I had my words pecked to death by data,
so you don’t have to

Alan Black, Principal Content Consultant, Blackad

At a glance: how to engage more customers

  1. Exploit the areas where readers’ eyes dwell
  2. Get 100% eye-share with short email subject lines
  3. Test small changes – even just a word or two
  4. Tabloid simplicity is hard to do, but it works
  5. Be wary of asking for too much, too soon


Is there anything more agonising than indefensibly subjective feedback? You know, the client who just doesn’t like the word ‘got’. Or the CEO who puts a red pen through every ‘you’ll’, ‘we’ll’ and ‘they’ll’.

I can confirm there most definitely is something even more disheartening: coming face-to-face with irrefutable proof that your copy sucks.

Here’s what data has taught me about writing copy that gets results – one relentless blow to the head at a time.


The first 18 characters are more important than you’d think

People scan copy. We’ve known this forever. But what we didn’t know until relatively recently is WHAT their retinas are hunting for.

It turns out we’re all time-poor detectives, sifting through walls of words to find the nuggets that matter most. And in particular, the first 18 characters of those nuggets.

Our brains find these nuggets in quite a few places: the beginnings of sentences, the starts of headings, or in other copy that’s been highlighted in some way: think bullets, call to action buttons or links.

A writer can exploit this by placing the juiciest words in the first 18 characters of these focus areas. It makes a big difference to conversion rates. But it’s very hard to get it right without feeling just a little bit damaged.


Your email subject line is too long. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Mr Dostoevsky.)

Sure – storytelling, whimsy and intrigue have a place. Just probably not here.

When I say ‘too long’, what I really mean is that most email subject lines are a bloated mess of brand egotism and unfocused thinking. If you’re sending an offer, say what the offer is. If you’re sending a newsletter, make it painfully clear in the subject line.

But most importantly, if you’re sending any marketing email at all, limit yourself to nine words or 60 characters. Tops. And hesitate before you spray it with punctuation marks or emojis. Aim for three of the former, and one of the latter. Even then, do you really need the shrugging man, nail varnish or star-eyes?

It’s all about readability – these micro subject lines are just easier on the retina. They stand out because most other email subject lines are crazily long. Did I mention that short subject lines also mean you get 100% eyeshare, even on mobile? And the shorter you go, the bigger the benefit for the reader, as it’s easier for them to get a grasp on what’s inside.

If all this sounds like too much work, you can pay an AI to suggest subject lines instead. Proceed with at least a little caution – but at least your robot coworker doesn’t mind if you never make the tea.


One word can change the world. (Or just your campaign.)

Will the red button convert better than the green? (If you’re asking, experience suggests you start with red, but hey – I’m not a designer.)

Should you put the CTA at the bottom or the top of the page? (Both, most likely.)

And does it make sense to have a form or ‘add to cart’ right there at the summit of the page, without even the pretence of romancing the reader? (Weirdly, yes – yes it does.)

If your copywriting ego isn’t already irrevocably wounded, get prepared for the often bruising world of A/B testing.

Here’s a quick example. If you’re selling backup systems for virtual machines, you’d think ‘Request a quote’ would be just fine. Not so for Veeam Software. They changed their link text to ‘Request pricing’ and saw the click-through rate soar by 161%.

And what about ‘Get a quote’ – how would that perform? The only way to know is to wheel out an A/B test. And, at the same time, relearn everything you think you know about conversion.


Nobody understands you

There’s a reason tabloids sell by the bale – their writers put a lot of effort into being understood.

Put it this way: the purpose of writing is to transfer information from one brain to another. If we fail to do that, we might as well pack up our keyboards and cravats.

Tabloid journalists are acutely aware of this. They’ve always written in short sentences. They love short, concrete nouns – and punchy verbs. Long paragraphs? No ta.

You’d be pushed to find a tabloid sentence over 15 words long. Or a word a nine-year-old couldn’t understand. Don’t take this statement as snobbishness – it’s admiration.

Because the tabloid writer has mastered an art many never even consider: the act of planting an idea squarely and truly in another human being’s head.

If this makes you feel squeamish, look away now. In many publications, journalists are measured by the SEO reach of their articles, of click rates, bounce rates and session lengths. Not only are these writers masters of being understood, they’re becoming masters of persuasion.


Marketers love commitment. Customers, not so much.

The call to action is the fundamental particle of the marketing toolkit. So it’s easy to forget customers can be borderline allergic to being asked to commit too soon.

So, should you really push ‘Buy now’? Not always. What if you went with ‘Choose your colour’ instead? It’s incredible how often a ‘Compare items’ function can increase revenues and reduce abandoned shopping baskets. Yes, it’s another step in the process. But it sounds a lot less like an immediate raid on your credit card.

And that counts for something. The British Airways website has a call to action that reads ‘Cancel booking’ – it’s for customers whose travel plans have been affected by COVID-19. Which would be dandy, except that the call to action takes the user to a page where they can ask for a travel voucher.

Yes, there’s a heading on the page which explains you’re applying for a voucher – and not a cash refund. But that’s hardly the point. What matters is this: customers are rightly wary, so it’s wise to listen to what the data has to say. Even if it’s not what you really want to hear.


Be careful with that adjective, Eugene

AI tools such as Grammarly and Hemmingway are already changing the way copywriters work. Should you remove that adjective? The AI seems to think so, and it certainly makes your copy shorter. That’s good, right?

Well, not necessarily. Although data can help the writer connect with the customer’s reading behaviour, it’s worse at tapping into how they feel (let’s ignore Cambridge Analytica for a moment). It’s also not exactly brilliant at rendering copy in a consistent brand voice. Kudos to Phrasee here – they do a good job with email copy in particular, but not without some help from humankind.

And perhaps that’s the point: data is superb when it comes to uncovering patterns, avoiding past mistakes and balancing risk with reward. But to really fly it still needs a steady – preferably flesh-based – hand on the keyboard.