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How to Write for the Web with Conversational Copywriting – Nick Usborne
The Agents of Change

How to Write for the Web with Conversational Copywriting – Nick Usborne

How we market and sell to our clients has changed over the years. Gone are the days of sounding like a slick, pushy, and overbearing used car salesman. As Nick Usborne will attest, you need to engage in a conversation with your clients, not just talk at them.

Building trust can come through in tone and word choice, so opting to use everyday simple conversational wording over tech jargon will go a long way in building relationships and making sales. Discover how to “write  for the web” and engage your customers by engaging in conversational copywriting.

Rich: My guest today is an expert in copywriting and web writing. He’s written copy for some of the world’s biggest brands including Citibank, Apple, Chrysler, MSN.com, New York Times, WebEx, the US Navy and many others.

He attributes his success to conversational copywriting and he’s here today to share his approach to help you write persuasive and effective copy for clients. Get ready to learn more from Nick Usborne. Welcome to the show, Nick.

Nick: Well thank you for inviting me. And thank you for the kind intro, it makes me sound good.

Rich: I get a lot of that. So Nick we were talking about the fact that both you and I started a long time ago in digital, 1997, for both of us in terms of getting online. But how did you get started in copywriting?

Nick: Copywriting, well now I have to reveal how all that really came to be, because that was back in 1979. Basically my dad gently tossed me out of the house because I finished high school but didn’t go to university or anything, and I was just sitting around doing nothing. He gave me €50 – I’m English by birth – so he gave me €50, told me to go to London and come back when I had a proper job.

So I’m sharing a house with a group of other people – I was actually sleeping on the floor – and we were having like a Sunday breakfast and a guy was talking about what a great time he was having at work. And I asked what he was doing and he said he worked for an ad agency. And I said, “What’s that?” Like, I hadn’t a clue. And he told me and said it was real fun.

So everyone went to work on Monday and I took out the Yellow Pages and I wrote a letter on a regular typewriter back then to the 21 ad agencies in the Yellow Pages. I got 3 interviews, 1 job offer, and took it. And that’s it. It’s really weird because I did all kinds of things in the agency and they moved me around.

Eventually they moved me to the credit department and told me to let them know what I think of that department. And I sat down and somebody asked me to write them some copy and it was just like a bomb going off in my head, I just knew immediately that this was exactly what I wanted to do.

So it was really weird because I had no clue in advance. And even when I was in the agency and they tried me out in the media department and production department, I had no clue. And then suddenly as soon as I bumped into the credit department, the copy, the design, all of that I just thought, “Man, I am home. This is where I belong.”

And I’ve been super fortunate because as I’ve made my living as a copywriter for the last 40 years, I still enjoy it when I get up every morning. So I’m really fortunate in that regard.

Rich: That’s awesome. And it’s awesome that you’ve been doing it, like you said, 40+ years. You talk about it in your bio, talk to us about conversational copywriting. So what does that even mean, Nick? What is conversational copywriting?

Nick: Alright, we’ll get going on this now. So I was a direct mail copywriter before the web came along. I actually wrote my first website back in 1995 and I loved it, I thought it was amazing because it was so different.

Then I started speaking professionally in 1997, I got up on stage and my big message to all the companies out there was that writing for the web was different. And nobody took any notice, which was fine. But my point was that as a traditional media copywriter – I was doing direct mail, I was doing print – you’re basically writing at an audience. There’s no interaction, people don’t interact with the TV, you can’t interact with a printed advertisement or a piece of direct mail, the advertising just writes ad. So you come up with this promotional message and you learn how to be a marketing writer and you write at people.

And the point I was trying to make, and have been for the last 20 years, is the web is different. Because it’s interactive. It’s a multi-way medium. It’s not just a place where the advertiser gets to talk. The public can talk back. Somebody can start their own blog, they can start their own Facebook page, they can add comments onto your page and have a back and forth.

And so if this is a back and forth kind of place – which it is – perhaps not as much as I’d like, but it is a back and forth place. Then I think companies need to adjust the way they talk. Companies should no longer be just selling at and writing at an audience from their clever marketing playbook. But they should seek to engage with that audience if they can online.

And if you’re going to do that, a lot of things have to change. Your language has to change. Your language has to become more conversational. You have to talk in a way as if you’re willing to give the other person their turn for them to talk back. So that’s where conversational language comes in. It’s recognizing that the web is a kind of multi-way medium and companies can go back and forth. And smart companies do on social media.

Rich: Right. So when you say that, can you give us some examples? Like, what is some language that might replicate conversations? What should we be saying instead of what we’re saying now that might give people the feeling that we’re not talking at them and we’re having a conversation with them?

Nick: Well first of all it’s a mindset thing. Just imagine you’re sitting at your kitchen table having a coffee and you imagine you’re ideal customer or prospect sitting across from the table. How would you talk to that person?

So I was reading something this morning, it was by a marketer online. And he was talking about blah, blah, blah, “…our ability to deliver a positive outcome for a customer.” This wasn’t in an ad, but this was business talk. If I was talking to you over a beer or a coffee, how would I say that? I probably would say, “We can make our customers happy. We can make your customers smile.” Instead of all that “positive outcome” nonsense.

So our business language is not conversational unless we change it. Our marketing language – like I said I come from direct mail, direct marketing background – that language is definitely not, it’s kind of embarrassing. It’s like standing in front of a car salesman.

So conversational language is the way that you talk to your friends, its’ the way you talk to your family, to your kids, to your neighbor. In fact, it’s the way that all of us used to speak before we went to school.

I don’t know if you’ve got kids, but little kids are really good at selling conversationally. They’ll look up at you and say, “Hey dad, can I stay up late? “Dad, can I have this? “Can I do such and such?” And they’ll look you in the eye. Kids are great salesmen. And then they go to school and they have that kind of beaten out of them, that natural way with language, and they’re taught how to write properly to pass exams. Or they go to college and it gets even worse, their writing becomes even more formal. They go to business school to a marketing course and they get all this weird jargon and terminology and they no longer sound like regular people. So conversational copywriting is telling enthusiastically, but in regular everyday language.

Rich: So how do you gain your ability then to write like a regular person or talk like a regular person?

Nick: I think it’s just practice. One of the things I suggested to people…one of the things I’ve started doing is sometimes I used to write blog posts, and I’d think, “Hey, I want to shoot a video about this.”  I do it the other way around now. I shoot the video and then I write the blog post. Why? Because I start off when I’m looking at and talking to the camera like I’m talking to you, I speak like this, like a regular person. And it’s really interesting when I speak first and write after, my writing becomes much more conversational because it kind of reflects what I was saying in the video.

Another thing I say to people is if you write some sales copy, print it out, hand it to someone – not a work colleague but a friend or neighbor, or spouse – print it out and give it to them on the other side of a table and tell them to read it out loud to you. What often happens is you find that person stumbling or looking embarrassed, because sometimes when we write sales copy it doesn’t sound natural. So you can do that, get someone else to read it for you, and if you see them stumbling and feeling awkward about what they’re reading, that’s telling you that this is not natural everyday language. This is not conversational copy.

Rich: That actually makes a lot of sense because I know – not necessarily with another person – but I always read it out loud in my office and people walk by and ask if I’m on the phone. No, I’m just reading my copy, I want to make sure it sounds good. Not only that it just also helps with grammar and typos and all those other things as well that make you look bad when you’re online. So having someone else read it I think is just taking that to the next level.

Besides having somebody read to us and making us sound like either a jargony robot or something else, what other tips do you have so that we can make our marketing copy sound more conversational?

Nick: I would say that beyond that the next thing is to listen. You’re never going to be a good conversationalist if you don’t listen. A conversation is so fundamental to our relationships, and most of us are terrible listeners.

It’s amazing coming from the offline world to the online world. Online I can really listen. So if I’m writing to a particular group of people who might buy x product or service, I will go to the company’s website and their social media site, I will go to the competitor’s social media sites, I’ll go to Amazon reviews. I’m going to go wherever those people are talking.

Because what I want to do if I go to an Amazon review or I’m looking at a Facebook page, is I want to do two things. One, is I want to listen to the language that my audience actually uses. Not the language that the marketing department thinks they use, but the language they actually us when they’re writing about those products and services.

The second thing I want to do when I’m trolling through some social media and things like that, I want to find the emotional high points and low points. When a prospect or a customer is writing about a product or service I want to know what upsets them, what delights them, what ticks them off, what makes them smile, what makes them sad, all of those emotional touch points.

If I can do those two things, in fact, this is the first thing. The reading out loud is the second thing. The first thing is to study the language of your audience. Because it’s not marketing language, it’s not the language of the marketing department, it’s not the language that you were taught to use as a copywriter, it’s the language that regular people use.

So start using that vocabulary and those phrases, and address their pain points or what they’re excited about. So now I’m touching emotionally which I need to do if I want to make a sale. So that’s where I start. Because conversation like I said, there’s a premise there that you take turns and that you listen and not just talk at people nonstop.

Rich: That’s absolutely true. And I wonder how much this changes depending on the medium. So if I’m writing for my website, is that going to be the same conversational tone that I might use in an email subject line or on social, or a blog? Does it differ depending on the channel or platform, or should we always be striving for this very conversational tone? And likewise, does it matter what industry we’re in?  Like if I’m talking about something that’s more B2C, maybe it needs to be that way, but is there a place for more jargon language even in B2B?

Nick: Alright, so we’ve got two separate questions there.

Rich: Yeah, that was a run on question.

Nick: If we’re talking about complete difference between website and email, I think the voice needs to be the same. I think maybe you speak a little differently the way that you might speak differently to me now compared to at a serious meeting with your colleagues. You’re still going to be you, you’re still going to be recognized.

Well B2B is a little different. We’re still the same person when we talk to our kids, but we sound very different because now we’re not at work. So I think you need the same voice, you need to find that conversational voice for your business. And I think you need to use that across the board, whether it’s your About page on your website, whether it’s on social media, that this is your voice. And yes, you adjust it slightly according to the circumstances. So that’s the first question.

The second question is, a lot of people ask me this about this sounds great and nice and chatty for B2C but what about B2B, about serious business. And it’s kind of interesting because I have a lot of friends who are B2B copywriters and they’ve been doing this longer than I have because in fact almost every business to business sale includes a conversation. When you’re selling a high ticket item there’s not a buy button. You generally try to get on the phone or you try to get a face to face meeting and you have a conversation and you listen to what they want.

Now in the language that you use on a website or in a report or in email or newsletter, are they going to be crazy chatty like if they’re selling something quite trivial B2C? Probably not. But yes they’re going to be conversational and yes they know that at some point we’ll meet and talk with this person, and they want that consistent voice and tone. But maybe a little bit more formal.

Some businesses, for some reason I keep getting an email newsletter form this company that sells spare parts for helicopters. I’ve got no idea how I got on their list, and I’m tempted to unsubscribe except it kind of makes me smile whenever I get an email from them. And then they talk to me about whether I need a new transmission for my helicopter obviously they use some technical language, because technical language is appropriate to that moment when you’re talking about something very technical.

So I’m not suggesting that B2B has become this frivolous language, it hasn’t. But is it conversational, absolutely. It should be anyway.

Rich: Right. And it just may be that that conversation requires a certain amount of jargon because there’s a certain amount of industry specific education that has to be assumed.

Nick: Right. And in fact it’s kind of appropriate because we get each other, we’re the same tribe. We’re using the same language.

Rich: Yeah. Now I love search engine optimization, I consider myself to be an SEO guy. How does conversational copywriting impact SEO, or does it at all?

Nick: Oh my goodness. How much longer do we have? I’m so glad you asked that, I had not expected that question but I love that question. I take the view – and you know I’ve been doing this a long time – and if you think about it, almost every search query is an abbreviation of a question. So if I type in “best coffee maker”, what I’m actually saying is, “which is the best coffee maker?” Most search queries are questions. And as a question it’s almost like the opening part of a conversation.

What’s that website, Answer the Public, where you type in something like “coffee maker”, and they bring up this wheel graphic of all the questions; the how, the when, the what questions. This is what people do. Almost everyone who goes to YouTube is asking a question, like “how can I do x?” Almost all such queries are questions, so using conversational language when we’re talking to Google or Siri, it’s all questions we ask. Search is questions, and questions are step one in the conversation. That’s what they want. They’ve asked the question, now they want you to come back with an answer.

And from my own experience I have some websites, kind of hobby sites, and one particular about coffee. That site gets about 500 visitors a day, it’s just a hobby site.

Rich: Wow.

Nick: Yeah that’s not bad traffic for a hobby site. And when I look at the pages that attract most of that traffic, all of the headlines are questions; “What’s the correct temperature for coffee? What’s the best temperature to serve coffee? How do I descale my coffee maker?” We’ve got hundreds of pages that are questions, and then I go in and answer those questions, and now I’m having this conversation between the reader and myself and the people that find that page.

So I think the idea, the concept of conversation, is built in and has always been the foundation of what SEO is all about. It’s helping people find answers to the questions they have. It’s just then when we type in something we tend to abbreviate our question and it doesn’t always look like a question.

Rich: Alright. Well you know we had talked about listening to people and I guess somewhere along those same lines might be keyword research. So I guess just doing your research, great keyword research is great market research. So I guess those two really do go hand in hand, and if we are listening and we’re writing to the questions people are asking, we’re both paying attention to SEO and conversational copywriting at the same time.

Nick: And we’re doing what Google always tells us to do, which is actually just to pay attention to our users.

Rich: Now just to shift a little bit, when a lot of people are writing sometimes they’re writing as themselves and sometimes they’re writing as their company. Are there different approaches we should use when it comes to this conversational copywriting, depending on which one we do? Or do you feel strongly that no, you should always be writing as a person?

Nick: No, I think there are companies out there that clearly need to talk as a company. But there are also companies out there that kind of get this. I was reading the style guide for Mailchimp the other day. If you just do a search for “mailchimp content style guide” and you go in there, and there’s wonderful instructions there on helping everyone in the company get on the same page in terms of what is our voice as a business, how do we want to come across as a business. And they don’t want to come over as being stuffy, they don’t want to come over as being formal. But they are talking about a company-wide voice. This is who we are, this is our character.

So if I talk to an individual like you Rich, I’ll just say to be more like yourself. Just be natural, have a conversation as if you were having a conversation. If I’m talking to a company I might say, look, let’s do the kind of persona exercise and figure out who you are as a company, what is your character, how serious are you, how playful are you. What kind of character are you as a business and what kind of language would be appropriate for that. And then we can dig a little deeper and create a style guide for you in terms of this is what conversational copywriting for this company would sound like.

Rich: Nick, what are some of the things, the mistakes you see in web copy today that just make you cringe and you wish you could just get rid of with a magic wand starting tomorrow?

Nick: So a lot of people in the business I was in – direct marketing – the direct marketers online want to sell you on how to be a millionaire next Wednesday. These guys have known for a very long time that that conversational approach is very powerful, you can connect and engage with your reader. So they do these “false buddy” thing.

So I might get an email saying, “Yo, Nick! Me and my wife were walking back from the beach this afternoon and I suddenly realized that you hadn’t signed up for my spiffy webinar.” And that’s where I cringe because I think, you’re lying. You’re pretending to sound like my friend, you’re being conversational and using conversational language, but you’re lying because you weren’t with your wife this morning thinking about me, because you wrote this email and it’s been in the system for the last 6 months, or at least the last 6 days. And now you’re just trying to fool me.

So that I hate is that kind of foolish, when you use the power of conversational copywriting to mislead people to manipulate people. This should be the opposite.

Rich: It sounds like the conversational copywriting equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Nick: Yeah. I’m pretending to sound like your buddy but I’m not. I’m just manipulating you like any other direct marketer. So when you say cringe, that’s literally what jumps to mind.

Rich: Alright. I know that you have a lot to share with people and I think you’ve got some classes or courses. If people want to work with you, how do they approach you, how can they get in contact with you?

Nick: They can get on my website at conversationalcopywriting.com. They can email me, nick@conversationalcopywriting.com. I’m actually putting a page together for your listeners, conversationalcopywriting.com/agentsofchange.

Now I will of course be trying to grab their first name and email address in exchange for some goodies. But if anyone does do that and sign up, I promise you I will not become one of those baddies and deluge you with incessant hard charging sales emails. I don’t like that anymore than anyone else. I like to think I have a respect for the gentle touch when it comes to email marketing.

But yeah, or just look me up online, Nick Usborne. Fortunately for me on the web there’s not that many people called “Nick Usborne”.

Rich: And Nick also promises not to lie to you and tell you he was thinking of you on his way back from the beach. Nick, this has been great. I’m looking forward to practicing my conversational copywriting when we get off the phone today. Thank you so much for stopping by today, I really appreciate your time.

Nick: Thank you very much for inviting me, it’s been a pleasure. 

Show Notes:

Nick Usborne understands how telling stories with compelling copy that people can really relate to will translate to more sales and trusted customer relationships. Head over to his website to learn more and take advantage of the special offer for AOC listeners.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing