Copywriting Across Channels

September 9, 2013

Copywriting—Jeff Gothelf called it the secret weapon of user experience. Jakob Nielsen quipped that it could fix 50% of usability issues. And, according to Optimizely, it may have been the key element that netted Obama $60 million more in donations. No matter how you look at it, copywriting is an integral element of design.

In this article, I’ll explore the importance of words in relation to user experience, which according to Nielsen is one of “the main money-makers on a Web site.”

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A Very Brief Look at the History of Copywriting

Copywriting is the act of writing words to sell a product, service, person, or idea. It uses persuasive language to set the voice and tone of a brand in the hope that people will identify with and buy into it. Historically, copywriters have worked for large agencies or public-relations firms, pairing with Art Directors to write advertising copy that wins approval from the buying public. The famous Ogilvy ad shown in Figure 1 is part of one of the most successful messaging campaigns of the 20th century because of its enticing lead sentence: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Figure 1—Ogilvy’s Rolls-Royce ad
Ogilvy’s Rolls-Royce ad

Starting in the late ’90s, the nature of copywriting began to change. The way in which people began consuming content changed the roles and responsibilities of copy, demanding both persuasive and contextually appropriate language that fit with a brand’s style and aesthetic across different channels.

Opportunities expanded, with email marketing and search-engine optimization spreading the act of copywriting to many working in different fields, such as information architecture and software development. Some technical writers, who used to write manuals explaining how to use products, began writing the copy to sell them. Further, social media like Twitter changed the way we approach campaigning, with character limitations setting a new standard for communications in business-to-consumer relationships.

Perspectives on Positioning and Messaging

Through his research, Michael Aargaard of ContentVerve learned that copy almost always affects the decisions and actions of prospects. Your first words have the power to shape the way your users engage with your brand. In fact, 98% of the tests that Aargaard conducted on copy had a direct and measurable impact on conversions.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how we approach copywriting today. This is by no means a comprehensive compendium, but rather a starter collection of the different ways in which we write words to deliver our message across different channels.

Conversion Copy

Conversion copy, also known as advertising copy, includes headlines and calls to action that employ persuasive words to sell products and services. Often, conversion copy is text that reminds us about options to upgrade or makes us aware of a new feature. It’s also the text that most frequently gets A/B tested.

Optimizely’s Dan Siroker believed that improving the page layout and calls to action on the splash page shown in Figure 2 were responsible for landing an additional $60 million in donations for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. While copywriting was only one factor among many, that number illuminates the large impact that key copy can have.

Figure 2—Obama campaign
Obama campaign


Copywriting is not all about headlines or calls to action. As UX legend Jeff Gothelf noted back in 2010, words have the power to progress users through a journey.

The little copy elements that Bill Beard recently referred to as microcopy are the text that makes or breaks a user experience. It may include different types of copy such as instructional text, labels, error messaging, or confirmations. As Beard rightly pointed out, these little messages really can the key elements of a brand in our fragmented world, because they not only help people to get started or move forward when they’re confused, but also reinforce a brand across channels. For example, as Figure 3 illustrates,¬†when users sign up for a new account, WuFoo delivers a consistent brand message through its playful, yet helpful copy.

Figure 3—Creating a new account on WuFoo
Creating a new account on WuFoo

Reassurance Copy

Reassuring copy is closely related to conversion copy and serves the purpose of either grabbing attention, like “Always FREE”, or allaying people’s fears, as with “Don’t worry. We don’t sell your data.” This sort of reassuring language is an effective tool that infuses cross-channel sales processes with a human voice.

For example, uSwitch, shown in Figure 4, delivers reassurance copy through their sidebar, so users who want to compare car-insurance quotes on their tablet when sitting on the couch can focus on form completion rather than trying to interpret the business intention.

Figure 4—uSwitch

Helpful Copy

While there’s a lot to say about how copy plays a role in advertising and self-promotion, we shouldn’t forget that copy also plays a key role in providing feedback—for example, warning users about why they can’t complete a task. For example, as Anthony of UX Movement pointed out, form design heavily relies on the complicated science of error message copy. His hypothesis is that negative words, like those shown in Figure 5, can ruin conversions. It shouldn’t surprise you that these help messages are critical to task completion.

Figure 5—Anthony T’s list of negative words to avoid
Anthony T’s list of negative words to avoid

System Copy

In addition to its contribution to the usability of end user experiences, copy occupies an integral place in building the system user experience. For instance, carefully worded copy can go alongside form labels to make sure everyone knows how to use a system—even after development, when technical teams may be long gone. Custom-built content management systems like Refinery, shown in Figure 6, support ToolTips that provide tailored advice.

Figure 6—Refinery CMS
Refinery CMS

As Karen McGrane has explained, “You will never be able to deliver the experience you want to deliver on the front end if you don’t have a good experience on the back end.”

Improving Your Copywriting

Copywriting helps you to build an experience that is not only simple to use, but whose usability is sustainable and meets future users’ content needs. It is very different from most writing, as Ali Hale pointed out in Copyblogger. The style requires brevity and zing.

The Web offers many opportunities to learn about copywriting, with conversion experts like Peep Lana offering a crash course in effective copywriting and Danny Int offering an easy-to-understand model. There are also many helpful eBooks on the topic, from experts such as ContentVerve.

For me, there are three simple rules that I usually keep in mind when consulting on copywriting.

1. Focus on the reader.

Always consider the audience for which you’re writing and align your words to the audience, not the other way around. For example, writing system copy for a major, business-to-business, Fortune-1000 product is very different from writing the copy for a brand’s new cross-channel mobile campaign that is aimed at young professionals. In Figure 7, see how Uber paired strong imagery with copy that would most likely appeal to young professionals.

Figure 7—Uber

The key to good copywriting isn’t just writing good copy, but copy that speaks to each individual person who will interact with a product.

2. Forget the jargon.

In addition to jargon being what David Ogilvy—perhaps the most famous copywriter of all time—once referred to as the “hallmark of a pretentious ass,” jargon can be confusing. Big words and long sentences are not only unnecessary, but also unclear. Focusing on straightforward copy helps users to achieve their goals and contributes to making your experience more successful.

3. Steer clear of contextual language.

As baymard points out, using contextually dependent labels like Continue is often usability poison. Whenever you’re creating labels for buttons or writing calls to action, make sure that that they fit the experience. As you may have experienced, phrases like Click Here don’t make sense for responsive sites, where users may be engaging with a tactile experience when reading a site’s content on their smartphone or tablet. The same goes for writing marketing messages: it’s all about ensuring clarity and consistency regardless of where and when the words appear.

Bottom Line

While copy may seem like small details of a design, great copy is the backbone of successful product experiences. With so many new hardware devices emerging—such as Google Glass, shown in Figure 8—along with new limits for content presentation, there is reason to believe that copywriting will provide the script for new and engaging experiences. 

Figure 8—Google Glass app Genie
Google Glass app Genie

Senior Researcher at Atlassian

San Francisco, California, USA

David Peter SimonDavid is an ethnographer and blogger. His primary interest lies at the intersection of design and research—particularly how we build technology that makes a positive impact on the world. He works at ThoughtWorks, a global software company whose mission is to better humanity through software. He holds a degree in Community Studies. His research addresses the dynamics of racial and class inequity by exploring community constructions and their implications on today’s world. In his free time, David writes for Indie Shuffle, a music discovery blog, and Holiday Matinee, a blog for creative inspiration.  Read More

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