I was involved in a huge project for a major corporation a few years ago. The team brainstormed for days on how to best achieve the goals that were handed down from the executive team.

We decided the best way to lift conversion rate, engagement and the branding impact of our website, is to conduct a full redesign. And for good reason: it had been 3 years since the last update.

But this being a corporate environment, we needed the data to back up every change we wanted to make.

So the team went out and did a bunch of tests. We implemented more than a dozen so called “best practice” – changes like altering the navigation, improving the design of the website, introduced social media icons (they had tens of thousands of followers) – then waited for the data to come in.

We even consulted with a dozen or so top designers around the world and all predicted that our team’s recommended changes will help boost our chances of reaching the goals.

To our surprise, there was only one small change that mattered: the microcopies.

What Are Microcopies?

Microcopies are the little paragraphs of words that make your website easier and/or more fun to use.

Some examples of microcopies include

  1. The footer copyright claim
  2. The loading screen message
  3. The call to action
  4. The instructions to fill out a form
  5. The message on a thank you page
  6. The thank you email
  7. Any words on an invoice
  8. Any error messages
  9. The reassurance that you won’t spam under a form.
  10. An explanation of what you will do with the information users submit.

These paragraphs of words are so small, most people don’t give it a second thought.

And because most microcopies come with a website theme and/or ecommerce/email system they bought, most people simply use the default text – a major mistake that’s probably costing them sales.

Here are three reasons why…

Why Microcopies Matter

  1. According to professor BJ Fogg from Stanford University’s persuasion lab, three things need to happen for an action to take place:
  • The motivation. Or, do people want your product?
  • The ability. Can people afford your product? Can they even get it? (eg: you may not ship internationally)
  • The trigger. The trigger is one of the most ignored parts of web design. People need to be “reminded” to act on what they want.

It’s why split test after split test found that a great call to action can make a significant difference in conversion rate. And it’s why a reminder email to tell people that they have unpurchased products in their shopping carts can lift sales.

This is where great microcopy shines: they nudge otherwise hesitant users into action.

  1. People love pleasant surprises. They are used to seeing a swirling circle with the word “loading”…

But when they see a hamster running in a wheel, accompanied with a sentence that says “Please be patient while our hamster-powered server is fetching your page)”, that puts a smile on their face. (Visual Website Optimizer does that.)

  1. Or consider the effect of a footer that says “Powered by WordPress, love and lots of coffee” have on your brand as a freelancer. Or the benefits of an awesome thank you email.

Now some of you are going to protest that no one reads these obscure words! But ask any copywriting experts and they will tell you that one of the most read part of a letter is not the body… it’s the postscript.

Microcopy matters because, by nature, they are short and concise… and that’s what people actually read on the web.

How To Write Great Microcopy

The goal of microcopy is to make the website brain-dead-easy to use – which actually sounds deceptively simple. But here’s the thing: Even something as obvious as a “404 error” might not make sense to a regular user.

So how do you make sure your site is brain-dead-easy to use? Start with a simple 3 step process:

  1. What is the theme of your site? How do you want to represent your brand? Are you formal, mischievous, rebellious, cool, inspiring… Some websites even have a specific theme (eg: pirate, aliens, geeks, robots etc). Your theme will determine your voice at a particular space on your site.
  1. Determine areas of opportunity (problem). Once you’ve identified your theme, proceed by listing the potential problems a user might face when using your site and what opportunities lay therein.

For example, a form error reduces the user experience but a company I used to work with offered people who see that error a 10% discount if they would report it to them (with a screenshot and a detailed explanation).

Or, you can simply display a helpful message that helps the user understand and resolve the problem. For example, “Invalid form entry” doesn’t guide the user to resolve anything, but “phone number should be exactly 10 numbers long” does.

  1. Make it conversational. When you actually write the microcopy, ask yourself how you can make it as conversational as possible. Compare these two error messages:
  • First name missing.
  • Uh oh. It appears your first name is missing. We need this information to correctly address your parcel.

And last but not least, here are 5 more general guidelines to writing great microcopy:

  1. Avoid jokes. As a general rule, don’t try to be funny. Some users will get it, but I can guarantee you that some wouldn’t – even if you’re referencing something as well known as “Star Wars”.
  1. On tracking microcopy. There are certain microcopies that have a big impact on your immediate goals, and there are some that don’t. For example, the words you use on a button probably have a huge effect on your conversion rate, but changing the message on a loading screen probably don’t.

The key is to track and optimize for the right things. The goal of the message in a loading screen is to lower abandonment rate, not to increase the number of sales.

  1. Don’t ramble. The point of microcopy is for it to be short and helpful so make sure you get straight to the point.
  1. Vocabulary. If you want to make a greater impact without adding more words into your microcopy, then try optimizing your vocabulary. For example, “good”, “great” and “awesome” all have similar meaning but they conjure different feelings.