on the visual hierarchy (headlines, signup forms, buttons, etc.)
Beyond that, look for these 16 common mistakes…
Mistake #1: Hiring a Cheap Copywriter
In short, an “affordable” copywriter will simply deliver words on a site while a great copywriter will deliver words that actually sell.
While copywriting may seem like a simple concept, it’s truly an in-depth process. Whether you’re investing in yourself and taking the time to master the science behind it or looking to hire someone to do it for you, it’s not an inexpensive process. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is.
- If you can afford a $250 / hr copywriter, it’s worth it.
- If you can’t, invest in yourself instead of hiring an “affordable” copywriter.
Mistake #2: Only Thinking About the Web
Next, Joanna explained how dangerous it can be to think web-first…
Before you seek a copywriter or begin learning about copywriting, decide what type of copywriting would be most beneficial to you. The go-to for most people is web-based copywriting… you want persuasive landing page copy. But is that really what’s most valuable to your site?
For example, let’s say you run a SaaS company. Each page of your site is designed to encourage free trial signups. Once visitors signup for a free trial, they’re entered into a drip email campaign that pushes them towards a paid plan.
Why pay a copywriter (or invest your own time) to optimize your site copy if your email copy sucks? Free trial signups don’t pay the bills.
- Don’t get sucked into the web-first mentality.
- Look at your unique conversion funnel and carefully analyze your copy needs. What copy is most critical? What copy impacts the bottom line more directly? Invest in that first.
Mistake #3: Not Following a Process
Writing is typically viewed as a creative process. It’s easy to picture a passionate author locked away in a room, surrounded by coffee cups and ashtrays, completely consumed by writing.
Copywriting, however, is very different. It’s more of a science than an art form. As Peep would say, amateurs use tactics and professionals use processes.
As an example, here’s a look at Michael’s copywriting process…
There just might be some science behind Michael’s process. “Why” is vital in copywriting because explanations are incredibly persuasive.
In a famous study conducted in the last 70s, researchers asked if they could cut in line for the copying machine. The reasons for wanting to cut in line were varied. For example, “May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” and “May I use the Xerox machine because I want to make copies?” The former is reasonable, but the latter is quite senseless.
However, the researchers found that subjects were more likely to allow them to cut in line when given a reason, whether the reason was reasonable or not. The researchers concluded that the subjects were responding to the prototype of a request (“May I ___ because ___?”) than the actual request itself.
Here’s another example of a copywriting process from Joanna…
- Create a systematic, repeatable copywriting process that involves research, wireframing, editing, A/B testing and more.
- Don’t rely on formulas, tactics and round-table discussions. Craft your copy with qualitative and quantitative data from your specific audience.
- For the remainder of this article, we’ll use Joanna’s process to show common mistakes.
Step 1: Understand Visitor Intent
Mistake #4: Talking About Features
It’s fairly common knowledge that you should focus on the benefits of your product instead of the features. Demian Farnworth of Rainmaker Digital explains why…
So, focus less on all of the great things about your product and more on how your product will make the visitor’s life better. Sounds simple, but there’s an additional step that is less frequently discussed: you have to focus on the right benefits.
You might think the benefit is XYZ when really it’s ABC. You are not your customer. Highlighting the wrong benefits is just as ineffective as highlighting the features, if not more.
- It’s all about the customer. Use your copy to show how awesome life will be with your product, not to show how awesome your product itself is.
- Interview your current customers. Ask them what the biggest benefit has been so far and if they have found any unexpected uses for your product. Use their answers to guide your copy.
Check out Codecademy…
“Learn to code interactively, for free.” and “SIGN UP AND START CODING IN SECONDS.” Two simple lines of copy, both focused exclusively on the benefits the visitor will receive.
Mistake #5: Not Having a Clearly Defined Goal
Just because it’s not an A/B test or active campaign doesn’t mean your copy can skate by without a goal. In fact, setting goals is a fundamental part of the copywriting process. If you skip it, you’re essentially setting yourself up for failure.
Michael explains why…
Can copywriting be an artistic process? Absolutely. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the goal: to sell. If you have a clever headline and it doesn’t convert, it’s wasted effort.
- Set your goal before you write a single word. Each page has one goal. What action are you trying to persuade your readers to take? Is anything on the page distracting visitors from that goal?
- Be willing to put creative, innovative copy ideas aside if boring, to-the-point copy is what actually works.
Case Study: Fitness World via ContentVerve
Michael went on to share a case study via ContentVerve. When he worked with Fitness World, one of his tasks was improving a headline on the site…
A 38.46% increase in sales thanks to a more straightforward, unoriginal headline.
Mistake #6: Not Understanding Your Audience’s Motivation Level
Before you can write compelling copy, you need to understand what stage of the buying cycle your visitors are in. Ask yourself the following questions…
- Have your visitors heard of your brand before? Your product?
- Are they intending to make a purchase?
- Do they have all of the information they need to make an informed decision?
- Do they have any unanswered questions?
- What fears / anxieties could be holding them back?
The answers to these questions will guide your copy. Of course, your answers could be different based on the traffic, for example. That’s why dedicated PPC and search landing pages exist.
The answers to these questions will also help guide your call to action copy and placement…
- Are your visitors really ready to request a demo or make a purchase? If not, consider asking them to read more or watch a video.
- Is it smart to ask for the conversion so quickly? If your value proposition is complicated and your visitors are typically unaware of your brand / product, probably not.
- Ask yourself how aware, motivated and sceptical your average visitors are. Conduct qualitative research to confirm your suspicions. Ask questions like, “What is preventing you from X?” and “What unanswered questions do you have?” or check your live chat logs.
- Write your copy based on your findings for your specific audience. If the answers vary greatly, look for patterns and the similarities in the visitors who helped establish them. Create dedicated landing pages with unique, customized copy based on those similarities (e.g. traffic source).
Step 2: Conduct Thorough Research
Mistake #7: Not Developing a Product Your Audience Actually Wants
If you work at a marketing agency, you’re already overly familiar with this concept. You know that the best copy in the world can’t save a bad product from failing. Demian explains why in detail…
The problem you’re solving, the pain you’re curing is key to your copy. If that problem / pain isn’t big enough, copy can’t save the product. Most people won’t oil a door that isn’t squeaking.
Rosser Reeves once wrote, “You must make the product interesting, not just make the ad different. And that’s what too many of the copywriters in the U.S. today don’t yet understand.”
- If you’re an entrepreneur or in-house marketer, make sure your audience is involved in product development. That might mean an existing audience or a target audience on forum, for example. Find out which door is squeaking the loudest.
- If you’re an agency, be honest with your clients. You’re not doing them (or yourself) any favors by charging them and going through the copywriting process if you suspect the product is the problem. Don’t get on the wrong horse.
Mistake #8: Not Talking to Your Customers
When asked what she believed was the most costly copywriting mistake, Jen Havice of Make Mention Media had this to say…
Since value is subjective, you simply can’t write an effective value proposition without talking to your customers. Not people who fit the profile of your customers, your actual customers.
When asked what he thought was the most costly copywriting mistake, Joel Klettke of Business Casual Copywriting had a very similar answer…
Two experts, one shared opinion. You can’t skip right to writing. You have to do the research, you have to get to know your customers, you have to get to know your visitors. Without that qualitative data, you’re writing with your eyes closed.
- Interview your sales and customer service representatives. They talk to your customers and visitors day in and day out. What questions are they asked most often? What are the common issues? What prevents people from buying?
- Interview recent, first-time customers and long-time, repeat customers. What do benefits have they received from your product? How would they describe your product? Would they recommend it to a friend?
Case Study: Teespring via Optimizely
Here’s a copywriting case study from Teespring that Optimizely shared. To increase sales, Teespring created an online survey and an on-site survey. The results from both were similar. Statements like “Not sure if I should give my credit card information.” and “Not sure if I’ll get my shirt.” were common. Teespring, it seems, had a trust problem.
Here’s the control…
The copy below the button is quite confusing. You can clearly see where the apprehension is coming from.
Now, here’s the variation…
The result? A 12.7% increase in conversions. Of course, without the qualitative research, Teespring might never have known that there was a trust issue, so that copy might have never been changed.
Mistake #9: Asking Yes / No Questions
When you’re conducting qualitative research, avoid asking yes / no questions. Think about whether a yes / no question can guide your copy in a meaningful way. The answer is likely no.
Instead, ask open-ended questions. Here’s an example from Joanna…
A question like “What was going on in your life that compelled you to come looking for a solution like ours?” is going to result in more valuable answers than a question like “Are you looking for a solution like ours?”
Also, note that you can turn answers to an open-ended question into testimonials, which can be used on landing pages and in sales copy. Can you say the same for answers to a yes / no question?
- Evaluate all of your surveys and interview questions. If there are any yes / no questions, ask yourself how valuable the answers have been / will be. Whenever possible, reword the questions in a way that prompts a more detailed answer. If you can’t, consider removing the questions completely.
Step 3: Organize Your Findings
Mistake #10: Choosing the Language You Like Best
Once you’ve conducted the research, you’ll find yourself swimming in data from your customers. You’ll like have a long list of words and phrases they use to describe your product, its benefits, etc.
At this stage, it’s incredibly easy to contaminate the language. How? By filling in blanks, making assumptions about why and “cleaning up” spelling / grammar.
It’s also easy to sift through the list and find the language you like best, even if it was only used once or twice. In this case, all of your research is wasted because you simply selected the language you would have used anyway.
- Look for patterns and trends in your list. What words and phrases are mentioned most often? Who is more likely to mention them? Use the words and phrases that are most frequently used by the segment you’re writing for, not your personal favorites.
- Aside from typos, leave spelling and grammar alone. Write the way your customers write!
- Don’t add additional copy based on assumptions. Work with exactly what you have in front of you.
Done Right: Innocent Drinks
Here’s a page from Innocent Drinks…
Focus on the copy in the red banner: “Innocent smoothies contain the finest fruit we can find. We never add any sugar, or anything weird like colourings, and they’re never, ever made from concentrate.”
Think about phrases like “the finest fruit we can find”, “anything weird like colourings”, and “never, ever”. I wouldn’t be surprised if those words and phrases were pulled directly from qualitative research.
Innocent Drinks writes like their customers, not like a smoothie company.
Step 4: Create a Wireframe
Mistake #11: Letting Design Lead Copy
What comes first: the design or the copy? More often than not, the design does. That is, you’ll design a site and then write the copy based on the design.
According to Joanna, however, that’s backwards thinking…
Your design and your copy share a goal: to sell. Let copy take the lead and design play a supporting role.
- Create a copy wireframe based on your qualitative research. Decide what you want to say and where you want to say it. Then, use that wireframe to inspire your site’s design.
Step 5: Put Your Findings to Work
Mistake #12: Appealing Exclusively to Logic or Emotion
With myths like left-brain and right-brain still floating around, many people have this concept that the brain is split in two. As if you’re either creative and emotional or systematic and rational.
Fortunately, the brain doesn’t work that way. Yes, the two systems have different “personalities”, but they are not completely separate entities. In fact, they work together quite closely.
Therefore, appealing exclusively to either logic or emotion would be a mistake. You do, in fact, need to appeal to both. (Though, you can put a focus on one or the other.)
- Read the system one and system two articles above to get a better understanding of how the two systems work together. Recognize that you can’t isolate and “speak to” one system exclusively.
- Appeal to both logic (e.g. your product is sold at the best price) and emotion (e.g. your product evokes nostalgia). Have both working together to persuade your audience.
Take a look at Microsoft’s current site…
Ignoring the fact that the copy is about Windows and not the customer, notice how this is a completely logical appeal.
Step 6: Edit
Mistake #13: Presenting Discounts & Promotions Incorrectly
If you assume that your visitors understand basic math, you assume wrong. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic explains…
“Getting something extra for free feels better than getting the same for less.” That’s a powerful finding. People would rather get more of what they thought they could get than what they thought they could get for less.
When writing copy, remember that you are not dealing with completely rational beings. Your visitors are subject to all sorts of cognitive biases that influence their decisions. This is just one example.
- Focus less on the discount and more on “something extra”. That could be a bigger box, more color options, free shipping, extra features, etc.
- Read up on other cognitive biases to better understand how the brain tricks itself.
Mistake #14: Not Optimizing for Scanability and Legibility
Last year, I wrote a detailed article on scannable copy, How to Write Copy People Will Actually Read. Before you begin writing your copy, especially if it’s long-form, I suggest taking 8-10 minutes to read it thoroughly.
Essentially, the article explains that the average visitor won’t read your copy word for word. Instead, they’ll scan for interesting points. Once they find something particularly interesting, they will stop to read for a few seconds before continuing to scan. Believing that your copy will be read from start to finish is a dangerous mistake.
Legibility, on the other hand, primarily comes down to font choice. Ask yourself these questions…
- Is the font big enough?
- Did you choose a font that is easy to read?
- Are the letters too close together?
- Are the lines too close together?
- Do the lines extend too far across the page?
- Does the color of the font stand out against the page’s background color?
- Use 1-3 short, simple sentences per paragraph.
- Use headings and subheadings to break up the copy.
- Choose a font that is big enough, clear enough and contrasting enough to be legible if you take a big step back from the screen.
- Use a 5 Second Test to see how scannable your copy really is.
Done Right: TheNextWeb
Check out this article from TheNextWeb…
Short sentences, short paragraphs, simple language, subheadings, black font on a white background, etc. The article is both scannable and legible.
Mistake #15: Not Backing Up Your Statements
Assume your visitors don’t believe you and don’t want to take your most wanted action. You have to back up your statements with supporting proof to give yourself credibility.
There are many different types of proof, but here are just a few…
- Case studies.
- Testimonials. (You collected these earlier.)
- Social media.
- Trust icons.
- Data / Numbers from (happy) customers.
- Return policies / Money back guarantees.
For more information on social proof specifically, read Is Social Proof Really That Important?.
Without some type of proof to back up your statements, all you have is some bias copy.
- Always be collecting social proof from customers. Build it into your onboarding process.
- When you make a statement about quality or are asking visitors to trust you (whether it’s with money or an email address), add social proof.
- Test to see which type of proof works best and where. For example, testimonials from long-time customers might be high value on one page while peer reviews might be high value on another.
Done Right: CXL Live
CXL Live 2016 is coming up, so we asked a handful of reputable, recognizable speakers from 2015 what they thought of the conference…
By placing it on the 2016 site, we’re showing potential attendees that our quality claims are credible.
Step 7: Test
Mistake #16: Believing Copywriting Best Practices Blindly
There are a lot of copywriting best practices out there…
- No one reads below the fold. (Debunked here.)
- Long-form copy never works.
- Odd numbers capture more attention.
- Headline formulas never fail.
- “FREE” always works.
- Using “Get” in your button copy always works.
I could go on all day, but you get the idea. More often than not, best practices are merely common practices.
Are they based on real experience? Yes. Are they true sometimes? Yes. But blindly believing they will be true for you is foolish.
- People read below the fold if they need more information.
- Long-form copy does work, especially for products with a complex value proposition.
- Even numbers are not the “kiss of death”.
- Headline formulas don’t work if they don’t suit your strategy / audience.
- Some people will see “FREE” and think it’s spam.
- “Get” isn’t the only persuasive verb in the English language.
I’d never advise you to ignore best practices completely. They can be good guides and point you in the right direction. However, failing to test them on your own site with your own audience is another story.
- Use best practices as a guideline or starting point. What is it about this best practice that makes it effective? It’s not a rigid rule. Instead, there’s likely an underlying persuasion principle.
- Before implementing a best practice, test it. Don’t assume it will work for you because it worked for someone who writes a blog you subscribe to.
Anyone can write words on a site. Not everyone can write words that will actually impact sales on a site. [Tweet It!]
That difference is the reason for these mistakes (and many, many more).
Here’s how to avoid them…
- Hire a professional copywriter or invest in learning how to write your own copy. Don’t hire an “affordable” copywriter.
- Consider email copy before you consider site copy.
- Develop and follow a copywriting process.
- Talk about (the right) benefits, not features.
- Define your goal and don’t stray from it for the sake of creativity.
- Understand your audience’s intent and motivation level.
- Develop a product your audience actually wants. Don’t try to fix a bad product with good copywriting.
- Talk to your customers before you start writing. Put in the research time.
- Ask open-ended questions during the qualitative research phase.
- Use your customers’ voice, not your own.
- Create a wireframe to let your copy lead your design.
- Write copy that appeals to both logic and emotion.
- Offer something extra for free instead of something for less.
- Optimize your copy for scanners and ensure it’s legible.
- Back up all quality statements and trust requests with solid proof.
- Only implement best practices when you’ve tested them on your own site.