What I know about copywriting: Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe of Copy Hackers talks sticky copy, split tests and converting like a mofo.

How do you make the leap from bland copy to sparkling and sticky copy?

Joanna WiebeI’ve found that writing sticky copy starts with a mindset focused on just that: “I’m not going to bore the reader today.” But that’s kinduv a low bar. So we push it even further: “I’m going to write copy that would keep a narcoleptic awake at 3am.”

But how do you get there?

You don’t just throw crazy statements down on a page and hit publish.

Instead, we think about the reader. (Of course!) We’re not trying to keep the average person awake; we’re trying to engage and stimulate the minds of our best prospects. That means:

  1. Listening to what they want, and mirroring that on the page
  2. Listening to what they fear, and neutralizing that on the page
  3. Swiping actual copy from them – we like to base our copy on sticky lines found in testimonials, surveys and Amazon reviews
  4. Using proven formulas to organize the page and optimize the elements, like headlines and bullet lists

From there, we engage the senses and try to awaken areas of the brain that normally go dormant when reading online. To engage the senses, I like to go over a page using the CPTS Rule: revise areas of the page to add in color, pattern, texture and shine. To awaken multiple parts of the brain, we use motion words (activating the motor cortex), word pictures and aromatic phrasing.

We ran a headline + button test on a website where the control headline and button were both very safe and rather bland. The variation we tested against that control was trying to be risky – it was trying to push us all to the point of discomfort when we launched the test. To create that variation, we went into forums where our client’s prospects were talking naturally about their bodies, and we found that they were using rather familiar, casual language. So we decided to test copy that sounded the way they spoke. Here’s how that played out:

Headline + button test results

It’s not always the case that you’ll get a big winner when you replace bland copy with sticky copy. That’s why we 1) inform our new variations with the customer’s voice and 2) A/B test. If you can match their voice and let them hear themselves on the page – instead of glazing over boring marketing-speak – the results can be game-changing.

As a caveat, we also need to keep the user experience and usability in mind when we’re writing copy for the web. Sometimes a seemingly bland snippet is the best way to go; for example, when you’re writing the checkout copy for an ecommerce site, “Buy now” and “Submit my order” are bland but, from a user perspective, absolutely beautiful lines of copy.

With so much research and data about conversion copywriting available, is it something anyone can learn to do well?

I want to say yes, but with a whole bunch of asterisks following the yes. 🙂 Data is good when data has context. Data is absolutely awful when taken out of context – it can destroy a great idea, it can limit creativity, it can ruin your copy.

So before a person starts talking about conversion copywriting, they first need to educate themselves on:

  • how to tell if split-test results are reliable or not
  • what to do before you even start a split-test (eg research questions, analytics)
  • optimisation that occurs outside of split-testing
  • designing for the user
  • analytics, user testing, click tracking, scroll mapping, surveying…
  • emotional targeting
  • persuasion and consumer decision-making.

And they need to watch split-tests happen. They need to go through the process, start to finish, with a conversion rate optimization (CRO) expert to guide them.

There’s so much that informs and falls out of copy tests. But most blog posts and presentation talks only cover the highlight reel. You see the trailer, not the whole documentary. I know this is true because I write those posts and give those talks. There’s neither the time to unpack the nitty gritty details nor the interest from the audience in seeing the A to Z of testing. So you focus on the highlights. And it’s all very sexy.

But you need the unsexy behind-the-scenes stuff before you dive in.

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. So I’d caution any marketer or copywriter to read, read, read on all things CRO and growth optimization. Then work with CROs, watching what they do. Then try it yourself with a handful of split-tests. And always stay humble! It’s easy to get caught up in cool wins and what they mean – but we all have at least as many losers as we do winners. 🙂

Tell us about why we should be writing ‘for a slice of the visitor pie’. What pie, and why?

Mmmm… pie….

When websites attract visitors – and admittedly not a lot of them do – there’s this desire internally to get all of those visitors to convert. Businesses see all of these people coming in only to abandon the site, and they get panicked. So they try modifying the site so it pleases everyone.

And, naturally, as soon as I write that and you read that, we all think the same thing: trouble’s a-brewin’.

You can’t please everyone. So y’gotta please a slice.

I recommend treating as much as 80% of your, say, home page’s traffic as throwaway. They came, they saw, they left and you’re cool with that. The 20 to 35% of your traffic that you should write for is your actual target market or market segment. These are the people that will make your business grow, your team happy and your life wonderfully rich (in many ways). They:

  • will pay for your solution
  • will be happy with it
  • will refer others to you
  • will buy more from you.

Every marketing dollar you spend on this segment is money well spent. Every 30 minute session your support team puts into privately demoing to them is time well spent. Because they’re the people your solution is made for. They’re not distractions; they’re the real deal.

Once you focus on your ideal market segment and ignore everyone else, writing copy gets infinitely easier. Suddenly you know:

  • what stage of awareness they’re in
  • the specific problems they have that need solving
  • where they hang out online (so you can target them there or remarket to them there)
  • how they talk
  • what’s important to them
  • who influences them.

You can get specific with a slice of the pie – and we all know how much better it is to be specific than general. You can actually join the conversation happening in the minds of a segment because they’re all thinking the same things, and you can learn what they’re thinking because you can survey them to find out. That’s why I throw out most of the pie and go to town on what’s left.

You’ve previously made a sound case for swearing in marketing copy – but are most clients still scared to go down this route?

Haha! Yes! And they should be.

I passionately believe that the language you use on your site and in your emails should be the language your prospect uses and should be at the right level of familiarity for your prospect to feel comfortable; it should also be true to your brand’s core values. We need our prospects to 1) see themselves on the page and 2) bond with our brand the way they’d bond with a person. Swearing can do that. For certain businesses and certain audiences.

The Copy Hackers market is primarily tech startups and fast-growing tech businesses. These are businesses filled with twenty-somethings – they dress the way they want to, they “bring their whole selves to work”, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they are moving so swiftly that they don’t have time for old-school displays of quote-unquote professionalism. They don’t own suits or pencil skirts. So why would I talk to them like they do? I wouldn’t. It would be inauthentic to our brand, and it would be off-script for our audience.

So I use the word ‘mofo’ in my tagline – not because I’m trying to push the envelope but because that’s how I talk and that’s how people in my tribe talk. I write “waaay” instead of “way”. I pepper colloquialisms and euphemisms through my copy, along with references to movies and books and pop culture shizzle. It doesn’t work for everyone. But it’s not supposed to.

I’ve had people read one of my newsletters where I write something like, “I call bullshit on X”, and they reply to me or tweet me with, “I’m exactly the person you’re trying to target, and you just lost me!” or “I would never sign up for your course because my boss would never see you as someone to learn from.” And I’m supposed to respond according to some script from the 1950s: “Oh, I’m so sorry – you’re right, I’m wrong.” But that’s not true. I’m not sorry. I’m not wrong. And they’re not wrong. We’re just not a fit. If you get offended by the language I use on my site, then you’re actually not my target audience. I am more than okay with that.

But I have a personality brand. I’m not selling ediscovery software to teams of lawyers. When I write copy for clients, I certainly don’t start by listing out all the curse words we should use. 🙂

Thanks to PCN members Katherine Wildman, Andrew Nattan and Honor Clement-Hayes for helping to cook up these questions for Joanna.


26th November 2015

Jackie Barrie


That’s a new word to me.

26th November 2015

Sally Mayor

Great article, thanks Joanna. I’m a big fan of yours and I’ve learnt a lot from your Copy Hackers emails – thank you. I wouldn’t be your target market but I find your brand voice really refreshing.


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