Author’s Note: This blog post was updated with two additional sections on how to use active vs. passive voice, and how to create catchy headlines.
Writing copy for conversion is an ever-present problem for marketers. It’s tough to truly figure out what works until you’ve actually tried it. But that’s not exactly helpful in the moment when you’re trying to figure out what to say in your ad or landing page copy.
So as a marketer you do what you do best: make a bunch of highly educated guesses about your audience based on prior performance, combine that with the brand identity you’re marketing, and craft what you feel is the perfect piece of copy.
Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t.
You A/B test, using Optimizely to run different variations on copy for different sections of your landing page. You split your ad budget between two different copy approaches. Eventually, you land on what you think is high-performing copy that’s optimized for conversion.
Long process, isn’t it?
And in reality, that won’t ever change. You should always be testing your copy approaches. You’ll never truly hit the perfect copy and creative combo that will work for your entire audience. That’s why the funnel exists. Impressions are higher than click rates, which are higher than conversion rates, etc…
What you should be focusing on instead is building up your copywriting process to optimize it for conversion.
This article will help you do just that with a set of copywriting best practices that will help you test and write copy that converts.
Let’s get started with the basics:
Active vs. Passive Voice
An important key to compelling copywriting is how you write copy in an active or passive voice.
When writing in an active voice, the subject of your sentence is performing an action.
For instance, Jill kicked the ball down the hill.
When writing in a passive voice, the subject of your sentence receives the action.
As an example, The ball was kicked down the hill by Jill.
Why is this grammar lesson important?
Writing in an active voice or using active verbs allows you to create succinct, descriptive sentences and ad copy.
Think about McDonald’s iconic slogan, “I’m loving it.” This slogan is written in the active voice, but if it was passive, it would look something like this:
However, there are some cases where using the passive voice is totally appropriate. For instance, you should use the passive voice when you want to focus on an action, but not the subject of an action. This often occurs when you’re giving instructions or directions.
Take, for example, Nike’s slogan, “Just do it”, Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” advertising campaigns, and Fitbit’s “Find your fit” ads.
Creating Catchy Headlines
We all hate it, but we still fall for it (admittedly, I still do).
However, the problem with clickbaity articles isn’t the headline, it’s the content–or lack thereof.
If you create useful, informative content, the best way to generate meaningful traffic is to use catchy, curiosity-piquing headlines. Here are a few ways to create BuzzFeed-worthy headlines:
Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
Sure you can ask questions like, “Is Content Marketing Dead?” or “Will Facebook Keep Your Data Safe?”
But the emails and blog posts you’re most likely to click on always have a question for you, the reader.
BuzzFeed surged in popularity because of their online quizzes with headlines like, “Which Spice Girl Are You?” and “Which Harry Potter Character Should You Marry?” and “What Color Best Defines Your Personality?”
Use Adjectives To Add Descriptive Details
Adjectives are words to describe nouns.
Instead of saying, “I chased a cat”, you can add a bit more detail about the cat (noun) by adding an adjective, in this case, a color–“I chased a black cat”.
In this example, the adjective “black” is an attributive adjective, but there are a few others that you should be aware of:
- Qualitative adjectives describe the qualities of the person or thing (i.e. good, bad, ugly, American, Canadian, happy, friendly, etc.)
- Numeral adjectives describe the total number of people, places, or things, or the order of nouns (i.e. first, second, third, single, double, one, two, etc.)
- Possessive adjectives describe who owns or possesses the noun (i.e. his, her, its, our, yours, their, my, etc.)
- Indefinite adjectives give non-specific information about a noun (i.e. some, few, several, many, any, every, etc.)
- Demonstrative adjectives give specific information about a noun (i.e. this, that, a, the, such, etc.)
- Relative adjectives introduce a clause qualifying an antecedent modified or a clause functioning as a substantive (i.e. which, what, whatever, etc.)
Okay, so why did I go through this grammar lesson on adjectives? It’s one of the key ingredients in viral headlines. Take a look at this BuzzFeed headline:
This headline uses adjectives to insert just enough details to pique your interest.
For starters, we aren’t just talking about the mother of any 10-year-old, this article is about “this” mother of a 10-year-old, who shares, not just any old workouts, but “insane daily” workouts, with not just 10 people–but “thousands” of Instagram followers.
In other words, without these adjectives, this headline would be “10-year-old’s mom shares workouts with Instagram followers”…eh, not as exciting.
The Listicle Headline Structure
Kara Burney from TrackMaven laid out the secret formula behind BuzzFeed’s addictive listicles. It goes:
Headline = Number + (Adjective) + Noun + Descriptive Clause
Let’s see this in action!
Here’s an article from BuzzFeed. Let’s break down each element of this headline:
Descriptive Clause: About The Grilled Cheese That Will Make You Love It Even More
Pretty straightforward, right? Give it a try yourself!
Looking for more copywriting tips from the pros at BuzzFeed? The team at Codeless put together this handy infographic with 15 copywriting formulas you should try.
Keep Your Copywriting Simple
An easy mistake to make with your copywriting, whether it’s for your landing page or for an ad, is to allow the desire for a conversational tone to result in long-winded copy.
That’s perfectly fine in content marketing. When you’re blogging, you have a platform where people are sitting and reading your words, dedicating a lot more time to your words than to the product you’re trying to sell.
With copywriting for conversion, it’s all about getting your message across as quickly and effectively as possible.
Here’s an example of what I mean, taken from a real ad I found on Facebook:
Straightforward, simple, and super-truncated.
What Google’s marketing team does right here is it gets across the entire message of what it wants to convey in just a few words.
- Boost your project
- $300 trial credit
- Google’s scalable infrastructure benefits
Those three messages intertwine with one another to create compelling copy that converts.
The point of keeping things simple is this: the moment that someone realizes that they’ve been served an ad, chances are they’ll move on and look away. Extraneous copy, or copy that gets to the point in the wrong way, only gets in the way of clicks. Creating confusion with your copy is a bit of friction in the process that you have a high degree of control over.
As a counter-example, here’s an ad from American University:
There are a few issues with the copy in this ad. To start with, it uses unnecessary abbreviations (12 mos.), it uses AU instead of American University in its lead, and it uses an extra unnecessary call to action (Get info now).
Beyond that, however, the major issue is the text below the image. Here are a few of the problems with this section, along with potential fixes:
Odd transitions in capitalization in headline “AU’s 12-month MS in Analytics online”
– FIX: AU’s 12-Month MS in Analytics Online
Word order in headline “AU’s 12-month MS in Analytics online”
– FIX: AU’s 12-month online MS in Analytics
Weak headline “AU’s 12-month MS in Analytics online”
– FIX: [email protected], AU’s Online 12-Month MS in Analytics
Messaging order in post-headline text.
– FIX: Learn to use data analysis to solve a variety of organizational and business challenges with [email protected], the online MS in Analytics from American University’s Kogod School of Business.
Here’s the logic for each of these fixes:
The first is aesthetic, but aesthetics are just as important in copy as actual quality writing. If it looks like an error, it will be seen as an error, and while the lowercase formatting makes sense overall, the way it interacts with capital letters in AU, MS, and Analytics makes things look a bit out of sorts. A consistent capitalization fix can make the ad look cleaner.
The second is an issue of how things sound when read out loud. A simple fix of moving “online” in front of “MS in Analytics” makes the flow of the headline much more readable.
The third is just a general issue of the strength of the headline – does it catch your eyes? Does it send a strong message? A good way to fix this is to actually bring the American University brand right back into the fray. American is a strong university and using its name recognition is a smart way to get clicks, so going with “[email protected]” as the lead is a good bet.
And finally, the most important problem to fix is the text below the headline – while it’s way too long to begin with, there’s a way to fix it without actually removing any content. Leading with the benefit to the student (learning data analytics for business) and then heading into the school name is a good way to make the ad copy more applicable to the audience.
If you were to go for something more truncated, you could instead just keep it to the program benefits – learning data analysis that can be applied to business cases.
So the final copy would be:
Earn a master’s in business analytics online from American University in 12 months. No GRE/GMAT required.
[email protected], AU’s 12-Month Online MS in Analytics
Learn to use data analysis to solve a variety of organizational and business challenges with [email protected], the online MS in Analytics from American University’s Kogod School of Business.
With a few simple changes, the message of the ad is instantly clearer and the copy becomes less convoluted for the reader.
So what happened in the process above?
We took a more clarity-oriented approach to rewriting the copy for American University’s ad. Thinking with their audience (busy business-minded individuals) in mind, we flipped a few sections of the ad’s copy to make them more readable. The resulting ad flows better from section to section and makes a more compelling case for a potential student to click on it.
This principle also applies to landing page copy.
Here’s an example of landing page copy that just works, courtesy of Handy:
So what works here?
First of all, the headline is short, gets straight to the point, and immediately tells you the main benefit – Handy handles everything. For a service that caters to people so busy that they need cleaning services, this is a great way to kick off the landing page copy experience.
As you scroll down, you’re greeted with the three primary benefits of the platform – trustworthy, instant, and safe.
Below that, you’re given the easiest step-by-step usage guide for the Handy platform.
The final step says exactly what you might want if you’re on their site – a clean home, no questions asked.
And below that, just in case you weren’t already convinced, they pop in some quality social proof copy.
The entire goal of this homepage is matched from head to toe with Handy’s goal as a service – simplicity, ease of use, and convenience. The copy is short and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Instead, it tells you everything you need to know in as few words as possible.
Take this approach with your landing page copy and ads copy. Focus on getting to the point. And most importantly, remember that the time and attention of your audience is short – so keep your copy short in return.
Here are a few examples of other ads and landing page copy that work well based on the idea that shorter and simpler is better:
Say Just Enough
Yes, the entire premise of the prior section is to make sure you’re not saying too much, but the reverse – not saying enough – can hurt you as well. Copywriting is a tight-wire balancing act between saying what you need to say and not being long-winded about it. It’s not an easy ask, but it’s an important one.
If your ad leaves people scratching their heads, not knowing what it is that they’re being sold, then you’ve already lost a ton of clicks.
An example of this would be Amazon’s Prime Now ads:
This is a difficult problem to fix for Amazon, as their Prime Now selection really depends on geography and they sell a large variety of items to begin with.
What Amazon could do instead is pick a single high-value item to promote, and tout the benefit of same-day, super-fast delivery via Prime Now.
But the point remains – if someone doesn’t know what you’re selling, it’s usually because you didn’t tell them enough or your copy is easily misunderstood.
Here’s another example of this:
From this ad it’s very hard to discover exactly what a “programmatic content marketing engine” actually is. Further, it uses buzzwords and phrases like “programmatic” and “next evolution” that are clickbaity in some sense, but entirely useless to the reader in others. That forces you then to watch a 75 second video on what the ad is actually trying to sell.
That’s a lot of effort to go through when the ad copy could have done an equally efficient job in much less time.
So how do you fix this?
One way is to take a line or two straight from that video and using it as ad copy.
“Deliver your branded content to the most relevant audiences with HIRO’s Programmatic Content Marketing Engine.”
“Automatically distribute your branded content to Comscore’s Top 1000 Online Properties with the HIRO PCME.”
Those two lines say exactly what the video says – HIRO’s platform lets you automate content distribution to high-value websites. Instead of confusing talk about evolutions in content marketing, it gets straight to the point in a short, succinct way. It tells just enough to pique interest without over or underwhelming the reader.
This is important to keep in mind as you’re writing your copy. You SHOULD be looking to truncate and shorten where you can, but NOT at the expense of your messaging.
That said, your messaging can and should always be boiled down to 1-2 phrases. If you find that you can’t do so, you’re probably trying to do too much with a single ad.
And you can also apply that same principle to your homepage/landing page copy.
Here’s an example of a homepage that’s not so great at showing what the product actually is/does.
Not sure what Perka does? Can’t blame you there. The lack of clarity in messaging is due to how short and devoid of copy the page actually is. There also seems to be a desire to have the page be everything for every type of visitor.
So who matters here? Merchants? Customers?
Perka provides a service for merchants to create a loyalty rewards / perks program for their regular and loyal customers. But you wouldn’t be able to tell that without really looking at their homepage. That’s an odd statement considering how short and simple the page is, but in this case, simplicity actually hurts.
The CTA for merchants? Get a punchcard.
The CTA for customers? Start earning points.
Neither of these is actually effective at telling people what they’re clicking for. The pages they lead to are much better and more descriptive, but the homepage does little to actually lead people to click on either.
This is where copy needs to be optimized to actually say something rather than confuse. And that’s where Perka would see increased conversions on their homepage.
With that said, here are some more examples of high-quality landing page and ad copy:
Start A Fire
Always Be Testing
Think your copy is perfect?
It’s not. It never will be.
As long as you’re getting ad impressions that don’t result in clickthroughs; as long as you get landing page visits that don’t result in CTA clicks; as long as parts of your audience doesn’t respond to your copy, your copy isn’t perfect.
That’s where the main benefits of testing come into play. One segment of your audience might not respond well to a particular piece of copy, while another just eats it right up. Slightly different button text can give you a 10% boost in clicks (wanna give this a try yourself? Try adding “>>” to the end of your CTA button copy – “Learn More >>” – and A/B test it against the original version).
That’s why tools like Optimizely and the ability to split your ads budget between different ad versions exist. Testing helps you narrow down your copy approaches until you find a solution that works well enough to drive growth, but your copy can always be optimized.
So if you find something that works extremely well at driving leads, installs, clicks, etc… don’t just let it run – think of another approach and test it against the one that works well. These tests don’t have to drain your budget. Even $50 per variation over the course of a week can tell you all you need to know about your new ad copy approach.
So test, test, test! Don’t rest on your laurels when you find something that works. Improve it. Find something better.
Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
Nothing irks me more than seeing typos, grammatical issues, and
As a writer and editor, even simple things like missing Oxford commas get to me. Yes, you can consider it a pet peeve. Yes, it’s a small and irrelevant complaint.
But it goes to show that people will notice and pay attention to your ad’s mistakes and omissions.
Not everyone will be as strict as I am, and Oxford commas aren’t actually necessary, but you should ALWAYS check and double-check your copy to make sure you don’t make silly mistakes and typos.
Those mistakes, whether misspelling a word or using the wrong grammatical logic, can kill your conversion rate.
The point is this: you’re a marketer. You know how to write. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have gotten a gig crafting ads, optimizing landing pages, and writing a ton of marketing copy.
So why not take the extra few seconds to make sure everything’s in order before running your ads or publishing your landing page copy changes?
Not fully confident with your writing? Take a course. Read more. Start writing your own blog. Get others to edit your work using track changes so you know what mistakes you’re making consistently. Learn how to become your own editor. Or use a tool like Grammarly or Hemingway. You have options.
If you can do that, then you’ll find yourself avoiding a ton of small errors that can add up over time to damage your CVR.
And that’s our basic primer on writing copy that’s optimized to convert. Keep it short, say what you mean, and make sure you accurately tell your message. Correct your own errors before you go live, get someone to double- and triple-check your work.
And most importantly, never stop testing. Ad copy isn’t something that is ever perfect. Different approaches reach audiences differently. The only way to expand on your current level of success is to try something new.
Not sure where to start? Try our guide on 43 different ad copy approaches to get started with testing new copy.