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How the Web Changed Copywriting

Copywriting expert Andy Maslen looks at human nature through a magnifying glass, not the looking glass, to see how the web changed copywriting and explains why web copywriting rules are wrong.

Who'd a thunk it? The web was invented by an Englishman. The Greeks gave us democracy; the Chinese, gunpowder; the Americans, Cheez Whiz; but little old England gave us #epicfails and lolcats! In my career, three new technologies have emerged that dramatically affected the way I practise my craft. In 1986, it was the affordable desktop PC: no more long-hand. In 1987, the fax: no more stamps. And in 1995, the Internet: no more paper.

Actually, that's not strictly true. I did carry on writing copy with a fountain pen. I even wrote this post with one. I did carry on sending mailings by post and I did carry on writing for print. But each new technological advance gave me new or better ways to write copy. What they didn't do was give me new or better people to sell to.

As the last of these, the Web deserves special attention. Despite Sir Tim Berners-Lee's magnificent achievement in bringing cat videos to Amazonian tribespeople with wi-fi and a smartphone, the human brain remained unchanged.

This goes to 11

Certain aspects of our behaviour became amplified, but not, I think, changed. A moment’s reflection would lead anyone to realise that a greedy, duplicitous fool who went to sleep the night before the web emerged from his slumber the same greedy duplicitous fool. Likewise the saintly, empathetic genius underwent no HTML-inspired transformation of character.

What did, undeniably, change was their access both to information, accurate or otherwise, and to a global megaphone for their opinions.

The current discussion about ‘web users’ and ‘print consumers’ and their behaviour reminds me of a similar false distinction made between ‘car drivers’ and ‘pedestrians’. These are respectively modes of information-usage and transport, not subspecies of Homo sapiens.

It is perfectly possible, indeed virtually universal (at least in industrialised societies) for people to use both the web and off-line information sources, to drive a car and get around on foot.

However, people do behave differently behind the wheel of a car from the way they do on foot. Increased levels of aggression, selfishness and anxiety are not uncommon. Similarly, their behaviour online can differ from their behaviour offline. They may be more outgoing, careless, spiteful or impulsive.

So how does this behaviour-change affect what we do as copywriters? Not as much as we are told by the new breed of digital marketing expert.

The ten dimwitted commandments of online copywriting

Here, in no particular order, are just a few of the pronouncements you can regularly find on the web concerning online copywriting:

1. People are busy so keep your copy short.
2. People have short attention spans so keep your copy short.
3. People like to scan online so use lots of headings.
4. The web is a personal space so use personal pronouns like “you” and “I”.
5. Spam doesn't work: only use opted-in lists.
6. Search is critical so use detailed, concrete keywords.
7. You can't sell online so give away free content to build trust.
8. You can't sell on social media so focus on building relationships.
9. Everything is testable on the web so test everything.
10. If you're not doing X you will fail, so hire me to do X.

Each one of these commandments is either bogus, lifted from old-school print advertising, a statement of the bleeding obvious, self-serving or just plain wrong.

Why web copywriting rules are wrong

Let’s take a single example from our list of commandments: number two, people have short attention spans, so keep your copy short. Do you remember the news story about the man who outsourced his own job so he could watch cat videos all day? If you were to write a 3,000-word pornographic story about your favourite movie star, it's a fair bet that many hundreds of thousands of people would read all of it. (Sadly for you, this will include their lawyers.) Observe your own behaviour online, on shopping sites, social media or forums, and time your activity.

All of this refutes the second commandment, which, let's remind ourselves, states that people have short attention spans on the Internet. Not some people or some of the time but all people, all of the time. Jerry Seinfeld said all this talk about attention span is rubbish as long as you're entertaining people.

It seems more likely that what the web does is magnify traits people already display. These include impatience, with boring or irrelevant people and things; distractibility, by stimuli that are more salient; curiosity, about things that offer gratification or problem-solving; and engagement, with things or people that we find emotionally compelling. Great copywriters, from Hopkins, Ogilvy and Bernbach, to Gurley Brown, Brignull and Hegarty, have always known that the fish they were after were slippery, and liable to swim off downstream the moment they stopped being relevant.

How our copywriting has to change

If it's true that what the web does is amplify people's natural traits and emotional responses then it follows that we must amplify our skills in the same way. The people who were easily distractible before are even more easily distractible now. That means not that we have to write fewer words but that we must be even more careful to write words that our readers find interesting. It means we must pay even greater attention to the layout of our copy to give people visual cues to help them navigate it onscreen just as they did on paper.

And it means that if we were focusing on our customers’ emotions before the web, we must focus even more resolutely on their emotions now. So really, writing copy in the digital era is not about less or more or different, it's actually about the same things it's always been about. Making the emotional case for the sale or the behaviour change that we want to induce in our reader. And pursuing it relentlessly, excluding anything that we feel is unlikely to drive them to take the desired action.

For every rule you read about the right way to write copy online, it's perfectly possible to find numerous examples showing the complete opposite. Remember, your reader hasn't changed. They are still Homo sapiens, and the risk and reward circuitry in their brains is unchanged from that of their cousins in the Middle Stone Age, 200,000 years ago. There are no new motivations that have arisen in the human brain in the last 20-odd years. We are still motivated by the need for food, water, shelter, security, companionship, love, sex, social status, self-esteem and the ability to live a full and creative life.

Tap into those motivations and your reader will stay with you whether you’re writing for a smartphone or a stone tablet.

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