Writing Non-Sucky Copy for Websites, Emails and Newsletters | Joanna Wiebe | BoS USA 2014


Copywriting is hard. Even harder is talking about good copywriting while writing a blog post… how about that copywrite-ception for you? Few people do it well, but Joanna Wiebe of Copyhackers is one of those in a select bunch.

At BoS Conference USA Joanna took the stage for an hour to deliver an entertaining talk that will get you writing non-sucky copy for your website, marketing collateral and newsletters. Slides here, full video below, as well as a transcript for those who prefer.

Video & Transcript below



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Joanna Wiebe: Okay good start. I feel like I should run down the stairs though but I people completely out of breath which I already am anyway though. So can everybody hear me okay? Okay well thank you for the introduction. Thanks for having me here Business of Software this is a pretty intimidating crowd, pretty exciting.

When you’re talking about copy, you never quite know if people are just going to completely tune you out or not but, were hoping or not today at least. So, I’m a copywriter over Copy Hacker as I’ve been a copywriter for about 10 years and about eight of those years the most recent eight I’ve spent writing copy for software. Five years I was at Intuit writing very exciting copy for the very exciting product called Quick Books which is very exciting if I didn’t mention that. It’s really easy to write for that kind a copy. And what I learned it may have skewed my reality a bit, but it seems to me that a lot of software the software that makes money in particular is kind of boring. Not very exciting at all.

And again, if that’s not you, congratulations you win. Everybody else has really boring stuff to try to sell with their copy. That’s just really doing the trick is your copy usually or it’s not doing the trick and that’s the problem. What I found is…

The less exciting your product is, the more personality your copy needs.

The less you can afford to kind of be a wallflower and sit quietly back and let everybody else do the talking while you just sit there and hope for people to come and sign up your product so we can’t afford to be invisible yet a lot of us are actually quite comfortable being invisible.

So I was going to call this Oops, I did call this Oops, Your Personality is Showing but in fact I want to call it Stop Saying Nothing. From what I’ve seen in Copy Hacker’s three years we’ve been around, and I’ve been working with tech start-ups that whole time, in that time I’ve seen that there is like this hesitation to actually go out and say something. Say something meaningful. Say something and put words on your page like in a confident manner that actually people are likely to want to read and remember. There’s just a tendency to be invisible I found.

So I was going to say something but that’s not even bold enough. Stop saying nothing. So many of us are saying absolutely nothing and were feeding that to prospects that could actually pay us but were saying nothing to them. Pages like this get a lot of attention from people who don’t want to say anything. I get a lot of people writing to me saying, Joanna, why do I need copy? Dropbox doesn’t need any copy; they have three words and a button. Why can’t I do three buttons and a button? What about Google? They have like a button they’ve never had really much of anything at all and I don’t really entertain those conversations coz it’s kind of obvious to us what’s really going on there, but it’s surprising to me that that this rush to say as little as you possibly can like if you say nothing you win. Like were all playing the silent game and trying to say nothing until our business just disappears right?

So I want to talk today about being visible. About not disappearing. About actually saying something.

Those people who do put words on their page, who do dare to actually write copy that ends up going live and people read it, they end up saying things that are still not really saying anything at all. So I googled to see if I was just an old ornery copywriter or not I tested this, and I went and looked and thought okay, well I’ll Google CRM or CRM software and just look at what comes up. Landing pages. I looked on the PPC landing pages because they’re paying for traffic to come to these pages. They’re going to work on the copy right, and we get something like this, I’m going to show you a few more but this is a lot like okay so I’ve entered the phrase CRM or CRM software I’m searching it.

Your page comes up for that or this page comes up for that. You pay for me to click. I land here and were kind of having a bit of a conversation right like meeting people at business of software when you’re like hi, I’m Joanna, hi, I’m so and so. What you do you do. If I were to say oh I’m in CRM software and you’d say oh what is that tell me about it and I say generate sales not work.

What the hell is wrong with her? Why does she talk like that? It’s a little robotic it’s so odd. [laughter] But this is what we’re doing not just some guys, everybody seems to be doing the same things of trying really hard to say everything big and important that people care about in 3 to 5, words six when you’re really going risky. These guys it’s like they’re almost paying your copywriter by the word I don’t know if you guys are in a contract like that sounds amazing I would love to be in the contract but I’m not. That’s what these guys are doing here right? Words are actually free. Now getting them wrong is expensive. But if we can get them right and get some attention on our copy that we can actually stand out even if we’re no different from our competitors because everybody saying the same meaningless things. The only thing that’s actually good here is the subhead where you’re finally starting to hear something a bit different and NetSuite delivers what salesforce.com and others can’t that’s actually saying something. Get the CRM with the 360° customer view as not saying exactly anything I don’t know what the hell that is nobody knows what that is so it’s a good question to ask of your copy would anybody even know what I’m talking about.

So stop saying nothing is what I’m going to talk about today. But because I’m talking about copy writing to a lot of engineers and people who are in software, I’m going to be referencing a lot of data because data goes a very long way with you when we talk about something as soft as copyright and we’re data-driven at Copy Hackers too so it’s all about that. But I want to talk very quickly about three academic studies and that will get into AB tests and things like that. Three studies that kind of prove if you can, if you can just suspend disbelief and prove that personality in your copy can go very long way to make an impression that could actually help your business quite a bit.

So the first one… you should be strongly considering using more personality in your copy


So the first one, they did a study I think a 2005 in Kentucky where they found that the people for whom personality is more important, if any of this is true for any of your visitors, you should be strongly considering using more personality in your copy. Four things, they don’t all have to be true, just one of them has to be true. Your visitors, all your prospects are new to your world or new to your product. They’re too busy to try it so they might start to sign up for free trial but they never actually do anything with it. They’re not excited about your product like if it’s accounting software and their small business. Or they’re very far removed from trying it like they can’t try it they have to download it in order to try it they can just enter they’re information and suddenly there in it right so for a lot of web apps, even though we want to get them in there quickly, there a little far removed from just popping in and trying it. So if any of that is true for you, studies show that having personality in your messaging can actually a go a long way here.

Another one, bottled water. Water is the same. It’s basic if unless it’s like a sludgy. Which you can tell with a clear bottle if it’s really going to be a disgusting mess in there, but most water is exactly the same. Everybody selling water is essentially selling the same product. The inside is the same. It’s all about the outside. So as extremes cues, so when we’re assessing a product, we think about the intrinsic and the extrinsic we take those two things in. Intrinsic of course is everything inside of it so when you actually using your software those are all those cues. Extrinsic is all the stuff outside of it including marketing and your marketing copy. So if you’re having a can of Coke, the extrinsic the outside, the coldness of the can and things like that to make you start assessing the quality of the product within without even trying it, if you’ve never tried coke before. And then you open it and then you taste it and that’s intrinsic part. Bottle of water same kind of thing but inside is all exactly the same. When they took a neutral normal bottle of water they, the academics, when they did that and measured it against some… sorry the font is a little off on that one… when they put it against five other personality bottles of water that had these human personality traits, which we can talk about a little bit later, when they did that, they found that people were more likely to buy the brands that had some sort of personality they could call human and that they were three times more likely to recall it.

Now if were trying to stay in people’s heads long after, especially if we want them to talk about us and share us, we can’t be neutral, you can’t afford to be neutral especially if your product isn’t that different from the next guys. Final one. This won’t surprise anybody I’m sure, but our brains look for patterns. We look for things and we try to predict to avoid doing more work than we have to do and in order to survive. Predictability is boring. If people can tell was coming or if it looks the same as everything else and everything they expected, they’re going to be bored. That’s not good. Why do you even have words on the page if not to get them read? Don’t be predictable. Studies shows not to do that. So I want to break this down into kind of two sides. Saying what your competitors won’t, which we’re going to talk about right away and then kind of how to do that so you can take some practical steps away in case copy is remotely interesting to you and you want to make more sales on your website.

So saying what your competitors won’t. So at Copy Hackers, we write a lot of blog posts and some of those go on to the Copy Hackers blog and others go on other blogs like Kissmetrics or Copy Logger. So I wrote this epic posts on called action buttons for copy blogger. Gave it to them it’s 5000 words super long had all this great academic research and recent AV test that hadn’t been published anywhere else so you couldn’t find this anywhere else so it’s all fresh and brand-new except for the academics stuff. Put it all together in this huge post, copy blogger is excited, I’m excited. We’re all ready to publish it yay it’s good to be great, and of course I sign off with my by-line, which is “Written by Joanna Wiebe, creator of Copy Hackers where startups learn to convert like mofos”. And this is a word I’m totally fine with this as a euphemism to me it’s just a phrase it’s a word that we use and that’s largely because everybody I know just uses it like a normal word. U2, I walked into the song mofo it came out like 15 years ago or something scary like that. It’s a word that just became part of my vernacular… by the way by the way, speaking of U2, this is my sister kissing Bono. If you have a picture like this you should share it whenever you can so I decided to. But U2, and the words they use became part of who I am and the people that relate to me so I use this word. Put it in there. It’s all over the Copy Hacker’s site, anyway, so it’s fine for my audience. I use this totally don’t even flinch, don’t think about it, nothing.

Copy Blogger Brian Clark didn’t think about it either, someone did. So that morning that we published that very first the very first comment after 5000 words and all of that great data nothing but actual great insights, I’ll read for those who can’t, a copywriter some of you may know Mr. Bob Bly comments, first comment, is it really necessary to say mofos. Do you think that makes you cool, really young people. And so I reel for a second because I’m 34. In the start-up world, I am on my deathbed so there’s that, but then it hits me that this is not actually a good thing, that he could only focus on this. If anybody knows what I’m doing when I use a word that stands out like that it should be this veteran copywriter right but instead it’s the only thing that stuck after everything I said, all that information, all that work I did, all this stuff, he took away the one thing that stuck is this word. That’s what stuck. Which gets you thinking like, okay that’s what sticks. Pretty interesting, actually, and we could go so far to take then say okay why did it stick what was so why did he care why did he comment on this take the time to comment on it and I would say he was probably surprised.

In the context of everything that was going on suddenly it finishes with this euphemism for me, bad word for him this word. And it’s that surprise that’s really powerful. There was another study done using Mr. Shakespeare’s words where it was found, and I’m not a scientist or neuro scientist I’m going to use my English major words, but your brain lights up when you’re when you encounter unexpected unfamiliar words. Shakespeare’s words were used in the study and that was what was found. Your brain lights up with things that are different. We react to those things that are different that’s a very powerful thing. Now of course Shakespeare, I’m actually going to talk about a Shakespeare for a second so enjoy this, but Shakespeare made an entire huge amazing career obviously out of getting people’s attention, out of getting them to notice what he was saying to pay attention to him. He is actually of course he’s a master of words but a master of using unexpected words too. These are, oops the last one cut off there, that’s sanctimonious. But these are some of the words that are credited for coining or quoting or being the first to write-down. These words are not common words. These are unexpected, these are noticeable words that are not invisible, and they’re not trying to fade into the background. He was trying to get your attention and he used words that would do that. Brand-new ones sometimes. I mean castigate. If you hear that word, it sounds like a bad thing that happens sometimes like it sounds like you can hear what it sounds like. Dwindle D and W together, it’s a noticeable world what’s it doing at the front of the word, dwindle. Clangor, you don’t even have to know that means to get it right. So like it’s all this kind of crazy use of language which is really powerful for us to use today and if you think, well, Shakespeare was allowed to do that Joanna, we’re not allowed to do that. Marshall McLuhan, great communication theorist would say otherwise. Were just like those guys. We’re just like the artists and a lot of ways were scientists were doing things that are data-driven and stuff like that but were just like those other people who are trying to get your attention. We can use our words to trap people, as bad as that sounds, but to get them to pay attention to us. That’s some very good advice from Mr. Marshall McLuhan who everything he said was a terrific sound bite if you have read any of his stuff or listen to him. Amazing. That’s good advice.

I want to share with you some pretty bad advice though as like a flipside to this so we can kind of undoing the wrongs that have been done. This is bad copywriting advice. Has anybody ever heard about this about copywriting? Make it sing, make it sing right? What are you talking about make it sing? I had my director of marketing once tell me that he was going to measure my copy against this. I managed to survive another four years under that but it was a pretty terrifying time. What’s their problem with the idea of make it sing when you’re writing copy that’s trying to get noticed. The problem is that songs have lyrics that we can’t hear. Nobody knows what’s going on in a lot of the songs that we’re listening to you right? [laughter] So if you can’t hear the words you don’t want to make it sing because we need those words. Don’t make it sing. People can’t make out what you’re saying. Lance is adamant at Copy Hackers, he’s adamant that he cannot hear lyrics in songs.

Don’t make it sing, that’s bad advice.

We need people to notice us and the problem with those lyrics of course is the polish that comes with them. That polish is inherently unsticky. All the things he saw before gross sales save times get organized. Polished, very polished. I have no idea why I should care about that and will any of that actually stick with me. Did any that stick with you? Did you walk away saying infusion soft, those are the guys who help me gross sales, save time and get organized. Course not, right? You might later but honestly let’s be honest with ourselves. Polish isn’t what people are looking for.

It’s what sea levels are looking for because they don’t know better coz they’re too far away from the act of actually trying to convert people on our websites to get them to notice and do something, but that’s not the way to go when we’re not trying to please the sea level as much as they don’t want to hear it, we’re trying to please the prospect obviously. We want to avoid the things that are very familiar and very comfortable sort of phrasing the future of blank is here please don’t and welcome to the new blank these kind of things that are patterns like they’re predictable. Nobody even notices the last word it could be anything and anybody can say any of that. These are all things I recommend you avoid and instead try to looking for things that are, try using words that are like a thorn bush. Words that are there to cling to you to catch you. To make you uncomfortable. To make you notice them not to confuse you, by catching you by being strangely confusing so that you can’t make sense of it, but words that you didn’t expect to see. It’s the unexpected that we notice. It’s the unexpected that sticks with you a little while longer. [laughter]

Broken patterns. We get really interested in them. People love seeing something they didn’t expect to see. They love it so much we get all get annoyed seeing it happen again and again and eventually it becomes a new pattern. Being different, you don’t even have to you don’t have to actually do anything very different you just have to stand out. Be willing to stand out and be that unexpected thing and I’m of course going to tell you how to do that but different is the only thing that stands out. You don’t notice the same thing you only notice what’s different that’s how we’ve evolved. Now that’s what I would have you believe and hopefully you’re coming along with me on the journey, but I want to kind of put it to the test. So I’m going to put a few screens up here. Can everybody at the back kind of see what’s going on up here? Ok, hopefully your eyes are good, mine aren’t. I’m going to put some screens up and just read them, read the headlines, read the buttons if you want to, whatever, whatever you can and I will move on to the next.. The next. And then back to the first. That could’ve gone very badly so I’m glad you reacted to it. [laughter]

This one is not in fact the first. This was a test that we ran on a site. It’s in the same category as all those other sites you just saw. The control is on the left the one we treated as the risky or uncomfortable copy that’s actually trying to say something that gets noticed is on the right. The headline and the button were both changed for this and is a difference between sign-up now and show later which is not outrageous. 124% more people, and I think it probably had a lot to do with the fact that you might actually notice and pay attention here. You didn’t just glaze over and go by it. People want to see something different. They’re dying to see something different. When you look at all those other sites we saw you can see why that might be. Course the obvious thing is I’m using these kinds of words boobs, mofos, obviously you can’t do that. You can if you’re selling software. You can’t put those words on your homepage. Sure, you can that’s true, but I would say be careful because those are actually excuses. Sorry we have a font problem… but those are excuses. We’re just trying [laughter] you never what fonts are going to show, but they are, they are excuses and the things that we say we try to keep our sea levels from getting uncomfortable and trying to have to push them to do something differently and push ourselves to do something differently especially since everybody else is doing the same thing so why should we even try to be anything different at the last thing on your list of things to do that you’re safe right everybody’s doing the same thing. But this is all we use these excuses. It’s not good for SEO right? HP Personality, we can’t put that in our H1. That’s not good for SEO right? I think that still applies Dave, you tell me I don’t know about SEO that much. Commercial rate optimization. You don’t make sales when you have a personalit. Why should we invest in writing copy that might be paid attention to it if so rarely we see it, coz nobody’s really testing it. We see it actually pay off in terms of conversions. Or, the very worst one I hear all the time so many frustrated B2B copy writer’s write to me, like how can I tell my boss that our audience isn’t as boring as he thinks they are.

But there is a sense that that’s what B2B copywriting is all about right? And it’s completely untrue. I say it’s untrue, you might disagree with me but I do think that we all want to be entertained and here’s why. Harry Potter, Harry Potter should be the punchline to everything I think but Harry Potter, accountants read Harry Potter, professional lawyers, doctors, surgeons, they all went home when Harry Potter was coming out and looked forward to reading it to escaping with words that make us feel something differently. If we’re so willing to do that in our free time what makes us really think that people are going to be so against this when they’re at work? That they actually don’t want any language that’s going to pull them in. They don’t want that, they just want the facts. Accountants just want the facts. It’s not actually true or we wouldn’t have this huge publishing industry with people who are desperately soaking up stories that are told using interesting words.

I want to show you a couple quick little tests that we’ve done with interesting words and hopefully that will help you as we move into how to get this kind of stuff done. So we did this test control on the left and the optimized one on the right not pushing things very far. This is for an audience that can handle this kind of language take the suck out of moving your files from IOS to PC, changing the button as well about 18% more people watching the video right? It may not of been an incredible lift, but it didn’t hurt anything and this is really important if you’re actually making excuses like we can’t do that that coz it’s going to hurt something, I haven’t yet seen in a test we’ve done of risky or uncomfortable copy. I haven’t seen a loser that was good enough where you’d be holy crap we should really rethink this whole thing. For subject lines. We tested for flow. The flow is a project management solution by med lab which is this cool Victoria setup. We tested three subject lines for new trial users. The first email you get. Now I’m sure a lot of people have new trial users here and I’m pretty sure a lot of you for that subject line for that first email that goes out to them says either get started with blank or welcome to blank because I have a swipe file of like a lot of these, and that’s all anybody is saying. So we decided to test something a little different. We’re just trying to get you to notice right, to pay attention so we tested “can I ask you something” which actually, when you open the email, it does ask you a question so it’s not like a cheap teaser one. It’s really, you’re going to be asked a question inside no matter which one you open. Pretty good open right? If you could get 27% more people opening those new those on boarding emails and you can get those new opportunities actually opening your emails and doing something 27% more, this starts to actually change businesses in small ways but those ways that stack up.

Very quick one and this is more about kind of putting yourself out there and you don’t have to have a lot of tone or personality necessarily, you just have to say something and stop saying nothing. Do not know what the one on the left is saying at all it still can’t figure it out but when we tested that against something that was making a very clear statement…

where we were putting ourselves out there and stopping saying nothing and starting to say something, we saw 103% more people do something

…on the page that means to reduce bounce rate more activity, more things happening. So the idea there from mofo through to boobs and so on and so forth it’s all about saying what your competitors wouldn’t dare to say. Start there. That’s a pretty safe starting point. Your competitors won’t go there, you should try it.

Now here’s how: Here’s how I recommend you do it. What I would do if you were to engage me, this is what would happen. I’m going to show you a case study that not actually for software. But I use it for software. It’s just a really clear example that I wanted to show you.

So these are the three parts that were going to talk about and actually getting to a point you can feel confident that you landed on a personality that you can put in front of people without feeling like weird about it or too uncertain about it, although it’s all that uncertainty that the most powerful part.

Competitor content audit. Has anybody ever done one of these or do you know what it is? I’m going to take that as an absolute now, wow, ok. [laughter] So, a competitor content audit is really…audit, I’m an English major, it’s not to be very technical and I don’t mean to bring down English majors but I’m just keeping it real. Competitor content audit is where you have one two screens open have your competitors website open and then you have a Word doc or PowerPoint like the free template for this on our site if you want to check it out, and you just go through your competitor sites just to see what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

You’re not going to copy anything they do. Not at all, you’re just trying to be informed by what your prospects may be seeing out there in the market when they’re looking for solutions like yours. So we did this for something called Beach Way which is a rehab centre out of Florida. Rehab centres have a lot on the line, about $20,000 a bed on month so you don’t want empty beds you want people waiting and hopefully getting in quicker. So they hired me at Beach Way, not these guys, to optimize the copy on their site. And I went through, as part of this content audit, I went through their competitors sites. I went through like a dozen of them and I audited for what they were saying and how they were saying it, the tone, and the personality. What they were saying was one thing. They were all saying the same thing of course but I found they were kind of saying it in the same way.

I’ll read this out to you, it’s a little blurry. Top of the World Ranch Treatment Centre has designed what we understand to be the most balanced, congruent and highly effective addictions treatment program that is available anywhere with a read more button because you’re going to read more after that. So they had this sort of style saying a lot and then another. This sort of thing where they started to sound a bit like clinical/floral that are a little strange to have as a combination but they were all saying the same thing again in the same way that got me thinking like it’s a rehab centre. It’s talking to addicts and the families and loved ones of addicts. Is this how they talk? Is this the way they expect to be talked to? And when you go to these pages, by the way, there are paragraphs all in the same tone. I could not believe that this was the way to talk to people but everybody was doing it. Everybody without exception, everybody was talking to the addicts and their families the exact same way which got me to think about a key question we should always be asking, how their prospects actually talk. Is that how they want to talk? So we should either talking to people as they are today or as they want to be the aspirational self that you’re selling the aspirational self which they definitely were. Ok, but how do you find out? How you find out if that’s how they talk? Maybe it is, we have to go find out. Very hard to do for a rehab right because you got addicts coming in one state hopefully going out in a better state but is such an emotional journey there’s so much to it if anybody’s ever tried interviewing addicts, it’s a very difficult thing to do. So it wasn’t which, doesn’t hopefully say anything I don’t mean for it to say, but it was a very emotional process right? It’s hard to get down to the true tone and the way people would actually talk so I couldn’t do that. Instead I did step two.

[Talk like your customers]… How you find out if that’s how they talk? … Amazon reviews are really great place to go.

Doing interviews are fantastic strongly recommended obviously as much as you can but some of us can’t actually get out there and talk to our customers unfortunately. I know jobs to be done are going to change that for everybody of course, but we can’t and we don’t often go out talk to people and do these interviews. We may not survey people or if we survey them, we get like kind of crappy data that they back into us where they just type in you know, like rude things sometimes or whatever, it’s hard to get good voice of customer data. But there is a smart cut or a shortcut whatever you want to call it where you can go and look online at wherever your prospects are talking. Where they’re talking anonymously hopefully, but where they’re being natural and not limited to 140 characters, so Amazon reviews are really great place to go. Trip Advisor reviews depending on what you trying to sell. There’s usually a review for what you’re trying to sell. If it’s a service, there’s a book on that subject with reviews for that book and of course in this case for this Beach Way there was, there are a lot of books on dealing with addicts on living with addicts, being addicted, on trying to overcome alcoholism, drug addiction, lots so I went through six books reviews I didn’t read the book that wasn’t the important part. I’m looking through well, I’m looking through the reviews only and taking what you see and this is an exercise I recommend you do, and if you hire copywriters get them to do it if it’s not you that’s doing the writing.

Go through and mine that stuff for the really good information that you would hopefully get in an interview but you can’t actually get otherwise. So memorable phrases that they’re saying in the reviews, what they want. It’s amazing what people reveal about themselves and what they’re really looking for and hoping for when they’re leaving a review of a product or service/book. And of course what people were really in pain over and what they were really mad about. So I went to these. Went through hundreds of reviews. And I ended up landing on this one phrase that kind of it stuck. It stood out to me, it stuck. It was saying something different than any of anything else was in a different way. If you think you need rehab you do. It’s not clinical, it’s not floral. It was very direct. It was sincere. It wasn’t pandering, it wasn’t patronizing it was just saying if you think you need rehab you do. And when you compare to it to what else was going on out there, to me it stood out and it was written by a recovering alcoholic so it was actually in their normal general language the way they actually speak and I had to say they but I’m not actually a recovering alcoholic.

So we tested it against the control, your addiction ends here which isn’t really saying anything if you think you need rehab you do. When we tested it, we saw over 400% more people click that orange button and on the next page where they had to fill in the form to become a lead, 26% more completed leads no more empty beds. If you think you need rehab you do. It was the tone that they needed to hear. It was the same message really, that a lot of people were saying, it was just actually saying it in real language and real words that get sticky, that you can relate to, they speak like you do. Now it’s maybe a little easy I’ve been writing copy for 10 years so I get familiar maybe I pick up on tone, but we saw these humanizing brand personality characteristics earlier today it’s called Akers Brand Personality Scales. Jennifer Acker no okay. Nobody cares about copywriting, that’s ok. Hopefully that’s not true. [laughter]

There are these five characteristics that brands can have and they map to our human personalities so you can be sincere, competent, excited, sophisticated, and rugged. Surprisingly those were the five of them but when you’re going through if you decide to do this and you go through and you mine reviews for that interesting data, the things your prospects are saying or people who could have been your prospects are saying, if you’re not sure what the tone is trying mapping it to one of these and that could help you then if you say okay they all sounded very sincere so maybe our tone should be sincere or they like people who sound sincere.

So, let’s hypothesize that they want us to sound the same way, we’re going to write to copy that way. We’re going to at least test it, it’s a pretty shortcut for getting that point of finding the personality that will keep you from having to say mofo and boobs and all those other words that you’re not ready to say. Words that have personality and meaning but they’re not actually pushing things in the wrong direction for your prospects. Important part that we’re really not talking about is that people like to do business with people who are like them.

We hear that a lot right? The more people see and hear themselves in your copy, the more they’re likely to like you, and likability is of course a very persuasive thing if you know that. Finally, final thing to do here, if you’re going to go through this exercise, is to, I was going to call this take risks but a lot of the time we actually think we’re taking risks when you are writing really kind of sad copy that no one’s going to notice, instead try writing for your prospect when it’s very early morning late/late late night. Write to wake your prospect back up. That’s when you’re probably taking the right level of risk at least the level of risk worth testing. Some ways to do that and there lots of ways but there’s kind of a good way to get through this. One, start by being clear, so when I say something like you should write with personality, we tend to start and aim for the final results like to have some really crazy personality but don’t start down at the end start by just being completely clear with what you trying to say. People respond very well to clear as a starting point using short words and then from there start sprinkling in those unexpected words those phrases that you see your prospects using, the sticky copy that sticks out to you. Breaking familiar patterns. Using really short sentences and fragments as well, and this is copied over from the creative writing world but skip the parts that your prospects would skip. So if you’re going through your copy, you find yourself glazing over part of it, cut it, it doesn’t belong on there. If you put crazy egg on one of your pages, or any heat mapping, scroll mapping tool, and you see where they’re not paying attention, where it’s very cool, test cutting that. Do an exclusion test there. Cut the stuff that’s not going to keep them awake and keep them engaged people don’t want to be bored, it’s very easy to get there.

I’m going to finish this up with a very short little case study. I wrote, is anybody familiar with Niel Patalis quick sprout system? So I wrote the drip campaign for that for when you first sign up before you buy it the whole sale process gets you to buy it, I wrote that campaign for him and the first email in that series has this subject line. Now you’ve signed up to get a free e-book on how to get traffic and another free e-book on how to convert it and we have to get those both out to you in this email and get you to actually care and hopefully open them and read. So I wrote this to try to get people’s attention for one and then connect with them right, grab their attention or else you’re not going to ever be able to convert them. So it’s boom, this is how you get traffic, and covert it. Now when I wrote this, I felt uncomfortable about it. I don’t like aggressive sales tactics. I don’t like people who talks in that like fist pumping way, no offense if you do, doesn’t mean I won’t like you but like this bro stuff I just I don’t do it but when I wrote this I thought ok, let’s try it because maybe that’s how Neil’s audience does go about this, maybe they’re cool with that based on the tone and the comments on his post maybe they’ll be okay with that. So I wrote it, put it out there and then I just hid my head because I was pretty sure this was not going to do anything good, it didn’t feel right to me. So six months later this just last August I decided to go in and I was thinking about it, and I went into the tool and I was about to change it, just like delete it try something that wasn’t so like aggressive. So I went in and actually start writing over it and then before I hit publish on it I thought Joanna, just go look at the data just to be sure like how bad is this you have a new one here now how bad is this.

So I went and I looked and it’s a good thing I didn’t delete it. Thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands I can’t reveal the list size, but this is a big list of people and it has 104% open rate on that one email. 104%! So maybe everybody is opening it once or they’re opening once plus more times or they’re forwarding or whatever it might be but there’s a lot of opening happening here and we were just going to delete it. I was going to get rid of it and try something different. It was risky it was scary it didn’t make me feel comfortable, but it was also visible. People noticed it and they reacted to it. They did something based on it. That’s how to write non-sucky copy. The big picture being like you’re not going to don’t be silent don’t be invisible as hard as it is when your mom, you’re whole life said stop trying to get so much attention, start trying to get attention. Your words can do that. You don’t get bonus points for being quiet this isn’t the silent game. At least that’s my perspective on it I hope that helps. [Applause]

Next AMA: Alex Osterwalder, Author, Business Model Generation, 24th Jan 17.00 GMT.

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Audience member 2: I’m from Oregon a not-for-profit that helps entrepreneurs. One of the things that we do is a pitch clinic and have you found or worked with anybody who’s trying to kind of refine their pitches like sales pitches or PC presentations where you could apply some of these same principles?

Joanna: Yeah. It always depends on your audience of course right which is why I say go see how your prospects are talking right? So when you’re pitching something perhaps very different but a lot of times it’s going back to value prop but introducing tone or something that people can people can engage emotionally with rather like being kept at arm’s length which most are copy is trying to do, it’s like let’s not be intimate too soon but if you can get there and push through it, it’ worth testing right if all you’re trying to do is get people’s attention for starting as a starting point and then from the pitch make sure it’s a good pitch, but they don’t pay attention to begin with, then your pitch is kind of crap right? Like, it’s noise, you won’t even hear it. So sure, you can apply the principles I would say of course just do it with your audience in mind always with your audience in mind does that help?

Joanna: Yeah yeah, absolutely.

Audience member 3: Did you worry about plagiarizing when you are analysing the Amazon reviews and how would that have been a problem? How did you make sure, did you care about making sure that you didn’t use exactly someone’s words?

Joanna: No, I didn’t care and actually super surprised I get that question every time I say this I have never even considered that someone who leaves a review on a book will land on this site and say that’s my copyrighted material is it because it’s like publicly produced and shared. And a lot of times were swiping pieces of it and is copyright on how much are allowed to use before it’s actually a problem. we’re not taking full sections in writing a page out of it not that that would actually be that bad of an idea it might actually be a good starting point sometimes for writing your whole page but I haven’t worked about it and I’ve never ran into anything or run into anything. If you do, I would be floored by it. I wouldn’t worry about it.

Audience member 4: Alethia. In my office there’s internal debate about capitalization of the first letter of words. I hate it but somebody on my team go no no no that’s effective the way you write copy. What are your thoughts you know when the first letter of each word is capitalized?

Joanna: Like title case? Yeah I love it. Sorry. [laughing]

Audience member 4: That’s not natural, it’s not natural.

Joanna: No no, I do for headlines. Like centered headlines and crossheads. But then there’s times where like the site feels like a little too modern or your audience is they would think that that looks old or something then I’ve lowercased too for Med Labs for flow, I lowercased all the crossheads coz the audience is like designerly and so they might not respond well to that but…

Audience member 4: What about email subjects, I mean like…

Joanna: Email subjects? I lowercase, I even lowercase the first word like from mine if I can we get really good open rights thankfully at Copy Hackers. But for a subject line you’re trying to look like someone trustworthy like a friend. So friends don’t title case their subject lines right they rarely use the right punctuation and capitalization at all, so for subject lines I throw all those rules out, however they’re friends are likely to write to them is how you should write their subject line is what I say, but I hear what you’re saying.

Steve Johnson: I’m Steve with Under Ten. How do you protect good copy from CEOs CMO sales people and other amateurs? [laughter]

Joanna: They’re not amateurs. They’re the ones that know. Testing is a great thing if you can test without them noticing. We, I had, I worked at I mentioned I worked at Intuit and we had a very senior leader review a sales pitch I wrote and say we’re not going with this it’s fear mongering. And I was like okay it’s fear mongering fine, but we slipped it out and we tested it anyway I don’t know how it happened. And we the forecast it double forecast right so we ended up doing really good things and of course nobody told him that but that could be data that we would use on going forward without making sure he didn’t know that but tests go a long way right if you can convince them to test it which is all we do, we only test things, except for that one subject line that the auto responder tool didn’t let us, but outside of that if you can test it right that’s a really good way to get them on board if they won’t listen to testing I don’t know what they’re doing in software especially, right? That’s what I think. Did that help?

Audience member 6: Hi Joanna, Aaron. I was wondering if you could give us some examples of companies that are able to pull off professional with personality really well.

Joanna: Yeah, some rely a lot on their design like MailChimp I think a lot of people when they about voice and tone and copyrighting, they think MailChimp. Course if you read any of MailChimp’s,  they’ve really and I’ve talked to Katie copyrighter too, they don’t put much actually in there but they rely on everything around it all those other extrinsic cues to help people feel something about their product. You know, the chimp goes a long way. Though has been doing a lot of really cool stuff too where their copy is actually more interesting. Their homepage headline isn’t necessarily coz home pages is a very scary thing and everybody’s got their hands in it right, so it’s a hard to thing to agree on a personality there. But another landing pages, their copy is very tonal and interesting.

Audience member 7: Louis from Arcon. So I guess you kind of answered the question but I guess we reiterated it. Usually it’s a brand when you building a brand or product company there is an overall personality you want to convey but at the same time when you’re trying to increase the numbers on that one single page the tone that’s used show higher numbers that it kind of steer away from the general personality that the brand is trying to build towards. How do you kind of balance that?

Joanna: Like, I can see if the tone is pushing the brand to a place that doesn’t actually make sense from like a strategic perspective but it’s if just different from what the brand manager had in mind but people are responding really well to it, like we’re not trying to please the brand manager right which is hard for them I think I’m getting your question right, if your users or visitors are responding well to it and its winning, and hopefully I guess the question is that winning in the short term and long term or just initially if you got good retention or is it just you had more sign-ups with that so there’s that question to ask. But if it differs from a brand could help actually shape your brand we prospect is saying it needs to go is what they respond well to. I don’t as a think copyright copywriter and brand directors have problems because typically things that work for the brand unless it’s great personality that’s the right one, typically copy is a little different from what brand director really wants. I found that at least. Sales copy Brand directors don’t seem to like. Does that help at all? Yeah? Okay.

Audience member 8: Hi, Natalie from I just wonder if you test the actual conversion so sometimes like the people who click on boobs may not actually be interested in buying.[laughter]

Joanna: Yeah. In that case so I believe every element has one job. So sometimes there’s a fluke where you do like if you need rehab you do and on the next page you get completed leads right so that’s great but I think that a headline has one job and that’s to keep you there and the button has one job and that’s to get clicked. And you can only as an element to do as much as it’s obvious job. So if we change a headline, on the homepage, and then we expect to somehow impact a conversion that several steps down the road that’s a fluke if it does and generally it won’t so I tend to, while we’re running tests, we look first and foremost at the thing that’s most, that’s it’s meant to do, what’s the goal for that headline and measure it against that and the job isn’t to close them. If it was a headline that was for their down closer to the actual conversion funnel, then we would test all the way through but I didn’t for that but if it’s interesting if you need rehab it did work now for the one where was the boobs and stuff like that that is how, we follow the same process is how their prospects were talking to about their own bodies so we have reason to believe that it will continue to produce well and that test we haven’t it only ended about a month ago so we don’t know if those trial uses a going to turn into paying customers.

Audience member 9: Hi Matt Westing Wrist Pulse. Try to phrase this the right way so BDC, I think, is a little more obvious to me how to be eye-catching or interesting or funny humorous those things. We sell a product where ideal customer is senior vice president of Fortune 500s and it’s an application. I do want to have personality, but at the same time I’m kind of thinking that if they go check us out and we come across as anything other than like industrial grade North kind of thing, they’re going to say this isn’t the right company for us, so how do you develop an enterprise personality?

Joanna: Yeah and again it’s not about saying mofo or anything like that it’s really not those are just examples to like pull you toward something but it really is about how do they talk how do they actually talk not assumptions not things that we think of they’re a VP they only talk this way, but how do they really going to listen if you have to eavesdrop on the conversations, listening in to see how they naturally speak and that’s where your tone of your personality comes coz you want them to see themselves on the page, not you as a copywriter, right you want them to see themselves or their better selves and so if you can do that and you can only do that really by sounding like they are or like they want to sound and so the tone would have to match it but the point is not to be quiet about it not be like timid and scared of going somewhere with your tone but if you know how they talk, do it confidently and actually say something in it like the keep and share where they were kind not saying anything eliminate 99% of your paper files and we committed to saying something that we knew what they wanted to hear. That was type of tone it was just more of a direct sort of tone where it’s boldly saying something okay?

Audience member 10: Hi, I’m Ariel from Axlesoft. In our product’s tagline is the number one scrum software and we have been using that as a headline the though being that it implies were credible and used often. How effective have you found those types of headlines and is there any way to incorporate that that is a little more flavourful?

Joanna: Yeah, we use that app for a while they are the world’s number one accounting software I think and for audiences, certain audiences it goes a long way right if you’re not sure who the world’s number one accounting software is now you know if you care is another thing but it did perform well in tests so if it’s performing well you may not need to, coz they’re actually saying something, you’re not saying nothing but the question is do people really believe that and what does that mean how was it measured right so that kind of headline would open a lot of questions I think but you have to support really quickly to not lose credibility. But yeah, ways to personalize if it’s like scrum software, you’re talking to engineers obviously right and people who have a certain way of talking who like to believe that they don’t respond well to marketing messages or personality or anything like that. [laughter] I beg to differ. So, but you can do things if you want to be more playful you could do their pop-culture references that are true for them like when we finish that line with a bit of a pop culture reference where we said just the way you are like for your woman’s bodies we like you just the way you are exactly as are like Mark Darcy said in Bridget Jones so you can play with those kinds of things if they hit them, if they get it, cool. If they don’t get it, probably no harm but there’s ways perhaps that you can pull in something like that. Does that help Okay, cool.

Mark: We can carry on all day can’t we? But you’re going to be here all day and you’re here all tomorrow so we can pick that one up. Put your hands together, that was brilliant. [applause] Mark: Thanks for watching our talk from Business of Software Conference USA 2014. Hope you enjoyed it. For more talks, go to the BLN.com or better still come and join us at the next Business Software Conference. They run in Europe and the US. See you soon.

Next AMA: Alex Osterwalder, Author, Business Model Generation, 24th Jan 17.00 GMT.

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3 responses to “Writing Non-Sucky Copy for Websites, Emails and Newsletters | Joanna Wiebe | BoS USA 2014”

  1. david says:

    Joanna Rocks!
    Thanks for sharing this awesome video and transcript.

  2. […] Joana Wiebe – Writing Non Sucky Copy […]

  3. Great stuff! We immediatly updated our expected copy to be a bit more unexpected.