Create Damn Good Web Copy with These Five Old School Tips

Think like Ogilvy, write like poetry

Jonah Malin
Mar 26 · 4 min read

5.59 seconds.

This is how much time you’ve got to grab someone’s attention on your website.

5.59 seconds is when the split-second fight or flight decision kicks in.

5.59 seconds is the difference between a sale, subscription, donation, and…nothing.

Guess what? 80% of websites lose their visitors in 5.59 seconds.

But you’re in luck.

I’ve spent my entire professional career studying legendary writers — from David Ogilvy to classic poetry––and learned how to develop web copy that converts.

So, if you want to write like someone who can sell a snowcone on the coldest day of winter, here are five legendary copywriting tips.

David Ogilvy: The headline is the ‘ticket on the meat’

Don’t skimp the intro.

When writing web copy, you need the first sentence (or word) to make a visitor re-read.

Poppi is a great example.

Their homepage headline line “Meet your new GF” is a pop of brilliance. It’s simultaneously provocative, dares you to read more about the product, and establishes the playful nature of Poppi’s brand.

I started this article with a quick-hitting statistic. It’s actionable. It’s relevant. It satiates curiosity by peeling back the curtain on what’s to come.

Still reading? That means it worked.

Marilyn vos Savant: Be both technically accurate and understandable

When talking about the “Ask Marilyn” column for Parade Magazine, Savant discussed her biggest challenge: “On any given subject, a tiny number of people are experts. The rest of us want an explanation that doesn’t require specialized education in the subject, one that we can understand when we read it.”

Complicated language kills brilliant design.

If I can’t understand what a website’s purpose is and how it helps me, I exit out. Remember, 5.59 seconds.

Take this line from a project management platform: “Basecamp helps you wrangle people with different roles, responsibilities, and objectives toward a common goal: Finishing a project together.”

It’s clear language explaining why Basecamp deserves my consideration. I don’t need a technical background to understand that Basecamp helps teams finish projects.

Rosser Reeves: Develop a unique selling proposition

Web strategy is best-served backwords.

What is the last action you want a user to take? Subscribe to a newsletter? Buy a product? Follow you on social?

If you don’t present a clear, confident call to action, your reader won’t act.

Don’t be boring. Go beyond the basic “Subscribe for weekly updates!” text.

As Rosser Reeves said, “I’m not saying that charming, witty and warm copy won’t sell. I’m just saying I’ve seen thousands of charming, witty campaigns that didn’t sell.”

Tell readers the value they get. Evoke an emotional response. Bring a bigger storytelling element into the fold. Make your CTA the most compelling line of copy they read all day.

Mel Martin: Go after points of maximum anxiety

“For golfers who are almost (but not quite) satisfied with their game — and can’t figure out what’s wrong.”

This line by Mel Martin is stupidly simple and outrageously effective.

Martin was a master of seducing readers with a tease. His other iconic lines like “What your doctor doesn’t tell you” and “Why married women have affairs” have been replicated thousands of times — but still pack an effective punch.

What problem is keeping your audience awake at 2 AM? Do some research, figure it out, then write to prove you have the solution.

Helen Woodward: Put a mood into words and transfer that mood to the reader.

Write with some flair. Have a personality. Don’t be aggressively “out there” for the hell of it, but inject some feeling into your words.

Your readers are people just like you. Give your copy a sense of humor and make them laugh. Or tell an inspiring story that will push your prospects to become a better version of themselves.

Be human. Write for humans.

Tying it all together

I’ve found studying history’s greatest advertisers and writers to be far more beneficial than chasing shiny objects and growth hacking tricks. Their words of persuasion are like a piece of art.

To recap:

#1: Wine and dine readers with the first sentence.
#2: Get your points across with simple language.
#3: Always include a captivating call to action.
#4: Seduce readers with a tease.
#5: Be human.

Leave breadcrumbs for your target user. Take them on a journey. Make 5.59 seconds on a page seem idiotic. Be the tab they never want to close.

Happy writing.

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Thanks to Fabricio Teixeira and Elizabeth Dawber

Jonah Malin

Written by

Pending humble-brags. To write pretty words that last→

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Jonah Malin

Written by

Pending humble-brags. To write pretty words that last→

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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