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Why great design needs great copy

Written by Martin Sayers on 14 January 2013

It is an oft-repeated fact that you have literally seconds to grab the attention of someone visiting your website before they click elsewhere. This, of course, means that great design is a must – confronted with something dull, drab and uninspiring, most people will quickly look elsewhere.

But great design is not enough to make a website work – you also need great copy, as the words on a site are equally important in attracting and holding the interest of a visitor.

The fact is that neither design nor copy are capable of fulfilling their purpose without the other. You may have the most finely crafted piece of copy the web has ever seen, but without images to boost its visual appeal it is just a collection of words. Yet the reverse is also true as a website with bad copy is a bad website, no matter how good it looks.

So what makes for good web copy? What are the written ingredients that go into the mix for the perfect website?

Here are my three golden rules for writing web copy that works:

Don’t be too clever

Keeping it short and sweet is a good maxim for successful web copy but there is a trend at present for presenting extra short copy – no more than a couple of sentences – that just teases the reader without actually telling them much about anything. The idea is that it intrigues and piques the interest of the reader, encouraging them to explore further, but the reality is that 9 times out of 10 it simply annoys and leads to a rapid switch to a site that explains things better. This technique does have its place where big, well known brands are concerned, but should otherwise be avoided.

Good web copy needs to lay out clearly and simply what the site is there for and what the visitor can hope to derive from looking at it, which brings me neatly onto my next point…

Don’t just tell, sell

If a website is promoting a business, product or service then its purpose is to sell, yet the amount of websites that seemingly ignore this basic tenet of marketing is simply staggering. As an example, I was recently looking for someone local to me in Cambridge to help me with a computer problem – the first site I hit on told me the owner’s name, where he was educated and a long list of his various technical abilities, all of which meant nothing to me as I know very little about computers. Result – my eyelids drooped and I went looking elsewhere. The next site I went to simply told me that the company was local to me, listed a load of clients I was familiar with and said it would deal with my problem quickly and effectively or my money back – all great selling points. Result – technophobe copywriter is straight on the phone pleading for help with his broken laptop.

Check, check and check again

Once you have nice, easy to understand copy that actually sells what you are trying to promote then you are nearly there, but now you have to check it!

Many websites, far too many, are studded with spelling and grammatical mistakes, which reflects very badly on the person or business represented. This is easily avoided - anybody who writes web copy, whether on a professional or amateur level, needs to read it again and again and again before it gets anywhere near a live site. You won’t see every mistake first time around so make sure you keep rereading and checking, because those little mistakes can have a big impact on the perceived reliability of a site and the business behind it.

Martin Sayers is owner of MSCopy, a Cambridge-based copywriting agency that produces web copy as well as marketing literature such as press releases, sales letters, brochures and blogs.

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