How to write great web copy people actually want to read

How to write great web copy people actually want to read

7 minute read

How to write great web copy people actually want to read

7 minute read

How to write great web copy people actually want to read

Nic Evans

Product Content Design Manager, Shopify
Anyone can write. ‍ Before getting into the context of the web and its pitfalls and cautionary tales, the first thing you need to know is that anyone can produce good web copy.

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The ability to know the good from the bad sets the professionals apart from the novices.

Developing engaging, meaningful web copy is a balance of function and emotion, which can be tricky. Let’s look at the patterns of thinking, established tools, and idiosyncrasies that we use to craft web copy that’s ready to publish.

The web is a harsh taskmaster

When I first encountered the ‘rules’ of web writing, they struck me as a dumbed-down version of real writing. Shorten this. Bullet point that. It seemed like a pretty soulless exercise. But boy, was I wrong.

The web is its own medium. It moves fast and is concentrated with weak messages.

The key to successful web copy is creating markers of quality. This is the challenge—and one you should embrace wholly.

Whether you are aiming to create content for a website, sales chat for banner ads, or in-depth blog articles, you have to write with conviction, confidence, and an acute awareness of context.

You have to commit to creating quality content, with no fluff or filler.

Online readers are fickle, dismissive, and on the search for a quick hit of meaning. People don’t read online content; they skim. The easy solution to counteract this problem is to simply make your content better.

5 tips to write compelling web copy

Writing high-quality website content is different from writing other types of content marketing.

Whether you’re writing a landing page, product descriptions, or just a web page, here are some tips you can use to make sure you’re writing web copy that will stand out with your target audience.

1. Document your process for consistency.

Before I begin any copywriting project, I create my ‘List’. It’s a template that I work from and add to. The act of writing is a personal one, and I have my habits. But the technical steps to producing great content should remain consistent.

Research

No matter what you’re writing, you’ll probably have to do some research upfront, whether that’s on a topic for a whitepaper or just competitor research on social media.

Tools to use

Consider what tools you need to get the job done. For digital marketing web copy, this may be tools for SEO or web publishing. Whatever the tools, make sure you know what you’re using before you get started.

Tone of voice and draft

Your first draft gives you the chance to get the basics or necessary information down. This is also the time to write with a focus on tone of voice, the one thing that sets you apart from others in your industry and even your niche.

Redraft

Take another look at your draft and edit for clarity and brand voice. This will also be the best time to make sure you’ve incorporated your keyword research as well as revisit your call to action to make sure it’s clear and actionable.

I’ve come to realize that this list is less of a schedule and more of a personal reassurance of my goals. It also happens to be a pretty good distilled idea of what copywriting is.

Copy Tip #1: Get a post-it note, and write the objective for your content on it.
I’ve just written my objective for this article – “Help people develop copy that’s fit for publishing on the web.” Stick this at the top of your computer or desk and after each section you write, read this objective back to yourself.

2. Know what your audience cares about

Without this first step, you have nothing.

To speak with relevance and interest you have to converse, not dictate. Conversation is a mutual language, a natural flow. You can’t have this relationship without human insight.

Research is an investment. It’s an opportunity to investigate the person behind the statistics. Analyze competitor's sites, immerse yourself in the wider industry, and find ways to engage on a personal level with your targeted audience.

Audience research
It’s important to do the work upfront to research and get to know your audience before you start creating content for the web. (Source)

I favor the good old-fashioned interview. Before I start working with a client, I give them a brand questionnaire. This is a collection of questions designed to make them explain their business and project in their own words. This information is invaluable for the written word.

How people talk about themselves vs. how they want their audience to see them is often akin to their wants vs. their needs. Good content isn’t an opportunity to be cringingly ‘clever’, it’s a tool to be brilliantly insightful and engaging.

This is where you can begin to flesh out what the realistic expectations for your copy are.

Writing for the web is a balancing act. You need to be precise, impactful, and relevant all at once, and time isn’t on your side. You can’t bludgeon your website visitors with a million concepts in one swoop.

Instead, consider: what do you want to say and to what means? Prioritize information, concentrate themes and consider what is actually valuable content to the reader. Have another gaze at your post-it note. Take stock of your objective and focus.

Insight is the beginning of it all. Use it well, and you can develop perhaps one of the most valuable content techniques of all—establishing an effective tone of voice. This is how you get your foot in the door.

Copy Tip #2: Write by hand first.
I write everything down, and then type. This is almost a screening process for me, but it also serves as a way to connect words with meaning. Creating a list of keywords associated with your content urges you to trim the fat and look at the buzzwords.

3. Structure your content for ease of reading.

Good writing is a blend of function and emotion.

Structuring your content well is as integral to its success as the words themselves. No one will read a mass of concentrated copy. How content is pieced together guides and holds the attention span of the reader.

I employ a series of quick iteration tools, built to structure my content in a meaningful way and fulfill the reader's instant appetite.

‍Headlines

Your headline holds the weight of your content. Packed with meaning and promise, it has to be catchy enough to grab attention and honest enough to deliver. Use wit and wordplay with caution, as this is your chance to spark a connection, not demonstrate a poorly placed sense of humor.

Hit them with a benefit. People look for the positive, so what is so great about what you have to say? Make them need to stay on your home page. My headlines tend to develop from my Copy Tip #2. Keywords are pure benefits.

‍Subheadings

If your headline is the theme, your subheading is your message. What is your content delivering?

I use my subheadings as a wider context. Sometimes I hint at the ethos behind the message, other times it’s more direct. Just as important as a headline, this handy heading is your opportunity to back up your headline claim, outline what is coming next. Establish trust and deliver value.

So, my headline here is ‘Subheadings’. Clear, informative and honest. Avoid the use of ‘Marketese’. This language of empty claims instantly loses any credibility built up. Functionally, subheadings are great for logically grouping content and for separating extended text.

SEO formatting
You need to be conscious of both SEO formatting best practices AND best practices for formatting copy for readability. (Source)

‍One idea per paragraph

Now that your sections are taking shape, it’s time to refine the focus.

Limit each paragraph to one idea. This makes it easier for the reader to understand and digest. It also makes the content easy to skim for relevant information.

Don’t over-romanticize your copy. Let tone and your voice take care of emotion and use this section to get the facts and solid messages as functional and succinct as possible.

‍SEO keywords

There is no denying that SEO is vital for any type of web content. But that doesn’t mean that you should be writing for the sake of SEO or linking for linking’s sake.

My approach to Search Engine Optimization is to keep it natural. You’ve spent valuable time on your content, don’t fill it with ill-placed key phrases and links. Use organically relevant and concise keywords and phrases in the headlines, subheadings and body copy.

Your investment in research comes into play here. Spend time investigating how your audience talks, searches and associates with you. To build trust, link to relevant resources that add further value for the reader. This demonstrates that you aren’t a greedy service provider but a user-centered educator.

Copy tip #3: Read your content out loud.
You’d be surprised how different copy can read and sound. Nothing can indicate how natural a phrase or sentence is more than hearing it out loud. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t type it.

4. Use your brand voice to distinguish your content


This is your personality. It is how you say what you say. Use it the right way and you can make long-lasting connections, regularly interact with your target audience and reinforce trust.

Use it poorly and you can confuse the reader and misrepresent yourself.

Often, the most unsuccessful uses of brand voice are by people who fail to constantly utilize and apply their tone across the board. Characterful jesting in the About section followed by a corporate speech on their Approach page doesn’t quite match up.

Brand voice chart
Not sure what your brand voice sounds like? Use a brand voice chart to help establish the basics of your tone of voice. (Source)

For my own copy, I adopted my character. I got rid of overused service promises and opted for owning my self-taught status and branded myself as a wordsmith rather than a copywriter. It made a subtle difference, but this set the tone for my content.

Recently, companies have opted for rewriting their Terms and Conditions. I love this complete commitment to their voice and style. Your voice can target users, exhibit attitude, and be fun. If you find a tone of voice that sells, you can create consistent content with ease.

Copy Tip #4: Read over previous content find your voice.
How you naturally write will contribute to your tone. If you have to force it, it won’t sound quite right (or be easy to replicate over time). Spend some time assessing the actual words you use to describe what you do. They will have more in common than you realize.

5. Polish, refine, and publish your content

Creating and developing content is a slog. Sometimes personal (but mostly trying), this process can often leave you feeling like a proud parent, but you need to resist the urge to publish right away.

Hindsight is a tool some writers don’t have. Fast-paced deadlines and years of practice proofing as you write mean that that window of time to process, digest, and edit is lost. Get into good habits now.

Editing and revising
As you polish, you’ll want to do big picture revisions based on the topic and organization as well as smaller copy edits for grammar and mechanics. (Source)

This edit period is more than spellchecking. There’s always fat to trim and points to re-emphasize, so take your time before you push it live.

There are a few things I run through before I publish:

  • Read my notes. These early scribblings often illustrate the purest form of my content.
  • Gain a fresh perspective. I send it to a reader or friend unrelated to the context. If they understand what I’m saying, then it’s done its job. Moreover, if you're writing a highly technical piece, run it by an expert before publishing.
  • Check spelling and grammar. If possible, sleep on your content. Errors will be glaringly obvious when you read with new eyes.

Understand that creating and developing content is a process. Don’t be too tough on yourself. Content is a currency. Contribute regularly, practice often, and share what you create.

Good to Know: Ready for a better way to manage your content? Check out GatherContent, a centralized hub where you can plan, produce, and organize all your content. Start your free trial now.

The ability to know the good from the bad sets the professionals apart from the novices.

Developing engaging, meaningful web copy is a balance of function and emotion, which can be tricky. Let’s look at the patterns of thinking, established tools, and idiosyncrasies that we use to craft web copy that’s ready to publish.

The web is a harsh taskmaster

When I first encountered the ‘rules’ of web writing, they struck me as a dumbed-down version of real writing. Shorten this. Bullet point that. It seemed like a pretty soulless exercise. But boy, was I wrong.

The web is its own medium. It moves fast and is concentrated with weak messages.

The key to successful web copy is creating markers of quality. This is the challenge—and one you should embrace wholly.

Whether you are aiming to create content for a website, sales chat for banner ads, or in-depth blog articles, you have to write with conviction, confidence, and an acute awareness of context.

You have to commit to creating quality content, with no fluff or filler.

Online readers are fickle, dismissive, and on the search for a quick hit of meaning. People don’t read online content; they skim. The easy solution to counteract this problem is to simply make your content better.

5 tips to write compelling web copy

Writing high-quality website content is different from writing other types of content marketing.

Whether you’re writing a landing page, product descriptions, or just a web page, here are some tips you can use to make sure you’re writing web copy that will stand out with your target audience.

1. Document your process for consistency.

Before I begin any copywriting project, I create my ‘List’. It’s a template that I work from and add to. The act of writing is a personal one, and I have my habits. But the technical steps to producing great content should remain consistent.

Research

No matter what you’re writing, you’ll probably have to do some research upfront, whether that’s on a topic for a whitepaper or just competitor research on social media.

Tools to use

Consider what tools you need to get the job done. For digital marketing web copy, this may be tools for SEO or web publishing. Whatever the tools, make sure you know what you’re using before you get started.

Tone of voice and draft

Your first draft gives you the chance to get the basics or necessary information down. This is also the time to write with a focus on tone of voice, the one thing that sets you apart from others in your industry and even your niche.

Redraft

Take another look at your draft and edit for clarity and brand voice. This will also be the best time to make sure you’ve incorporated your keyword research as well as revisit your call to action to make sure it’s clear and actionable.

I’ve come to realize that this list is less of a schedule and more of a personal reassurance of my goals. It also happens to be a pretty good distilled idea of what copywriting is.

Copy Tip #1: Get a post-it note, and write the objective for your content on it.
I’ve just written my objective for this article – “Help people develop copy that’s fit for publishing on the web.” Stick this at the top of your computer or desk and after each section you write, read this objective back to yourself.

2. Know what your audience cares about

Without this first step, you have nothing.

To speak with relevance and interest you have to converse, not dictate. Conversation is a mutual language, a natural flow. You can’t have this relationship without human insight.

Research is an investment. It’s an opportunity to investigate the person behind the statistics. Analyze competitor's sites, immerse yourself in the wider industry, and find ways to engage on a personal level with your targeted audience.

Audience research
It’s important to do the work upfront to research and get to know your audience before you start creating content for the web. (Source)

I favor the good old-fashioned interview. Before I start working with a client, I give them a brand questionnaire. This is a collection of questions designed to make them explain their business and project in their own words. This information is invaluable for the written word.

How people talk about themselves vs. how they want their audience to see them is often akin to their wants vs. their needs. Good content isn’t an opportunity to be cringingly ‘clever’, it’s a tool to be brilliantly insightful and engaging.

This is where you can begin to flesh out what the realistic expectations for your copy are.

Writing for the web is a balancing act. You need to be precise, impactful, and relevant all at once, and time isn’t on your side. You can’t bludgeon your website visitors with a million concepts in one swoop.

Instead, consider: what do you want to say and to what means? Prioritize information, concentrate themes and consider what is actually valuable content to the reader. Have another gaze at your post-it note. Take stock of your objective and focus.

Insight is the beginning of it all. Use it well, and you can develop perhaps one of the most valuable content techniques of all—establishing an effective tone of voice. This is how you get your foot in the door.

Copy Tip #2: Write by hand first.
I write everything down, and then type. This is almost a screening process for me, but it also serves as a way to connect words with meaning. Creating a list of keywords associated with your content urges you to trim the fat and look at the buzzwords.

3. Structure your content for ease of reading.

Good writing is a blend of function and emotion.

Structuring your content well is as integral to its success as the words themselves. No one will read a mass of concentrated copy. How content is pieced together guides and holds the attention span of the reader.

I employ a series of quick iteration tools, built to structure my content in a meaningful way and fulfill the reader's instant appetite.

‍Headlines

Your headline holds the weight of your content. Packed with meaning and promise, it has to be catchy enough to grab attention and honest enough to deliver. Use wit and wordplay with caution, as this is your chance to spark a connection, not demonstrate a poorly placed sense of humor.

Hit them with a benefit. People look for the positive, so what is so great about what you have to say? Make them need to stay on your home page. My headlines tend to develop from my Copy Tip #2. Keywords are pure benefits.

‍Subheadings

If your headline is the theme, your subheading is your message. What is your content delivering?

I use my subheadings as a wider context. Sometimes I hint at the ethos behind the message, other times it’s more direct. Just as important as a headline, this handy heading is your opportunity to back up your headline claim, outline what is coming next. Establish trust and deliver value.

So, my headline here is ‘Subheadings’. Clear, informative and honest. Avoid the use of ‘Marketese’. This language of empty claims instantly loses any credibility built up. Functionally, subheadings are great for logically grouping content and for separating extended text.

SEO formatting
You need to be conscious of both SEO formatting best practices AND best practices for formatting copy for readability. (Source)

‍One idea per paragraph

Now that your sections are taking shape, it’s time to refine the focus.

Limit each paragraph to one idea. This makes it easier for the reader to understand and digest. It also makes the content easy to skim for relevant information.

Don’t over-romanticize your copy. Let tone and your voice take care of emotion and use this section to get the facts and solid messages as functional and succinct as possible.

‍SEO keywords

There is no denying that SEO is vital for any type of web content. But that doesn’t mean that you should be writing for the sake of SEO or linking for linking’s sake.

My approach to Search Engine Optimization is to keep it natural. You’ve spent valuable time on your content, don’t fill it with ill-placed key phrases and links. Use organically relevant and concise keywords and phrases in the headlines, subheadings and body copy.

Your investment in research comes into play here. Spend time investigating how your audience talks, searches and associates with you. To build trust, link to relevant resources that add further value for the reader. This demonstrates that you aren’t a greedy service provider but a user-centered educator.

Copy tip #3: Read your content out loud.
You’d be surprised how different copy can read and sound. Nothing can indicate how natural a phrase or sentence is more than hearing it out loud. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t type it.

4. Use your brand voice to distinguish your content


This is your personality. It is how you say what you say. Use it the right way and you can make long-lasting connections, regularly interact with your target audience and reinforce trust.

Use it poorly and you can confuse the reader and misrepresent yourself.

Often, the most unsuccessful uses of brand voice are by people who fail to constantly utilize and apply their tone across the board. Characterful jesting in the About section followed by a corporate speech on their Approach page doesn’t quite match up.

Brand voice chart
Not sure what your brand voice sounds like? Use a brand voice chart to help establish the basics of your tone of voice. (Source)

For my own copy, I adopted my character. I got rid of overused service promises and opted for owning my self-taught status and branded myself as a wordsmith rather than a copywriter. It made a subtle difference, but this set the tone for my content.

Recently, companies have opted for rewriting their Terms and Conditions. I love this complete commitment to their voice and style. Your voice can target users, exhibit attitude, and be fun. If you find a tone of voice that sells, you can create consistent content with ease.

Copy Tip #4: Read over previous content find your voice.
How you naturally write will contribute to your tone. If you have to force it, it won’t sound quite right (or be easy to replicate over time). Spend some time assessing the actual words you use to describe what you do. They will have more in common than you realize.

5. Polish, refine, and publish your content

Creating and developing content is a slog. Sometimes personal (but mostly trying), this process can often leave you feeling like a proud parent, but you need to resist the urge to publish right away.

Hindsight is a tool some writers don’t have. Fast-paced deadlines and years of practice proofing as you write mean that that window of time to process, digest, and edit is lost. Get into good habits now.

Editing and revising
As you polish, you’ll want to do big picture revisions based on the topic and organization as well as smaller copy edits for grammar and mechanics. (Source)

This edit period is more than spellchecking. There’s always fat to trim and points to re-emphasize, so take your time before you push it live.

There are a few things I run through before I publish:

  • Read my notes. These early scribblings often illustrate the purest form of my content.
  • Gain a fresh perspective. I send it to a reader or friend unrelated to the context. If they understand what I’m saying, then it’s done its job. Moreover, if you're writing a highly technical piece, run it by an expert before publishing.
  • Check spelling and grammar. If possible, sleep on your content. Errors will be glaringly obvious when you read with new eyes.

Understand that creating and developing content is a process. Don’t be too tough on yourself. Content is a currency. Contribute regularly, practice often, and share what you create.

Good to Know: Ready for a better way to manage your content? Check out GatherContent, a centralized hub where you can plan, produce, and organize all your content. Start your free trial now.

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About the author

Nic Evans

Nic is a product content strategist at Shopify who collaborates with designers, developers, researchers, and product managers to design and build Shopify's user interfaces. Previously, Nic was a freelance copywriter based in Glasgow; she believes that no matter what the medium, brief or platform, using the perfect words in the best possible way can create a story, a natural communication between people, their ideas and the rest of the world. You can follow her on Twitter.

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