Nick UsborneNick Usborne has been a copywriter for thirty years, and worked on direct mail campaigns before moving exclusively online in 1997. He has just written a guide to optimising online sales by writing better copy.

He believes that this is an area where many e-commerce sites have plenty of room for improvement. In his new e-book, he talks about how websites could use proven sales copywriting techniques to improve their conversion rates.

I’ve been speaking to Nick about why he feels that some sites need better copy, and the challenges of online copywriting…

You have previously worked on direct mail campaigns, how different is online copywriting?

There are two sides to that answer; it’s very different because your audience interacts in a different way when compared to offline ads. If you get junk mail, it’s intrusive, so a copywriter has to try very hard just to prevent the person receiving it from throwing it out straight away. It’s almost an adversarial format.

However, if I search for an item, fitness equipment for example, online, I’m at the page because I want to be there. I’m not saying there is no intrusion online as there are banner ads, and other format which can be intrusive.

In terms of organic or paid search though, if I click on a link it is a good indicator that I am open to your message, and it is a less adversial and more co-operative format.

When I arrive at a landing page though, there is still a lot of work to do to close the sale. In this respect the commercial web is still in its infancy compared to direct mail. Companies are making their best efforts but there is still a lack of effective, what I call money pages. A lot of action pages are still very amateur in terms of closing the sale.

This is because a lot of people writing copy are new to the web and new to the art of copywriting, and are not using proven techniques online. One thing in common to both direct mail and online sales is human beings as consumers; their behavior as buyers remains the same and they respond to the same sales messages.

For example, words like ‘new’ or ‘free’ are powerful when it comes to selling online, as well as creating a sense of urgency i.e. ‘save $200 if you place your order in the next 12 hours’.

In my copywriting guide, I talk about the key points that are fundamental to making a sale, and these basics are often not included on sales pages online.

What kinds of mistakes are e-commerce websites making with their sales copy?

A lot of online stores are too minimalist with their product pages, and when they are selling items worth hundreds of dollars, this represents a huge missed opportunity. If customers are buying a CD for $10 this may not be as important, but if people are looking a buying a treadmill for instance, or other expensive items like TVs and laptops, people will think very carefully before making a decision to purchase.

The higher the price, the harder you have to work on the copy, so you have to work much harder to sell something like a treadmill than an e-book. What happens though is that sites get lazy and just pull in copy. Many are using content management systems and simply place the manufacturers product descriptions on pages without giving it enough thought.

With the potential for increased conversions as a result of good copy, many sites would do well to pay more attention to this or to bring in a professional copywriter.

So are some websites not providing enough information for customers?

Yes, many will say a little, but not enough. If I’m thinking about buying a product, especially a relatively expensive one, and product pages don’t give me the information I need to make the decision, then I’ll simply go to Amazon or a comparison site where I can read product reviews, as well as seeing where I can find the best deal.

So if I’ve come to a product page via PPC and the copy is not good enough, the site has paid for the click but ends up losing the sale. It is much easier for customers to find alternatives online so sites have to work much harder.

Does the existence of customer reviews make the copywriter’s task more difficult?

This is something that is very different online than with direct mail, and you cannot get away with overselling a product. As soon as you get into an online environment it changes the way in which a copywriter can write and you have to be honest or else you will be found out.

You can’t get too crazy about products, as there is plenty of other information out there to prove you wrong. It makes it a cleaner business, but not necessarily more difficult.

How are the best sites / copywriters approaching the issue?

You have to put enough information in there, and a lot of quality sites have added more content like buying guides which can provide advice on some products.
Copywriters sometimes have difficulties adjusting to the differences of the web; they have to think of what they are writing in context of all the other pages on the site, linking to buying guides for example. It’s a more interconnected environment.

Is there a risk of using too much sales jargon and putting customers off?

There is a way to sell it without having this problem, and it doesn’t have to look like a cheap grocery flyer. Some may resist such techniques, but the beauty of the web is that it can be tested. I can suggest that sites try adding more words like ‘free’ and ‘save’ to 10% of their product range and see what happens.

With direct mail, it takes months to get any data when you try something different, but online this is very easy. A company has no excuse not to at least try it out and test it to find the truth. Whenever I encounter any such resistance this is what I urge them to do.

How has Web 2.0 changed the copywriter’s task?

Technology has allowed individuals to interact online in a way that was  not possible ten years ago, and smart companies have to wake up to the fact that this is not a medium they can control.

Companies such as Innocent drinks seem to get the web for me, and don’t take themselves too seriously, but instead have fun, such as asking customers to design hats for their smoothie bottles.

That to me is smart use of the medium and shows that the company understands what makes the web different. People will talk about it and that is what the internet is all about now; companies need to say or do something that is worth talking about, rather than simply writing dull press releases.