The 6 Commandments of Compelling Copy

The 6 Commandments of Compelling Copy

In my line of work, I am often witness to a lot of bad online copy. Some of it is confusing, some of it is too passive, and some of it is just downright boring. But most of the copywriting sins that I see on a regular basis can be boiled down to one central mistake: writing for yourself, not for your customer.

Most people aren’t reading your marketing materials for their literary value, they are just visually skimming the content, looking for what they need. The winner in the copy wars is not the business that writes the most elegant prose, it is the one that converts -- the one that makes it as easy as possible for their customer to take the desired action (buy, sign up, tell a friend, etc.)

Here are six commandments to help you focus on generating compelling copy and cutting out the fluff:

1. Thou shalt focus on how your product impacts the customer

In my opinion, this is the big one. If you get this one right, the other commandments become much easier to adhere to. When I visit your site as a potential customer, I am not looking to find out how many ‘startup of the year’ awards your company won, nor do I really care that your product is revolutionizing the industry. What I am looking to find out is how buying your product will make my life better. Me, myself, and I. I want to know how giving you my hard-earned money will improve the quality of my life. You can demonstrate this through a list of benefits (it will save me money, it will save me time, the information in the ebook will help me add 100 new subscribers to my list, etc.), or through customer testimonials.

Pro tip: You can still showcase your product’s critical successes and recognitions -- that validation is important to some customers -- just be sure to frame it in a way that demonstrates how this impacts your customers. For example, when highlighting media mentions, don’t just throw up the logos on your site; pull quotes from each of the media outlets that speak directly to the benefits of the product to your customer. This gives you the double-whammy of enhancing your credibility and reinforcing your product’s value proposition.

2. Thou shalt not use jargon or industry buzz words (no one liketh that)

Before we dive into this one, a little caveat: this commandment is more relevant for B2C businesses. When writing copy for your B2B product, it is often important to include key industry terms that potential clients can pick up on quickly -- just don’t overdo it.

For example, Shopify’s main website doesn’t say “we are a full-service ecommerce platform.” Instead they say, “Shopify is everything you need to sell anywhere.” And Tile isn’t a ‘bluetooth-enabled tracking device’, it’s simply a “responsible best friend” for your stuff. Remember, I don’t care about how innovative your product or business is -- I care about how it’s going to change my life.

Pro tip: It can be hard for someone actively working heads-down on a product to be objective about the way that product is described. Before you go live with new copy, invite a trusted friend to review it and ask them how long it takes them to identify: 1) what benefits your product offers, 2) what makes it unique, 3) how much it costs, and 4) how to buy it. And be sure to return the favor when they are in need of an outside perspective!

3. Thou shalt communicate how easy it is to buy and start using your product (and see results)

We live in an age of instant gratification, and your product page needs to reflect that. If you are offering a free PDF download, I don’t want it to be emailed to me in a few hours, I want to be able to download it now. If I sign up for a coach’s private Facebook group, I want immediate access. If I register for a subscription box service, I want to know how soon it gets to my door.

Pro tip: Find places to incorporate words like ‘fast’, ‘quick’, ‘results’, ‘immediate’, ‘now’, and ‘easy’ into your copy. That said, be sure to only make promises (delivery date, etc.) that you can keep! Honest copy is the best copy.

4. Thou shalt convey urgency

Let’s have a moment of silence for the $4 trillion in merchandise that will be abandoned in ecommerce shopping carts this year. Think of all the sad carts, left to expire alone on the interwebs as their creators hem and haw about making a purchase. It doesn’t have to be this way. One of the most powerful ways to inspire your customers to convert quickly is to use words that convey urgency in your copy. Highlighting the fact that a sale is only on for a short time, or that there is only a limited stock of product available can sometimes be the push customers need to get over their indecision and act quickly.

5. Thou shalt make your customers feel special, like members of an exclusive club

As the conversion gurus over at Quicksprout explain, using words like “exclusive offer”, “VIP”, or “insider offer” are powerful motivators because “we like to feel like we’re on the inside getting offers and information other people aren’t getting. There’s just something in our nature that makes us want to feel part of an exclusive group.” They point to retailers like J Crew and Banana Republic who entice visitors to subscribe to email updates by letting them know they’ll be the first to receive offers and new product news.

Pro tip: Consider incorporating the idea of exclusivity into your mailing list. This could mean renaming it -- from ‘mailing list’ to ‘VIP list’ -- or promising would-be subscribers that they will be the first to receive new blog posts or offers (and actually following through on this promise). You could also use this tactic to optimize your subject lines by incorporating words like ‘secret’ or ‘preferred customer.’

6. Above all, thou shalt inspire trust

This would be the part of the article where I tell you to include words like ‘guaranteed’ and ‘money-back’ in your copy. And yes, I think you should use use words like that (where relevant), but that’s beside the point.

Here’s what it comes down to: when a customer hands over their email address or their money to you, it is an act of faith. Faith that you will not use their personal information maliciously, and faith that you will deliver the results that your product promises.

Whether you demonstrate to your customers that their satisfaction is paramount through a refund policy, or you emphasize your accountability by putting your name and contact information beside your product, your copy needs to inspire the trust that they need to feel in order to make that leap of faith.

As Shirley Polykoff, the brilliant mind behind Clairol’s iconic ‘does she, or doesn’t she?’ campaign said, “copy is a direct conversation with the consumer.” We would all be wise to treat it as such.

Who is your copy hero? Sometimes a good example is the best teacher, and we’re always looking for inspiration. Tweet us @Onboardly or leave a comment below with a link to the best copy you’ve seen online!

[Photo credit: Joel Kramer]

What do you think?


I have been particularly impressed with Dollar Shave Club. The copy and approach they use is simple. They make me actually feel part of a “club.” They absolutely follow all of the commandments mentioned above.

That’s an awesome example Caleb! I’d been reading up on their tactics and approaches lately for a client and found them quite smart. Thanks for sharing!

Can you please write all blog posts in “thou shalt” format? I have a little copywriting mantra of my own I like to call “Cry or Buy” – It sounds sleazy now that I’m saying it aloud, but I try to evoke emotion in the first few words and then hook-line-and-sinker with a strong CTA immediately thereafter.

Ha Ha Laura! That might interfere with our brand’s voice but we also agree that “Thou Shalt” has a certain authority about it 🙂
Love your philosophy on “Cry or Buy.” Getting the reader ‘in the feels’ counts for so much!
Thanks for sharing!