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Writing for Conversions - Part 1 of 3: Structure

Tuesday, October 07, 2008 10/07/2008 04:04:00 PM

This is the first post in a three-part series by Tim Ash, author of Landing Page Optimization. Tim is a thought leader in website optimization and his company, SiteTuners, is one of our Website Optimizer Authorized Consultants.

Our company routinely runs large scale landing page optimization tests to improve conversion rates. One of the most common components that we test is the sales copy on the page. We have found that changing your approach to writing can often lead to a double-digit increase in conversion rates.

Most of the adaptations that you need to make to your writing have a single purpose: to reduce the visitor’s cognitive load. Instead of being forced to pay attention to how the information is presented, they can devote more focus to getting their intended task accomplished. By getting out of their way, you empower them to be faster, more efficient, and effective. This will lead to higher conversion rates for you, and higher satisfaction for them.

To increase the odds of a favorable outcome you need to consider the following areas of your writing:
  • Structure
  • Tone
  • Format
In this blog post I will examine the first. The other two will be covered in subsequent posts.

The preferred structure for most Web writing is the inverted pyramid. It uses the principle of primacy (ordering) to control saliency (importance). In this style of writing, you put your conclusions and key points first. Less important and supporting information should be placed last. This is critical since most readers will choose not to read very far.

Most of this is probably not earth-shaking insight in the world of newspaper writing. Newspaper editors have a similar audience makeup: casual visitors who scan for information that competes for their attention, and consider the source as a transient and disposable resource. Because of this they have developed a very similar model. Headline size and prominent positioning indicate the importance of articles. The lead paragraph summarizes the whole story, and supporting detail is buried further down (or by following links to other pages).

Get to the point and let them decide if your content is relevant enough for them to stick around. By writing in this way you maximize the chances that they will come away with the information that you consider most valuable. The same structure should be used for creating online audio or video clips for your site.

Remember that the visitor may have arrived from any number of different inbound links and may not have a lot of context about your page. Use clear and prominent page titles to tell them why each page is important.

Make sure that you only have one main idea per paragraph. If you bury a second idea lower in a block of text, it will probably be missed as the reader jumps down to scan the lead-in text of the subsequent paragraph.

The inverted pyramid approach should be used when creating bullet lists or lists of navigational links—put the important ones on top.

Keep your pages short. This will allow them to be digested in small, bite-sized chunks that correspond to a Web user’s attention span. There is evidence to show that significantly shorter text results in higher retention and recall of information, and is more likely to lead to conversion actions. Your page should only contain important information for its topic and level of detail. You can move longer supporting text to other pages, and create links for the dedicated reader.

However, we have run across an occasional exception to the shorter-is-better guideline. Some single-product consumer websites have very long direct response pitch letters that outperform significantly shorter alternatives. They draw the reader in and encourage them to spend a lot of time on the page. After a certain point the visitor’s attention investment gets high enough to build momentum toward the conversion action. This is not to say that long sales letter pages cannot be made better. There is definitely a lot of bloat and deadwood on the ones that we routinely test and improve.

Look out for parts 2 and 3 of Tim's series over the next two weeks.