The truth about microcopy and how it can make or break your website

The truth about microcopy and how it can make or break your website
Reading Time: 6 minutes

So, you’ve finally finished your site. The homepage is ‘Wow,’ the content pages are engaging, and you’ve done just the right amount of SEO to keep those pesky Google hummingbirds singing.

But you’ve forgotten something.

That’s right — your microcopy.

I know, I know. Microcopy isn’t sexy. And it’s certainly not the kind of copy people rave about. In fact, if microcopy were at a party it would be lurking by the door pointing out where the toilets are while sales copy was busy showing off to the crowd.

But these teeny tiny snippets of text can have a huge impact on the success of your site. So in this week’s post I’m going to tell you how to write awesome microcopy.

What is microcopy?

Microcopy is the term for the small bits of copy on a website’s interface that help users do ‘stuff’—error messages, contact form explainers, ecommerce hints, and so on. It doesn’t sell your services directly, but it can help back up your brand values.

Why microcopy matters

The goal of microcopy is to make the user experience easier, to alleviate customer concerns and ease people through the sticking points on your website.

As Bill Beard says in a recent article:

“Everyone frets about marketing copy — and they should — but communication doesn’t stop once you’ve sold the user.”

Microcopy is an essential part of ‘closing the sale’. You’ve persuaded the user your product or service is awesome, and now you need to make buying it or contacting you as easy as possible.

So why do so many sites ignore this super important copy?

Familiar microcopy

Here’s some microcopy you might be familiar with. (If you’re anything like me you see it every day.)

Facebook copy

It may seem insignificant, but I’m sure the Facebook creatures spent hours deciding on that ‘What’s on your mind?’ microcopy. What alternatives can you think of?

  • What are you thinking about?
  • Type something here
  • Say something
  • Share something with your friends

There are heap of alternatives, but ‘What’s on your mind?’ is kind of perfect, right?

Another good example from Facebook

Facebook microcopy

What do you think are the two biggest blocks to users signing up on Facebook? (Apart from the fact it will consume your life?)

  • One day I’ll have to pay
  • They’ll want to know everything about me

So, Facebook addresses both concerns, head-on, in its signup box.

Their form explains the service is free (forever!), and if you’re nervous about giving your date of birth it deals with that too.

Or how about this one from Timely. It covers all the potential user concerns in one tight little sentence.

Timely microcopy
If you want to see more examples of great microcopy, check out the Microcopy Pool.

Using microcopy on my site

I’ve had a few people tell me recently that they’re having trouble with my contact form. It seems they weren’t entering the http:// bit before their website address. (There’s an error message that explains this, but still people were still struggling.)

So I added a snippet of microcopy:

Microcopy copywriter Sydney

The result? No more issues with website addresses.

Microcopy isn’t everything

Even though I’m a copywriter, I know microcopy can’t fix every usability issue. The best websites have minimal microcopy because they’re intuitive. So if you find you’re writing two or three sentences to explain what the user needs to do next, stop.

Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at how the element has been designed or coded.

Microcopy writing tips

Here are a few tips to help you write awesome microcopy:

1.     Have a conversation

Don’t be overly formal. I’ve seen so many websites that shoot back robotic error messages like:

‘Your form contains errors. Please rectify and resubmit’.

How about a more friendly:

‘Oh no, something went wrong. Why don’t you try again?’

But be careful not to overdo it. There’s a fine line between helpful friendly microcopy, and the kind that makes you gag with its cheesiness.

2.     Be positive

The last thing you want, when using a form, is to feel small and stupid. It’s important to use a positive tone in your microcopy and make your users feel awesome about using your site. If you have to say something negative, try to say it nicely.

Check out this example from Google+ :

Google+ microcopy

The microcopy doesn’t make me feel stupid for having a tiny photo. In fact, it’s so lovely and friendly that I want to hug it

3.     Do some simple testing

Okay, we can’t all afford to hire a focus group of demographically-matched users to review our website, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test your site.

I like to use the Mum Test Method:

The Mum Test Method (it works with Dads too) means you give your website to your mum and ask her to carry out a few standard tasks. If you can watch over her shoulder, great. If not, try calling her on Skype.

Listen to how she uses the site. Where does she get stuck? Ask her to read things out. What words does she stumble over? Make a list, and then see what you can fix with some carefully written microcopy.

(Unfortunately my mum recently brought an iPhone and has become super tech savvy, so I need to find another tester.)

4.     Don’t be too quirky for the sake of it

Using clever microcopy is absolutely fine, but trying to be super clever or funny can backfire. For example, ‘Tell us your email address’ works a lot better than ‘Shoot us your edeets’.

Overly ‘fun’ microcopy can get old very quickly. In his article ‘Five Ways Not to Write Fun Microcopy, Neil Wheatley tells us when brands try too hard:

“Instead of saying “we’re really cool”, to me they say “we’re desperate for you to like us.”

By all means use a quirky brand tone works great for 404 error pages, confirmation messages and server errors. but it’s best to avoid too much quirk in your site’s navigation, field labels and buttons.

5.     Keep it short and helpful

We’re all time-poor, and your customer may well be completing your contact form while eating a sandwich in a two-minute gap between meetings. So remember it’s supposed to be microcopy, not a long paragraph of content.

When writing microcopy use simple unambiguous language and short snappy sentences.

 6.     Pick your moment.

Only display microcopy when you absolutely have to. Ask yourself, “Is this the best time to display this?” Don’t disrupt a user’s flow if you don’t have to.

Microcopy has recently come under the spotlight as brands realise how incredibly important it is to their overall sales process, and now you can understand why.

So take a look at the microcopy on your website, and if you need a hand with it, feel free to get in touch.

Over to you

Did you write your website’s microcopy? Do you have a quirky 404 error page? Are there any examples of microcopy you love to hate?

Did you like this post?

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