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The power of good copy (whatever that means)

31 March 2016

These days, you can’t roll out of bed without landing on some words. Every marketer, designer, writer and reader should be able to tell you what good copy entails. It feels right, sounds good and delivers results. The end.

Of course, there’s more to it.

And I must admit, I always feel uncomfortable when the subject of good copy comes up. Let me tell you why.

When good words do bad things

In a sales context, the ‘goodness’ of copy is measured by its ability to convert – to entice readers into taking an action, such as buying now, calling us, or simply clicking and reading more. But sometimes its success comes at the cost of its integrity.

Clickbait headlines are a great example of this. You know, the ones festooning your news feed with sensational statements insisting that what happens next will amaze you! Even the best of us have fallen for these at some point. We’re only human, after all, and such saucy one-liners are designed to trigger our human curiosity, even when experience and savvy tell us we’re in for disappointment.

Screengrab of clickbait parody news site, Clickhole.
The clickbait problem was so widespread, it inspired a parody news site.

It’s true, good storytelling does rely on stoking the reader’s emotions and hinting at exciting things to come. But pulling a psychological trigger obliges one to fire a bullet worthy of the suspense it creates. This is where ‘good’ clickbait headlines fall shy of respectable, in spite of the results they can bring – they over-promise and under-deliver.

The power of irresponsible communication

Beyond headlines, this ‘good’ approach gets reincarnated as sales pitches promising a product will change your life, without telling you how until after you’ve gambled on a purchase. It’s in the helpfully worded invitations to “click here for more” that, in reality, plunge you into a wild goose chase, clicking around for information you never find.

It’s the same thinking behind UI dark patterns that sneak unwanted products into your shopping basket. And at worst, it’s the URGENT IMPORTANT WARNING followed by ambiguous, poorly worded instructions for what to do in an emergency. But hey, the writer got the job done, and the office admin could say they put a sign up – so why worry, right?

I hope at this point, you’re feeling a little uncomfortable too.

When a reader bites on our promise of great content or a great experience – or even just a safe one – they’re investing a portion of their cognitive resources in us. At times, their financial resources too. But at the very least, they’re trusting us to deliver on what we say we will.

Sucking people in for stats, cash and box-ticking may give us an exciting monthly report, but can we honestly call it good?

So, what makes good copy?

In my view, we write good copy the way we would speak to a human being. No tricks. No filibustering. No dithering. Just a down-to-earth dialogue (well, monologue) that respects our readers’ time and attention.

Good copy is compelling because it answers the prevailing questions. It’s the useful content marketing that backs up a sales pitch. It’s the headline offering evidence that our audience will get the answer they click for. Think in terms of “9 reasons why X is good for you” instead of “You’ll never guess what happens after eating X”.

Our most valuable asset here is empathy. It’s the tool that allows us to understand our audience’s mindset, what they came for, the language they speak. It helps us explain concepts in simple terms, using accessible words and clear phrasing, without being patronising. It makes our readers feel good about having spent their time with us.

Good copy builds trust

We’re not just writing for the day or the fortnight or the financial quarter. Good copy elevates brands to a position of worth beyond the immediate transaction.

By rewarding readers for the effort they invest, our good words establish trust. In this way, they function much like word of mouth. You wouldn’t believe that sensationalist friend who tells everyone to buy everything – and can you please use their referral ID?

But you would value the input of a trusted source who delivers on their promises, helps you understand things, and gives you the honest-to-goodness details you need to make an informed decision.

The end.

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