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Microcopy: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Write It

Most website copy is too long. Sentences are bloated with unnecessary phrases. (Ever seen a sentence that begins, “It’s important to realize…”?)

Generally, you should aim to shorten your copy because shorter copy:

  • is easier for your users to understand
  • gives your Google search ranking a little boost (SEO!)
  • is more accessible to users with certain disabilities

But because microcopy is micro, each word bears more weight, has to do more.

What is Microcopy?

Microcopy ranges from—let’s say—1 to 30 words. As an Internet user, you encounter microcopy everywhere. But when microcopy is done well, you often don’t realize you encountered it.

Here are two examples of thoughtful microcopy:

#1 - From AirBNB’s search box:

#2 - Yelp’s rating system:

Microcopy might also be:

  • Explanatory (help) text that appears when a user hovers over an icon (usually shaped like a ? or an italicized i.)
  • Menu titles
  • Button text
  • Hero messages (i.e., the large-font sentence on your homepage that explains what you do)

Why Microcopy Matters

Microcopy matters because people read it and because it builds trust.

People Read Microcopy

I talk about this a lot with clients: As a professional communicator, the deck is severely stacked against you. When you write something for your organization that will be read on a screen, here’s what you’re trying to overcome:

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Tiny Attention Span

“Attention span” is a complex topic. You can’t reduce it to a simple statement like “Humans have an eight-second attention span” because context matters a lot. And there are different types of attention.

That said, the human attention span is short. Especially when it comes to doing something they aren’t thrilled to be doing—such as seeking out info on a website, reading the thousandth email of the day, being asked to complete a survey, etc.

Content Competition

Every 60 seconds, more new content is added to the world wide web than was created in the whole of human history. (Including 304 million sent emails and 4 million Google searches.)

As a professional communicator, you are competing for the attention of your audiences with both your direct competitors and everything else on the Internet. Every time you send a lovingly-crafted, painstakingly-designed email asking students to schedule a campus tour (etc.), 10 new kitten-riding-a-horse videos appear on YouTube.

There are more distractions now than ever before—more chances to let that precious connection with your audience member slip away, maybe never to return.

Low Literacy Levels

Much like attention spans, literacy levels are complex subjects that demand careful examination to understand fully. But a number of sources say something to the effect of:

The average American adult reads at an 8th-grade reading level. (For context, The Great Gatsby and most John Grisham novels are written at an 8th-grade level.)

In other words, if you put something online that is written above an 8th-grade reading level, about half of your audience won’t fully comprehend it. And the further up the reading level scale you go, the more comprehension falls off a cliff.

Given all of this—and a half-dozen other challenges, including focusing on your audience needs and the infamous Curse of Knowledge—microcopy looms large in establishing your organization’s brand. Microcopy is short—which means it demands less attention span, sluices through the competition like a minnow (when done well), and refuses to rise above an 8th-grade level.

Microcopy Builds Trust

Your organization has more competitors then you think—i.e., the entire Internet. Whatever your mission, you’re also now a publisher. Now, you have to create valuable content for your users—and, in the process, build trust.

Microcopy can build trust. Done well, microcopy is a sort of chit-chat, a conversation with your users. It’s a chance for your organization to share its voice—i.e., the voice of your leaders and staff. Microcopy reminds that hypothetical, anonymous, future user that they’re interacting with humans, not a website.

Microcopy reminds hypothetical, anonymous, future users that they’re interacting with humans, not a website.

See the examples from AirBNB and Yelp above. Notice how they sound like something you’d actually say, aloud? Notice how it’s real American human speech? That’s microcopy at its best.

And in the case of the AirBNB search prompt, the microcopy is also information. It’s a way of pushing your users to do what you want them to do—without being pushy.

How to Write Better Microcopy

You have to do this next part aloud. You have to actually read this with your voice, sitting there at your desk. And do it quickly. Don’t hesitate. Look at the text in these triangles and say what you see.

Ready? Here:

If you’re like just about every person I’ve done this with, you read the first triangle as: “Paris in the spring.” But you’d be wrong. Look again. The sentence has a word repeated, “the.” It actually reads, “Paris in the the spring.”

But you probably didn’t notice that. Your eyes were moving quickly, and your brain was performing its usual set of gymnastic feats to get through it. (As you may know, when we read, we don’t read each word individually; we read in chunks.) The lesson here is simple: In microcopy, each word matters more. So you have to pay focused attention to it.

1. Pay Attention to Your Microcopy

It’s easy, especially if your organization is large, to overlook microcopy in favor of the beefier chunks of content. It’s one of those forest-for-the-trees things.

  1. Pull up your website.
  2. Start in the upper left corner and read slowly down the page. Go slower than feels comfortable. Make sure you consider every single word you encounter.
  3. Cut and paste each microcopy chunk into a spreadsheet, one by one, row by row. This will help you review them later, like a fortune teller reading the tea leaves—trying to sense patterns emerge, to float up from your list of messages. What are you really saying to the world?

2. Do Only One Thing

Each nugget of microcopy should do one thing—and only one thing. Not two, not zero—ONE! Don’t try to cram more than one idea into microcopy. If you simply must make more than one point, move from microcopy to regular copy (whatever that is).

Let’s make a rule: Microcopy should do one of two things: explain or entice. Here’s the difference:

  • Explain means “make sure the user knows something new or is reminded of something useful”
  • Entice means “arouse the user’s curiosity and excitement”

Here’s an example of a piece of EXPLAIN microcopy (from ThisAmericanLife.com):

Here’s an example of ENTICE microcopy (from TMobile.com):

The reason you should decide between these two approaches is that it’s impossible and foolish to try and do both:

  • If your goal is to transport simple knowledge, then you shouldn’t dress your language up in fancy clothes.
  • Conversely, if the goal of a piece of microcopy is to get the user to dig deeper, you should probably put some embellishment into your prose.

Remember that spreadsheet of microcopy we discussed above? Now you can add a few more columns to your growing list:

  • PAGE URL - so you can jump directly to this page from the spreadsheet
  • PURPOSE - write either “explain” or “entice”
  • NEW VERSION - a place to play around, to tinker

3. Tinker!

Once you have your eyes on a piece of microcopy, ask yourself two questions:

  1. If I were a total stranger, what would this mean to me?
  2. How can I switch out or rearrange the words to make it better?

Of course, “better” is subjective. But you’ll know it when you find it.

Stop thinking of microcopy as part of something larger. It’s self-contained. It has to do its entire job in a very short space. If you find that you need more space to convey everything you need to, you probably need to consider some design changes to accommodate it.

Approach editing your microcopy as if you were a watchmaker. I don’t know many details about what watchmakers do, but I can imagine it involves a lot of precise moves. Or better yet, approach it like you’re playing Scrabble. In that game, you constantly move your tiles around hoping that a playable word emerges. You’re mixing it up until something pops out at you.

That’s how to approach editing microcopy: Like a watchmaker playing Scrabble.

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