Ever read something on a website that makes you a feel bit… off?
You might not be able to explain it. But you can certainly feel it. And one thing’s for sure: you’re second-guessing about whether you want to buy anything from that site ever again, or even set your browser sails in that direction.
We talk a lot in UX design circles about making sure we get the right copy on the page. But it’s just as important to know what types of copy to avoid, so we don’t alienate users. Or leave them feeling gross.
Unfortunately, in a rush for a sale some unscrupulous writers may feel as though they’re “challenging” the user, when instead they’re really just putting them down. And although this type of copy can be caught in user testing and changed, all too often that step is eschewed in favor of getting quick results.
Just a few words make all the difference
It’s important to remember that copy is unique for every website, just like a design. It should be built with a specific audience in mind, and with a specific purpose—that purpose will dictate the boundaries of how you communicate.
What we’re talking about here is not simply challenging a user. It’s often appropriate to push users out of their comfort zone and have them consider something they normally wouldn’t. For instance, a brand like Nike has the type of brand attributes that are easily associated with pushing boundaries and achieving goals.
“Copy is unique for every website, just like a design.”
What we’re talking about here is alienation. The feeling that the website doesn’t care about anything other than a pure transaction. Who would want to repeat that type of visit?
See, pushing boundaries should always keep the user at the center. Visiting Nike and being told to push your limits, keeps everything user-focused because the site is concerned about their wellbeing.
On the other hand, there are multiple techniques that can leave users feeling alone and to be perfectly honest, feeling bad about themselves. These are the ones you want to avoid:
Most of us will have seen this one, usually on email sign-up forms. They usually go something like this: the text gives you an amazing pitch on what benefits you’ll get from the email itself, then it’ll give you two choices.
The first is a usual “sign up now” type of CTA.
The second is the “dismiss” option, but it’s usually encroached in some kind of derogatory language. “No, I don’t want this amazing deal,” or something similar.
I don’t want to name or shame anyone here—y’all know who you are. But just know that using this type of asymmetry doesn’t usually work. It just makes the user feel badly, and they often won’t return. Not to mention the fact that it’s unnecessary—just put an “x” in the corner and let them navigate away if they want to.
Just remember that the more you’re shaming the user into an activity, the less likely that user will be engaged in your product or service. Then they’ll just end up churning later down the line, and you won’t be able to figure out why. (Try explaining that to your head of acquisition.)
Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash
Not using headlines appropriately
One of the worst things you can do to your users is mislead them. In fact, many copywriters don’t realize that it isn’t the length of the page that will determine if someone reads it, but often its legibility.
That is, is the page structured correctly? A common mistake is to write headlines that seem clever or funny, but don’t actually deliver any value.
“One of the worst things you can do to your users is mislead them.”
Put yourself in the context of your users. They’re often time-poor and scrolling quickly. A good rule of thumb should be to ensure your headlines give users the key concepts of what they need to know. If they just read the headlines, would they come away with the right information?
I often witness this in user testing. I spend time crafting paragraphs of copy and fine-tuning it, only to see people just read the headlines again and again. Users aren’t wrong, so design for that—don’t write “clever” headlines that don’t provide any valuable info.
Talking about yourself too much
We offer this. We offer that. We can make your life easier. We can make everything faster. We can do your dry-cleaning and walk your dog and make you rich.
People get offended in person if you talk too much about yourself, so why will your web users forgive you for it? You need to frame what you’re writing as a benefit and center all the copy on the user: what do they get out of this transaction?
By doing so, you’ll get all the attention and validation you were seeking in the first place. This is like a date; don’t try too hard. Let your benefits do the talking.
Writing for a search engine
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you’ve got your copy all ready, then it’s given an SEO review. You’re given a list of keywords that you need to hit, so you try and shove them in the corners where you don’t think people are going to notice.
Trust me: they notice. Sure, it might not be a big deal. But it doesn’t have to be. Users will notice quickly if something isn’t written for them, and all you’re doing is pushing them out of the communication process.
Work with your SEO team as early as possible to weave those keywords into the fabric of your copy. This isn’t a last-minute fix, and doing so will just make the users feel as though they haven’t been prioritised—because they’re right. They haven’t been.
Being inconsistent with your copy approach
Here’s something too many web writers forget: anyone can enter your website from any page.
If you picked any page from your web structure, that might be their first impression. So why is it that all too often we put up with inconsistent copy and even words that sound like they come from another company altogether?
You know what’s super alienating? Reading a page in one tone, then heading to another page and having it sound like it comes from somewhere else. And then going to a third page, being unable to recognise the tone of the copy there either.
Human beings love patterns. We love being able to recognize what’s in front of us and categorize it, which is part of why we love brands so much. They’re easily identifiable, and the same goes for your copy tone. Users should feel something” when they read your words. So what’s going to happen when there is too much of a shift between tone on different pages?
“Users should feel something when they read your words.”
Every single page is an entry point. So write like that’s the case.
Don’t shame users into action
It’s one thing to challenge your readers. It might even be appropriate to offend them sometimes, if your brand is strong and willing enough to stand behind that. But it’s another to alienate them, to push them out of the process and make them feel as if they’re “lesser” than other visitors.
You might get them to spend some money, sure. But it’s unlikely they’ll be one of your most loyal customers—so do the right thing.
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Patrick Stafford is an experienced digital copywriter and journalist, having worked at companies including MYOB, PwC and Private Media. His journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Polygon, and Lifehacker, among others. His business, Stafford Content, provides copy for many businesses including KPMG, SelfWealth and Data Republic. He doesn’t like coffee—but loves video games and books.