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How to Write Effective Web Copy (Part 2): Making Your Content Sticky

This is the second article in a two-part series adapted from Mighty Citizen’s popular webinar, How to Write Effective Web Copy. Check out the first article in the series.

Last week, we talked about how to create readable content. Now that we’re set up to create shorter, dynamic content, how can we use that content to velcro our organization to our users? In other words, how can we create content that’s “sticky?”

Sticky content is:

  • Simply
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories
The book Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
A lot of the examples shared here are from the excellent book Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath. If you haven’t read it, it’s a quick read that’s really enlightening.

Keep it Simple.

Find a core singular idea and express it succinctly. Many of the challenges we’re up against can be mediated if we focus on simplicity.

Herb Kelleher founded Southwest Airlines to be the low cost airline. At one point, one of Herb’s executives came to him and said, “We did a survey and our passengers tell us they would love a chicken Caesar salad,” and Herb said, “That’s great, I love chicken Caesar salad. Let me ask you, will it make ticket prices more expensive?”

And they said, “Well that’s the best part. It’s only going to increase ticket prices by maybe 50 cents or a dollar.” Herb said, “Then we’re not doing it, because it violates our simple idea, our simple purpose, our simple philosophy. If we’re going to be the low cost airline, then we need to be willing to sacrifice some of our passengers’ desires in order to keep costs low.”

The factors that go into keeping costs low are complicated and complex, but all companies should keep their simple guiding message front and center like Herb did. That simplicity helps give your organization a strong point of view.

And we should keep that simple focus in everything we do. For starters, there is the simple idea of why your organization even exists. That is the first thing we ask during discovery sessions with new clients: Why do you exist? For new content, we should all ask: What is the point of this webpage? What is the point of this marketing email? What is the singular message we want to send out when we post this blog to our Facebook and Twitter and Instagram accounts?

Be Unexpected.

Check out these two spots:

Each of these examples attempts to cut through the content glut by being unexpected. The first commercial for computer company outpost.com features a marching band attacked by wild wolves. The second ad appears to be a typical ad for a minivan, and half-way through a surprise car crash reminds viewers to buckle up.

The second spot is more effective, because the unexpectedness of the car suddenly slamming into the passengers is related directly to the buckle up message. You don’t want to be outrageous or weird to capture attention but then fail to convert that attention into something relevant to your organization.

If you want to see unexpected, provocative messages on a daily basis, just watch the teasers for the local news. Messages like, “Is your toothbrush killing you? Tonight at 11,” or, “Are escalators dangerous for children? Tune in at 10,” create a mystery.

screenshot of various TV news broadcasts

As humans, we have this innate need for resolution—we like things to be tidy and tied up at the end. It’s why people had such a problem with the end of The Sopranos, because it cut to black in the middle of the scene. Unexpected situations get attention.

Be Concrete.

Concrete messages are immune to user confusion. Look for opportunities to use them. For example, when Charlie Strong was head football coach at the University of Texas at Austin, he was very clear about what he expected from his players. You might expect a coach to say something like, “Our core values are teamwork and sacrifice and discipline.”

That’s all fine and good, but what Charlie Strong said was: No drugs, no guns, no stealing, no earrings, attend class, and treat women with respect. It’s so concrete. You’re either on drugs or you’re not. You either have a gun or you don’t. You either wear an earring or you don’t. There is no ambiguity or mixed messages.

When writing for a client, always ask: What is the concreteness of this? Does it have a physical presence in the real world? What is the physical manifestation of what it is you do or think or believe? Concrete language eliminates user confusion.

Here’s another example: if you search a fuzzy word like “helpful” in Google image search you get a big variety of things. It means different things to different folks. But if you search something concrete like “v8 engine,” guess what you see? A whole bunch of v8 engines.

Image search for "helpful" and "v8 engine"
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Be Credible.

There are two types of credibility: external and internal. The best websites are nothing but external credibility. They have testimonials, awards, reviews—lots of other people saying how great the organization is.

But there are ways, especially online, to kind of establish internal credibility. The easiest way is to use details. When people use details, we trust them more. They seem like they know what they’re talking about.

Use Emotions.

Human beings are emotional creatures. We’ve talked before about how mad, sad, glad, and afraid are the four basic human emotions. Every other emotion is usually just sort of a combination or a shade of one of these emotions. When it comes to inspiring people to act, you’re not going to get very far without an emotional component.

Marketers sometimes fear that using emotions will make them seem manipulative or craven. As long as you’re being authentic and your organization is telling the truth as you see it, then ignoring the feelings of your audience is short-sighted. Acknowledging emotion creates communication that does a better job persuading, engaging, and frankly, being more real.

Tell Stories.

The last way to make your copy more sticky is to tell stories. Yes, it’s a huge buzzword in the marketing space. That’s because how you share your message tells people how to respond to it, and that’s why storytelling is popular.

Claims are disputable. When you make a claim, you’re inviting your audience to argue with you over the facts. You’re on that side of the fence, and I’m on this side. Even if you agree with the facts, that rational logic still causes that part of their brains to fire up. Facts invite argument.

Acknowledging emotion creates communication that does a better job persuading, engaging, and frankly, being more real.

But stories are different. From your brain’s point of view, there is very little difference between experiencing something and really imagining it. When you tell a story, you invite people to see things from your point of view. It’s so much more engaging and a more effective way to influence people.

Now Start Writing

Our job as professional communicators is to make it as easy as possible for people to understand our messages. Take a look at your site, and see if there are things you can do right now to better engage users. Good luck, and happy writing.

This article was originally published by npENGAGE.

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