The Secret Weapon of UX: Copywriting

The power of words

Image credit: http://cdn.hip2save.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/words.jpg

I recently finished reading Influence by Robert Cialdini. It’s a 20+ year old book that details core tenets of persuasion in human psychology, how they work, why they work and how to “defend” against them. It was a fascinating read and one that made me completely rethink the way I design experiences and even approach my work. While Cialdini speaks of how these experiences manifest in physical space, they can easily be translated into online experiences as well. He speaks of the nature of face-to-face interactions and how those affect the “target’s” behavior but most importantly he speaks about the power of messaging.

A message’s structure is made up of two components: sequence and word choice.

Nuanced changes in either one of those components profoundly affect the success or failure of that message. The words we choose and the order we place them in (the sequence of our requests to our customers) determine the efficacy of that message.

It’s these messages that we include in our online marketing and product experiences that ultimately determine whether our target audience “hears” and complies with our requests. This is the power of copywriting and I am now a complete believer in the awesome power that skill holds. That’s not to say I didn’t respect copywriting in the past but, after reading and digesting Influence, I’ve become convinced that good design with poor copy is a poor experience (or worse, an unsuccessful one).

While I don’t want to recap the entire book here (you should really go read it) I do want to point to one experiment that I’ve been running since reading the book to see if just simply changing the words on a page can affect conversion dynamics on a signup flow. I chose to use the principle of consistency because it works well in the job search space. (Full disclosure, I work at TheLadders.com.)

The principle of consistency generally states that if you have decided and declared (to yourself, to your friends, family, etc) that you are going to do something or believe in something, when faced with a situation where you can deviate from that decision you will most likely continue down the path you’ve already decided and declared. In my example, I’ve assumed that customers coming to TheLadders web site have decided and declared that they are looking for a new job. We are a subscription service and, as such, require our customers to sign up and pay for access. We offer two levels of membership – a free membership and a premium paid membership.

Our current labeling for these membership levels simply reads “Basic (free) membership” and “Premium Membership.” There are price points listed to illustrate that the premium membership costs money but that’s about it.

To put the power of consistency to work here, the only thing I changed on the page were the membership type labels. They were changed to “I’m just looking around” for the free membership and “I’m serious about my job search” for the premium membership. That’s it. No other changes to any part of the page. The thinking was that if someone had declared themselves “job hunting” then asking them whether they were truly serious about that declaration would lead to more sign-ups.

The results were interesting and very encouraging. Just by changing the words we saw a DROP in free membership sign-ups of nearly 16% but we saw an increase of paid sign-ups of nearly 30%. All we did was change the words!

This was just one little experiment but if the power of words and copywriting can affect conversion dynamics so significantly, think about what words can do for progressing customers through a workflow and getting them to complete their tasks. Copywriting is the secret weapon of UX.

[Jeff]

About Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf is an agile product designer, teacher, writer and team leader. He is one of the leading voices on the topic of Agile UX and Lean UX. In addition, Jeff is the author of the O'Reilly book (2013), Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience (www.leanuxbook.com). He is a highly sought-after international keynote speaker, workshop leader & trainer. Currently Jeff is a Principal at Neo Innovation in NYC (www.neo.com).
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