We all come across it, all day, every day.
In our email inbox.
In sponsored posts on social media.
Even infiltrating the news.
It’s every writer’s, marketer’s, and business’s worst nightmare:
Copy so bad you trash your email before you get to the third line. Copy so bad you close the website before you dare look at another page. Copy so bad you wish you could never hear from that company again.
Even copy that’s not terrible — but not good — can be maddening. Reading bad copy feels like, at best, a waste of time, and, at worst, proof that a company is misleading or thoughtless.
In short, it’s annoying and always a negative experience.
But what if it didn’t have to be?
What if, instead of a daily annoyance, you could turn those spam emails into a daily learning experience? What if you could analyze bad copy in order to figure out how to write great copy?
You totally can.
To start turning a nuisance into a revelation, check out these five lessons you can learn from reading bad copy — and start writing better copy than ever before.
The first step to writing effective copy should be figuring out exactly who your audience is, what their needs are, and what they want from you.
Unfortunately, it’s something that many copywriters tend to overlook.
How many times have you searched for a recipe, find what looks like a promising result, but then left the blog post before you even got to the recipe because the writer went off for 20 paragraphs about an unrelated story first? (“No, BloggerThatLovesCheese, I don’t really care what the weather was like four years ago when you posted this — I just want your mac and cheese recipe.”) Or bought shampoo from a drugstore just to be targeted with emails about vitamins you don’t take? Or threw out a politician’s flyer, because you felt they were talking down to you and avoiding addressing issues you care about?
These are examples of when a company or brand clearly lacked audience awareness when producing their content. They didn’t know what their audience wanted, and they didn’t know how their audience wanted to be spoken to.
Knowing your audience is absolutely vital to the success of your copy — and your business. If you want a reader to be interested in what you write, you have to know what they want to read and why they’re reading it.
If you over-generalize things, you’ll risk boring readers who lose interest in what you’re saying. You want to be as targeted as possible with your copy, whether it’s an email blast, a tweet, or the content on your homepage.
It’s not only about what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it as well. Be aware of what tone your target reader is expecting. You don’t want to write overly casual content if you’re a divorce attorney; you need to sound reliable, strong, and professional, whereas if you’re the owner of a family pizza place, you’ll want to sound fun and lighthearted.
You can also risk offending your reader, or seeming entirely out of touch with your audience base, if you have the wrong tone for your target demographic. An elderly reader may be turned off by your use of internet slang, and a college student may be insulted if they feel you’re speaking down to them.
You need to give your customer what they want, but you have to know what they want first — all the way from the language they expect to the service they desire.
It happens to all of us. You find a store you love or watch a webinar of someone you find truly inspiring. So you sign up for email alerts. Why wouldn’t you? Who doesn’t love sales or to be the first to know about a new product?
You get your welcome email right away. (All’s good!) And then you get your first update or sales notice the next day. (Sweet, signing up is paying off!) And the next day, another. (… Okay, maybe they’re just promoting this particular sale a lot?) The next day, another. (Alright, I’m not reading this one.) And then another. (UNSUBSCRIBE.)
You want to be contacted if something is important, not for every little thing — or even worse, for nothing. Some of my absolute favorite brands have mass-emailed me so much that I don’t bother ever looking at their emails, no matter how attention-grabbing the subject line is or how much I love their service.
Too much of almost anything is a bad thing, and copy is no exception. This phenomenon doesn’t apply solely to emails, either. If your customer sees you everywhere, all-the-time, they’re eventually going to become desensitized.
Not only that, if you’re posting content constantly, you’re almost certainly going to be putting out fluff or shallow content, just to meet your scheduling demands. People will become bored, and they will start to see your content as an annoying intrusion, as something to tune out.
Think of copy as personal communication. You wouldn’t call your friend every single hour without expecting them to eventually stop answering. You call them when there’s something important to say, whether it’s an update about your life they’ll find exciting, an event you want to invite them to, or a reminder you know they’ll find helpful.
You keep the content of your communications significant, resulting in an authentic, deep relationship. You don’t send your friend shallow, generic messages constantly just to say you’ve talked to them. There’s more to building a relationship than just contact — the contact has to be about something.
Not only that, you wouldn’t call your friend constantly AND email them AND tweet them AND send them a Facebook message AND tag them on Instagram AND text them with the exact same info all in the span of an hour.
Get your message out there, but be thoughtful about how you do it. Send emails when you have information your customer will find valuable — not just for the sake of sending an email. Also, be sure to post content that is relevant not only to your customer, but also to the platform you’re sharing on.
For instance, if you’re a cosmetics company that’s having a sale on lip gloss, don’t put out the exact same copy to all your promotional outlets; instead, tailor content related to the sale to each platform. You can send out an email blast about the sale, post swatches of the colors on Instagram, share a makeup tutorial featuring your lip gloss on YouTube, and tweet a poll asking your followers what their favorite on-sale shade is. When your content is this personalized, your reader will feel more interested and engaged.
Also, consider timing. You don’t have to put out all your content regarding the sale at once. You can send out the email in the morning, post to Instagram when most of your customers are on their lunch break, and then put the poll on Twitter while they’re browsing while watching TV before bed.
It’s vital to have a well-thought-out strategy for timing when to deliver your content; after all, even the best copy won’t make an impact if it’s never seen in the first place.
How often have you come across a paragraph like this?
“Real gold watches are the perfect gift for Father’s Day! When you buy a real gold watch, you’ll know you’re giving the best. Real good watches are classics that will always be treasured. Buy a real gold watch and see how great the quality of a real gold watch is. Don’t settle — buy a real gold watch for your dad — or anyone who appreciates a real gold watch! We sell real gold watches for all your real gold watch needs!”
*Cue your inner Samuel L. Jackson* … Say “real gold watches” one more time….
Overfilling your copy with the same keyword(s) is one of the fastest ways to turn off a potential customer. It makes it abundantly clear that your content is about nothing except a cheap grab for search results (even though, ironically, keyword stuffing — including if your keywords follow too closely together — can get you taken out of search results).
In real life, no one talks this way. Ever. In this example, each sentence is built primarily around how best to shove in the keyword and not on what reads best or is the clearest. It reads as completely unnatural, awkward, and forced — because that’s exactly what it is.
Even worse, it makes whoever is speaking seem incredibly spammy and desperate. And if your product or service is worth selling, you wouldn’t have to be spammy and desperate.
And the reader knows it.
Keyword stuffing is a sure-fire way to tell your potential customer, “We don’t care about you. We don’t care about our content. And we have to resort to shifty methods because our product is terrible.”
Definitely not the message you want to send.
Instead, it’s best to incorporate keywords in a way that feels natural, unforced, and organic. You’ll want to feature them in prominent places in your article so the appropriate audience will notice you (like in your title, subject line, or early on in your content), but it shouldn’t be in every other sentence.
Consider how much more natural this piece of copy flows without keyword stuffing and with a more conversational sentence structure (instead of building the sentences exclusively around the keyword):
“What’s the perfect gift for Father’s Day? A real gold watch! When you give our high-quality timepieces, you’ll know you’re giving the best — a truly classic piece of jewelry that your father will always treasure. Don’t settle; choose an authentic piece for your dad or anyone who appreciates great style! We offer the finest gold watches for all your gift-giving needs!”
Not only does this read more naturally, it actually squeezes in more related keywords (“authentic,” “jewelry,” “timepieces”), meaning you have a much better chance of your content being searched for and found.
“This Teenager Posted a Selfie — You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!”
“10 Unhealthy Foods — Number Six Will Shock You!”
“5 Smoothie Recipes Doctors Don’t Want You to Know About!”
“Is Chris Pratt Really a Nice Guy? Find Out What He Doesn’t Want You to Know!”
No one wants to see headlines like these again.
Clickbait is everywhere. On legitimate news sites, and on not-so-legitimate ones. Overwhelming our Facebook feeds. On banners and ads on our favorite websites.
They’re tacky. They’re misleading. And they can even be dangerous.
Not only that, the sub-par headline is almost always just the first sign of trouble; content that uses a clickbait headline is almost always shallow, empty, or spammy itself. Great content doesn’t need a gimmicky headline.
As a result, most of us avoid anything that even smells like it could be clickbait, which defeats the entire point of an attention-grabbing headline in the first place. A large portion of your audience (especially if you target anyone tech-savvy) will instantly be put-off by this technique.
Even worse, they may begin to see you as untrustworthy, sleazy, or scammy. Not exactly a great impression.
Instead, make sure your headline (whether it’s the title of your new blog post or the subject line of your email) effectively teases what your copy is actually about. You want to pique your reader’s interest and then keep their interest once they start reading.
Writing a great headline is an art of its own — and it should never include lying, misleading, or manipulating your audience. Instead, focus on using clear, easy-to-understand language, active words, and a tone similar to the rest of your copy.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be creative; a unique, clever headline can be a great way to attraction attention. But creativity doesn’t grant you a license to exaggerate, or even outright lie. The truth doesn’t have to be boring, but it does have to be the truth.<
To get a feel for great headlines, keep track of what grabs your interest: articles you can’t help reading, books you reach for at the library, even a movie title that makes you look up the trailer. And also monitor what doesn’t work for you: emails you delete without reading, books your eyes scan right over, articles you quit reading after the first paragraph when the clickbait becomes obvious.
Most of us have clicked on a clickbait headline and felt immediately disappointed, let down, or lied to, or simply realized that the content’s headline was puffed up because the content itself was empty and insubstantial.
You don’t want readers to feel this way after reading your copy; you want them to feel as though you provide valuable information. They want to feel as though they can trust you.
Speaking of trust …
There are few things that can destroy a customer’s confidence in you faster than poorly edited or proofread copy. While the occasional typo or spelling error may be overlooked (if you get lucky), multiple issues can become glaringly obvious.
It can make you appear, at best, thoughtless, and, at worst, unintelligent or uninformed.
Consider how you’d feel about a medical office if this was the copy on their website’s landing page:
“Wellcome to Highland Medical Center where were happy to handle all of you’re families medical needs! Weather its for a simple cold two a broken bone we are hear to help you out!”
After reading something like that, most people would be unwilling to trust you with a splinter, let alone a broken bone. And this goes for other industries as well; people will want to be able to trust a restaurant to be cautious regarding food safety, or a store to be thoughtful when handling cash, or a mechanic to be detail-oriented.
If customers think you can’t be bothered to proofread what you wrote for your business, they’ll assume you can’t be bothered to do any other quality checks either.
Be sure to read over your copy multiple times to check for errors. You may even want to have a friend or peer review it so that it’s seen with fresh eyes. Another trick is to read your copy backward in order to prevent yourself from correcting mistakes in your mind as you read. Or you can always enlist the help of a professional proofreading service to make sure your copy is error-free.
Beyond simple proofreading, you’ll also want to give your copy a careful edit — or hire the right editor to do it for you. Even bestselling authors don’t publish their first drafts; instead, they reread and rewrite until their ideas are expressed in the best way and their words flow in a natural, engaging manner.
Having strong, well-written copy will help give you the image you most want to present to the public.
Bad copy is always going to exist; there’s no way to get around it — and there’s no way to avoid encountering it. But with the right attitude, you don’t have to let it frustrate you or be a headache.
(Well, okay, you don’t have to only let it frustrate you or be a headache; clickbait is probably always going to drive you at least a little crazy.)
Study what makes you nuts about bad copy — whether it’s oversaturation, misleading headlines, countless grammar errors, awkward keyword usage, not knowing the audience, or something else — and then commit to not doing that in your own copy.
You can turn a negative into a positive, and turn bad copy into a learning experience — and into better copy by you.
Amanda Kaye Stein graduated from the Academy of Art University with an A.A. in Fashion Design (focus on Fashion Illustration and Creative Writing). She’s worked as a freelance writer, editor, social media manager, graphic designer, artist, and comedy improv performer. She’s an aspiring novelist, YouTube creator, and ukulele rock star.