Effective copywriting can mean the difference between converting 2% of site visitors or email readers, to up to 10-20%. This difference in lifetime sales value could be worth weeks of extra projects per year, and yet the cost of optimising your copy is minimal. So what do you need to know in order to start converting today? In this chapter you will read the basic principles of effective copy, from which you can build out your marketing literature in any medium.
Identify your reader, find out about them and about what they like. They probably appreciate languages and travel as a starting point. From there they might like fine and unique dining, logically then they like good company and entertaining, they enjoy the odd day-dream about their next great meal, trip or social event and so on and so forth. You can use these assumptions to tailor your copy to help them to engage with your message.
However, decision-makers are typically also busy people, so be relevant immediately. As a priority, any benefits or features you discuss must benefit them directly; not their boss, not their company, them. Benefits that speak to decision-makers could be:
- Make your department/company look good to clients/bosses
- Spend less time sourcing translation
- Spend less time dealing with translation issues
- Rest assured that the translation will be of the highest standard
- Rest assured that we are relied upon by top companies
- Increase company profits (if speaking to business owners)
Always use plain English, despite our desire to
bask in the mellifluent glow of language be verbose, we should edit ourselves very strongly until a clear message emerges in as few words as possible. Being verbose does not help to make a sale. We must focus on the reader, catering to their needs with brevity, relevance and clarity.
George Orwell gave six succinct writing tips in his essay “Politics and the English Language”:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
As point six says, it is better to be flexible and break a rule than rigidly follow any particular rule subset or system, however bearing the previous five in mind is a good starting point for copy writing. Although Orwell never surfed the web, I’d imagine he’d not stray too far from these rules if tasked with writing your sales and marketing copy earlier in his career.
What he doesn’t cover (thankfully, perhaps) are any particular marketing-specific tips. He makes no mention of using trigger-phrases to induce action or memorable interactions with the reader. Without being a sleazy marketer-type, you can therefore venture into eliciting emotional responses from readers if your goal is to ‘help them to help you to help them’.
In other words, if you truly believe you have a win-win service offering for your client (which we do) and you would like them to get in contact with you (which we do), I see no moral conflict in encouraging that interaction through words and phrases that inspire action. I would never use guilt or fear to inspire action, to be clear on this point.
The main considerations then are to include the key information you need the reader to know, any emotional or appealing component that inspires action, and finally your call to action. This explicitly asks your reader to do what you need them to do to continue the interaction. This could be to sign up, place an order, talk about you online, share with colleagues, retweet or any other action you need.
The ‘appealing component’ could be the judicious use of ‘power-words’ such as: ‘now’, ‘free’, ‘guarantee’, ‘instant’. These have been shown to increase conversion rates over time.
It is worth noting at this point that using terms like ‘quality service’ or ‘great value’ are almost completely redundant (in the context of your competition) and your copy should strive to be much more compelling than this. In fact, the ‘I offer great value’-type statement speaks to the wrong kind of clientele. Everyone appreciates good value, that’s a given, but only some people have it as a priority requirement in their buying process, over and above finding expertise and seeing proven results. We should be clear in providing original, distinct and compelling benefits to readers.
Titles and headlines should present these benefits first. Some say that they should be ‘attention grabbing’ but they don’t tell you how. The way to get people’s attention is to tell them what benefits they’ll get in this single line, filtering out those not interested immediately. Lines like:
- Stop wasting time managing translation projects
- Never worry about translation hiccups again
- Patent translations must be exact; we are exacting
- Translate the success of your business into new markets
- Worry no more, save time, earn more, save more…
These speak directly to people’s concerns and offer a solution. They select certain clients who have the problems you like to solve; problems that require on-going translation work, for instance. A benefit tailored to their problems compels them (in theory) to learn more by reading on.
Headlines should also be fewer than approximately 65 characters for SEO purposes. Few companies do this, even the majors, as demonstrated in a study by Schwartz MSL. Keeping titles short helps search engines to parse and display the whole title in their systems, all helping you to be found more effectively.
Be careful not to confuse features for benefits in your copy. An example feature a translator might offer is: I am highly specialised. This is great to know, but why should the reader care?
An example benefit offered by a translator: save many hours by avoiding vocab mistakes in my subject area; subsequently make more sales through clear, industry-standard communication. Now the reader might be more inclined to care. More money, more time? Sold.
Be sure to give the reader an opportunity to enjoy the benefit immediately by being clear that they can contact you and get the process started today.
When writing for the web we have one other advantage over static, printed copy: web copy can be tested. The section below on A/B testing will cover this in more detail, but the gist is to test two copy ideas simultaneously in order to get real data on which converts better. This process can make an exceptionally large difference to conversion rates, often doubling the efficacy of a call to action button (order here vs. order now). It can have an impact on the on-page placement of information, titles and calls, their colour, their length and wording; very simple, cost effective changes can have highly profitable results.
General copywriting practices
I write this section apprehensively as I’m acutely aware of my own shortfalls, as well as the fact that I’m trying to advise the most technical of writers on writing. The only reason I will plough on, however, is that not all of the below is completely obvious, and so may have been missed by some, in that there are some peculiarities to sales and marketing copy that aren’t covered in most translation or language courses.
Avoiding redundancy in copywriting is important as we don’t want the reader to ever stop reading. Ideally, they remain engaged throughout and flow over the text, eventually to be gently corralled into your own particular sales path. Talking about ‘hazardous risks’ of ‘mistaken errors’ in ‘language translation’ increases the odds of readers hitting the back button on their browsers. This is not good for sales.
This is also why it is important to be concise. A good indicator of concision is the ‘Readability Statistics’ feature offered in MS Word (go to File > Options > Proofing > Show readability stats – to see the score after spellchecking a document or selection). This takes into account words per sentence and calculates your Flesch score, a metric used to indicate readability. A 60% (or above) Flesch score is usually indicative of clear writing for all audiences.
To improve your score avoid long sentences and the use of the passive voice. Obviously the score is only an indicator, and it’s always better to break the rules than produce something Orwell would call ‘barbarous’. Still, it’s a handy tool to use when in doubt.
The WPS/Readability score of this chapter is 59%. This equates to an American Grade 9 level (14-15 years old), with 17 words per sentence. Not entirely simple, then, but not overly complicated.
Another standard practice for copywriting is to punctuate for clarity. Don’t use commas where you breathe. Slowed readers can become stopped readers, so don’t let that happen. Avoid full-stops (or periods) at the end of bullet-point lists, headlines and titles for this reason.
The standard grammatical tenet of avoiding split infinitives can in fact create ambiguity, risking that dreaded reader slow-down:
- The translator failed fully to comprehend the source (not split)
- The translator failed to fully comprehend the source (split)
The basic point here is not to become (fully) entangled in grammar rules. When it comes to sales and engagement, speak to the reader as they are used to being spoken to. Translators know the rules as well as anyone, however we usually care about the technical aspects much more than our readers do. It is best to recognise this and be sure to write clearly for their sake.
Avoiding the use of idiom is a given for translators, but do remember to do so. This of course allows for clearer translations of your copy, less reader miscomprehension and so less lost sales.
Native copy, rather than translated copy, should be most effective when writing for foreign markets. Just as with translation.
Credibility is worth considering. Proof of your professionalism, subtly conveyed, can have a positive effect on engagement and conversion. This can be done through displaying:
- Trust badges (key client and association logos)
- Press coverage (a journalist has staked their reputation on you)
- Offering a guarantee or free revisions
Your call to action must be clear. If not, no action will be taken:
‘Don’t hesitate to get in touch’ should be replaced by ‘Call now’. If your tests show the contrary, (don’t hesitate to) let me know.
You can use stories to engage readers. This is essentially what case studies are, so give them characters, events and intrigue as you would any story.
In doing so, use the reader’s language. Use any abbreviations or industry words which mark you out as an equal and a peer. These give you credibility points. As linguists, we do this all the time; when we avoid word-for-word translation we mimic the phrases used naturally in the target language to be understood and accepted. This is the same, just be sure to avoid jargon and any unclear terms.
Don’t talk about yourself unless you really have to. I often see convoluted biographies and life-stories. While these have a purpose for credibility and SEO if the right keywords are interwoven, it boils down to an indulgence. Focusing on reader problems will lead to better chances of conversion, unless you’re hoping to awe and inspire readers into action (which, if you’re anything like me, isn’t all that likely).
When it comes to including humour in copy there is a nice succinct quote from Claude Hopkins, who apparently earned a princely $185k a year in 1907 as a copywriter:
“People don’t buy from clowns”
Many societies may well have relaxed in the intervening century, but I suspect the message would still hold true today. I mean, you may say that clowns don’t sell anything, and that’s why people don’t buy from them, yet I suspect a clown selling translation wouldn’t get too far. I’d very much like for someone to prove me wrong on this.
Be original, as new things are usually more interesting than old things, but stick to your key message.
On the web-specific front, the top of any webpage is the hive of any site’s activity. It is known as ‘above the fold’, as with newspapers, and is where you should place your key messages and calls to action.
We can also use our site analytics data to find the best pages on which to place our copy and to invite sales. Seek out the most popular content pages of the site.
Finally, be sure to periodically take a look at your country’s top-ranking translation websites. How are they written? How are their headlines, information sections, credibility factors, benefits and features communicated? What are their calls to action?
I advise you do the same for local copywriter websites. They can provide much inspiration.
Etymology corner: copy (n.)
The root of the word copy is from the Latin Copiare, to transcribe, originally Copia meaning
plenty, (copia: ample supply from com ‘with’ + ops ‘wealth, resources, power’ – now ‘copious’ and
‘opus’ giving opera/oeuvre/obra), and the meaning later extended to ‘written account or record’,
then on to any writing, printing or re-transcribing of text.
Quite haughty origins, then, for what is essentially now either a marketing or entertainment tool!
Basic design for visitor conversion
If we’re going to put so much effort into crafting natural and effective copy, we shouldn’t scare off our readers and visitors with bad design.
It’s a subject in which an understanding of the basics can go a long way, and a professional can take you even further. Assuming you want to reach a certain level of effectiveness without the services of a professional, consider the following:
· Put your CTA and contact info ‘above the fold’
This is the most active area of a site. Be efficient here.
· Think legibility – serif fonts and white space
The small tails on letters in serif fonts (as with Times New Roman) are said to aid readability, however this has not yet been proven conclusively in studies, so laying out text areas clearly is still the safe bet for legibility.
· Use headings and indexes for a clear structure
As with legibility, clarity and separation of ideas is important when ‘speaking visually’. Headings, indexes and a logical flow of ideas all help here.
· Justify text to avoid end-of-line wobbles
Using ‘Justify’ in your paragraphs (as opposed to left align or centre) avoids the varying line lengths that can distract readers and risk them slowing down or losing their place.
· Organise key information into bullet-points
Much like this list, organising your key messages into bullet points makes reading a bite-sized activity rather than a fully loaded wall-of-text that can deter readers.
· Consider colour harmony with colour wheels
Just like with music, certain light frequencies work better together and a colour wheel displays this clearly. Research these if you’d like to experiment with colour schemes that don’t scare away your more visually sensitive clients.
· Use short paragraphs
As with the bullet-points, we are trying to avoid readers’ fear of walls-of-text.
· Be visually brief
Avoid visual elements that don’t add to the message.
Braun’s Dieter Rams, whose design themes later influenced Apple’s Jonathan Ive (their principle designer), called for design to be:
· Environmentally friendly
· Make the product useful
· Make the product understandable
· Use as little design as possible
Use design as a tool to support your message and to help visitors convert to clients, guiding them to your call to action.
Professional designers will consider all of the above as a matter of course. However, if you would like to try your own hand first, don’t forget to borrow elements from other examples of pages that worked well on you. Not pages that just worked well on you visually, but pages where you carried out the call to action.
Further reading on design principles can be found in the resources section at the end of the book.