Optimizing Copy: The 7 most common copywriting mistakes we see marketers make

98

There’s a lot of bunk information out there about copywriting. The barrier to entry for being an “expert copywriter” is pretty low and some of those crossing that barrier are simply wrong when they give advice.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great copywriters out there. What’s funny though is that most of us here at MarketingExperiments wouldn’t claim to be one of them (even the great Daniel Burstein).

But what we lack in copywriting prowess, we gain in mountains of research on copy that works and doesn’t work. We’ll be sharing a bit of that research with you on Wednesday in our copywriting web clinic (educational funding provided by HubSpot) if you’d like to learn more. But, throughout that research, we’ve picked up on a few commonalities in the mistakes copywriters make.

With the help of Austin McCraw’s unused slides from the Optimization Summit, I went ahead and took some of those commonalities and compiled them into a list of common mistakes marketers make when they’re writing copy.

After every mistake, there’s an example of how we fixed it and got dramatic lifts in each case. No bunk copywriting advice included. Just data.

Mistake #1: Headlines with no value

It seems like anytime someone writes about headlines, they use this quote from David Ogilvy:

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Of course, clichés get to be clichés because they’re true. When it comes to grabbing your reader’s attention, nothing works better than a solid value-based headline. Your headline should offer the reader a reason to read that first paragraph in your body copy.

Example:

click to enlarge

Mistake #2: Action-centric calls-to-action

“Action words” or “power verbs” get touted a lot by copywriters the world over as the ultimate tool for getting prospects to buy. But our research suggests that focusing on the action that you want your visitors to take hurts conversion.

It’s not about the action itself, it’s about the value they’re going to get as a result of taking that action. Getting that right in your CTA can give you dramatic lifts with very little effort.

Example:

click to enlarge

Mistake #3: Saying too much

If you are, or ever have been married, you know exactly how this hurts conversion. Assuming conversion means getting to sleep in your bed rather than the couch, saying too much can take you from a 99.9% to somewhere around a .01% conversion rate.

The same is true for your copy. Depending on where your reader is in their thought process, you could be saying way too much when all they want to do is take action. That’s exactly what we found was the case in this experiment…

Example:

click to enlarge

Mistake #4: Saying too little

If you thought you were safe on that last one, try this one on for size. Again, depending on where the reader is in their thought process, saying too little is just as bad as saying too much. Your reader needs exactly the right amount of copy to get them to make the decision on the page.

Sometimes that takes 30 pages of long copy, sometimes it takes a few words. In the following experiment, we found that we weren’t giving the visitor enough information to make a decision. Because they were in a different place in the thought process, they needed longer copy.

Example:

click to enlarge

Mistake #5: Misplacing your tone

Your audience expects to be spoken to in a certain way. You don’t usually speak to an adult like they’re a toddler and vice versa. A lot of times, copywriters miss the mark a little in their tone. It might not be as dramatic as speaking in baby-talk to paying customers, but it could mean rubbing them the wrong way, even a little with not just what you say, but how you say it.

Example:

click to enlarge

Mistake #6:  Visual intimidation

An unclear eye-path in your copy that doesn’t match the thought sequence in your reader almost always hurts conversion. Heavy text without any highlighting, bullets, or bold text to pull the eye through the page is a great example of making this mistake. It also happens with the ever-popular design tactic: evenly weighted columns.

Example:

click to enlarge

Mistake #7: Disconnected images

Good copywriters know that images are as much a part of the copywriting process as anything else. Images can support the overall value of the action you want your visitors to take on the page, but they can also cause confusion.

When a reader sees an image that makes her think, it forces her to use extra effort in understanding your offer. That’s the last thing you want your reader doing on a landing page.

Example:

click to enlarge

Bonus Mistake: Not testing your copy

The biggest mistake you can make in your copy is not testing. You can read all the blog posts you want on the 7 mistakes to avoid, or strategies to consider, or phrases that sell, but until you’ve tested it for your own audience, you’ll never know for sure how your copy is actually doing.

Example:

So with that in mind, I’m going to run a little unscientific test on the copy in this blog post. When I sent this post to my editor, Daniel, I gave him an alternate opening. I expected him to pick one for me to publish, but instead he suggested I test it.

However, since we don’t yet know of a way to A/B test a blog post in a scientifically valid way, we’d like you to vote in the comments about which is the better writing. Again, this isn’t very scientific, but it will help to settle a little bet.

Here’s the alternate beginning:

[Every once in a while, Austin McCraw, Daniel Burstein and I disagree about what gets posted on this blog. Daniel and I tend to be very giving. We always try to over-deliver when we write our posts. Austin, on the other hand, likes to hold back his best content for our Web clinics.

Ever championing your cause, dear blog reader, Daniel and I decided to steal some of Austin’s great content on copywriting and post it here without asking! We’re hoping that asking for forgiveness is better than asking permission in this case. 😉

So without further ado, here are 7 common mistakes most copywriters make when writing copy for their campaigns. After each mistake, there’s an example from our research detailing how we turned those mistakes into sizable lifts in conversion:]

Now, if you would, please vote for the opening you like the best. I’ve got a lot on the line in this one, so I’d appreciate your input.

Related Resources:

Copywriting on Tight Deadlines: How ordinary marketers are achieving 200% gains with a step-by-step framework (Web clinic on Wednesday with educational funding provided by HubSpot.)

Copywriting: How your peers write effective copy on short deadlines

Headline Optimization: 2 common headline mistakes and how to make them work

You might also like
98 Comments
  1. Claire Bowen says

    Great article. I particularly agree with mistakes #2 and #7. Personally, I vote for the opening you chose to start with (i.e. top of page not half way down) as better, more impactful and engaging writing. Thanks!

  2. Paul Cheney says

    Thanks for the vote Claire! Looking forward to hearing what others have to say.

    Also, while we’re being unscientific, I’ll go ahead and vote for the second opening because it makes me look like a hero. I’m always up for a little self-promotion at Austin’s expense. 🙂

  3. Cathy Archer says

    Fantastic article! Very helpful as always! I like your second opening because I love that kind of writing style, but to be honest, I would have to go for the first opening. It was helpful to find out that not all copywriters know what they are doing so that I don’t trust everybody with the title ‘copywriter.’ I especially like the point you made that you guys don’t consider yourselves great copywriters but that your research tells you everything you need to know. While the first was more fun to read, the second was more valuable information that I really needed to know. Thanks!

  4. DC says

    The chosen opener was much more engaging. This is the first time I have been through this blog so not being part of the in crowd… your second opener made me feel like an outsider. Plus I thought the second opener had a more disparaging tone towards Austin than a positive message about why I should read the rest of the post.

  5. Stephen Daimler says

    Good article. I especially liked #2. We will test it out. I liked the first intro. Thanks!

  6. B says

    Completely agree with DC’s comment above me.

  7. Værktøj says

    One of the best blog post in a long time, very good information.

    Thanks here from Denmark

  8. Chris says

    I personally like the one that you went with. I seem to have developed “hype” radar over time reading to much marketing copy. Anything that smacks of “secret knowledge revealed here” puts me
    off. The message that you went with gave credit and sounded a lot
    more like the process that I go through each day. Collect – Analyze
    – Summarize – Act.

  9. Cathy Archer says

    Correction: I meant the second was more fun to read but the first was more valuable.

  10. Don Sturgill says

    Good stuff, Paul. Write on!

  11. John Seiffer says

    I didn’t even read the opening. I skipped from the headline to the first mistake. After you asked me to vote on the opening I went back and read it. I think you made the right choice. I HATE articles that open up with a personal story. That’s what fiction is for (or facebook stuff). I want to go back to the days of journalism when an article started with a lead (or lede) that gave all the pertinent facts. To me that’s the value proposition that tells me if it’s worth my time to read more.

  12. Paul Hughes says

    I vote for the lede you used, not the italicized one after point seven. I saw “copywriting” in the headline and I gave you a little time to show you had something for me, even though I somewhat mistrusted your opening: that is, I said to myself Duh! of course there’s a lot of bunk — but why is it any different on this blog. So I gave you a chance. If I’d seen a phony, patently so, opening about “stealing” ideas from a colleague, I would have felt extremely worked. I would not have believed you for a minute. And I presume that’s a bad thing in copywriting.

  13. Patrick Brown says

    The definitive vote (in my estimation) has to be: it depends.

    What is the tone of your site? What is your corporate voice? Either one can work, but it has to fit with who you are and how you communicate with your audience.

  14. Al Uehre says

    Great summary article Paul – thanks.

    Re: which intro copy, I vote for the first one because of the #5 factor: misplacing tone.

    In your live presentations, I find humour works exceptionally well, and that’s where it’s appreciated & even become expected – the presentations benefit from a tone that keeps things engaging & entertaining while they inform.

    On your site / in your copy, this does not translate – I’ve come to expect the meat only. When I get ‘inside’ humour here, it dilutes the humour in the presentations, and makes me have to work through the copy. To me, this produces the opposite effect of what was likely intended.

    Thanks guys!

  15. Austin McCraw says

    Paul,

    Let me propose a third alternative:

    ==============

    “Every once in a while, I can’t think of anything good to write about on this blog. So, for inspiration I go to the content guru of our organization, Austin McCraw. He always has 1,000 amazing ideas in the works for the infamous MarketingExperiments’ Web clinics.

    He so kindly and graciously offered up some recent content that he had worked on for a potential upcoming Web Clinic so I could have something valuable to say on this blog. He is truly an inspiration for me, as he constantly advocates for the audience, and is always pushing to give away more and more of our research. He is really the “robin hood” of MarketingExperiments.

    For a brief moment, I thought about creating an alternative introduction that would poke fun at him. However after giving it some additional thought, I realized how much the audience wouldn’t buy it, how much they love Austin, and how much I can’t live up to his reputation. So I wrote this introduction in praise of him instead.

    So with that, I turn your attention to some amazing content on copy writing that only could come from the pen of Austin McCraw”

    ===================

    Just a thought 😉

    Great post, man!

  16. Michele says

    I like the opening you used. It gets to the point more quickly. The alternate opening gives too much “back story” up front. And, thank you for this post; I have distributed the link widely among the writers and copy editors around here.

  17. Calum B says

    Re point #2, the ‘better’ alternatives starting with ‘get’ are a really ugly use of English, and I wouldn’t click on them for that alone!

  18. Paul Cheney says

    Thank you all so much for the comments! Excellent points all around. And so far it looks like the first opening is winning by a long shot.

    Of course, had @Austin McCraw‘s opening been posted, I’m sure it would have out-performed them both. I hereby raise my glass to MarketingExperiment’s true “Man in Tights” (tight tights) and concede the defeat of my sub-par alternate opening.

  19. Valentina says

    Great article, as usual!
    But I’d like to ask you a question: is there a “perfect” lenght for an headline? How many words should it be written with?

    Sometimes I think it’s better a persuasive headline rather than a long, point first one. Anyway I think it clearly depends on what your selling, what you’re offering and where the headline is collocated (a landing page, an article, a website page, etc.). What do you think?

  20. Paul Cheney says

    @Valentina
    Hi Valentina,

    The direct answer to your first question is no. There is no perfect length.

    To answer your your second question: I think you’re right…it depends. There is probably a point where a headline ceases to be a headline b/c of it’s length.

    But I think most of the research we’ve done suggests that the most important aspect of the headline is not length, but how well it communicates value and works to get the reader into the first paragraph.

    Length certainly has something to do with that, but only as it relates to communicating the value quickly and effectively enough to make the reader want more.

    I’d love to get a research analyst on here to clarify a little further, but I hope this helps until then.

  21. Dennis Cline says

    The opening you went with by far…

  22. Nikki says

    Agree with DC, the second opener also made me feel like an outside as I am new to this blog. The first opener said to me “I am going to tell you what IS right, rather than repeating all that innacurate and poorly written rubbish out there”. The second para (Don’t get me wrong…) was particularly engaging, it gave a human side to the post.

    Funnily enough, Daniels article that you link to in that para didn’t grab me (no offense Daniel, just constructive criticicsm 😉 ). I think it may have been the very long hyperlink in the 3rd para which is very ‘in your face’. When reading on the web people will ‘scan’ and links that long aren’t ‘scan-friendly’. It seemed to get in the way of the rest of the text and I found it difficult to focus on what was being said.

    Love Austins comment above… humorous and makes me want to go looking for what he’s written.

    Calum B… what would you suggest as an alternative for Option 2’s “GET” lines? Is there a better word or would you rephrase it completely? It may not be a pretty word, but in this instance it is practical and conveys the message appropriately (IMHO).

  23. Scott Martin says

    Stick with the paras you used. Excellent post and thanks for sharing the results.

  24. chris says

    good article – professional

  25. Peter Hobday says

    We will never know will we? We only know what works looking back. But what made me click and read was the great headline.

    Opening paragraphs are, after all, simply expanding on the headline benefit.

    This is one of the best articles I have read on copy, and thanks for giving it out free. Much appreciated!

  26. Tim Watson says

    The opening you used is much better. The alternative is too much off topic and too long getting to the point.

  27. Ingrid says

    Hi,
    You just gotta love Austin’s alternative! The world is a sad place without humor.
    When it comes to your two openings, I like the second one. I could not avoid reading the whole article, if you had started with this one. But then again, I read the article even with the current opening 🙂

  28. Paul Cheney says

    Nikki :

    Love Austins comment above… humorous and makes me want to go looking for what he’s written.

    Nikki,
    Don’t go looking…here’s everything he ever wrote on this blog:
    https://www.marketingexperiments.com/blog/author/austin

    It’s a gold mine (Stolen from the rich).

  29. Valentina says

    Thank you very much Paul.
    I’m writing you from Italy and I can tell you that readers are so-oh lazy here. It’s very difficult to minimize the bounce rate when you tries to keep an eye on content.

    That’s why I’ve asked you if there’s a perfect lenght, although I know it’s difficul to be “perfect” when communicating something to someone. Many clients, many timese, ask me to “Cut here, cut there”, when they see a headline a little lenghty.

    It would be interesting to make the same experiment on a landing page for italian readers and american. Maybe we’ll find out we’re all super lazy, LOL

    Anyway, thank you very much for replying me.

  30. Chris says

    Excellent post with clear examples.

    As to which beginning… I actually didn’t read the introductory paragraphs when first coming to this post. I immediately skipped to “mistake #1” to start reading. It was only when I came to the end and had to choose, that I skipped back up to read the original beginning.

    So maybe consider a third, shorter, option?

  31. Katie says

    Great article! Clear examples with concise explanations.

    I, like, John didn’t even read the opening but skipped to the first mistake. After getting to the bottom, I re-read both. I think the one at the top of the page is better because the tone seems better geared to the audience.

    Keep up the good work!

  32. Peopleunit says

    I like the first opening better. It gave a better pretext explanation for what followed. In the second one I feel cheated, holding out the good stuff for the web clinics. See how you are!

  33. Arlene Harder says

    With too little time and too much to do, I avoid opening email from marketing “gurus” with the seven-secrets-for-making-millions-a-month-from-home approach. Since I find your content excellent, I tend to glance at the email to see whether the topic being discussed is one I need to know at the moment and then read more.

    Similarly, I am currently writing sales pages and when I opened the blog today, I wanted to know what the “real experts” advise. So I didn’t particularly pay attention to the opening, but looked for the first mistake, in case that was one I am making. Agree with those above who feel that an opening statement that makes a person feel left out doesn’t work well.

    Thank you much for your examples. I will pass them on to my Sales Copy Mastermind Group.

    Unfortunately, I was busy during the time of the discussion yesterday on the copywriting framework teleseminar. Will that be repeated or is it available another way, as in a recorded format?

  34. Paul Cheney says

    @Arlene Harder
    Hi Arlene,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, there will be a replay. It should be available sometime late next week. If you are subscribed to our newsletter, you’ll be one of the first to know when it’s available.

  35. Janelle says

    Very interesting case studies. Can you share more details about how you collected the data? For example, how many users/clicks/views were these case studies based on? How long did you track each design for your comparisons? What did you consider a conversion for each case study? Thanks!

  36. Ed Bowden says

    Perhaps the real question is how many people read the intro, and how many just looked to see what the 7 issues were?

  37. Jason Suttie says

    Like several of the other commenters I didn’t read the intro paragraph until I got to the end and then went back and read it. However my vote is for the version that was used. The main reason is that I don’t know who Austin, Daniel you are are(yet) so as a newbie to this blog the second version lost me on the first sentence.

  38. Paul Cheney says

    @Janelle
    Hi Janelle,

    Most of these case studies have been covered in-depth in our research directory. You can find that here:

    https://www.marketingexperiments.com/research-topics/research_archive.html

  39. Betsy Kent says

    I vote for the lead you used. It doesn’t resonate with readers when content begins with a reference to something (or someone) that the reader may not be familiar with. By leading with this sentence: “Every once in a while, Austin McCraw, Daniel Burstein and I disagree about what gets posted on this blog. Daniel and I tend to be very giving.” you are making the assumption that the reader 1. knows who those people are 2. knows who you are 3. reads your blog all the time

    I DO read your blog and I DO attend your webinars, but I don’t know who Austin and Daniel are. By using their names as the lead in the blog post, I would have felt like I stepped into a private club where I didn’t know anyone and the conversation was already going on…without me.

  40. Eric Stevenson says

    Definately the opening you started with. The alternate was to simple [paragraph 2] and seemed to almost question my intelligence [paragraph 3]. As today is my birthday, I am taking your blog post as my present and hope its a gift that keeps on giving. Thank you!

  41. Nancy Scott says

    Your lead, hands down. I love your use of the word “bunk,” which reflects what a lot of us are feeling about “expert advice.” This opening “talks” to me, not at me, just like you said in Mistake #5. Nice job.

  42. Roy Luce says

    Interesting – the focus on the opening.
    Interesting also that I did not initially read the opening.
    The subject line was “7 Mistakes”; that’s what brought me to the blog and that’s what I focused on.
    It wasn’t until the alternate entry discussion came up and I went back to read the opening that I even realized an “opening” existed.

  43. Christal says

    I like the intro that you actually used MUCH better than the alternate. The alternate seems less relevant – what’s with all those names? Am I supposed to know who those people are? If I don’t, am I dumb? So now I’m dumb and I don’t care about what you’re saying. Plus, personally I don’t like it when marketers tell me they’re doing something for me “against the rules” – it makes me trust you less and also makes it seem like I’m now shouldering the burden of deceit (not to sound dramatic or anything).

  44. Kris Grzegorczyk says

    Two points:
    – Maybe an eighth mistake should be finishing with a call to action but then failing to make clear how one should respond. I see ‘vote’ and I instantly look for a mini vote tool at the side of the screen. Asking a reader to ‘vote’ without providing the most natural tool with which to act on the call to action undermines the call to action itself.

    – I prefer the opening that was actually used. I tend to read these posts based on what calls out to me from the emails I receive from you guys. As such, I’m not necessarily familiar with who Austin and Daniel are. Without wishing too sound too cynical, who they are isn’t particularly important to me so an post starting out in this way. It doesn’t get better in the second paragraph – quite frankly, its indulgent and seems to be more about a private joke for the author and his buddies. While all of this may be fine if the main aim of the blog is to cater to an established readership, it’s less fine if the intention is build out on that readership. Had the alternate opening been used, I probably would have left after the second paragraph or scanned down to where the numbered entries start. The opening used is stronger because there is a stronger link between the link I clicked on an what I immediately see. What’s more, within the first two paragraphs, I know the blog is going to be research based, which is what I come to Marketing Experts for – solid, research-based findings, presented in a very friendly, easily understandable way.

  45. Kris Grzegorczyk says

    Looking through the comments, I’m guessing this was a bluff experiment more than anything else – experiment to see who actually confessed to not reading the intro and just skipped onto the 7 mistakes.

  46. Peter Cartier says

    I think you got it right with the one you used. As much as I’m a fan of being laid back in tone, the second has too much name dropping that new readers probably won’t care about and will click on. As it is, the article is very informative as always. Cheers.

  47. Nick Hurd says

    I vote for the heading used. I probably wouldn’t have continued reading with the alternate copy.

  48. Paul Cheney says

    Hi Kris. I can assure you that the purpose of the experiment was not…

    Kris Grzegorczyk :

    …to see who actually confessed to not reading the intro and just skipped onto the 7 mistakes.

    We’re not that clever. 🙂 The purpose of the experiment was to start a discussion on different approaches to writing copy.

  49. Phillip Holden says

    My preference is the selected content, not the alternate. I prefer direct, concise lead-ins without a lot of ‘chatter’ or fluff. This will be a very useful article for me. I work as a marketing copywriter for a company, and I also own/operate my own business, a fitness center. I am in the process of recreating our website for the fitness center (current one is bad beyond measure) and also a new blog. I enjoy your newsletters and find them quite useful. Thank you.

  50. Dion deVille says

    You know, the second intro without its opening paragraph is better to me; just to disagree with everyone :p

    I like the article. Made me think. Thanks.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.