Writing good copy is more than just coming up with a clever slogan or tagline, it’s really learning how you use your words effectively. It’s learning how to peel back the layers to your “problem” and come up with a “solution” that speaks to your audience as a whole, and in a language that appeals to them.
Joanna Wiebe knows the art of good copy and the effect it can have for businesses trying to boost their sales with more optimized email and landing page copy.
Rich: The original conversion copywriter, Joanna Wiebe, is the founder of Copy Hackers and of Airstory, a new content creation platform for marketing teams and educators. She’s helped cool, fast-growth companies likes Wistia and Buffer optimize their email and landing page copy. And she’s been invited to speak at over 50 international marketing conferences, like MozCon, Searchlove and Inbound. You can find her on Twitter at @copyhackers and online at copyhackers.com. Joanna, welcome to the show.
Joanna: Thanks for having me, Rich.
Rich: So how exactly did you get started in copywriting, and then what led you to create Copy Hackers?
Joanna: So I got started accidentally. I had dropped out of law school and I had no idea what to do with my life. My friend was working at an agency and I have a background in creative writing and an English degree. I didn’t know what to do with my life and it feels like everybody’s told you you’re going to be poor because you were an English major. So I never really expected any options for a career there.
So I dropped out of law school wondering what I was going to do now, and then there was this position at this agency my friend worked at, a position for a creative writer. So I got an interview there and eventually got the job. So I called myself a “creative writer” for those first two years of my career, because “copy writer” sounded deadly dull.
And that was problem #1, thinking that writing/marketing cop was in any way about being creative first, when it’s absolutely not about being creative first at all, as any successful copywriter knows. There’s a place for a great tagline and creative concept, absolutely. But when it comes time to sell, rarely does it come down to your creativity.
So I moved over to tech giant, Intuit, after that, and it was there that I learned about conversion rate optimization and a lot about measuring what works and what doesn’t work. And my career – the way I thought about it – shifted from writing copy as basically just writing in a different form, to having to be able to measure everything and it should be based on data. And I know that for a lot of people that doesn’t sound like a very fun approach to copywriting, but the more writing you do and the more copy you write, the less you want to be in those conversations with clients, where they make it sound like your job is the easy job and your skill is the softest skill.
When you realize that it can all be measured – and it has to be measured – then you see that copy is your online salesperson, and the words you put on the page and in your email, will directly impact whether or not you make money with that initiative. So with that in mind, I started doing a lot of A/B testing at Intuit, and then eventually decided to quit that job and go out and do my own thing where I would serve more startups and help them take a lot of the techniques that big, rich companies were using to grow, and apply that to their own small businesses and fast-growing startups and see how to make things better there in a measurable way.
So that’s how Copy Hackers was started, and that was a little over 5 years ago now. It’s crazy.
Rich: That is crazy. But I have to tell you, you’re killing me by telling me copywriting is not creative work. In my mind that’s such a fun, creative thing, and you’ve turned it into math right in front of me. You’ve drained it of all the joy, so I don’t know if you can build this back up again. Is it only about putting words into formulas, I mean, there must be more to it than that?
Joanna: For me, I believe that it’s linked to layers to it. So once you get the message right, then you can layer in the artistry. So I think science comes first, and then the rest is art. So there is still the creativity in there, and that is what will separate an Apple campaign – which converts very well, of course – from a campaign that maybe lacks that artistry but is still saying things that should be converting people but lacks the emotional pull. That’s not to say that emotion and science are disconnected, but there’s a lot of room to explore creative and innovative ways of interpreting the science of it. So there are the two parts of it, but if you start with the art, I have seen pure repeated evidence that if you start with the art for copywriting, it won’t go as well as if you start with science.
Rich: Ok, alright. So if I want to write poetry, at least I need to know what iambic pentameter is.
Rich: You are not the only English major.
Rich: Alright, so I think most of the people listening now are feeling that they can write. We’re adults, we write emails, texts, Facebook updates, and blog posts even. What does a copywriter bring to the table that we don’t have? What is copywriting specifically that’s different than everyday writing or even creative writing? And maybe you kind of answered this with the formula piece.
Joanna: Yeah, there’s so much to it. So for me, copywriting and creative writing are the same thing but they are distinct. Copywriting and creative writing both are based in writing, we’re taking the alphabet and we’re putting those letters into words, and those words into sentences, and those sentences into paragraphs, and we’re trying to do that to communicate something.
Creative writing is going to make you bring a story to life, and that should also happen in copywriting. Really great copywriting will also create a story in people’s minds to help bring that story to life. That happens in creative writing, and that should also happen in your copy. But it’s very hard to do that. If you just say, “Oh, you should apply storytelling techniques to copywriting”, you will struggle. It will not go easily, it will be hard and you might find yourself just scrapping that whole idea or moving forward with that idea with a lot of flaws.
So it’s like the difference between a general practice medicine and being a specialist in cardio thoracic surgery or being a podiatrist. You’re all based in helping the body, and you’re all based in medicine, but what you do is so different, you’re solving very different problems.
So a copywriter is solving a sales problem. Time and again, the reason to hire a copywriter is because you have a sales problem. Ideally that sales problem is going to be online, so you’re not selling enough online. You don’t hire a creative writer to solve that problem, and you don’t hire a designer to solve that problem, you hire a copywriter, a conversion-focused copywriter to solve that problem.
If you want to just tell a story – let’s say a brand story – you might then hire a creative writer with a marketing background to do that rather than a copywriter. Does that make sense?
Rich: Absolutely. So if we’ve got a problem with sales then we definitely want to turn to a copywriter. So that brings me to my next question. When I look at my traffic reports and client’s traffic reports, almost invariably the homepage is the most visited page on the website. What are the inherent problems that you as a copywriter face when it comes to homepage copy?
Joanna: It’s too many. Homepages are the worst.
Rich: So why are they the worst?
Joanna: I don’t believe a homepage has a real purpose. It feels like it will phase out. Honestly I personally can’t see what the point is. The homepage is what people came up with as a solution for an online billboard or online business card in the early days of the web. That’s like 2002. You had to have your homepage in place and you were really worried about that. But today you don’t really know what goes on your homepage. That’s the real thing that you can’t just ignore. And what does that mean that most of us don’t know what should go on a homepage? It might be that a homepage is kind of pointless actually, we’re using it as a place to dump a whole bunch of traffic that you didn’t know where else to put them so we’ll just throw them on this page.
The problem in writing that homepage then, versus writing a more targeted landing page, is there’s this rule. There’s a copywriting rule – at least for conversion copywriting – and it’s called the “rule of one”. And you can use the “rule of one” whenever you’re writing a page, but it doesn’t work on a homepage. Here is the rule, and I’ll tell you why it doesn’t work.
For the “rule of one” you’ve got 4 parts; you’re writing for 1 reader, using 1 big idea, there’s 1 offer, and 1 promise attached to it. That’s it, one reader, one big idea, one promise and one offer. One reader is at the core of that. You can’t write a page that’s just one idea, promise and offer. If you don’t know who that reader is, none of the other stuff will come together.
But a homepage doesn’t have one reader. A homepage has a bajillion readers, so you use it more like an airport where all the planes come in and then you do your best to push people off to the right destination. But it’s really hard to translate what an airport does onto a homepage, onto a single page. So I struggle to write them because if I don’t know the stage of awareness that they are in, I can’t match the conversation in their head because I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what you’re interested in, I don’t know what you care about, I don’t know what motivates you, I don’t know what problem is driving you right now or what promise is going to move you.
So that is why for me it’s very hard to write a homepage. As you say, we get a lot of traffic into this page, and so it’s a good candidate for testing but you don’t know what to do because you don’t know who your one reader is. So you might test something, a great message that brings in better lift than the control did, but that’s because it’s talking more to one audience or one reader than it is to the other readers. Are the other readers less valid? No, the other readers are also valid. Problematically you can’t write multiple messages for them and have them all compete. That’s where personalization can help with home page copy, but we’re still left with this giant challenge of trying to write and optimize copy for a whole bunch of people. It’s just too hard, I hate it. I avoid homepage copywriting every time.
Rich: I like what you said about the airport. It’s funny because in the last few years – as we do SEO and landing pages – I’ve just been thinking about the fact that the role of the homepage definitely seems to have changed. I completely agree with you. You used the airport analogy, lately I’ve been thinking about the homepage as the first floor in a big office building. And the goal is very similar to what you said about the airport; it’s really about just letting people know what they can find in each one of these offices and how you do it in the most coherent, easy way without scaring off everybody who didn’t want to go into that particular office.
It does sound like if you’re writing to convert somebody that the homepage is tough because it has to speak to so many people going against your one rule. So what is the argument against it, or what do we do to be able to speak to one people? What’s the answer if it’s not the homepage?
Joanna: The targeted landing pages. It’s easier than ever to make a landing page, it’s easier than ever to target the right people to go to that landing page. So for me, when a prospective client comes to me – versus somebody who wants just coaching – and says they need to work on their homepage, I steer them sharply away from that. Far better for you to make 5 targeted landing pages for the 5 people that you’re trying to market to and build a relationship with, than it is to build and optimize one for all those 5 people, even if they all have one thing in common.
And that’s what you have to do when you’re writing that homepage. The headline is generally that you value the proposition which you hope speaks to all 5 of those audience members, or you have to find the one thing that they’ve all got in common. Do a big Venn diagram to try to find the one thing that they’ve all got in common and try to focus it around that, and then push people off to those landing pages anyway.
So for me, again it comes back to targeted landing pages and the tools like Lead Pages and all of the great landing page platforms that are out there where you can make a page and then duplicate it and just modify it for those different audiences. There’s really no good reason that I’ve heard not to focus instead on targeted landing pages over a homepage.
Rich: Ok, so this might be a little bit outside of your area of expertise, but I just got curios to follow this down. So let’s say I create these 3, 5, however many hundred landing pages for specific audiences – and some of them might be coming off of the homepage for sure – but are you suggesting that to drive traffic to these pages are we taking social posts, digital ads, SEO, or all three?
Joanna: All three.
Joanna: And that is the question that comes up when you say to a client we’re going to do landing pages so how do we get the traffic there. Well, there are other ways we get traffic there, but here are a few of the ways we get traffic there.
Rich: Since we’re going down this route, would you also make that part of your navigation, or do you see landing pages as more narrowly focused and not part of the typical navigation, or does it depend?
Joanna: It depends. So it depends if you’re an agency and it’s an agency site, you might have different services landing pages for different services you provide depending on different industries you work with. It might not be your top level of your global map, but it could be within. Like, under “services” you could have those targeted landing pages within there. So the different services you provide, they happen to be search engine optimized, they’re also built to drive certain keyword phrases and other ads through Google, Facebook and things like that. And then of course, you’ve got a good starting point where if you want to modify that page or duplicate that and modify that for the different keyword phrase you want to focus on, absolutely.
And of course we see these targeted landing pages often in the footer. Very commonly it will be down in the footer where there will be a stack of 5 different industry-focused pages – like sketch versus photo shop – to create that kind of “us vs. them’ , 5 different pages for that where these are targeted landing pages but they do appear. They’re not for everybody to see.
Rich: Sure. So on these landing pages, I’m guessing that we may end up using the PAS framework. Can you explain to our listeners what the PAS framework is?
Joanna: So all of the best copywriting techniques come from way back when, so PAS is no exception. In my experience they test really well, these pages that follow this PAS framework – which is Problem, Agitate, Solution (or Solve). So obviously you open with the problem, then you agitate that to really help people fee that problem. And that’s where a lot of people want to cut that because most marketers think that as soon as you think you feel something, that’s it, that it’s pushing it or fear mongering. But the agitation is where you push that and really pull people in.
Rich: That’s where it becomes emotional for them?
Rich: Can you give us a specific example just to anchor down for people? Give me example of people you’ve worked with in the past, tell us the problem, tell us how you agitated it to a point of frenzy, and then solved their problem.
Joanna: Absolutely. So one that we write about on our blog – and we do this with email all the time – but this example we tested and it was for a company called SweatBlock.com. Sweat Block is this antiperspirant that’s clinical strength that’s like if you sweat a lot uncomfortably where you don’t’ wan to lift up your arms, this is a solution to a real problem. So in this case the problem was naturally that we opened the page up with that very problem around sweating too much. Then we agitated it by giving examples of scenarios of how people tend to react when they sweat too much.
So we listed out some things that they experienced – you don’t like to hug, you wear layers of clothing, you only wear black – and we went on and on and got so nice and specific. And even if your prospect doesn’t see themselves in all 9 of the points that you’re using to agitate, if they see themselves in 1 or 3 of them, now you’re good. Now you’re in their head.
That’s our goal as copywriters, to get in there. We can’t keep pushing our way in, we’ve got to find our way in and then once you’re in, your sales message is much more able to actually stick. So if you find those specific ways that they’re feeling that pain, now how do we solve it? And so in this case Sweat Block did exactly that. We agitated and then we broke into a large testimonial – which was an actual user’s story – which talked about her problem showing up at a school ground and being unable to wave goodbye to her kids, and she was so frustrated that she had to say goodbye to her kids without embarrassing herself, and that was the breaking point for her. So we’ve agitated the problem, now we can talk about the solution, which is finding a solution for her hyperhidrosis, and that product is Sweat Block.
I believe we got about a 50% lift, but it was a paid lift and this was on a homepage, which I’m not a big fan of, but when we were able to do this test and lead with that problem a large number of people who are a good fit for Sweat Block were experiencing that very problem. So it was a very good fit, we tested it and got a great big paid lift.
Rich: I’m sorry, what does that mean, “paid lift”?
Joanna: So a lift is an increase in x. So for us, “x” is paid sales. So we got a big increase in the number of sales.
Rich: Ok, so it wasn’t just page views or click-throughs, this actually affected the bottom line?
Joanna: Exactly. It directly impacted the revenue.
Rich: Excellent. So that’s some pretty cool stuff. Do you find that SEO impacts the words that you put on the page? And does it help you do your job, does it stop you from kind of doing anything you want to be doing.
Joanna: I was at a conference recently and thinking of this. Of course, once you get people there to your page, then the job is for your copy to convert them. But there are lots of ways to get people to your page. SEO is one of them. Organic traffic is a great thing, it’s wonderful that it’s free, it’s fantastic. I haven’t actually written with SEO first, over CRO. I consider it and it’s part of the artistry side, you layer it in afterward if you can. If you can rewrite a headline that’s great from a conversion perspective where you feel good, and it’s got the right formulas in place, you’re speaking to a pain or whatever it is that you’ve identified as an opportunity, if you can do that and then find a way to get that keyword phrase in – which every good SEO wants you to do – if you can test it and if your SEO is pushing you to get that keyword phrase in, try launching it with the keyword phrase in and then run a split test against it where you also write the headline without that keyword phrase, maybe it’s the headline you really wanted to go with in the first place.
Measure based on pain conversions, did (A) the search optimized one work, or did (B) the not search optimized one work? If (B) converts better, again there are really great ways to get traffic to your site that aren’t organic. So you can say it’s a high converting headline and converted better than the one that was search friendly, so what can we do to drive traffic to this high converting page instead? If we go about another path can we send more email traffic there, can we send more Facebook ads there, or more Google ads there instead?
Rich: Alright, that makes sense. There’s always multiple ways to win the battle. Sometimes we’re really struggling in social, and other times it’s SEO, and other times it’s paid ads, and other times it’s email. So there’s usually more than one way to approach a situation.
So I often talk about calls to action. In fact, I talk about them all the time. And yet you have this phrase – I don’t know if you came up with it – but you talk about calls to value. Can you explain the difference to me?
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. And by the way, I love that you said, “calls to action”. People say “call to actions” and it makes me crazy.
So “calls to value”, that’s what we came up with. We did this big series of experiments on buttons only. Now button tests in the CRO (conversion rate optimization) world are an embarrassment, but, buttons are the site of conversion on a page. You can’t convert online without clicking a button, so we see it as a huge opportunity.
So we did all of these button tests – that we called “the summer of buttons” – and after testing so many of these buttons during this summer, we started to see that it depends on the stage of awareness of your prospect, but by and large, a call to action works better when you think of it less as the action and more as the value the person is going to drive.
So all sorts of tests showed this; instead of saying “submit” as your button – of course- and instead of “add to cart”, try “get cool t-shirt” or “get t-shirt your friends will envy”, or something like that. Which one is going to be the more popular one, which one is going to be the one when cursor is hovering over that button to get me to go forward with that very large tiny action of clicking?
Rich: I would think it would be “making my friends feel bad”, because that’s what I’m all about. I’d probably go for that one.
Joanna: Make your friends envy your cool t-shirt! So if you’re actually selling that value, the value is getting a cool t-shirt, then it’s not just “add to cart”, it’s “get the cool t-shirt”. We tested this stuff all over and we kept finding that the call to value worked better than the “call to action” up until the point you’re going to charge my credit card. So that’s “buy now” or “complete purchase”, that’s where having those “calls to action” comes in really handy, when you’re at the bottom of the cart when you’re totally bottom of the funnel. When you’re top of funnel, “calls to value” worked better in our experiments than “calls to action”.
Rich: So if I’ve got a long sales page and up at the top I have a button that says “be the envy of all your friends”, and on the bottom I have one that says, “buy now”. Do those buttons do the same thing but they just tickle my fancy in different ways? Or do they actually do different things?
Joanna: So we recommend one offer on every page as part of the “rule of one”. So there’s one offer, and that means if you’re going to “add to cart”, you’re going to add to cart. It depends how you word it. So for us we also have seen that if you have different buttons on a page and copy that doesn’t match, that can be problematic to users. From a user perspective, they’re like, “Which one do I click to get this t-shirt?” So it’s best to have it all on one page, all of the button copy – if you’re using multiple buttons – it should generally stay the same. Test otherwise.
So the control should be all the button copies are the same. So if it’s an e-commerce page and the “add to cart” is at the top and it’s a “get cool t-shirts”, and at the bottom of the page there’s another button that is also “add to cart” but instead you’re going to say, “get cool t-shirt”, I would have the control both buttons say “get cool t-shirt”. And then if you want to test out having different language on each of those buttons negatively or positively impacts conversion. But when you get further down the funnel – so once you’ve added to cart and entered your credit card information – then comes “purchase now”, that’s where the button is different.
Rich: Stop being clever and just close the deal.
Joanna: Exactly. They don’t need to be reminded of the value as much anymore.
Rich: Hey, this has been awesome and honestly I had like 74 more questions to ask you.
Joanna: I always give long answers, sorry.
Rich: No, it’s great. And I want to tell people that they should definitely go out and check your website out because a lot of these questions I wrote from reading a number of great articles on your site. I really enjoyed them and it definitely focused my thinking on improving our own landing pages and copy and everything else. And you’ve got great information there, everything from Facebook pages to blog posts to everything else. So definitely something to check out, we’ll have those in the show notes.
I know we mentioned it right at the top of the show, but why don’t you tell us where we can find you online.
Joanna: Absolutely. I’m @copyhackers on Twitter, and online at copyhackers.com.
Rich: Awesome stuff. Joanna, thank you so much for your time today.
Joanna: Thank you, Rich.
- Check out Joanna’s website for helpful articles on the topic of effective copywriting, and be sure to follow her on Twitter.
- Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media in Portland, ME, as well as the founder and brains behind the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference. And early this year he will also be adding “author” to his resume when his first book, The Lead Machine, is published.