Intuitive Copywriting: How to Say The Right Thing, in The Right Place, at The Right Time

Intuitive Copywriting: How to Say The Right Thing, in The Right Place, at The Right Time

How visitors interact with your website is a science all on its own.

Click and hover maps, time on page, bounce rates, behavior flows, onsite search, product filters, connecting content to commerce, unearthing the weak spots in your funnels, and a host of other user experience options that all scream for attention.

Just surveying the tools to collect data -- let alone implement changes -- is enough to leave you feeling hopelessly outgunned.

Good news … optimizing onsite interaction doesn’t have to be daunting, especially when it comes to your copy.


Humans are instinctual creatures.

John Stossel and Kristina Kendall, from ABC News, explain: “In a world of survival of the fittest, it makes sense that animals are hard-wired with a basic instinct that has them making snap judgments about their predators.”

How does this impact your ecommerce site?

As a site owner, relying on instinct is something you should avoid, as our biases are frequently out of sync with what visitors actually want.

However, when you lean on the research found in user testing studies and feedback loops, you can easily take advantage of these obvious patterns of behavior and visitor’s urges to make instinctual, snap decisions.

We covered the big ideas of eye trackingusability, and the psychology of images earlier this month.

Today goes one step beyond the big picture to dig into three elements of instinctual copy that visitors predictable hop across on their journey through your site.

1. Subheadings: Be Clear, Concise, and Catchy (If You Can)

We’re used to thinking about subheadings as singular: the line under the headline. 

But as hops, subheadings are on-page landmarks. They exist for two reasons: one, to make the page easy to navigate, and, two, to engage the visitor and propel them forward.

Unfortunately, easy and engaging can be a difficult balance.

In fact, never sacrifice clarity for the sake of creativity. In The Ultimate Guide to Writing Irresistible Subheads, Gary Korisko explains what happens when that balance tips:

Cryptic subheads can be a turnoff and lead to a bounce.

Your subhead should be a phrase that is crystal clear, but makes readers say, ‘I have to keep reading to see what this writer’s getting at.’ If instead, it makes them say, ‘What the hell does that phrase mean? – you’re flirting with being too cryptic.

What do clarity and creativity look like in action?

Harry’s subheads lead visitors down a single path toward getting started by highlighting how it works, the benefits of their products and service, and customer testimonials: 

Notice that these subheadings all (1) build interest and trust, (2) answer implicit questions, and (3) are relentlessly focused on a single CTA: “Get Started.”

Equally mimic-worthy are DockATot’s subheadings on their How It Works page. DockATot knows their target audience, speaks their language, and nails the comprehensive benefits of their products in a single (predictable) glance. 

On the content-meets-commerce side, NBC’s Today Show article, New year, new you! 4 beauty hacks you'll love to use in 2017, is a perfect example:

  1. For picture-perfect skin …
  2. To prep and plump your pucker …
  3. To be bold …
  4. For a festive hair accessory …

Again, the subheadings all speak directly to the reader, major on the benefits of each section, and lend themselves naturally to product links.

2. First Lines: Make Them Short, Easy to Read, and Incomplete

The first sentence of your body copy -- whether on a homepage, landing page, or product description page -- is equally critical.

When your subheading does its job, visitors instinctively turn to the next immediate line of text. However, if the first full sentence doesn’t flow naturally out of what they’ve already seen, all that previous work -- the right headline, image, and subheading -- counts for nothing. In other words, if the first sentence stops them, if it doesn’t continue the momentum, they won’t read the second … and they’ll never get to “Buy Now.”

To do this, your first sentence needs three ingredients. Make them (1) short, (2) easy to read, and (3) incomplete.

(1) Short

Your first sentence needs to cater to your visitor’s ever-shrinking attention span. The brevity of Porsche’s advertisement would serve well as a headline, subheading, or first line of body copy.

In eleven syllables, Porsche zeros in on the main reason anyone would buy: exclusivity.

Going back to DockATot, each of the first sentences on their product description pages are less than a line and a half. 

Keeping your first lines short is so vital that legendary ad man Joe Sugarman in Advertising Secrets of the Written Word put it like this:

“If you look at many typical JS&A ads, you’ll notice that all of my first sentences are so short they almost aren’t sentences. Some typical one might be as follows:

“Losing weight is not easy.

“It’s you against the computer.

“It’s easy.

“It had to happen.”

Such economy is not an end in itself. Rather, short sentences lead directly into the next ingredient.

(2) Easy to Read

“Each sentence is so short and easy to read that your reader starts to read your copy almost as if being sucked into it,” Sugarman reasons.

Don’t try to impress, use jargon, or create confusion with your first sentence. If your visitor senses that reading is going to take effort, don’t count on them continuing. Keep it simple with easy to read words.

Innocent’s copy is simple enough that a child could read it. 

Their first sentence -- “This is our most popular recipe.” -- is glaringly straight-forward and a succinct reminder you're in the right place.

EVELO follows the same less-is-more format. 

However, it’s the third ingredient that really makes for conversion compelling first lines.

(3) Incomplete

While you want to get to the point quickly, this doesn’t necessarily require you to give all the information. Keeping your visitor in suspense creates a curiosity gap that demands to be filled. Our brains crave certainty and completion. By leaving your first sentence open -- through a question or bold statement -- you drive your reader immediately into the next sentence.

The best way to generate these curiosity-inducing one-liners isn’t to create them, but to steal them. Feedback loops -- whether through in-person focus groups, onsite or email surveys, or even review mining -- can tell you exactly what customers care about. Even better, qualitative feedback will give the words they themselves use.

When ThinkGeek, for instance, starts their product description for an LED Flashlight with this sentence: “You know what's sucky about regular flashlights?” you can’t help but read the second sentence to get the answer. 

Or take this Monkey Picked Tea product description as another inspirational example. 

Immediately, you ask yourself, “Pulling my leg about what?” and you’re drawn into the rest of the copy.

Chubbies Shorts does this brilliantly as well. Here’s a sampling of first lines from their product descriptions:

  • The most patriotic American flag shorts in the entire U S of A
  • Kinda like the surf and turf of shorts.
  • You can’t stop them.
  • Dare I say, En Fuego.
  • Would you rather fight one horse-sized eagle or a hundred eagle-sized horses?
  • Planning on taking down 8 pounds of corned beef, half a dozen Shepherd's pies, and a few Guinnesses?

Those last two border on violating the second ingredient -- short. But the question format leaves the visitor hanging and that’s the point of making your first line incomplete.

3. Captions: Use Intriguing Descriptions Instead of Labels

Think of captions as headlines under your images.

Use them to engage your viewer, rather than mere labels or image authorizers.  Captions should intrigue your viewer by providing additional information, clarification, or (best of all) a narrative.

They’re effective, because around the image is where your visitors instinctively look for copy.

As Drew Eric Whitman from Ca$hvertising explains:

“Studies have shown that up to twice as many people read captions as body copy.”

“Captions were very well read and important to context and understanding. A well-written—or even just lengthier—caption increased the likelihood that a photograph received attention,” concluded journalistic think tank Poynter after conducting eye-tracking tests of 200 published images. The same is true for video captions.

IWC Schaffhausen is a great example of a company taking advantage of this widely underutilized behavior. Their captions seduce visitors by going beyond the norm. Rather than labeling their images with straightforward “This is what you’re looking at” captions, they spark imagination and curiosity urging readers to click through and find out more.

Likewise, Pop Chart Lab crafts both their product titles and image captions around this principle. In lieu of bland names, they entitle their products almost as if they’re “alt img” tags built with the assumption that even if the images weren’t present, the words paint a picture:

Lastly, where the vast majority of ecommerce sites include no captions on their product description pages, Best Made Company adds simple but descriptive “Notes” that highlight key features and drive home the textured feeling of the images themselves:

Nobody should ignore these simple additions. As people’s eyes drift down from images, they’re hungry for more. Use that hunger to add copy that narrates, unpacks, and drives them toward a purchase.

Be Ready When People Hop Around Your Copy.

Visitors are instinctually and predictably hopping through your website’s copy, and you can leverage this knowledge by putting your important words exactly where you know your visitors are going to look.

  1. Subheadings
  2. First Lines
  3. Captions

For most would-be customers, you only have one shot. It’s said that our attention spans are worse than that of a goldfish. (Seriously. We have eight-second attention spans to the goldfish’s nine. *Begins slow clap for humanity*) 

How do you get around that?

By taking advantage of human instinct and giving your visitor a clear roadmap, spiking their curiosity, providing relevant information, and in the end, intuitively leading them to conversion.

About the author

Aaron Orendorff

Previously the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, Aaron Orendorff is the VP of Marketing at Common Thread Collective. Named by Forbes as one of the top 10 B2B content marketers, his work has appeared on Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, Inc., Success Magazine, The Next Web, Content Marketing Institute, and more.

Check out Aaron Orendorff’s work