The Power of Subtlety in Web Copy – Speaking Your Clients Language


Let’s set the scene of a somewhat typical buying process. A prospective client discovers a need, carefully researches their options, enquires with a few suppliers, compares their favourite options and then making the purchasing decision. It’s a seemingly logical and linear process.

As we know, in online marketing there are various factors that impede and obscure this process: lack of reader attention, buying channel preference, mobility, ease in finding multiple sources of information, credibility of online channels, enhanced choice anxiety, etc.

What it really comes down to though, is people skim through websites quickly and when they become confused by something, they don’t forgive or try to get past it, they just leave.

So In the online marketplace, you could be forgiven for thinking that subtlety doesn’t pay when it comes to website content. Well it doesn’t really. But finesse does. And there are subtle changes you can make to your content strategy that will make big changes to the way people perceive your organisation and value proposition.

Free Word Association

Free word association, a concept with both Semantic SEO and conversion value, generally refers to a psychological test where a subject is asked to say the first word that comes to mind when they hear another one. On a macro level, it studies how we cognitively link words and ideas.

Many academic institutions keep databases of the results of free word association tests, including ones like USF and Berkley.

It’s quite possible that Google themselves use similar data for their developments in semantic search, so it could be thought of as a kind of forward-thinking SEO as well.

This type of data gives important insights on how people connect ideas when they search on Google, and it can also help identify the type of language they’re expecting on your site. Incorporating these terms into your content will help bolster credibility, and reduce any dissonance.

Power Terms

There are certain power-terms that strike readers, whether they want them to or not. These are terms we’ve been conditioned to notice through survival-instinct or self-seeking behaviour.

Gossip and culture websites such as Gawker, Upworthy and Cracked are (in)famous for using these terms, often referred to as ‘click-bait’.

For Example: 10 Disastrous Situations Effective People Avoid

As you can see, the above makes the article seem digestible by numbering it, it then catches your attention with the words ‘disastrous’ and finally creates the feeling your self-esteem will be bolstered through a seemingly academic self-assessment, or at the very least a path to self-improvement.

This isn’t to say you should phrase your content like clickbait articles, but it gives you an idea of how syntax catches our attention.

Power terms are often obvious (and very basic) ones such as: you (most important), free, instantly, because, new, avoid, bargain, tips, save, quality, ensure, achieve, proven, reduce.

They build anticipation and effectively force the visitor to slow down their reading pace to take in the details around these terms. In a sense, they can act as stepping stones, guiding the path of the reader as they skim.

Ideally, these terms should be used mostly in your headings, and near the beginning of paragraphs and sentences, as people tend to guess the ends of sentences as a reading shortcut.

The following article contains a list of some of the most common so-called “power terms”

Client Diction

While power words are vital, it’s also important to use the right language and words for your industry. Don’t think of this as industry jargon or competitor keywords, but rather client diction: a person who knows a product but doesn’t fully understand it.

To get an idea of the words, try to identify successful businesses and websites in your industry (how they rank on the SERP can be a simple and effective method). Then run the site through a simple word frequency counter such as Online Utility, which will rank the words accordingly. Ignore the product and benefit keywords and focus on the general words.

Another simple method is to just to read through competitor sites for a few hours before you start writing copy. This will get you into the mind-set of effective industry language so that the copy doesn’t come across unnatural, which is often the case when you awkwardly force certain terms into copy.

Yet another suggestion is to look around for places where the users of the product or service talk about it. Not only will this give you an insight into the buyer persona and language, but into their expectations and negative perceptions too.

Linguistic Themes

People are often betrayed by their instincts to avoid redundancy and promote brevity in web content. It’s not a bad instinct, but it also often hinges on the fact that a reader only needs to read something once to take it in.

If you look at effective call-to-action strategies, you’ll see that there’s a constant need to remind visitors of how they should move forward.

This applies to benefits and promises as well, particularly if they seem unimportant at first. A client must constantly be forced to explore these benefits before they begin to critically interact with, and internalise the idea.

This doesn’t mean you have to just keep saying the same thing over and over again of course. Instead, you can explore the same benefit or promise from multiple perspectives as a core theme of the site: emotionally, functionally, practically, idealistically, futuristically, until it seems the benefit applies to every dimension of their life/business.

This can create a focusing effect where they begin to lose perspective on other product concerns they had and begin to value what they’re told they should value, downplaying the weaknesses themselves.

TV infomercials are quite famous for adopting this strategy and despite their poor reputation, they generate enormous sales revenue annually as a commercial channel.

The Human Connection

While the above is very useful in creating a certain emotional experience with your web content, it won’t make up for a poor approach.

Trying to sound like an infallible industry expert will just alienate visitors, yet being overly plain can make you seem inept. Going into too much detail will intimidate them, while being too brief will arouse distrust. Voice can be more important than grammar, but egregious mistakes will reduce credibility. Focus on achieving as balanced an approach as possible.

People don’t want to hear that you don’t make mistakes, and wouldn’t believe you anyway. What they do want to know is that when you make the mistakes, you’re flexible and invested enough in your client relationships to make it right again.

Of course they want to know your business is very competent, but they know you’re not perfect, and that human connection will assuage them. Basically, your clients want to know that you speak their language.