There’s an old joke about this non-English speaker who moves to the United States and decides to open a store. Like any great entrepreneur, he begins by researching the opposition. He takes a tour of the nearby stores and finds two that are seeing a huge customer turnout. Each of them has a big red sign in the window.
So, after sketching the signs and going home, the man makes a simple calculation: if just one of these signs can attract such a turnout, how much could he accomplish with both?
The next day, he sticks both signs in his windows. Rather than seeing the flocks of customers he’d expected, he soon finds that passersby are pointing at the signs and laughing.
Confused, he stops someone and asks what the joke is.
The man replies that one of the signs reads, “Grand Opening Sale,” while the second reads, “Grand Closing Sale.”
The joke isn’t all that funny, but it puts me in mind of these five copywriting mistakes. As copywriters, we need to make sure we’re communicating the right message. Mistakes like these can be all it takes to get it wrong.
So, without any further ado, let’s go through them.
- 1. "Attention spans are decreasing, so my copy has to be as brief as possible."
- 2. "It's funny. It's direct. It's entertaining. I'm sure people will understand."
- 3. "Professionals appreciate technical jargon, so that's what I'll write for them."
- 4. "If people like to be entertained, then I will write the most entertaining copy imaginable."
- 5. "Copywriting is just a formula. I don't have to put any effort into it."
1. "Attention spans are decreasing, so my copy has to be as brief as possible."
At first glance, this common mistake seems to make a lot of sense. People’s attention spans may actually be waning. A 2015 article in TIME Health reported a somewhat hilarious, somewhat depressing, find: humanity's collective attention span is less than that of a goldfish.
In mathematical terms, that’s a grand total of eight seconds.
Now add to this Mark Schaefer’s theory of Content Shock. In short, the theory states that there is simply too much content out there for any one person to consume. You can never read every article in existence—especially if they’re long.
Together, these two studies make a pretty convincing argument to keep things microscopically short.
And yet, that would be a mistake.
A. Complicated topics deserve due diligence
First of all, complicated content should never be squashed into short content.
Long content works because it establishes trust and authority. When people click on a post titled Everything You Need to Know About BitCoin, they want to know everything there is to know about BitCoin. They don’t want a 250 word fluff piece. That’s not helpful.
B. Long content answers objections
Secondly, as Neil Patel puts it in his Definitive Guide to Copywriting, long copy answers more objections.
C. It’s not what decreasing attention span means
Short attention span doesn’t mean that people are mentally incapable of focusing on anything for longer than 8 seconds.
The fact that you’re still reading this clearly proves that’s not true.
It means that after eight seconds, they’ll move on to something else—unless you catch their attention.
If you want to target decreasing attention span, don’t hack away at your content until it fits a constraint.
Make sure that at every part of your copy, you’re keeping your readers attention.
2. "It's funny. It's direct. It's entertaining. I'm sure people will understand."
I once received an email from a brand I follow.
The tone of the email was breezy and engaging. The copy was funny—it actually made me smile.
It was also one of the worst pieces of copy I’d ever seen.
Before jumping to conclusions, I showed it some friends and tested it on them. And yep—the email failed for them, too.
Noone that I showed it to understood it on the first read.
There are so many things you can do to make your copy soar. You can write with personality. You can add humor. You can be personal and direct.
But if no one understands the words you’re saying, then you’re wasting your time.
If you find yourself struggling with that, here’s a really simple tip that helps me. Before figuring out the best way to express your copy, jot down what it is you’re trying to say.
That’s it. That’s my big tip. It sounds simple, but it’s really effective.
3. "Professionals appreciate technical jargon, so that's what I'll write for them."
There’s an element of truth to this. I recently stumbled across a commercial from 1984 for the world’s first email system. Email was a novel idea back then, so the video focused on how it worked and how incredible it is to send messages through space.
That commercial might have worked then, but if you created something similar as a pitch for an innovative new email system, there’s no way it will work now.
Besides the fact that virtually everybody nowadays know exactly what an email is, you’re also ruining your credibility as an expert in the field. How can you be trusted as an expert if you still find a decades-old technology mind-boggling?
If you want to get a professional’s attention, you have to demonstrate that you’re up to date with current advances in his or her field.
But—and here’s the big part—that doesn’t mean that professionals like reading pages and pages of dry, technical jargon.
Because regardless of their professional experience, any reader you’ll ever write to will be human.
And humans love to be entertained, and hate to be bored.
I tested this myself at work. One of my responsibilities is to write the monthly in-company newsletter. After a few months of sticking to the format they’d been doing over the past few years, I decided to be bold and try something different.
Here’s an example (with the brand and product names removed for confidentiality):
- So, there’s no eloquent way to say this, but . . . holes. (Brand name’s) (Product) is loaded with enough holes to mount anything you want to your rod support system. Solidly built, easy to use, and really difficult to mess up, you can use them to accessorize your rig, create a giant rubber-band toy to annoy your co-workers with—you know, the important stuff.
Here’s another example:
- And so (brand name) said, “There shall be an upgrade!” OK, it might not have been so dramatic, but it’s no less exciting.
It’s not professional at all. It’s irreverent, it’s a little self-mocking, and it was risky. But since that day, I have seen significant increases in readership of the newsletter. I’ve even had people stop me and told me how much they appreciate the new approach.
Because people like being entertained.
4. "If people like to be entertained, then I will write the most entertaining copy imaginable."
Makes sense, no? If people enjoy being entertained, then entertain their socks off. Make them laugh. Make them weep. Create sweeping works of art that will forever be remembered.
But that’s the thing.
Your goal, as a copywriter, is not to entertain. Sometimes it’s to persuade. Other times it’s to inform. It can even be to apologize.
But it’s always to create an action.
If entertainment is the way to do that, then go right ahead. Entertain away. But no matter the project, there will come a point when those two goals—entertainment vs. calling to action—clash.
And when that happens, entertainment takes second place.
Your end goal must always be to get that action.
5. "Copywriting is just a formula. I don't have to put any effort into it."
It’s hard not to see copywriting as a formula. Take blog posts. Every aspect of your traditional blog post has been analyzed to the T.
There are successful headlines and unsuccessful headlines. There are words that perform better than others, numbers that are more attractive than others—even the optimal amount of words in a headline has been analyzed. There are successful ways to write an intro, helpful advice for how to order your content, and even tips on what you should end off with.
Taken together, it looks like all the work is done. You simply need fill in the blanks and let the formula do the work for you. You don’t even have to think of the topic—there are online tools that will generate that for you, too!
We’ve all seen those types of blog posts. Blog posts that are written without effort; blog posts that read little better than a crossed-off-checklist.
Writing copy like that will never succeed.
The formula is there to help you. It’s there to guide you. It’s there to inspire you.
But in the end, it has to be your own work.
It’s why copywriters exist. It’s why clients continue to pay for our services.
They have the formula, too. If that’s all it took, they’d do it themselves.
Copywriting is a creative discipline.