How to write good digital copy

How to write good digital copy

The first step to writing good digital copy is knowing what ‘good’ looks like. Because: it’s changed over the last several years.

To illustrate, when I started copywriting 15 years ago, ‘long form’ meant up to 1 800 words. ‘Short form’ meant 500. Now ‘long form’ means 250; ‘short form’ means 8.

Putting it simply, the Internet has exploded the range of copywriting opportunities to span web content, ads, email campaigns, blogs, social media and other forms of digital comms – with teeny-weeny little spaces for the copy.

This means, understandably, that writing for digital is, and should be, different to writing for other media. It’s (supposed to be) more succinct, more strategic, less ‘pretty’, more functional. It’s supposed to be natural.

Sadly, most digital copy is crap.

Let’s look at how to address that.

  1. When does short copy work best?

Short copy gets the job done well in these instances:

  • When readers (I call them ‘viewers’) are already primed to buy
  • When the item on offer is a known commodity
  • Where space is limited
  • With a low-risk, low-priced purchase or opt-in
  • With people who prefer to look than to read
  • When images can convey most of the story
  • Where the copy is a prelude to interaction with a salesperson

Viewers scan, choosing individual keywords and sentences of interest while skimming over the rest. Anticipate this. Make it as easy as possible for them.

  1. What’s needed for lead conversion?

Informative, well-structured, viewer-friendly and compelling text. This sort of thing guarantees higher conversion – and goes a long way towards distinguishing one online voice from another, in a noisy marketplace.

What’s important is that we can’t forget that we’re salespeople (and try to be performers). We can’t abandon sales (and seek applause).

We have to remember that ads that are written – and designed – simply and directly, without a lot of fluff, do the best job of selling. When it comes to ‘good diigtal copy’, boring is often best.

In other words, clever and cute often don’t sell. They just confuse. Simple sells.

  1. How do you define your audience?

Let’s start with why we define them. Google’s copywriters say, “When you spend 90% of your time researching the customer, the remaining 10% (the writing) falls in your lap.” Is that convincing enough for you? It is for me.

So here are some things to think about when defining your audience:

  • How much do my viewers already know about my message?
  • What are their key information needs?
  • What do I/client want the outcome to be (i.e. the call to action)?
  • How do I use language and phrasing they’ll easily understand?
  • What can I chop to make the text fit, or add to make it clearer?

Just because digital media platforms require short writing, doesn’t mean they’re quick or easy to populate. In fact, to ensure that your viewer spends less time reading, you actually have to spend more time writing.

I can write an 1 800-word article in the time it takes me to produce a 30-second radio script. Without feeling a thing. The scriptwriting is much, much harder.

You need to be a master at removing fluff, junk and waffle. You need to expect ‘banner blindness’, where viewers consciously or subconsciously ignore banner-like info. And you need to try to boost the copy’s impact.

  1. Is there a process you can use?

Well, I use one. So borrow mine. Ask:

  1. What message must the ad convey?
  2. Who’s the target audience?
  3. What’s the benefit to them?
  4. How much copy will fit in?
  5. What’s the call to action?
  6. Is there a theme, concept, design or pre-determined style and tone?

Then: Map out the user experience from start to finish, to make sure that it has a smooth flow and that you’re not missing any crucial elements.

  1. And once you start writing…

Remember that, because people experience copy differently online to offline, it’s a good idea to write visually.

Be aware that viewers scan, skim and scroll. At high speed. And that digital whatchamacallits (home page takeovers, half-page expandables, roadblocks, skyscrapers, MPUs, banners, buttons) are often moving, flashing, sliding.

Then, try these little tips:

  • Use numbers in your copy. The web overflows with guesswork and vagueness. Using data and numbers is a good way to demonstrate that your message is clear and straightforward, and to get attention.
  • Use contractions like ‘don’t’, ‘we’ll, ‘you’re’, etc. They’re essential to creating the right rhythm. And they’re shorter.
  • Use short sentences of 14-16 words or less. (If you can’t be bothered to monitor your sentence length – and who has that sort of time anyway? – use Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics to help you keep track.
  • Five times as many people read the head as the body copy, so avoid catchy (but meaningless) headings that viewers must think about to understand. Remember that 60% of the best heads are 8 words or less.
  • Try to start sentences with subjects and verbs. In English, we read from left to right, so initial verbs and subjects help us to quickly glean the meaning of a sentence. Also, we most often write about things and people, so our ‘naming’ and ‘doing’ words should be doing most of heavy lifting.

In conclusion

If you do nothing else, don’t make the mistake of thinking that good digital copy is quick or easy to create. Otherwise: it’ll be crap. Simple as that. It’s not rocket science, no, and pretty much anyone can do it, yes, but you do need to be strategic, concise and disciplined. If you can’t, read this as a starting point and if that doesn’t help you out sufficiently, just use a pro.

I know one 🙂

* A version of this article originally appeared on