Some business skills are hard to define because they incorporate things that most people do every day. We all manage projects and personal finances, but that doesn't make us product managers or accountants. Copywriting is similar—since most Americans spent years in school being taught to write, many people don't understand that copywriting, particularly for business, is a completely different skill on its own. As a copywriter myself, I can tell you firsthand that people underestimate the amount of work that goes into developing this skill a lot.
The good news is that any writer can learn to write great copy with a little bit of instruction and a good amount of practice. Let's break down the key elements of great copy, and the steps you need to take to create it.
What makes for good copy?
Excellent copy has all of the same traits that good writing has: it's clean, well-structured, and flows naturally for the reader. But in the business world, copy also has a job, and great copy delivers on its intended outcomes.
Email copy should generate click-throughs.
Web copy should help a site rank in search engines.
Sales copy should, well, sell products.
And it needs to do all these things while still sounding natural, conversational, and interesting.
Write like a reader
When it comes to copy, our writing isn't well-served by nitpickery or strict grammar rules. The impact of your writing matters far more than your personal vendetta against the occasional split infinitive.
Instead of focusing on writing rules and regulations, think instead about how effective your writing is from the reader's perspective. Technically pristine copy serves no one if it's too sterile and boring to grab the reader's attention. Write copy that you would find easy to read if you came across it as a user. Think about what type of copy feels exhausting to slog through and what kind of writing doesn't take any effort to read at all.
One of the biggest keys to good copywriting on the web is information architecture: use formatting, bullet points, and headers to separate your content into manageable, visually diverse chunks. The worst thing for a reader to encounter is a giant wall of text.
Be creative—even when your topic is boring
I can hear you thinking, "Tim, you don't get it! I'm limited by my industry! My vertical is tyrannical!"
I feel your pain. I'm a copywriter in the B2B SaaS space whose job is to write copy that helps deconstruct and explain a complex enterprise software product. I'm certainly not writing copy for the company that makes my favorite shorts or preferred beachside beverages.
We all have limitations set by the powers that be, but great copywriters find ways to be creative and engaging within the confines of their industry. Zapier's blog contains a ton of great examples—there's nothing inherently thrilling about workflow management or product targeting, but there are lots of creative and interesting ways to talk about those things.
Write the way you talk
With conversationality comes engagement, clear ideas, and concise language—plus it's welcoming and accessible. The goal is to get your organization's ideas across with the fewest, most effective words possible.
Write as though you're talking to someone whose attention you don't want to lose. Because that's what you're doing! (Just not in person.) And when you're writing for the web, holding onto your reader's attention is even more important, since there's an entire internet's worth of distractions just one click away from your content.
Whenever you write, read your copy aloud to yourself. Give it some emotion, some pizazz! I perform my own writing—in front of a cat audience in my own home—and can hear when my writing shines and when it makes me bored. It's great practice for every writer, but crucial to developing better conversational copywriting skills.
Here's how a small SaaS company like Basecamp offers help to their users:
Click Holler, and you get routed to the next page, where the copy shows you that software companies talk like humans—because they are human.
If every company in the SaaS space took a page out of Basecamp's book, we'd have a whole lot more engaging copy permeating the software industry. It's not an impossible task. It just takes some humanity and laid-back language.
Educate your audience
Copywriters are educators, first and foremost. You're teaching prospects about your product, customers about new features, and the world about why your company's mission matters. The more complex the product or service, the more crucial this becomes. Frustrated users will find similar products that are explained more effectively and buy those instead.
In my organization, our co-founder is fond of saying: "An educated customer is a secure customer." Business boils down to two priorities: making a useful product, and then making people good at using it. Both of these things revolve around customer education, and both require great copy to get the job done.
Copywriting shows prospects the value of the product, and then later, shows converted customers how to become proficient users. When your writing teaches people how to effectively use your product, your product's value becomes tangible. Tangible value is all people are looking for—not vaguely promised benefits and empty words sprinkled into sales presentations.
Balance fun stuff with function
Every writer wants to focus on their product's coolest features in their writing—and they should! The "Whoa, that's cool!" moment is an important part of engaging copywriting. Use your product's head-turning features as the bait-and-hook to grab people's attention and draw it to the essentials.
As an example, let's look at Wistia, which is a video hosting platform for B2B marketers. Their complete guide to video marketing is a prime example of engaging copy that reels in users with something shiny—the tips on video marketing that the reader was probably searching for—then embeds information about their specific product into the copy the reader came here to see.
The page shows what anyone searching for video marketing advice could want, gives clickable chapters with clear objectives, and all the while, peppers each of the sections with their own video creations hosted on their own platform.
Providing value while showcasing their strengths? That's well thought out.
Take advantage of your editor
Great copy walks the line between business and pleasure, and great copywriters know how to walk that line well. That said, you don't need to strike that balance immediately with every first draft you generate—that's what an editor is for.
Creative ideas require outside-the-box thinking, so it's better to start out with copy that pushes the envelope and refine it during the editing process than it is to start with something conservative and boring that stays conservative and boring throughout the process. I'm not suggesting you channel your inner Hunter S. Thompson for a SaaS blog or Aristotle for ad copy, but there is plenty of room to work within the overlap between your creative voice and your organization's voice. Finding that overlap takes time, and it can be messy. Don't play it safe just because you're afraid of your editor's red pen.
Set intentions that align with your campaign's goals
When you're writing good copy, your prose shouldn't be the purpose—it should promote the purpose. Always start with the goal that your product, team, campaign, and company are trying to achieve. In almost every scenario, that goal is not going to be to produce copy that wins awards; it's going to be to communicate effectively with your target audience.
Here's some advice from David Ogilvy, the "Father of Advertising," on how to approach your copywriting in context:
Resist the temptation to write the kind of copy which wins awards. I'm always gratified when I win an award, but most of the campaigns which produce results never win awards because they don't draw attention to themselves.
Oatly, a dairy-alternative oat drink company, demonstrates this concept well with their creative campaigns. Trying to promote dairy-free alternatives in a dairy-sodden world is tough work, so they appeal to people and make their mission accessible with humor. One particular campaign is called Help-dad.com—a guide to helping dads quit dairy.
The idea itself is clever, and will get a smirk from anyone whose dad has ever complained about how there are too many kinds of "milk" these days and one was just fine for him back in the day. Scroll down, and the clever concept is backed up with obvious value in the form of dairy-free recipes, milk statistics, and pre-written replies to the most stereotypical "dad"-style disparagements of dairy-free milk.
The Help Dad campaign did wind up being shortlisted for a few advertising awards and was written up in a number of different industry publications. But it's clear that the campaign wasn't formed from a desire to win acclaim; it won acclaim because it was so effective in communicating Oatly's message.
Never stop learning
None of this is law. Language is always in flux—that's why it's so fun.
There are rules to follow in writing and others that are evolving at the same rapid pace as technology. The best way to continue to enhance your writing is to keep writing and keep reading. The more innovative, experimental, effective copywriting you absorb, the better your own writing will become.
This article was originally published in April 2021 and has since been updated.