Writing For Conversions: How to Turn Your Website into a Cash Register
About The Author:Tim Ash is the CEO of SiteTuners, a leading landing page optimization firm. Tim has worked with American Express, Sony Music, American Honda, COMP USA, Harcourt Brace, Universal Studios, Texas Instruments, and Coach to develop successful Internet initiatives. He is a highly-regarded speaker at Search Engine Strategies, eMetrics, PPC Summit, Affiliate Summit, and Internet World. Tim is a contributing columnist to several publications including SearchEngineWatch. He is the author of the Amazon e-commerce bestselling book Landing Page Optimization.
Our company routinely runs large scale landing page optimization tests to improve conversion rates. One of the most common components that we test is the sales copy on the page. We have found that changing your approach to writing can often lead to a double-digit increase in conversion rates.
What I am going to share with you is a distillation of our hard-earned experience over the course of hundreds of landing page tests. But this is not an article about “persuasive” copywriting, or powerful magic words to use in your headline. Most of the problem with writing for the web lies at a much more fundamental level. There is a giant disconnect between how much we care about our sales copy, and how much our Internet visitors do.
How Users Read on the Web: They don’t.
—Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen
Even though the words above were written in 1997, they still hold true. Jakob Nielsen’s pioneering work in this area has been confirmed by a lot of subsequent research. The vast majority of Internet users do not read a Web page word by word. They scan it and focus on individual words, phrases, or sentences. They are often seeing your company for the first time, and do not know how much trust to place in your information. They are used to being assaulted with promotional messages and will tune out most of your attempts to overtly market to them. They are task-oriented and are on your site to get something specific accomplished.
Most of the adaptations that you need to make to your writing have a single purpose: to reduce the visitor’s cognitive load. Instead of being forced to pay attention to how the information is presented, they can devote more focus to getting their intended task accomplished. By getting out of their way, you empower them to be faster, more efficient, and effective. This will lead to higher conversion rates for you, and higher satisfaction for them.
To increase the odds of a favorable outcome you need to consider the following areas of your writing:
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
The preferred structure for most Web writing is the inverted pyramid. It uses the principle of primacy (ordering) to control saliency (importance). In this style of writing, you put your conclusions and key points first. Less important and supporting information should be placed last. This is critical since most readers will choose not to read very far.
Most of this is probably not earth-shaking insight in the world of newspaper writing. Newspaper editors have a similar audience makeup: casual visitors who scan for information that competes for their attention, and consider the source as a transient and disposable resource. Because of this they have developed a very similar model. Headline size and prominent positioning indicate the importance of articles. The lead paragraph summarizes the whole story, and supporting detail is buried further down (or by following text hyperlink jumps to other pages).
Get to the point and let them decide if your content is relevant enough for them to stick around. By writing in this way you maximize the chances that they will come away with the information that you consider most valuable. The same structure should be used for creating online audio or video clips for your site.
Remember that the visitor may have arrived from any number of different inbound links and may not have a lot of context about your page. Use clear and prominent page titles to tell them why each page is important.
Make sure that you only have one main idea per paragraph. If you bury a second idea lower in a block of text, it will probably be missed as the reader jumps down to scan the lead-in text of the subsequent paragraph.
The inverted pyramid approach should be used when creating bullet lists or lists of navigational links—put the important ones on top.
Keep your pages short. This will allow them to be digested in small, bite-sized chunks that correspond to a Web user’s attention span. There is evidence to show that significantly shorter text results in higher retention and recall of information, and is more likely to lead to conversion actions. Your page should only contain important information for its topic and level of detail. You can move longer supporting text to other pages, and create links for the dedicated reader.
However, at SiteTuners.com we have run across an occasional exception to the shorter-is-better guideline. Some single-product consumer websites have very long direct response pitch letters that outperform significantly shorter alternatives. They draw the reader in and encourage them to spend a lot of time on the page. After a certain point the visitor’s attention investment gets high enough to build momentum toward the conversion action. This is not to say that long sales letter pages cannot be made better. There is definitely a lot of bloat and deadwood on the ones that we routinely test and improve.
As I discussed earlier, the reality for most Internet surfers is that they are constantly subjected to a barrage of promotional messages and advertising. As a basic defense mechanism, they have learned to tune out most hype. Perhaps you do have to be somewhat crass to get them to your landing page. For whatever reason, they have ended up there. But as I advised in the “Keys to Creating Awareness” section in Chapter 4, you should now stop screaming at your visitors. You are no longer (for the moment) competing for their attention with other websites. So you need to change the focus to the task that they are trying to accomplish.
Your visitors detest marketese. Unfortunately, your landing page was probably written in this kind of over-the-top promotional style. It usually involves a lot of boasting and unsubstantiated claims. If your company is the “world’s leading provider” of something, you are in good company. A recent search on Google turned up 8.58 million matching results for this phrase. Your claims are probably not true anyway, but even if they are you can use different language to make your point.
Marketese may be (barely) acceptable in your press releases when you are trying to puff up your company and accomplishments. But on your landing page it spells disaster. Marketese requires work on the part of your visitor. It saps their energy and attention, and forces them to spend time separating the content from the fluff. It also results in much longer word counts. You are missing an enormous opportunity by not creating a hype-free zone on your landing page.
How to Avoid Writing in “Marketese”
• Do not use any adjectives.
• Provide only objective information.
• Focus on the needs of your audience.
Save your visitors the aggravation and only tell them what they want to hear. Your editorial tone should have the following attributes:
Factual - Writing factually will take a little work. It is difficult to stop making subjective statements. You may catch yourself lapsing into marketese at unexpected moments. But stick with it. You will be amazed at how much more effective your writing will be. Remember, your visitor is not looking to be entertained, and certainly not to be marketed to. They are there to deal with a specific need or problem that they have. The best kind of information you can give them is objective in nature.
Task-oriented - Task-oriented writing is focused on the roles, tasks, and AIDA steps that are required to move your visitors through the conversion action. You should organize your text in the order that the visitor is likely to need it. For example, a big-ticket consumer product site might lay out the following high-level steps for the buying process: research, compare, customize, purchase. Once you have built The Matrix for your landing page, it should be clear where the gaps are.
Precise - It is critical to be clear in Web writing. The audience can be very diverse and can bring a variety of cultural backgrounds to their interpretation of your language. Be careful about your exact choice of words. Never try to be funny or clever. Do not use puns, metaphors, or colloquial expressions.
This is doubly true for link text or button text. Your visitors need to have a clear understanding of exactly what will happen when they take the action of clicking on something. Text links should describe the content on the target page. Unhelpful link labels such as “click here” are a wasted opportunity to focus the visitor’s awareness on an important available option. Also, link text is used by search engines to help people find information. If you use good link text, then you will be helping your own cause. Buttons should accurately describe the intended action. For example, many e-commerce sites mistakenly put “Buy It Now!” buttons next to products when the actual action is “Add to cart.” Another common mistake is to use the label “Order Now” when you really mean “Proceed to Checkout.” This causes unnecessary stress and anxiety for visitors as they try to figure out the threat or opportunity presented by your button. It is always best to remove the hesitation and assure them that taking the next step is a small and safe action
Concise - Become a word miser. Ask yourself, “How can I make this even shorter? Do I really need to communicate this at all?” Brevity has several advantages. It increases absorption and recall of information. It shortens the time that visitors spend reading it—minimizing the likelihood of increased frustration and impatience. It supports the goals of inverted pyramid writing, and the scannable text requirements described in the next section.
Since people don’t read the Web, the format of your writing should support their opportunistic scanning behavior. Use the following guidelines to help you write scannable text:
• Write in fragments or short sentences (don’t worry about grammatical correctness if you have made yourself clear).
• Use digits instead of words to write out numbers (e.g. “47” instead of “forty seven”)
• Highlight important information-carrying words (do not highlight whole sentences; stick to 2- or 3-word phrases).
• Use clear, emphasized titles for page headings and important subheads.
• Use ordinary language (avoid industry jargon and acronyms that are not widely understood).
• Use active voice, and action verbs.
• Use bullet lists instead of paragraphs.
• Keep lists between three and seven items (the limit of human short-term memory “chunking”).
• Do not use more than two levels for lists or headings.
• Use descriptive link text (describing the information on the target page).
• Use supporting links to maintain present supplemental information and “see also” cross-referenced information.
If you review your website or landing pages with a critical eye and faithfully implement the recommendations above, I can guarantee that you will make a better and more persuasive connection with your visitors. This in turn should make your cash register ring more often.