Writing Copy For The Web: The 80/20 Guide to Copywriting For Entrepreneurs
If you want to write things that inspire action — web sales pages that effectively sell your product, emails that readers will click on and share, etc. — this article is for you.
I repeat: if you want to make things on the internet that work, if you want to publish webpages and videos and podcasts and emails into the world that get results, you’re in the right place.
Because, for our ideas, businesses and projects to survive in the modern era we’ve got to be able to use words to inspire readers (or viewers or listeners) to take action — to buy our products and share our content.
Which means: you need copywriting.
You can write excellent and effective copy for the web today, that’s exactly what I intend to help you with in this article.
Copywriting is the art of using words to inspire action.
WRITING and ACTION, that’s what copywriting is about. This isn’t writing for expression, though expression is sometimes useful to inspire action. This isn’t writing for emotional connection, though emotional connection is often times useful to inspire action. This is writing for ACTION.
So, copywriting is essential for our ideas and businesses, and yet, very few of us are trained in how to do it! Many of us can’t afford a professional copywriter, so we’ve got to write the sales page copy ourselves (along with, of course, designing and making the damn products too!).
Now, you’d never say to someone, “hey just throw together a good movie script real quick. C’mon, we’re waiting to launch this thing until you’re done.” No. You know writing a movie script is challenging, requiring skills and insights average people don’t have without studying.
And it’s no different with copywriting. Great copywriting is essential for your business to succeed AND writing good copy is challenging, requiring skills and insights average people don’t have without studying.
So, in this article I’m going to help you with that.
I, personally, have “studied” copywriting. By that I mean I’ve bought books, taken notes, written sales pages, written calls to action across websites, run A/B tests and investigated the results of my copywriting. I’ve done all these things at a semi-pro level for a little less than a decade now. And I have to tell you: you can spend the rest of your life studying copywriting, and I’m not sure the effort will be worth the reward.
Copywriting is one of these things where there’s a handful of PRINCIPLES and a shit-ton of RULES. The rules are always changing, going in and out of style. You can see this clearly in advertisements from the 50s — they worked really well back then, but they just don’t work the same way today. The rules of that time solidified, countless ads were made using those rules, and they all started working less and less.
But the PRINCIPLES, on the other hand, are fairly constant. If you can understand the principles of copywriting well, you can be creative and innovative and write copy that gets remarkable results and leave all the copywriting gurus scratching their head about which rules you’re using. (If your techniques work well, they might be copied, which will eventually make them stop working so well. Lucky for you, you’ll keep innovating because you follow principles and not rules.)
So, the only stuff that really matters are the principles. Why? Because the rules you study today are less likely to work tomorrow when they become stale and overused.
This is one of the things I’ve learned in my study of copywriting. You can spend your whole life studying the rules of copywriting, but I’d much rather start dancing with the principles. That’s what we’ve done with our homepage. Check out the video there to see an example of me dancing with the principles of copywriting.
(You should know, that video was not just my writing. Other Fizzle team members and friends helped edit and develop that a ton. Which is, maybe, one of the principles of copywriting: your perspective is singular, others can help you see the blindspots.)
So, dancing with the principles. Sounds unbelievably cheesy, but I’m sticking with it because with principles you can dance; with rules you can only obey.
A copywriting toolbox
What I want to do in this article is give you a toolbox for copywriting to help you understand the principles so you can get into rhythm with them.
Because here’s the thing: you can absolutely write effective copy for your sales page or podcast or website or video script, etc., right now. You just need some help getting the right perspective.
What’s also true is: you could spend the rest of your life studying copywriting and end up with only marginally better results than if you simply understood the principles and danced with them from there. That’s why we call this the 80/20 copywriting guide, because with 20% of the effort you can get 80% of the results (or more).
Now, you might be having this, “oh gosh, I’m terrible at selling” feeling. Don’t worry! The point here is to NOT sound sleazy, to NOT sound like you’re selling, but, rather, to be comfortably communicating in a natural way that puts the reader at ease. You’ll end up selling the best when you’re most yourself.
Or, you might feel like, “oh gosh, I HATE writing.” That’s totally normal. Most of us hate writing when we are unclear about what we’re trying to do. Writing is very simple, however, when you know exactly who you’re writing for and what they need to hear from you. I’m going to help you with both of those.
So, in this post I’m going to give you a toolbox in the form of what we call a sketch sheet, a short, actionable worksheet you can print out and fill in. To download that worksheet, enter your info here and you’ll get it immediately after the click:
Download the 80/20 Copywriting Workbook to follow along
Begin with the end in mind
OK, in a minute I’m going to walk you through the sketch sheet, but first let’s zoom out a little.
There’s probably a handful of things you really want your reader to feel when they read your sales page (or whatever copywriting piece you have in mind). You might fantasize of a reader thinking to themselves: “holy crap I love this. How have I not heard of this until now? It feels like I can really trust this company. Gosh, this sounds like just what I need!”
I have those same fantasies about you right now, reading this article 🙂
But the only reason you’re reading this (instead of it being another idea in a file on my hard drive that I didn’t finish) is because I’ve gotten very clear about WHO you are, WHAT you’re struggling with and what ACTION I want you to take. If you’re the kind of person I’m thinking of, and if you’ve got the kind of needs and worries I think you have, and if I could just get you to take this action and implement this copywriting sketch sheet, then you’ll be off on your own teaching yourself from there. I have a lot of clarity about those three elements.
When we get really clear about WHO we’re writing for, WHAT they struggle with (or need or desire) and what ACTION we want them to take, it helps us, as the writers, get the right perspective.
- Who we’re writing for.
- What, specifically, they struggle with (or need or desire).
- What action we want them to take that’s going to help them with that specific struggle/need/desire.
In my experience these have been the three core elements of any copywriting project.
Most copywriting mistakes you make will be a mistake in one of these three areas. Either you’ve got the wrong person, or you’ve misidentified the struggle or desire, or your action doesn’t fit the person or struggle suitably.
So, we need clarity about those three things. But, it’s actually pretty challenging to get a sense of real clarity about this stuff. Normally it takes some trial and error and possibly some real conversations with people in your target audience.
However, even though it’s challenging, we’ve got some tips and tricks we use to get clarity and insights about these three elements, as well as the other elements we use in the 80/20 Copywriting Sketch Sheet.
Ok, if you haven’t yet, download the sketch sheet from above now because it’s time to talk through it.
Part 1: The Sketch Sheet Boxes
When you open up the 80/20 Copywriting Sketch Sheet — can I just call it the “Sketch Sheet” from now on? Yes, that’s what I’ll do — when you open up the Sketch Sheet you’ll find a few pages.
The Sketch Sheet itself is fairly self explanatory. I mean, there’s a page with a bunch of boxes and you answer the questions in those boxes. Your answers in those boxes are the raw materials for your copywriting, like the ingredients in a baking recipe.
But the added bonus of answering these questions in the Sketch Sheet is that YOU end up with a different PERSPECTIVE, and it’s the perspective that is going to help you get really clear on what your copywriting needs to say to entice your readers to action.
So, let’s go through the questions in this Sketch Sheet and fill in as much information as I can for you (without getting lost in the minutia).
1. Action — What action do you want your reader to take? What are you asking your reader to do? Click a button? Buy a product? Share something on social media? If you want them to buy a product, what are the necessary steps they’ll need to take? Click a button, see the credit card form, pull out the credit card, enter information, turn the card over to read the little 3 digit number on the back, select any necessary options, maybe enter billing and/or shipping addresses.
Spend some time thinking about the action you want them to take. Think about the minutia, the little details. You’re asking them to do something, have the courtesy to think about exactly what it is you’re asking them to do and exactly what that is going to mean for them. It might sound like the last thing that should be on a list of copywriting tips, but I think it’s important to begin with the end in mind.
NOTE: again, I’m trying to get you into the PERSPECTIVE of your reader so you can more naturally write copy that will appeal to them. Thinking about the details, spending some time, visualizing a little bit, all these things help you empathize with them, and when you write from a sense of real empathy you can be a dangerous copywriter.
2. Target Reader — Who is this piece for? Who is your “target reader”? Can you think of one or two people already in your audience who you know?
Getting into the headspace of your target reader — the person or kind of person you want your copywriting to reach and be effective to — is like a favorite puzzle of mine. Why? Because as a designer and writer and entrepreneur, getting in my customer’s head and heart is like superpower.
EVERY PROJECT IS DIFFERENT. So how you identify your target reader for your business might be different than how others do it. But here’s a few tips:
- Try to think of an individual person that you know personally who fits as a target reader. If you know them personally, like, in real life, you are going to approach the copywriting copywriting differently than if you’re thinking of a made up “avatar” or “ideal customer map.” Think about it, who’s one person you could aim this sales page at (or whatever your project is)? Write it for that one person.
- We wrote a guide on this very topic: Defining Your Target Audience. With some very helpful stuff in there. (Including a badass worksheet called the empathy map!)
- And if you really want to go deep on this, I created an entire course on identifying and defining your target audience inside Fizzle membership. You could try it out with a two week free trial right now. This is the single
That “think of one person you actually know” trick is extremely helpful. If you want a quick-as-shit shortcut to copywriting that works, secretly aim your writing directly at someone you know. I’ve written a lot of our copy here at Fizzle to either my dad (I wonder what Freud has to say about that one!) or my friend Willie. Writing to a single person makes me think of this quote from Paul Graham:
“You’ve got to start with a small, intense fire. It’s impossible to make something that a large number of people want a lot. You’ve got to know who those first users are and how you’re gonna get them. And then you just sit down and have a party with those first users, focus entirely on them, and you make them super, super happy” ~ Paul Graham
So, who is your target reader? Maybe you can get to one person. Maybe your business is already successful and you reach a massively wide swath of people. If so, what’s similar about them?
For instance, we here at Fizzle reach a huge amount of people (about 2 million people in the past 12 months!), from all sorts of different demographics and psychographics. Not all of those are our target readers. Our target readers are those who are pushing just past the beginning stage of starting their own business; they’re taking it a little more seriously and they’re ready to learn what’s really important (like Minimum Viable Income, 1-page business plans and business archetypes).
So, who is your target reader? What is it important that you know about them? Do your best and move on.
3. Transformation — What’s the transformation you’re helping your target reader achieve? If they take the action you want them to, in what ways will they or their life be different?
Think of your target reader in terms of before and after. For instance: before, she was worried about her sales page. She didn’t know what she should include, how to come up with a good headline, or what were the most important parts of the sales page. After, she felt confident in a process and worksheet to come up with all the elements she needed on her sales page. She knew it wouldn’t perfect (nothing is), but it would WORK!
Transformation, it might just be what any good business, book, movie and experience actually offers us. So, what is the transformation you are offering the reader? How will she be different? How will he be closer to the version of himself he wants to be? Where will they notice the change? Do your best and move on.
4. Fears — What fears does your target reader have about the transformation, action, topic or idea in this piece? Where does he/she feel embarrassed or vulnerable about this topic, transformation, idea or action?
It’s getting real. Sometimes this is the question I start out with because it’s one of my favorites. There’s something about thinking about other peoples’ fears that helps me empathize with them, helps me imagine what it’s like inside their head. Maybe that’s because I myself have an extremely loud internal dialogue, and I’m afraid of a lot of stuff 🙂
What is it? What are they afraid of? Where are they vulnerable about this area you’re writing about? In what ways are they afraid they’re different than “most people” as it relates to your topic?
In each of these I’m asking a lot of different questions because I’m never sure which one’s going to spark the insight for your particular copywriting project. Again, every project is different. The boxes in the Sketch Sheet are necessary for every project (to me, at least), but how you fill the boxes can be different from project to project.
But it’s true that this is the question where I normally start to feel the most for my target reader. And, again, it’s that feeling for them, the empathy, the switch out of your head and into theirs, that change in PERSPECTIVE, that’s what these boxes are for… that’s where effective copy comes from.
5. Common Traps — What are the common traps for people taking this action or exploring this transformation? For what reasons would someone say, “yea, I tried taking that action; it didn’t work for me”?
If the fears question gets me into the heart of my reader, this question gets me into their head. In my own experience, I have some emotion that entices me to a product of some kind, THEN my logic turns on to help me process all the reasons why it’s either a good or bad idea to buy the product. The initial motivation (which is a force of energy) is emotional. The logic that turns on is working to try to channel and direct that emotional energy.
That’s just my experience, but any search for “emotions and purchase decisions” will show you some million+ results corroborating the same story. (Your scientific veracity may vary.)
So with this question we’re getting into the logic of the reader (which is always working as they read), but we’re doing it with a little more wisdom. This question is worded to get you thinking about those who’ve undergone this transformation before (including yourself) through the lens of common traps.
What are the most common mistakes people make? Where do they get stuck most often? Where do they lose steam? Why do they lose steam?
Thinking about it from a straight-up, “I’ve seen this mistake a thousand times” kind of perspective helps you get out of the sleazy “what do I have to do to get you in this car today” kind of voice. Instead, you’re thinking like a confident, experienced teacher.
Take your best stab at it and move on.
6. Existing Need or Desire — What does your target reader already know he/she needs or desires about this action, topic or transformation?
One of the most important points we’ve found in modern indie business (and one we explain thoroughly in this podcast episode on business ideas), is that your business needs to tap into a pre-existing need or desire.
The same is true with copywriting — you want your copy to appeal to a desire or need your target reader already feels.
That might be the desire to lose weight, or the need for relief from hemorrhoids, or the desire for a natural child birth, or the need for healthy and easy vegan dinner options for a child with Celiac disease.
The difference between a need and desire is not that important. Some needs are more like desires and some desires are more like needs. But what IS important is how URGENT the need or desire is to your target audience. Notice the difference in urgency when we talk about a splitting headache, or a paper cut, or a sore wrist, or a bad night of sleep, or 15 months of insomnia, or being in a bad mood, or having debilitating depression.
The urgency of the need/desire can change your approach to the copywriting immensely. So you want to have a sense of how urgent the need/desire you’re addressing is.
For example, we at Fizzle help people learn to support themselves doing something they care about, right now specifically by helping them start a successful small business. That actually isn’t a super urgent need/desire when compared to a splitting headache. However, it is a desire that many people have; these are people who have already told themselves, “I want to start a business for myself!” So, it isn’t extremely urgent in the same way as other desires, and most markets serve needs that aren’t as urgent as intense medical conditions.
But there’s something important to explore here in the Fizzle example. Below that less-urgent, surface desire to start a business, are some more-urgent or more deeply-felt desires like the desire for freedom, for creative fulfillment, for a sense of purpose and confidence in life. So, we pull in those desires, we remind ourselves and our readers that these are the things we really mean when we say “successful indie business,” because those desires are felt deeply and powerfully for our target readers (and for ourselves!).
So, it matters what desire/need you target with your copywriting. Take your best stab, move on.
7. Objections — What other OBJECTIONS do they have about this action, idea or topic? What objections do they have to the specific action you’re asking them to take?
With this one we’re getting into more details of their experience, more of what I call specific empathy. It’s not the central, deep down heart stuff, it’s the minutia, the periphery, the logical details.
And these are important because if you address them well, in the right order maybe, or in the right way, you can address them before the reader’s logical faculties does, effectively neutralizing them.
Now, I think it’s important to make a big ol’ list of these. Whatever comes to mind. Every single objection you can think of. “I don’t know where my wallet is. Is this a secure site? Who are these people? Can I trust them? What if it’s a scam? Can I get my money back? What, exactly, am I buying here? Am I really gonna use this? Won’t I just forget to use it? Has anyone had success with this already? What will my wife say? Do I really need this? Where is my damn wallet, anyways?”
At this point in the process, if you’re feeling a little tired of thinking about this stuff, take a break! I do that often because this stuff is actually really challenging for me. Take a break, go for a 15 minute walk without your phone, come back and dive in again.
Do your best and move on.
8. Differentiators — What is unique about your offering as it compares to other comparable or competing offerings? What makes this particular action or offering different?
OK, this is a big one, so I’m glad you took a break if you needed it, because your answer to this one is important.
Here are a few resources for answering the differentiator questions:
- Another way into differentiators is to think about your “Unique Selling Proposition.” Look no further than this guide to finding your unique selling proposition.
- There is a meaty course inside Fizzle on Differentiation and how to make your business stand out. We offer a two week trial, no charge, kick the tires, and you can take the course in that time. It’s probably the single best resource on differentiation and you can signup here (takes about a minute to signup). If that’s not your thing right now, then stick to the above.
Check out those resources and think through some answers on what makes your offering different, because this is a question that, even if your readers don’t ask it, they want answered.
For us at Fizzle, for example, one of our biggest differentiators is our personality and our focus on bootstrapped action. First, our courses are fun, because starting a business is challenging, it comes with a lot of emotion, and you’re not thinking your best when you’re too serious. And second, we focus on quick, bite-sized action because we know every founder and audience is different, so the best way to learn is on the job.
We mention these elements, ether directly or indirectly, as much as we feel necessary to get the point across to our target reader. (We also mention differentiators like the fact that Fizzle membership is only $35/month and comes with free weekly group coaching calls, while many of our competitors cost thousands of dollars and members are left to rot in the echo chambers of a dead forum… but I digress!)
Do your best, move on.
9. Common Words & Phrases — Spend some time researching your target reader, their need or desire online. What are some common words or phrases people use to talk about this action, idea or transformation? How do people in the real world talk about this? What language do they use? What stories do they tell? What things do they believe about it?
Up to now everything has been happening in your own head and heart. Now is the time to flip that and look out into the real world to see how your target readers really talk about their need/desire, problem and fears.
One thing that’s important to note: the stuff your target readers really need to hear from you, they actually don’t know how to say themselves. This goes harkens back to a great quote by I-Don’t-Know-Who:
“If you explain my problem better than I can myself, then I already trust you for the solution.”
So, remember that as you do this research. You’re looking both for the exact words they use and the things they don’t yet know how to say, the real sentiment or dream or emotion underlying their words.
Now, where are you doing this research? Forums, blog comments, yahoo answers (yuck!), Quora, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, The Internet! Where do your target readers hang out? Invest an hour or three doing some research and don’t rush yourself too much. Time spent here really is an investment.
Hey! Don’t skip this one, ok? It’s important because after you do this one, I want you to go back and edit your answers to all the others. Before now you were just playing with your own mind and emotions about your target reader, their needs/desires and hopes. But now you’ve spent some time in their minds, reading their words, and I hope it’s altered your perspective even more… because that’s the point of this whole thing, to see things from where they are.
A note about workflow
OK, let’s zoom back out and think a little more about the workflow at large before we get into the final set of questions.
I’ve been using some version or other of this Sketch Sheet for just about everything I write for the web — sales pages, loosely scripted youtube videos, blog posts, training courses inside Fizzle, emails, all of it — and here’s some ideas I have on the process you can implement to use this Sketch Sheet for your own copywriting.
1. First, answer the questions in the boxes to the best of your ability. Wherever you are in the sequence of your project, it’s important to start with the question boxes to get a clear sense of what you already know. I’ve put the questions roughly in the order they make the most sense, but feel free to skip around; every piece of writing is different. Starting here and getting clear about what you already assume will help you notice the insights in step two.
2. Second, do research online to hear how your target readers are already talking about the problem/desire/topic that your copywriting piece is about and fill in the answer to the last box. I’ll walk you through exactly how to do this below, but suffice it to say: your copy gets better the more in tune you are with your target reader’s perspective, so we do research to see just how that perspective might be different than our own.
3. Third, come back to the question boxes and edit the answers based on what you’ve learned in the research. Feel free to print out multiple copies of the copywriting sketch sheet and start a new sheet from scratch. You’ll notice how your initial assumptions may have changed based on the research you did in step two.
Optional: talk it through with real people who are a part of your target audience. You might reach out online or know some in person. This might sound like a hassle or a waste of time, but that’s likely because you don’t know how to talk to customers FOR INSIGHT, not for selling. We think it’s such an essential skill for indie entrepreneurs that we built an entire course about it.
Optional: check out the competition to see if they might know something you haven’t found out yet. If you want to have long term success, this really is the last step. If you look at the competition too early on, you’re more likely to miss out on the brand new insight that could lead to more success for you. Personally, when I write for Fizzle, looking at the competition tends to make my work worse, not better; so I make it a point NOT to do this. But in other situations it might be really helpful; your mileage may vary.
So that’s roughly the process I would recommend you take for your copywriting projects. Feel free to leave comments below and let me know tweaks to this workflow that are working for you.
Part 2: put it together
Hopefully, after you’ve gone through the boxes in the Sketch Sheet, you’re feeling really connected to your reader, with more firepower for persuasion than you ever had.
You can think of everything we’ve done above as gathering the “raw material” for your copywriting project. Like baking or cooking, the process can be really creative and enjoyable if you have all the ingredients out, measured and ready.
And I LOVE going deep with you on everything we’ve covered so far. And, to be honest, at this point this article is so long I’ve kind of got to speed through this next bit. Which, actually, I’m glad about because the stuff you did above is, in my experience, the REAL work. From here it’s fiddling and tweaking. Arguably some of these bits coming up can make huge impacts on your piece’s effectiveness (headlines!), but all of the stuff coming up is worthless if you aren’t connected to the target reader’s perspective… which is, hopefully, what the process above does for you.
So, here are the parts that are important about putting all the pieces together:
4 questions to make your piece stronger:
In the Sketch Sheet I also include a page with these 4 questions so you’ll have them whenever you write another piece of copy.
If you tap into your target readers in the box questions and then go through these questions, doing your best on each, your piece of copywriting is going to be so much more informed and effective than it would be without it.
- How can you START this piece with strong connection to the reader? Use a story, stat, promise, question; whatever you think is your best chance of connection is with the target audience.
- How can you STRUCTURE this piece to make for an attention-keeping experience from the start to the climax?
- How can you SHOW (not ‘tell’) this transformation in action? What story, image or moments can you share?
- How clear, visible, appropriate and/or stirring is your CALL TO ACTION?
Holy crap, headlines!
Here’s the thing about headlines: they matter… a lot!
A headline has to grab the reader’s attention enough to click on a link or to start reading your article. That’s the headline’s job. And if your headline doesn’t surprise, intrigue, delight or grab the reader’s attention in some way, your excellent copywriting just isn’t going to be seen.
Writing great headlines is beyond the scope of this article. However, I do have some great resources to share with you.
Before I do, though, as you read these, try to tell which of the tips and tricks feel more like rules (which won’t last very long, they go in and out of style all the time) and which feel more like principles (which seem to be true for ever and ever). Most headline and copywriting articles focus on rules, which can be helpful in the short term but may have you searching for a new fix in a short amount of time. So, take these with a grain of salt.
As I think about it, maybe a principle of headlines would be something like: a headline has to be immediately interesting to the target reader. Can you think of what, of all the boxes you’ve already filled in, would be the most immediately interesting thing to your target readers?
- How to Write Amazing Headlines (with Leo Babauta)
- 10 questions to help you write better headlines – Poynter
- 30+ Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, and Emails
- How To Make That One Thing Go Viral
Testing the results
Every. Thing. About. This. Article. Was designed to help you write effective copy. Effective copy is not “copy I feel good about” or “copy my friend says is good.” Effective copy is copy that works, copy that produces the specific result you want.
That’s why I started the Sketch Sheet boxes with the ACTION we want the reader to take — that’s the thing we’re testing for, that’s the result we’re measuring.
So, with our Google Analytics and/or A/B testing tool, that’s what you want to test for. This free and easy measurement thing is one place writing copy for the web really shines over other copywriting mediums.
(BTW, Google Analytics is another topic we’ve got a whole course on in Fizzle’s training library, in case you need help getting setup.)
Copywriting is easy when…
Copywriting can be so damn easy when you know how to get in the right perspective — when you know exactly who it’s for, exactly what they struggle with, exactly what the right action for them is.
As I said above, you could spend the rest of your life studying this stuff, or you could start PRACTICING copywriting with this Sketch Sheet, learning on the job, watching the results and getting better over time.
Copywriting has been a kind of transformative practice for me. It’s pulled me into the heads and hearts of readers like you, earnest, hopeful, capable people. And as a result, not only has my copywriting become more effective, but my PRODUCT, the thing I use copywriting to sell, has become stronger and stronger.
There’s nothing more transformative in business than caring for your customers. Copywriting, for me, has been one of the business disciplines that taught me how to care deeper for our customers and potential customers… cuz you people do radical things 🙂
Thanks for reading!
I’ve taken a lot of courses and been involved in several paid communities since I started my business, but I’ve never ever felt like anyone CARED as much about seeing my reach my goals as the Fizzle Team. They show up for me as much as I show up for myself. Thank you SO much, you guys!
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