The art and science of great microcopy

copywriting for mobile phones

The art and science of great microcopy

Microcopy is the new black.

Blame mobile phones and their addictive thumb-scrolling, eye-glueing ways. Short sharp copy has never been so powerful as now.

Short has always been sweet in the world of copywriting, but these days the art and craft of great copy is defined by how well you can choose just two words and maybe an extra word for a button call-to-action. It’s short alright.

If an audience will give you less than a few seconds of attention, it’s a writer’s job to produce a great message that’s concise, engaging and distinctive.

Great digital copywriting – or UX writing, as it is sometimes called – helps the reader get their task done and let them move on to whatever they want to spend their time on next. 

DIGITAL COPY TIP #1: Brevity is more than the soul of wit

Short, short, short. Sometimes you only have three words when you wish you had six. The mobile screen is unforgiving on this point.

Don’t think that you can make the font size smaller to fit more on a screen – most UI and UX designers would say 16pt font is a good guide, as you want the mobile screen to be as readable as a printed page.

DIGITAL COPY TIP #2: Context and concise counts

In the world of print, one headline and a story was enough to give a reader context. On a small screen, ‘helper text’ like sub-lines and buttons and CTAs (that’s a call to action for the uninitiated) are super important. These copy helpers are the canvas upon which a writer can paint meaning and relevance, all be it with just one to three words.

DIGITAL COPY TIP #3: Non-linear joy

Digital copy has advantages over printed copy – it can be interactive, contain text, audio, video and interactive graphics.  

Digital words are more often the source of immediate information to answer a search query, research where you want to go for dinner or entice you to read something.

Don’t waste words, and don’t waste the opportunity to add great imagery or links that make your content even more relevant and helpful to a reader.

DIGITAL COPY TIP #4: Frontload what’s important

Copy doesn’t exist in a vacuum – how will your reader discover this content and what do they need to do next? Are you trying to inspire them to read something or get them to make a booking?

Put the most important thing first. The most important thing is very often the thing right at the bottom of the page – find the conclusion or point of the content and put it right upfront.

Saatchi and Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts once said, “Emotion, intuition, long-term memories and unconscious motivations make up as much as 80% of our decision-making processes.” So use your writerly judgment along with data to inform what should be upfront.

DIGITAL COPY TIP #5: Use tone and voice consistently

Buzzfeed wouldn’t be Buzzfeed without its colloquial, clickable headlines like 25 kitten gifs that Aquarians need to smile at. But you wouldn’t trust Web MD if they started talking about breast cancer gifs or sprained ankle memes.

Tone and voice are hard things to pin down, but good copywriters know the difference. Tone is about finding the right ‘sound’ or ‘character’ for your copy, which should reflect whatever brand you are writing for. Some of the big web giants are hiring poets and philosophers to explore the write character and tone for their digital presence.

DIGITAL COPY TIP#6: Optimise and edit

Digital’s great benefit is that it’s quick and timely to publish and make changes.

When I was a print editor, we would proof the same page four times before it went off to the printer – and still you would find an error somewhere. It was hell.

As a digital editor, you can fix a typo in less than 10 seconds.

You can also scroll your analytics and data to check whether the copy is performing as well as something comparable and change a headline, tweak a word or change the colour of a button.

Obviously you don’t do this for everything you’ve written, but important pages, landing pages or posts should be optimised as best suits the business requirement. You can also A/B test copy before you even publish, which also helps you learn the best action words to pull out of your bag of tricks.

DIGITAL COPY TIP #7: Words should come before design

Well of course I would say that, I am a writer. But I’ve worked in this industry long enough to know that when apps or websites start with a page design and use placeholder Lorem Ipsum dummy text, they are murdering engagement success. Determining the key words for a page isn’t merely about winning search results – key words (which aren’t always the same as Google’s idea of key words) also define the meaning and context of great digital copywriting. In my view, the design should be about making the meaning obvious and easy, not leaving words as the afterthought.