Your biggest copy opportunity is this: your competitors are chickens.
They’re scared of saying something that gets noticed.
They’re scared of writing copy that sounds and looks different from what everyone else is publishing.
They’re terrified of stringing together line after line of notice-me copy that’s actually sticky enough to make visitors do a double-take. To stop bored eyes from rolling along aimlessly. To make busy people pause and take notice.
But what if taking a chance on unexpected copy could bring in, say, 124 percent more clicks? Or 26 percent more leads?
Can you tell these services apart from each other?
Have a look at the following copy from a handful of different sites trying to match people with clothes they’ll love wearing:
Based on the copy alone, can you tell those services apart from each other?
Do you know which one to choose, and why?
Do any of them make you want to switch from your current method of clothes shopping to their method? To go through the work of creating an account, filling in whatever as-yet-unseen massive forms they’ve got, and giving up all sorts of personal information along the way?
Now take a look below, and see if you notice anything different:
Did you see that?
The copy on the middle page uses words like “bum” and “boobs” in the headline. Here they are, side by side, for your comparing pleasure:
We A/B tested the Control and Variation B — and I’ll give you the results of that copy experiment in a second. But first things first.
What on earth compelled us to write a headline beginning with “Big bum?”
For starters, we knew we wanted to say something different. Period. This test was actually part of a bigger group of tests I did with Jen Havice called, “The Risky Copy Experiments.”
We wrote the headline for Variation B based entirely on the language used by the target audience, which is women who struggle to find clothes for their body types.
We pored over discussions in forums for plus-size women, and we found something that probably won’t surprise you: they talk about their bodies using real words, like “bum” and “boobs.” Because they’re human.
So, if our audience talks about themselves in a certain way, what is the risk for us talking to them using the same words?
We didn’t absolutely know the risk — and the whole point of the experiment was to push the envelope — so we tested it.
Plus, we replaced that tragically invisible “Sign up now” button copy with value-focused button copy: “Show me outfits I’ll love.”
The Control copy wasn’t taking risks or trying to be visible. Variation B’s copy was.
The result of our test? Variation B saw 124 percent more visitors click to sign up, with 99.9 percent confidence. The riskier, stickier copy was better for the business.
Risky copy is powerful because it breaks patterns
Science says that when you put on your shoes each morning, you do it the same way — but when you go on vacation, you might put on your shoes differently without even realizing it.
Once a pattern or habit changes, everything else can change too.
People become open to suggestion when a pattern is broken. That’s why a hypnotist might shake your hand in an unusual way to put you in a transderivational state. And that’s why the copy “300 pennies for 8 cards … which is a bargain!” sold twice as many cards as “$3 for 8 cards” in a study discussed here.
Because while the brain is busy processing a disrupted pattern, our copy actually stands a chance of sinking in.
Now, if you are one of those folks who believes you can’t test risky copy because B2B stands for “boring to boring,” check this out: studies show that the less exciting your product or service is, the more engaging your copy needs to be and the more personality it ought to have.
This 2005 study exposed people to six brands of bottled water (a rather boring product), with five brands possessing one of these five positive, human-like personalities: Sincere, Competent, Excited, Sophist, Rugged.
Researchers found that people were more likely to buy and three times more likely to recall the brands that had a human-like personality, compared to the neutral brand.
But what words should you use to express personality in your copy? I’d posit you should swipe them directly from your customers, as I discuss here, here, and everywhere I can.
Unusual and surprising words engage the brain
In addition, a 2013 study found that the words and phrases that reliably engage the brain, shaking us out of a state of mindless data consumption and compelling deep attention, are the very sort Shakespeare used.
They’re unusual and surprising.
Consider some of the following words Shakespeare is credited with coining or first writing down, with more here:
Those are words crafted to be noticed.
As a copywriter, I rarely find myself crackin’ open my old Oxford Shakespeare. After all, single-syllable words meant for a fifth-to sixth-grade reading level are the norm online.
But maybe the likes of Shakespeare ought to inform our word selection. Marshall McLuhan likened the advertiser to the artist, saying both are in the business of grabbing attention:
“The concern of the advertiser is to make an effect. Any painter, any artist, musician sets out to create an effect. He sets a trap to catch someone’s attention.”
Shakespeare and copywriters have at least this in common: we’re all trying to grab attention and keep audiences engaged.
Shakespeare didn’t always hit the mark — risky copy doesn’t, either
The Risky Copy Experiments didn’t result in winners across the board. For every 124 percent lift on one site, there’s a drop on another. Sometimes copy that pushes us out of our comfort zones as marketers also pushes our prospects out of their comfort zones, and they bail on us.
But that’s why we test.
Because we want to grow our businesses. And study after study shows that going out on a limb with personality-filled, unexpected copy can work. Different copy can help you grow your business. You just have to find the right words. And stay on message.
For example, most travelers rank safety as their top consideration when flying, and all major U.S. airlines strive to be safe.
So, if you were going to test riskier copy for an airline, you wouldn’t veer from the safety message; rather, you’d express it in a way that your competitors wouldn’t think or dare to do. And, to be very clear, you’d A/B test it.
Take a look at the following copy pulled from the home pages of popular rehab centers:
When a person is at a point where they are considering rehabilitation, do you think they are likely to care to read about a center’s “balanced, congruent, and highly effective blah blah blah” or to learn about its “joint commission accredited OMG I don’t care?”
We thought not. So, as we showed here, we looked online for how addicts, recovering addicts, and their families talk about battling addiction. The words and phrases they use. We stumbled upon this language in a book review on Amazon:
“If you think you need rehab, you do.”
Intrigued by how different that statement sounded from anything we were reading on rehab center websites, we tested it as a headline against the control, “Your addiction ends here.”
The result: Variation B saw more than 400 percent more clicks to sign up and 26 percent more completed lead submissions.
So, what might you gain by testing copy your competitors wouldn’t?
Reader Comments (33)
Demian Farnworth says
I think this is my new favorite article.
haha – thanks, Demian. Means a ton coming from you. 🙂
Joey Ambrose says
A great reminder our message could use a little punch. I’m shamelessly stealing your method of looking at how our customers talk. Thanks for a nice bit of inspiration this morning 🙂
Steal away! Glad to help, Joey – hope you can use it to spark a few great ideas. 🙂
Molly Thorvilson says
Excellent insight with very interesting results! We are exploring ways to gain more clients and traffic to our site and I think this could be an intriguing way to do it. However, our company does continuous improvement consulting work for many different kinds of businesses. Often, I am told that our material needs to stay very professional for our clients that are frequently in upper-level management. How do you balance risky copy with clients that expect a certain amount of respect and professionalism?
I wrote copy that sold QuickBooks – including QuickBooks Enterprise – for 5 years. All I heard was how “professional” we have to be. But it was when we wrote in a more casual, friendly voice that we got our best results. That could be because all those accountants we put in suits in our personas were actually humans that liked to hike on the weekends, ride motorbikes, play with their dogs, go out with friends… They’re not the stodgy people they play on TV.
So I’d say that you don’t have to use the word “bum” in your copy for it to push the boundaries. If you’re told to keep the tone of your copy “professional”, push the boundaries of that. How do professionals really talk? How do their voices really sound? Do they see no room for friendliness in business?–if they do, how friendly can you try to be in your next copy test?
I would agree with Molly. Many of our agency’s B2B clients are conservative and tend to water down even marginally clever copy that is nowhere near risky. In other words, insert bland language here. They also tend to see things literally and strike down what they believe to be abstract. So how do we give them risky?
When clients think your copywriting is all about you sitting in front of a desk dreaming up ideas, they think they can 1) do that too and 2) do it better. So it’s hard to convince them they’re wrong about their boring, bland copy because, for them in that moment, it comes down to yours vs theirs… and why would they prefer yours when everyone prefers the sound of our own voice?
So don’t make copywriting about you at a desk, quill in hand.
Instead, tell your clients you’re gonna use data – “voice of customer data” – to drive every single line of copy you write. You’re gonna eavesdrop on prospects / customers online; you’re gonna sneak into their meetups with a voice recorder; you’re gonna listen to what they say and how they say it before you write your copy. If, in doing that, you find that said prospects / customers speak in a boring way, voila – you’ll write boring copy. If you find they speak in a way that sounds more like locker-room talk or Big Bang Theory talk or whatever, voila – you’ll write copy that sounds like that.
Make it about the customers – not you and not your clients – and only the crappy clients will have a problem with your copy.
Deepa Paul says
This is a great article, but that tip about ‘voice of customer data’ is genius. Thank you!
Daniel Z. Chohfi says
I”dare to agree without adding something to it. Just perfect! Lets be bold!
Aaron Orendorff says
I LOVED that post about the two CTAs from Copyhackers you drew from (shout out to Jen Havice).
Big bums and boobs.
Nothing like a little T&A to salt your CRO. 😉
But seriously … fantastic post today! I agree with Demian: my new favorite.
Thanks, Aaron! One person’s T&A is another person’s convincing headline. 🙂
Michael Shook says
I learned a lot about copy from Gary Halbert. Then for some reason everything seemed to become safe with as few interesting ideas to read as possible; just drab, grey words.
An awesome piece for me to read right at the start of a new PPC campaign. Thank you.
Awesome, Michael! Gary Halbert’s amazing. We need to work hard to keep more of the great, founding ideas in mind when writing copy. Whatever keeps the drab, grey words out!
Mel Wicks says
Loved this post. Great copywriting is my passion and I couldn’t agree more with your examples. As a marketing consultant, I would run focus groups with highly targeted customer segments in the name of research. But what really excited me were the verbatim statements that came from group participants. I would get shivers up my spine as a recognised another ad headline tumbling out of the mouth of a real live customer.
It’s funny you mention the great messages you hear in focus groups. The team over at Rewired Group (the jobs-to-be-done masters) told me last year about how often they hear wicked messages in the interviews they do. Truly great messages are waiting all over the place out there. But sadly we too often sit at our screens, waiting for inspiration to strike, instead of going out, listening and borrowing words and phrases verbatim.
Jessica Mehring says
“Boring to boring” — LOVE IT. Why people assume that B2B copy needs to be dry as day-old toast, I’ll never know. Copy doesn’t have to be unprofessional to gain reader attention, either — it just has to be *interesting*. The next time a client tells me “*gasp!* We can’t say that!”, I’m sending them a link to this post.
Yes, do it! Risky copy is at least worth a shot. And as we showed in the Beachway example, copy that dares to be different doesn’t have to be “daring” – it just has to speak in a real way, in a way that’s different from how one’s overstuffed competitors speak to the same audience.
Love this piece Joanna. “Voice of customer data” is a secure way for brands to venture out of the boring-copy zone. It’s a scientific approach so copywriters aren’t flying completely blind when they use it.
Sometimes fear prevents brands from standing out. But other times it’s ego, which is why VOC data is so cool. A customer’s voice can be the ticket that opens the door for the shift away from bland messaging that centers around a business, to creative copy that connects with the audience.
Totally, Mary. And sometimes that “creative copy” may not feel super-creative – because Lord knows copy rarely needs to be creative to convert / move people to act. But it does need to feel authentic to the prospects reading it. Which is, as you say, where VOC data goes a long way for writers.
“So, if our audience talks about themselves in a certain way, what is the risk for us talking to them using the same words?”
I’m sharing this article with some of my B2B clients who believe using contractions and actual customer language will somehow make them “unprofessional” and scare away all their clients.
Love it, Anthony! That’s my hope with this post – that it’ll make a few folks out there bend just a bit.
Your methodology & confidence are inspiring! I’m 100% with you (which is why I’m taking your course and bought all your books).
In a day like today, where I am asked to explain why I’m not writing for “everyone” for the 4th (!) time… as well as defend my “gread” for accurate as apposed to “hunches” .. it’s nice to be remembered that the time’s they are a-changing!
Thanks for paving the way!!
…and it’s always a good time to quote Bob Dylan. 🙂 Thanks, Dee! So awesome to hear we’re on the same page.
JD Ebberly says
This article has given me multitudinous ideas for blog posts!
Yachika Verma says
“Unusual and surprising words engage the brain” – Truly said. I think it’s always good to take the risk. If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained. Even in writing, being different and bold is always helpful.
Especially in writing! There’s way too much to read online today – and too many distractingly awesome videos and podcasts – to let your writing take a day off. It’s gotta work its butt off. It’s gotta get noticed and create fans or die trying.
Hashim Warren says
Joanna, any advice on pitching this to clients? How do I get my conservative clients to even agree to testing this daring copy? That’s the main trouble I’ve had in the past.
Yeah, that’s the challenge, isn’t it? I mentioned an approach in my reply to Dawn above. Does that help, Hashim?
Hashim Warren says
If this is the first time you’ve heard of Joanna or Copyhackers, go to the site and grab those ebooks. The advice on research radically changed my copywriting workflow and reduced a lot of anxiety for me.
I now understand how to find emotional, compelling copy for any industry I do work for.
Yay! Thanks a ton, Hashim. 🙂
Great article, daring writing can be amazing if used in the right way. Or even just a daring tone of voice can make a huge difference in keeping the reader sucked into the content. And sometimes it can actually be easier to write I think.
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