Why good websites are written like junk mail.

websites written like junk mailYou might be surprised to find me saying you should write a website the same way you write junk mail.

After all, I have spent the last 15 years insisting that writing for the web is different.

Well, I’ll happily defend both positions. Writing for the web really is different, in several ways. But also, it’s important to remember that the web is a direct response medium. Click or no click. Action or no action. Response or no response.

Therein lies the similarity. Just like with junk mail, a website can only claim success when its readers take some kind of action. If a visitor simply glances at your home page and neither scrolls nor clicks before hitting the back button, you have failed. You haven’t driven action of any kind.

Let’s look at the life of a piece of direct mail, from the moment it lands on your doormat, and see how that compares with a successful website.

1. You glance at the envelope and either open it or bin it.

This is the nature of direct mail. Most people give it a glance and then either bin it or drop it into the recycling bin. Direct marketers know this. They know the math.

So they work hard to write a brief message on the envelope that will catch the recipient’s attention, let them know the mailing is relevant, and intrigue them enough to get the envelope opened.

The direct mail copywriter knows he or she has just 2 or 3 seconds to work with here. If you can’t get someone to open the envelope within the first few seconds, you can be pretty sure it’s on its way to the bin.

It’s the same with the first screen of any website homepage. You have just a few seconds. If your message isn’t relevant, clear and intriguing in some way, then your first-time visitors with neither scroll nor click. They’ll simply leave.

In other words, when writing and designing that first screen, you have to think like a direct marketer. You face the same challenge…hook your readers immediately, or lose them forever.

2. You read the first few lines of the direct response letter, glance at the brochure, and either keep reading, or drop it in the bin.

With any piece of junk mail, the recipient’s default response it to throw it away.

If the envelope does a good job and the reader actually looks at and begins to read what’s inside, you have made a good start. And if you get people to keep on reading, paragraph after paragraph, you’re doing a great job.

But if you can’t keep your visitors reading, you have lost. Because there is no way they are going to call that 1-800 number, or complete and mail the response card, unless they have read most of your copy first.

It’s the same with a website. You not only have to keep your visitor reading and engaged, but you have to get them to read enough, on more than one page, to put them in a state of mind when they are ready to buy.

Most web writers don’t get this. They think that if they can keep a reader on a website for a few minutes, they have succeeded. Not so. You only succeed when the reader does something…like buy, register or sign up.

Great web writing keeps the reader on the site, but also moves them closer to the point of taking action.

3. You call that 1-800 number, or complete and mail the response device. Or you don’t.

Every direct marketer knows that recipients of direct mail who read the whole package and feel ready to buy often stall right before the point of taking action.

This is why every direct mail package pushes extra hard at that point. That’s what the P.S. on the letter is for. It’s that final push. That’s why bonuses are offered, why deadlines are highlighted, why scarcity is emphasized…and so on.

People who are ready to buy need an extra push to actually make them act.

It’s the same online. There is no prize for keeping a reader on your website for 5 minutes, getting them to the point of taking an action, and then losing them.

As with any direct response medium, you have to make that final push.

Concluding thoughts…

The web is the ultimate direct response medium. Click, click, click and buy, sign up or register.

So while you are writing a web page, optimizing it for the search engines and social media, and using a tone and style that engages and holds your readers, you also – at one level – have to write like a junk mail copywriter.

Whether you are writing junk mail or websites, always be aware that the default outcome is that your reader will abandon you. That’s what most readers do.

Your challenge as a writer is to hook the reader, hold the reader, and get them over that final hurdle to the finish line, where they actually take action and do something.

If you lose them before that point, you have failed.

NOTE: For professional-grade training in writing both copy and content for the web, check out my program, Copywriting 2.0. As far as I know, it is the only program that addresses the different aspects to writing for the web I have described in this post. It covers SEO, social writing, content writing AND direct response copywriting.

About the author: Nick Usborne is an online writer, copywriter, author and coach.

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1 thought on “Why good websites are written like junk mail.

  1. Nick – great lesson. It’s a hard pill to swallow at first (web copywriters = junk mail copywriters), but so true.

    Direct response writing is an art (or is it a craft? or technique? or science?) – maybe it’s a bit of all of them. And like any art/craft/technique/science there are definite rules. Follow the established rules and enjoy the results. Or ignore them and languish.

    Thanks for being so forthright about the copywriter’s job: getting people in the buying mood.

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