Plain-spoken Online Conversion Rate Newsletter - covering web design, sales, marketing, copywriting, usability, SEO, relationship marketing and consumer psychology.


Why Copywriting Online Is Different

You're doing your online thing, writing copy you think is captisuasive, but I'm seeing a heck of a lot of stuff that reads like this: "The blankety-blank is the true essence of a high-performance blankety-blank, delivering sizzling blankety-blank in an absolutely refined way. It's a paradigm shift with profound implications for blankety-blank." Trouble is, your online visitors are 'speaking' very differently. Try this eye-opening exercise: Find a product or service that has user newsgroups, message boards or list-serves and compare how that company talks (pay a call on its website) to how its customers talk.

Think creating online copy isn't a whole new ballgame? Nobody writes about this better than Nick Usborne (and his new book Net Words: Creating High-Impact Online Copy is a brilliant guide!), so I've asked him to explain.

Is copywriting for the Web very different from copywriting for print and broadcast?

Tough question. The incorrect answer is ‘No’. The easy answer is ‘Yes’. And the best answer is, ‘That depends’.

But for the purposes of this article, I’ll be addressing the ‘Yes’ answer. It’s important to understand why copywriting online is profoundly different from writing for other media - before venturing into those gray, ‘That depends’ areas.

To really understand why copywriting online is different, you need to step back a little.

In the offline world, copywriters work within an environment that was created and is owned and controlled by large media companies and the ad agencies of Madison Avenue.

It’s a closed loop. Media companies own the means to get the message out to the public. Corporations buy ad space to reach those people - their prospects and customers. The ad money they spend supports the media companies they depend on.

A key factor here is that the audience has no real means to talk back - beyond an occasional letter to the editor. Offline marketing is a one-way process. Companies use traditional media to broadcast a message, in the hope that multiple impressions will have the desired impact.

This has a huge effect on how copywriters ply their craft. They write in the knowledge that this is a wholly commercial, one-way channel of communication and that success depends on repeated ‘hits’ or impressions being made on the target audience.

In many ways the offline marketing environment is adversarial. Copywriters are writing ‘at’ their audience with a view to persuading them to take a particular course of action.

The online marketing environment is profoundly different.

As a ‘medium’, the Web was not created by and nor is it owned by large corporations. And even those huge media companies online like AOL Time Warner may own a great deal of infrastructure - but they will never own the audience in the way that the media does offline.

The Internet sprang not from Madison Avenue, but from the minds of academics. Long before commerce came to the Web, millions of people were emailing, posting to discussion lists and sharing their views and passions.

Usenet, CompuServe, Prodigy, The Well... These were all forums within which passionate individuals began to carve out the character of what would later become the Web.

Online, your ‘audience’ has a huge and vibrant voice. As a ‘medium’ the Web is quite unlike offline media - it is owned more by its audience than it is by its advertisers and marketers.

People will use email, live chat and discussion groups far more frequently than they log onto an ecommerce site. For tens of millions of people, the Web is more about communicating and sharing than it is about buying.

In addition, the network of the Web has enabled ‘consumers’ to become much smarter. Sites like and - plus thousands of niche discussion lists - allow people to share their aggregate experience of online and offline vendors, products and services. They praise some companies and beat up on others.

In the offline advertising environment, such a scenario would be unthinkable. But online, your ‘audience’ has become an active and vocal participant in the sales and marketing process.

So why is copywriting online different from copywriting offline?

It’s because your audience is no longer silent and passive. Online, the audience is vocal, active and connected.

As a copywriter you have to respect that. You need to recognize that. You are no longer writing to single, isolated individuals, sitting passively in front of their TVs or magazines.

You are writing to networked groups of people.

That’s what makes copywriting online so different, so interesting and so challenging.


Brave New World, indeed! And you thought all you had to do was put a few snazzy, poetical-type words up on the screen, right? Your visitors have the unprecedented ability to talk back and shape your marketing and sales strategies. And they speak to, listen to and hear each other in ways you should heed. It's not a one-way street anymore. That's why the words you put on your website and in your emails have to transcend 'brochureware.' They have to be high-impact. They have to connect and explain and persuade AND ignite the imagination.

Eager for more? No worries. Nick will be back. In the next article, he’ll look at the nuts and bolts of how writing to an active audience changes the words, the style and the format of how you write.

In the meantime, check out his book, Net Words: Creating High-Impact Online Copy. Me? I'm working on lobbying for a National Online Copywriters' Day!


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GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledges-serif" and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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