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Copywriting tips from Mel Henson

Author's avatar By Dave Chaffey 11 May, 2011
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I met Mel Henson at last year's ECMOD conference where we discussed the pleasure and pain of book writing. She was hard at work on a new book on copywriting: [amazon-product text="Flicks & Clicks: How to Create Websites and Catalogues that Sell More" type="text"]1907722041[/amazon-product]. There are relatively few new books on online copywriting and if you want to review your approaches, I highly recommend it. It's full of practical tips and examples blending on and offline copywriting.

So, we arranged to have a chat about what works and what doesn't in online copywriting.I hope you find Mel's ideas helpful? What are your pet hates or peeves with online copy?

1. What inspired you to write "Flicks and Clicks?"

When I first specialised in copy for home shopping, I discovered that there is real ‘science of selling’ behind successful mail order catalogues. It’s based on research done in the 1980s by Professor Siegfried Vögele, yet these principles were not covered in any text book.

Neither was there anything about how to apply direct marketing techniques to multichannel retailing. Although there are several books on direct marketing, they mainly cover adverstisements and mailing packs, rather than an in-depth focus on retail websites and catalogues. I wanted to provide a central resource that would be of real use to large and small direct retailers.

2. What are the most common mistakes you see in copywriting for online shops?

Firstly, a lot of online copy fails to end on a call to action. Classical direct marketing ads always give you a reason to buy, but on the web, a lot of product copy just ends in mid-air. There are many ways to encourage your customer to buy. It can be as subtle as telling your customer that this is the only place they can find the product, reminding them of your guarantee, or reassuring them that lots of other customers have bought this particular product.

Another common fault is to address customers as a group rather than an individual. Watch out for impersonal sentences in the third person, such as:  “Ideal for those looking to benefit from the latest technology that will enhance their listening pleasure.”  It’s far more compelling and believable to speak directly to the reader with copy such as ‘”You won’t believe the sound quality. New technology makes it as real as having a front row seat in the concert hall.”

Remember that copy is the replacement for being with your customer in person. You get the strongest emotional connection when your copy reads as though you were talking to a single person, one-to-one.

3. The home page is often the most important entry point for a catalogue retailer. What is important to get right here in terms of copywriting?

The customer wants to know at a glance what the site is about, what it has to offer them, where they’ll find whatever they’re looking for.  It’s really important that the first words that catch the eye of the customer communicate a strong benefit – what the site can do for them – rather than ‘Welcome to our website’.

Copy should be clear not clever, as people simply won’t take the time to work it out. One of my favourite headlines is for a baby changing mat with a built-in safety harness to stop the infant rolling off and hurting themselves.  On leaflets and posters it read, ‘No bumps-a-daisy after a whoopsie’. In print that made people smile and read on, but online it’s too obscure, and of course, has no SEO value as it contains no relevant keywords.

On the home page, it’s almost impossible to separate good copy from good design. The two need to work together to draw the customer in, establish trust and funnel them towards whatever action you want them to take.

4. Could you give us some tips to make other types of online copy more effective?

One of the easiest ways to improve copy is to start your product copy or category overviews with a verb, such as  Reveal your....  End the,,, Prevent..... Restore your.... Discover the...” This simple trick draws the reader in right from the start, makes a promise and also gives an embedded command.

Try to remove the word ‘will’ from your copy, so instead of , say, “Kids will love the fruity taste.” you can write “Kids love the fruity taste.”. Writing in the present tense rather than the future gives your copy an active tone of voice and sounds more convincing.

Another simple way to make your copy more compelling is to use the word ‘you’ more often than ‘us’, ‘we’ or ‘our’.  It’s interesting to go through and count them; the  ratio should be at least 2:1 and ideally 4:1 but frequently it’s the other way round. Customers are interested in themselves, not your company, so if you’re copy uses ‘we’ more than ‘you’, the copy should be re-written.

5. Which approaches do you recommend for testing and improving copy?

Test the major things first. Often a product has more than one benefit, so test different approaches. For example a solar powered fountain has benefits of being easy to install and being environmentally friendly, so you could test two headlines, such as “An instant water feature for your garden – no wiring needed.” or “Eco-friendly fountain - powered by nature.”.

It’s very common for people to write copy with all the features first and the best benefit last, so take a look at any underperforming copy and try writing it in reverse order. The results could surprise you.

Sometimes just changing just one word can make all the difference. In one B2B, email changing the subject line from ‘Free study’ to ‘New study’ resulted in a 44% uplift in open rates.

Author's avatar

By Dave Chaffey

Digital strategist Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of online marketing training platform and publisher Smart Insights. Dave is editor of the 100+ templates, ebooks and courses in the digital marketing resource library created by our team of 25+ digital marketing experts. Our resources are used by our Premium members in more than 100 countries to Plan, Manage and Optimize their digital marketing. Free members can access our free sample templates here. Dave is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant who is author of 5 bestselling books on digital marketing including Digital Marketing Excellence and Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice. My personal site, DaveChaffey.com, lists my latest Digital marketing and E-commerce books and support materials including a digital marketing glossary. In 2004 he was recognised by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have helped shape the future of marketing. Please connect on LinkedIn to receive updates or ask me a question.

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