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Fundamental Rules For Writing Web Copy

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In the advertising world, the words employed to communicate a sales message in an advertisement or commercial are called advertising copy, and the people who write these words are known as copywriters. 

This term should not be confused with copyright, which is a legal mechanism that protects you ownership of what you write.

Similarly, web copy refers to the words employed to communicate a sales message on the web and the people who write these words are the web copywriters. 

Although distinctly different in tone from advertising copy, web copy has the same objectives, that is, to generate leads, customers, sales, and, consequently, profits for a website. 

Web copy should not be confused with web content, which consists of words written for the web for the purpose of informing, communicating, entertaining, or edifying the reader, not necessarily communicating sales or marketing message.

Web copywriting is one of the most exciting crafts and professions I know of.  I often equate it with alchemy, but whereas alchemy is the science that turns base metals into gold, web copywriting turns words into money seemingly out of thin air. 

Think about it.  The Internet is the only place where anyone can truly market every day for little or no money and have the chance at making a fortune. 

Whatever your writing skills are, don’t worry!  Practically anyone with moderate-to-good writing skills can learn how to write web copy. 

One of the best copywriters in the offline world, Joe Sugarman, almost flunked English in high school.  One of his copywriting students, a grapefruit farmer who had never written sales copy, made millions of dollars over the years using sales copy he wrote to sell grapefruit by mail.

It amuses me that whenever I run a successful campaign with great web copy, I find a few dozen copycats mimicking certain parts of my work.  I laugh quietly because invariably they have coped the words but failed to duplicate the strategy or tactic behind the words, which is what really makes the copy effective. 

What is my writing strategy?  In some ways it boils down to three relatively simple, but not so obvious, rules.

Rule 1.  Don’t Make Your Website Look Like an Ad
Depending on which source you believe, the average person is exposed to anywhere between 1,500 (Media Literacy Report published by Unicef) and 5,000 (Charles Pappas, Yahoo! Internet Life columnist) advertising messages per day from TV, billboards, radio, the Internet, practically everywhere we turn. 

The last thing we want to see when we land on a website is yet another ad. Yet many online businesses seem to go out of their way to make their websites look like ads, billboards, or other commercial media. 

Don’t fall into this trap and turn away potential customers.  Your website should provide the solid information that your prospect is looking for, and it should have an editorial feel to it. 

Above all, it should be free of propaganda.  Why?  Because people usually go online to find information.  Few people log on saying.  “I can’t wait to see ads, and I can’t wait to buy stuff!”  No, that usually doesn’t happen.

People go online to find information.  That’s why they call it the information superhighway. 

Even if they are shopping for something – say a DVD player or a hair restoration product – they are generally seeking information, not advertising, about those products. 

There is a myth that the Internet is an advertising medium or one big shopping channel.  It’s not.

Here’s the first distinction between offline advertising copy and effective web copy.  Web copy needs to have an editorial feel to it; that is, it cannot look or feel like a sales field.

Editorial-Style Web Headlines
  Don’t Buy a DVD Player Unless It Meets These 5 Criteria
  9 Facts You Must Know Before You Buy Any Product That Promises to Grow Hair or Stop Hair Loss
  Can Streaming Audio Really Double Your Website Sales?  A recent Internet research study says you can. [Courtesy of lnternetAudioMadeEasy.com.]

Where does the selling come in? 
It comes from convincing content – expertly crafted for hidden selling.  In plain English, this means:  Develop irresistible content that slides smoothly into a covert sales pitch for your product.

Why?  Because people online do not want to be sold to.  A study conducted by web usability experts John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen (reported in a paper titled Concise, Scannable and Objective:  How to Write for the Web) showed that web users “hate anything that seems like marketing fluff or overly overvalued language (‘marketese’) and prefer factual information.” 

If web visitors ever do get sold on something, they want to be finessed, not bombarded by blatant advertising.

It bears repeating that your sales pitch should not sound like an ad, but rather it should read like an editorial, testimonial, advice, case study, or endorsement. 

If you want an example of this kind of writing in the brick-and-mortar (meaning offline) world, think “advertorial” (editorial-style ads”) or press release.

In the offline world, editorial-style ads boost readership significantly over standard-looking ads. 

David Ogilvy, legendary advertising man, wrote in his hook, Ogilvy on Advertising, “There is no law which says that advertisements have to look like advertisements. 
If you make them look like editorial pages, you will attract more readers.  Roughly six times as many people read the average article as the average advertisement. 

Very few advertisements are read by more than one reader in twenty.”  In fact, in a split-run test conducted in Reader’s Digest, an editorial-style ad boosted response by 80 percent over the standard ad layout.

Rule 2. Stop Readers Dead in Their Tracks
Online business owners, spend a lot of time and money trying to get traffic to their websites. 

Building web traffic is vey important, but it won’t mean a thing unless you do one thing first.  That is, create compelling web copy that will stop them dead in their tracks and get them to do what you want them to do when they get there.

It’s no wonder, that in order for words to wield their magical power on the web, they have to be tailored specifically for the information-flooded Internet public where attention span is a rarc commodity.

Fact:  If your website is little more than an online brochure for your business, then your website is a very weak selling tool.

“Breakthrough journal” is a good example of a website that stops visitors dead in their tracks. 

The headline incites, curiosity “Does Coral Calcium Really Reverse Aging, Extend Your Bale Span, and Cure Degenerative Diseases Like Cancer?”), and the subheadline (5 Facts You Must Know Before It’s loo late) injects emotion, drama, and a sense of urgency. 

Its copy, written in the editorial style, follows through by giving readers a sense that they’re reading a news item, not an advertisement.

Rule 3.  Capture E-Mail Addresses
For a website to succeed, it must have effective direct-response web copy that induces action from a single exposures. 

What’s the point in getting someone to come to your website if the site visit doesn’t generate a response such as picking up the phone and calling your business, subscribing to your newsletter, signing up for your mailing list, or buying your product or service?

Generating a response means more than impressing web visitors with cool graphics or technology or getting them to bookmark your site.

Bookmark lists have become information closets that contain a jumble of sites people never return to, according to William Jones, a research associate professor at the Information School at the University of Washington (Lisa Guernsey, “Now Where Was I? New Ways to Revisit Web Sites,” New York Times, January 22, 2004). 

Jones noted that “Only hyperorganized users sort sites into folders, clean out dead links or click on inscrutable addresses to figure out why they were bookmarked in the first place.” 

I’ve heard an approximate estimate that fewer than one percent of Internet users actually return to sites they’ve bookmarked. 

What good can that possibly do you?
What’s the point in having cutting-edge web design, eyepopping graphics, and a sophisticated e-commerce infrastructure if you are unable to persuade your visitors long enough for them to do what you want them to do?

If you are selling something on your website, chances are that less than 5 percent of your sites visitors will ever buy your product. 

Conversion rates vary with each industry, but the typical healthy rate for online stores is 0.5 percent (.005) to 1.5 percent (.015), according to the Boc Newsletter on Yahoo!  Store (issue 32). 

“Conversion rates of 2 percent to 5 percent are fairly typical today”, according to a report titled Getting Clicks with Casual Customers at CNET News.com.  Even the best marketers with the most successful websites seldom convert more than 5 percent of their web visitors into customers.

What happens to the 95 percent of your web visitors who came and went?  For most websites, nothing. Those prospects are gone for good, never to return. 

That’s why it is absolutely essential for your website to have an opt-in mechanism.  The odds are low that people will buy from you the first time they visit your website.  After all, they don’t even know you. 

Rather than lose them, ask for something that is easier and less intimadding; than pulling out a credit card–ask them to give you them e-mail address.  It’s a simple, nonthreatening way to initiate a relationship.

Just, as we all know, is an important issue in e-commerce, and linding ways to build trust in an online environment is a continuing challenge for Internet businesses. 

On the web, people they like and trust.  They like people who provide them information they like and trust. 

They like people who provide them with information they need, who are not overly aggressive in trying to market their products, and who are easy to do business with. 

They trust people who deliver on the promises they make, who take time to develop a relationship with them who provide good customer service, and who have an privacy policy to which they strictly adhere. 

Capturing, contact information is the first step in developing relationship with potential customers and in building a relationship that will foster online sales –now and in the future.

An opt-in offer, such as “How to Pay Less …” is one way to capture a visitor’s e-mail address.  For a complete discussion of opt-in mechanisms.

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