Copywriting: The Definitive Guide (2021)

Copywriting: The Definitive Guide

This is a complete guide to copywriting in 2021.

So if you’re looking for:

More traffic.

More leads.

More sales.

Then you’ll love the actionable techniques in this new guide.

Let’s get started.

Copywriting – The definitive guide

Chapter 1:Copywriting Fundamentals

Copywriting fundamentals

What Is Copywriting?

Copywriting is the practice of crafting written text in order to inform, inspire or persuade. In most cases, copywriting is used to increase sales and conversions. Mediums, where copywriting is implemented, include sales letters, blog posts, advertisements and social media posts.

Why Is Copywriting Important?

In this age of video and podcasts, does copywriting still matter?

In a word: yes.

Here are some of the benefits that you can get from becoming good at copywriting:

  • Get higher conversion rates on key pages
  • Improve structure and flow of articles
  • Get more engagement on social media posts
  • Have more people share your content
  • Understand your customer’s needs and wants

In other words: copywriting can improve nearly every element of your marketing.

This obviously includes articles and sales pages. But copywriting also comes into play when creating:

What Does a Copywriter Do?

Needless to say, a copywriter spends most of his or her day writing. However, there’s more to a copywriter’s job than putting words after words.

In fact, experienced copywriters spend significant amounts of time learning about their customers. They also invest time in understanding how the product they’re writing about can help their prospects.

If you’re writing copy for your own product or service then you probably already know what it is, how it works, and how it compares to the competition. So your job is to learn about your audience’s thoughts, fears and desires. And how they phrase these things in their mind. That way, you can write copy that speaks directly to them.

I cover more on how to do this in Chapter 2 of this guide.

How To Become a Copywriter

Fortunately, you don’t need any formal training or education to become a copywriter. Instead, you need to get good at the following skills:

  • Customer research
  • Sentence structure
  • Web copywriting
  • Grammar and spelling
  • Persuasion
  • Content structure
  • Online advertising

To be clear: becoming a good copywriter takes time. But it’s a marketing skill that you can use to get clients as a freelance copywriter or to improve your job prospects.

In fact, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 80.3% of employers want to hire people with strong writing skills.

And if you’re a small business owner (like me), you can use copywriting to improve your marketing and grow your business.

Chapter 2:Customer-Focused Copy

Customer-focused copy

If you want to write copy that converts, you need to master one simple rule:

Write like your customers talk.

When you do, prospects will say: “This product is for me!”.

The question is:

How do you do it?

Use one of the 5 simple strategies from this chapter.

Reddit Threads

If you want to write as your customers talk, Reddit is one of the first places to look.

To use it, head over to a subreddit where your target customer hangs out.

Reddit – Entrepreneur subreddit

Then, take a look at some of the most popular recent threads:

Reddit – Entrepreneur – Top posts

For example, let’s say that you just launched a new Paleo Diet Bar.

Head over to the Paleo subreddit and search for “bars”.

Reddit – Search – Paleo bars

And look at the language people use to describe what they like and don’t like about the current bars on the market.

For example, I found tons of awesome copy in this one thread:

Reddit – Copy in comments

Copy that would work GREAT for a landing page, email or Facebook ad.

Use Language From Reddit Threads

Amazon Reviews

As you’ve probably seen firsthand, people on Amazon don’t hold back:

Amazon – Negative review

Ouch…

And you can mine these honest reviews for a killer copy.

For example, check this Amazon review for a standing desk:

Amazon review – Standing desk

Well, if you also sell a standing desk, you just found some killer copy.

Amazon review – Standing desk – Copy

And I should point something out:

You can mine Amazon reviews… even if you don’t sell a physical product.

For example, I recently looked at reviews for a popular book about SEO on Amazon:

Amazon – Learn SEO book

And found these golden nuggets:

Amazon – Learn SEO book – Copy in reviews

This is a copy that I can use to describe my next online course or guide.

Customer Surveys

Customer surveys are SUPER helpful.

Specifically, you want to ask customers these questions:

  • “Why did you decide to buy [Your Product]?”
  • “What was the #1 thing that made you say: Yes, this is for me?”
  • “What have you tried before?”
  • “What was your experience with those other products?”

Yes, these responses are priceless for customer research, positioning, and creating new products.

But they also help you write copy that speaks directly to your target audience.

For example, here are actual responses from one of my recent customer surveys:

STW customer feedback

And depending on your product, you can also ask questions about:

  • Age and demographic info
  • Biggest struggles
  • Spending habits
  • Business challenges

For example, Backlinko is in the B2B space.

So I ask customers to paint a picture of where they’re at with their business:

STW survey questions

Customer Interviews

Interviews are like customer surveys on steroids.

That’s because you can dig deeper with followup questions.

For example, a while ago I hopped on Skype with three people that recently graduated from one of my programs:

Brian Skype call

(Fun Fact: I was visiting family in Rhode Island when I did this interview. Hence the awesome flower curtains. 🙂 )

And I asked pretty much the same questions that I ask in customer surveys:

  • What’s your biggest challenge in SEO right now?
  • Where does getting more search engine traffic rank in terms of importance in your business?
  • Have you ever spent money on SEO training before? How did it go?

The big difference is that the interviews allowed me to ask follow-up questions.

These follow-ups helped me understand my customer’s challenges WAY better than a one-way survey response.

Here’s an example:

How do you go about choosing topics for blog content?

Well, if there’s a lot of shares on it on social media then you know people are interested in it.

We kind of try to add onto what a lot of people are already writing about and go from there.

Makes sense. Once you pick a topic, how do you know whether to go with an infographic, a guide or whatever?

It depends on the client’s business. Infographics worked really well for one client and they didn’t work so well for another. For example, one client sold pool supplies and infographics worked awesomely.

Can you give an example for an infographic you made for that client?

Social Media

Here’s how this works:

First, search for a competing product on Twitter:

Twitter – Search – Quickbooks

Then, keep an eye out for complaints that crop up again and again:

Twitter – Joe Casabona tweet

And if your product has any of these “missing” features, make sure to emphasize that in your copy:

Emphasize Features From Social Media Research

Product Hunt Discussions

You can use “Product Hunt Discussions” to learn how potential customers describe what you sell.

Why? 90% of the people that post a question on Product Hunt already Googled for a solution to their problem. And they came up empty.

So jot down the words people use to describe their problem…

Product Hunt discussions copy

…and create landing pages optimized around those terms:

Use Terms Taken From Customer Interviews

With that, it’s time for chapter 3…

Chapter 3:Pro Copywriting Strategies

Pro copywriting strategies

This chapter is a list of seven copywriting strategies that you can use to write better copy from scratch…

…or improve your existing copy.

So if you want actionable copywriting tips that you can implement the right way, this chapter is for you.

The Slippery Slide

The #1 goal of your copy is to keep people reading.

Or as legendary copywriter Joe Sugarman put it:

“The sole purpose of the first sentence in an ad is to get you to read the second sentence.”

– Joe Sugarman

In other words, to us something that copywriters call a “Slippery Slide”:

Slippery Slide

You can create slippery slide copy with “Bucket Brigades”:

Bucket brigades in post

Little stories:

Story in Backlinko post

And Open Loops:

Open loop in post

The “AIDA” Formula

AIDA is a powerful copywriting formula that works for:

Here’s a visual of how it looks:

The "AIDA" Formula

As you can see, AIDA stands for:

Attention.

Interest.

Desire.

Action.

Here’s a real life example of how I used the AIDA formula in this guide to landing pages:

Landing page guide – Intro

First, I grab attention with the first line:

Landing page guide – First line

Then, I drum up interest with a bold promise:

Landing page guide intro – Promise

And I tap into the #1 desire anyone landing on this page has (higher Google rankings):

Landing page guide intro – Desire

I cap things off with a call to action that pushes the reader to scroll down:

Landing page guide intro – CTA

Benefits > Features

Features are nice.

But benefits sell.

For example, let’s say you just launched a new piece of software designed to help people become more productive.

Here’s how you can turn boring features into tangible benefits:

Features vs. Benefits

CoSchedule’s product page does a GREAT job at this.

CoSchedule – Marketing suite – Product page

Yes, they touch on features:

CoSchedule – Marketing suite – Product features

But look at how big part of their copy is focused on benefits:

CoSchedule – Marketing suite – Product benefits

Very cool.

Strong CTAs

A strong call-to-action is the difference between a page that converts… and one that falls flat.

Seriously.

Here’s why your CTA is so important:

Your prospect is busy. VERY busy.

Which means they don’t have time to figure out what they’re supposed to do next.

So tell them exactly what to do.

For example, check out this landing page from Social Triggers.

Social Triggers – CTA highlight

This page uses a strong and clear CTA.

Not: “Sign up”. Not: “Register”.

It’s literally:

“Enter your name and email, and click “Download Free Ebook”.”

The Bottom Line
The Bottom Line

Use strong and clear CTAs whenever you want your prospect to do something. As you just saw, your CTAs don’t have to be fancy. Just tell them what to do.

Social Proof

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, people rely on social proof when they’re not sure what to do next.

In other words: social proof is important when someone’s deciding whether or not to buy what you sell.

That’s why pro copywriters PACK their copy with results, case studies and testimonials.

For example, Hotjar lets people know that they have 680,000 users:

Hotjar – User numbers

Instead of raw numbers, at Exploding Topics, we feature companies that have signed up to our newsletter:

Exploding Topics newsletter

How to Solve The “Social Proof Paradox”

You need social proof to sell. But you need sales to get social proof.

I call this “The Social Proof Paradox”. And it’s a real challenge.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to sidestep this problem:

Feature your strongest form of social proof.

For example, let’s say you launched a software product that has a free and paid version. But only a handful of people upgraded to a paid plan so far.

Well, you can show off how many people signed up for your free trial:

Use Social Proof

Or maybe you only have 20 total customers. But 3 of them got AMAZING results. Feature these 3 results on your homepage:

Testimonials as Social Proof

For example, when I launched my YouTube SEO course First Page Videos, we only had around 10 beta users. Not a ton of social proof.

But 4 of our beta students absolutely crushed.

(Including one student that quickly racked up 200k+ views with his first video.)

So we decided to feature those 4 people on the sales page:

First Page Videos – Sales page testimonials

Crystal Clear USP

USP=Unique Selling Proposition.

In other words, here’s where you answer the question:

“Why should someone buy from YOU?”.

Maybe you’ve got the best prices.

Maybe you deliver faster than anyone else.

Or maybe you guarantee results.

Either way, your copy needs to scream your USP at the top of its lungs.

And if you don’t have a USP?

Well, you’ve got bigger problems than copywriting. But that’s another story…

For example, the ecommerce site Warby Parker lets you try on frames at home… and return any pairs that you don’t like.

Warby Parker – Homepage

And they feature this super unique USP all over their site.

Warby Parker – Offer

Sense of Urgency

How do you get customers to buy NOW?

Urgency.

Here are some easy ways to create a sense of urgency in your copy:

  • “Limited time offer”
  • “Quantities limited”
  • “Only 47 left”
  • “Sale ends on August 31st”
  • “Doors close on Thursday”
  • “Don’t miss out”

(Needless to say, these statements should be backed up with real limitations. Otherwise, you’ll lose people’s trust.)

For example, this email from one of my product launches has a clear deadline (down to the minute!) that creates a super high sense of urgency:

Brian's course email

Chapter 4:How to Write Amazing Headlines

How to write amazing headlines

You’ve probably heard the old adage: “80% of people read the headline, and only 20% read the copy.”

Is that number accurate? Who knows!

But what I do know is that your headline is SUPER important.

Fortunately, writing awesome headlines isn’t as hard as you might think.

All you need to do is follow the simple techniques in this chapter.

Be Insanely Specific

Your headline needs to be insanely specific.

In other words:

Your headline should tell your prospect EXACTLY what they’re gonna get.

For example, check out this blog post headline:

Vague Headline

Not horrible. But not nearly specific enough.

Look at how much better this super-specific headline sounds:

Specific Headline

And this rule doesn’t just apply to blog content.

For example, Snap.hr cites a specific timeframe for getting a result:

Snap – Timeframe

Use a Number

Numbers FORCE you to write insanely specific headlines.

For example, look at what happens when you take this bland headline…

Headline With No Number

…and add a number to it:

Headline With Number

It’s MUCH more compelling… and specific.

Which is probably why an industry study from Moz found that number headlines got 327% more clicks than question headlines:

Overall Headline Preferences

In fact, that’s exactly why I use numbers in most of my blog post titles:

Backlinko – Numbers in headlines

Strong Emotions

The best headlines tend to be emotional headlines.

The question is:

How do you create emotional headlines?

First, add emotionally-charged words to your headline copy.

Here are a few examples:

  • Crazy
  • Now
  • Fast
  • Mistake
  • New
  • Breakthrough
  • Amazing

Obviously, you don’t want to go overboard.

No one’s going to believe a headline like “New Crazy Amazing Breakthrough That Works Fast!” 🙂

But adding one or two of these words to your headline can make it more compelling:

Emotion in post headline

Second, pop your headline into the American Marketing Institute Headline Analyzer.

Advanced Marketing Institute – Headline analyzer

And it will give you a score from 0-100%.

Advanced Marketing Institute – Headline analyzer results

I try to get my headlines to at least 30%… especially for sales pages and landing pages.

Aminstitute – Headline analyzer – Results over 30 percent

Use FOMO

FOMO can make your headlines 10x more powerful.

That said:

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) doesn’t work for every situation.

But if you can use FOMO you should use FOMO.

That’s because FOMO triggers a strong emotion in your prospects…

…an emotion that makes them want to hear what you have to say.

For example, this Facebook ad headline from HubSpot includes the phrase “Limited Time Savings”:

HubSpot – Facebook offer

Answer: WIIFM?

Let me know if this sounds familiar:

You land on a site.

And the first thing you see is a headline that’s all about THEM.

Headline "All About Them"

Who. The heck. CARES.

Instead, you want to write headlines that are all about your customer.

In other words, your headline should answer the question in your customer’s mind:

“What’s in it for me?”

For example, this homepage headline is:

Dealwithgrowth – Homepage

Is the headline fancy?

Nope.

But if you’re looking to grow your Shopify store, this headline lets you know that you’re in the right place.

Chapter 5:Master The Lead

Master the lead

The lead is VERY underrated.

In my experience, your lead is JUST as important as your headline.

(And in some cases, MORE important.)

That’s because your prospect uses the first few lines of your copy to decide whether or not to keep reading. And if you lose them here, you’ve lost them for good.

With that, here are simple strategies that you can use to write compelling leads.

Start With a Hook

The first sentence of your lead is HUGE.

So make sure your first line grabs people by the eyeballs.

For example, this lead from one of our sales pages is designed to grab attention with a compelling stat:

Attention grabbing lead

And here are some “copy and paste” first lines that you can use in your leads:

  • “Does this sound familiar?”
  • “Now you can now [benefit] in [timeframe] without [common solution]”
  • “You know the feeling…”
  • “New study finds [surprising result]”
  • “Introducing: [product name]. A new way to [benefit] backed by [proof]”
  • “I struggled with [problem] for [X years]. Until one day…”

Use Mini-Stories

Stories are a great way to hook people… and keep them reading.

The problem is:

Your lead should be short and sweet. Which means you don’t have a lot of room to tell an epic story.

Enter: Mini-stories.

As the name suggests, mini-stories condense a story into 4-5 lines.

For example, I kick off the sales page of my flagship course with a super short story:

SEO That Works – Sales page story

Note: This lead is based on a real exchange with a prospective customer. I knew that lots of people related to how John felt. So I literally copied and pasted his message into the sales letter.

Complement the Headline

Sometimes your lead can just complement your headline.

In other words, you use your headline to grab their attention:

Grab Attention With Your Headline

And drum up interest with your lead:

Create Interest With Your Lead

(Yup, that’s the “A” and “I” from the AIDA Formula.)

For example, the lead in the sales page for my YouTube SEO course builds on the promise in the headline:

First Page Videos – Sales page intro

8 Lines or Less

Whether it’s a blog post, video script, sales page or email newsletter, you want your lead to be SUPER short.

(8 lines max.)

Remember:

The goal of your lead is to grab someone’s attention so they keep reading.

And once you’ve done that, it’s time to transition into the meat of your page.

For example, I keep my blog post introductions to around 6 lines:

Backlinko – Optimize for voice search – Intro

That way, I hook the reader with a strong lead… then jump right into the content itself.

Chapter 6:How to Write Compelling Copy

How to write compelling copy

In this chapter, I’m going to show you EXACTLY how to write awesome copy.

So if you want to write better:

  • Blog posts
  • Emails
  • Social media posts
  • Ad copy
  • Sales letters

Then this chapter is a must-read.

Write Like You Talk

This is the ultimate copywriting superhack.

For example, check out this paragraph from one of my recent newsletter emails:

Backlinko – Newsletter paragraph

Sounds pretty natural, right?

That’s because I read all of my copy out loud.

(And I recommend that you do the same.)

If it sounds weird, I rewrite it.

But if my copy sounds good out loud, I know it’s good to go.

Short Sentences

Short sentences=better copy.

And there’s research to back this up…

The American Press Institute gave research subjects two different articles to read.

Article #1 had an average sentence length of 54 words.

Article #2 had an average sentence length of 12 words.

What happened?

People that read Article #2 had 711% better comprehension than Article #1.

Short Sentences Boost Reader Comprehension

Bottom line?

Use short sentences. They’re easy to read AND understand.

Write to ONE Person

In other words, AVOID copy like this:

Avoid Copy Like This

Instead, write to one person:

Write to One Person

This also applies to B2B.

B2B copywriters LOVE to write copy that speaks to absolutely no one.

Here’s an example:

Generic B2B Copy

And here’s an example of B2B copy that speaks directly to the reader:

Specific B2B Copy

Active Voice

Look at these two lines:

Active Voice

As you can see, the active voice sounds MUCH better.

How do you know if you’re using the passive or active voice? You can read this thorough guide from The University of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin University – Handbook – Active voice

You can also check the active vs. passive voice with a tool like Hemingway:

Hemingway app – Homepage

No Big Words

Big words don’t impress anyone.

In fact, they make your copy hard to read.

And as I like to say:

Hard to read = won’t read.

So avoid fancy words like these:

  • Utilize
  • Overwrought
  • Fascinating
  • Conscientious
  • Unparalleled
  • Demonstrates

You get the idea 🙂

Instead, stick to terms that are easy to read and understand, like:

  • Use
  • Excited
  • Interesting
  • Notice
  • Unique
  • Show

Write For Skimmers

Here’s a good rule to follow for ALL of the content marketing that you do:

People online don’t read. They skim.

That’s why you want to format your copy for skimmers.

Here’s how:

First, use lots of subheadings.

These break up your content into little chunks.

For example, some time ago I published this post about how to do an SEO audit.

Backlinko – SEO site audit

This post is 3,759 words.

And to make those 3,759 words easy to digest, I split them up into distinct sections.

SEO site audit post – Sections

In fact, I used 43 total subheaders in that post.

Second, use “takeaway lines”.

These sum up the biggest takeaway of each section of your post.

For example, in this post I listed out my 15 favorite link building tools.

Backlinko – Link building tools

And for every tool on my list, I covered key features, pricing and more.

Tool features in post

So I added a little “Bottom Line” section after each tool:

"The bottom line" in post

That way, skimmers could get the gist… without reading every single word.

Chapter 7:Proven Copywriting Formulas

Proven copywriting formulas

Pro copywriters NEVER start from scratch.

Instead, they whip out a proven template… and fill in the blanks.

(Or as one copywriter once told me: “Great copy is assembled, not written”.)

And this chapter contains four proven copywriting formulas that you can use right away.

Check ‘em out:

Email Newsletters

Here’s a simple template that you can use to write newsletters that people will actually want to open.

Email Newsletter Template

Let’s break it down.


Subject Line = Short and Sweet

Your subject line should outline your newsletter content… without giving away the farm.

For example, I used the super simple subject line “Backlinks” for one of my newsletters. And that email got a 46.3% open rate (to 92,232 subscribers).

Email newsletter open rate

That subject line lets people know that the newsletter is about backlinks.

But there’s still an element of mystery that makes you want to open the message.


Attention-Grabbing Lead

A compelling first line that hooks your reader right away. This line also shows up as a preview in Gmail. So it needs to be good.

Here’s an example:

Marie Forleo newsletter

Lesson as a Story

Your newsletters should sound like they’re from a friend.

So share your lessons and tips in the form of a story.

(And yes, this applies to “corporate newsletters” too.)

For example, look at CoSchedule.

Even though they have dozens of people working for them, their newsletters don’t feel like it.

Their emails are personal, funny and sent from a single person (Jordan):

Jordan CoSchedule newsletter

Clear Call-To-Action

Let your reader know EXACTLY what to do next…

…whether it’s to sign up for a free trial, read a blog post or make a purchase.


Use a P.S.

Most people can’t resist reading a P.S.

This is why I recommend ending your newsletters with a P.S. that sums up your offer and CTA.

Here’s a PS that I used in one of my recent newsletters:

Backlinko newsletter – P.S.

With that, let’s check out our next template…

Landing Pages

Here’s how to create high-converting service pages, newsletter signup pages and more.

Landing Page Template

Let’s break each element down.


Headline = Clear Benefit

Your headline should let the reader know what they’ll get from your product, service, newsletter, or free trial.

For example:

Growth Mentor – Headline

Social Proof

Include social proof above the fold. This can be logos from places you’ve been featured, the number of customers or a handful of big-name clients.

Here’s an example:

Buzzsumo – Homepage – Clients

Body = PAS

The meat of your landing page should follow the “Problem, Agitate, Solve” formula. Start with your prospect’s #1 problem, highlight how annoying that problem is, then tease a solution.


Transition

The transition from your prospect’s problem to a specific offer.

Here’s a cool example of this transition action: