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March 2, 2011Essential skills every digital copywriter needs

In my previous post, I talked about why I felt digital was the way forward — and how an emphasis on sites that work, that inform, and that sell the product directly to the customer are replacing “big idea” campaigns. I said that, in order to be a competent digital copywriter, a copywriter should have a broad understanding of digital skills beyond idea generation and actual copywriting. The skills I suggested were:

  • Conversion rate optimization
  • User experience (UX) testing
  • Metrics (stats like bounce rates, etc)
  • Web design and development
  • Content marketing
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Social media integration

In this follow-up blog post, I’m going to explain a little about these different disciplines, what I think a digital copywriter ought to know about them, and how a sound knowledge of these digital techniques can help a copywriter produce standout digital work.

Why do I need broad digital, as well as copywriting skills?

You’ll find a specialist skilled in each of ¬†these areas at most dedicated digital agencies. These are the people you’ll be working with. These are the people whose designs and ideas you’ll be expected to produce copy for — the more you understand their needs, their goals, and their methods, the better your copy will be.

The essential skills you need to know
to be an effective digital copywriter:

Conversion rate optimization

As a digital copywriter, your goal is to produce content that drives conversions — a conversion being a sale, an enquiry, a sign-up or similar goal. As a digital copywriter, you will need to know what words, expressions, and tone of voice, are most effective in driving conversions.

The example I often use is how adding “now” to a call to action can increase response rates by up to 4%. But knowing your audience is important too. Does “get in touch” encourage more people to call than “contact us” as a call to action? There’s only one way to find out — a conversion rate optimization specialist will “A/B test” both versions to see which is more effective. Over time, you will come to understand which calls to action drive sales and which ones don’t, and choose accordingly.

Suggested further reading: The Conversion Scientist

User Experience (UX) testing

User experience testing helps make sure browsing a website is a pleasant, enjoyable and informative experience for the visitor. Overly complicated designs in Flash that look pretty, but take a long time to load and hide key information on obscure pages, or use non-standard navigation, don’t drive conversions. What use is your brilliant copy or your call to action if a customer never sees it, or can’t find the contact page?

Using my site as an example, I noticed people who found the site via a sub-page often missed the home page entirely as the only way to reach it was to click “Alastaire Allday” in the top left hand corner. I added a clear “home” link in the main sidebar of the site.

As a digital copywriter, your task will be to apply your knowledge of user experience to the copy you write. For example ¬†your audience might not think it’s cute or appropriate if you use language like “let’s dance” instead of “click here to browse our online shop”. As a digital copywriter your task is to explain and direct the user — as well as working with your UX tester to make sure your copy is in the right place, at the right time, and gets read by the right people. Your UX tester will monitor traffic flows and advise accordingly.

Suggested reading: User Experience Booth

Metric analysis

As a digital copywriter, you should always be making full use of all available metric data to improve your copy and confirm the changes you’ve made are effective and having the desired effect.

If you’re hired to change copy on a site, come back to it a month later and see if any meaningful stats have changed — has the bounce rate for a landing page increased? This could be a problem. But if overall time spent on the page has increased at the same time, it could be that your copy has improved the page to such a point that people who aren’t interested in the product simply go away immediately, while those who are stay longer.

All metric analysis must correspond with conversion rates. If your conversion rate goal has increased, use metric analysis to discover why — and apply what you’ve learned to your next project. If conversions have decreased, use metric analysis to try to undertstand why.

Suggested reading: Google Analytics blog

Web design and development

Chances are you couldn’t build a complicated website all by yourself. But you’re expected to write for them all the time. Understanding how a web page gets designed, what makes a good design, and what “nuts and bolts” are needed to hold the site together will make you a better digital copywriter. Why? Because instead of simply filling out “lorem ipsum” text with no concern for how your text will eventually be displayed, you’ll be much more involved at all stages of the design.

If you’re involved at the design stage, you’ll get to choose what your headlines look like, and where they go. You may have an input on colour schemes, typefaces, how much text is displayed in-line and how much should be separated out into different boxes. You may decide a separate contact page is unnecessary, when a clear call to action (e.g. a phone number) can be placed on every page. Or you may be able to debate the merits of having a contact form at the bottom of every page with your designer, or tell a developer why he should use WordPress and not Drupal as a CMS.

Understanding simple design and development tasks won’t make you able to build websites — but by having a greater input and understanding how your words will relate to the design, the final result will be better.

Last year I blogged about why designers should get copywriters involved before their designs are completed, here.

Suggested further reading: Smashing Magazine

Content marketing

Content marketing is an essential skill for all digital copywriters. Sometimes, you’ll be expected to write informative, useful content — not just sales copy that immediately leads to conversions. Providing information, blogging and marketing indirectly by producing content that generates inbound links, is a vital skill all digital copywriters need to learn.

If you come from a journalistic background, you’ll already be excellent at providing informative information in blog articles, as well as doing research and creating headlines that get people interested in your articles. If you don’t, you need to start reading everything you can on how to produce good, journalistic content. You may be called upon to write anything at any time — on any subject. A strong knowledge of journalistic techniques will enable you to produce better content that informs, entertains, and drives traffic to your client’s site.

Suggested further reading: Copyblogger

Search engine optimization (SEO)

All digital copywriters need to be SEO experts. If you’re writing for the web, you can’t possibly write without a sound understanding of how your content will be processed by search engines, as well as read by people. You need to understand keyword density. You need to know Google ranks words in italics and bold, or in <h2> tags more highly than inline text. Organic search is a prime driver of traffic to most sites. Understanding how Google ranks pages is a vital skill for every digital copywriter.

A good digital copywriter will be able to write copy that’s SEO optimized, but also readable. A bad digital copywriter will either pay no attention to SEO, or try to cram keywords into copy in such a way as to make the content unreadable — reducing its value as “linkbait”. The more people who link to your site, the more important Google thinks your site is. So a good SEO strategy doesn’t just involve repeating keywords. It involves producing high quality, original content that generates inbound links.

Suggested further reading: SEOmoz

Social media

Social media, like organic search, is a prime driver of traffic to websites. Being able to write for different platforms is vital. Even if you don’t tweet your blog posts yourself, can you write headlines that easily fit into 140 characters? If not, anyone wanting to tweet out your headline might have to spend five minutes trying to shorten it — if that means they don’t tweet it, you lose readers.

What makes people want to share your content with their friends? When writing copy, make sure you bear your audience in mind. Is this the kind of article you’d share with your friends on Facebook? If it’s not, ask yourself why. Articles that become popular and get shared socially can quickly go viral and draw massive spikes of traffic to a site. While SEO makes sites stronger over time, social media can draw vast amounts of traffic to your site instantaneously — if you provide the right content.

Suggested further reading: Mashable

Joining the dots: Why a good digital copywriter is
jack of all trades, master of none (except writing, of course)

As a digital copywriter, you’ll understand the basics involved in all the skills above. You won’t be applying for a job as a web designer or a UX tester any time soon, but you will at least know what makes a site effective beyond simply producing the right words for it. By taking a wider view of your work, and how you fit in with the other people a digital agency will employ, you’ll become a better digital copywriter — helping to create better websites that are more user friendly and more likely to convert clicks into sales.

A good builder isn’t a plumber or an electrician. But he knows people will have to add pipes and wires once he’s finished building. Understanding the other digital skills that go into sitebuilding will help you produce copy that enables them to do a better job, too.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 at 7:23 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting, Digital, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 comments

  1. [...] coat of varnish on a presentation deck and following hashtags about cheese dip, a friend passed me a really interesting article. The author, a freelance copywriter in the UK, outlined “the essential skills you need to [...]

  2. Julie says:

    Really nice points. But most of the skills you mention are incorporated into a discipline called content strategy.

  3. al says:

    Haha, cheeky!

    While I agree with you that “content strategy” encompasses some of these terms, a lot of people and agencies I work with still consider “content strategy” to be short for “content marketing strategy,” which is in turn another way of saying “blogging.”

    And more importantly, “content” doesn’t encompass all of the issues I’ve raised here — in fact, a good copywriter should have skills that go beyond content, specifically design and development skills. Most copywriters equate content with “words” — my blog post is an attempt to get copywriters to look beyond their horizons and consider an interdisciplinary approach.

    Thanks for reading :-)

  4. Chase says:

    Thanks for this blog post! I’m currently putting together a good list of how I might differentiate myself to get a full-time job as web copywriter (I currently freelance online) and this list is a good start.

    If I had to choose one of these, I would say SEO is the most important. It’s almost assumed that if you’re writing for the web, then knowledge of on-page SEO is a part of your skill set.

  5. Ravinder Murthy says:

    Sir, Excellent Blog. I would like to pursue a career in Copywriting. Can you suggest a six month Diploma Course provided through Correspondece / Distance Education? Incidentally, I stay in India at Mangalore in Karnataka State. Do you know of some courses offered as distance education for the students of India. Or, better still, do you have any idea of starting a “diploma in Copywriting”, by yourself for students like me? Please do answer.

    Thanks and Regards.

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