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Dan Kennedy often says clunky copy outsells clean copy. I somewhat agree with him, but not all the time. In fact, clunkiness can work against you. And a recent university study proves this.

People have a tendency to forge not only a lasting opinion based on first impressions but also a blanket opinion that pervades all other areas as well.

The adage, “a first impression is a lasting one,” is not only temporal (i.e., the initial opinion remains consistent and nearly impermeable for a long time) but also spatial. That is, a first impression is also a universal one. It permeates other areas, even unrelated ones, as well.

Illogical? Yes. But it's human nature.

They unconsciously assume there's a parallel between one part and the whole, in other words. It's what I call the “unconscious paralleled assumption,” or UPA for short.

I wrote about this extensively in the past, where people make split-second judgments about your entire business just based on a fraction of what they see, encounter, hear, or perceive. Even perception alone is enough to thrill or kill an entire business.

Here's an example: if you walk in a department store and see a dusty shelf, you form a negative opinion about the store. Based on the law of first impressions, you will assume the store never cleans its shelves. That opinion will stick with you for a very long time.

It will require a lot of work, not to mention time, on the part of the store to change that opinion — or at the very least, to assuage those negative assumptions.

Moreover, you will not only think that the store doesn't take care of its appearance, but also believe they equally don't care about their clients, products, staff, promises, etc.

In other words, that single dusty shelf will probably lead you to assume that the store has poor customer service, shoddy products, and lousy return policies, among others.

Now, I may just be guessing here, but I believe that when Dan Kennedy says clunky copy outsells clean copy, what he's referring to are fancy designs, dazzling graphics, and stylish cosmetics that seem to have required an exorbitant investment to create.

I agree with that. Copy will always be the most important element of your website.

You want to sell. Not dazzle or entertain.

But I've written and designed clunky copy for clients who've asked for it. That is, inconsistent fonts and typestyles. Varying sizes and colors. Very little to no padding around tables. Erratic design and flow. And poor, cheap to no graphics whatsoever.

The thing is, it doesn't work all the time.

It works primarily for those marketers who are known, have established credibility, and have been referred by other people. But this doesn't bode well for new or unknown marketers who duplicate this seemingly lackadaisical attitude toward clean design.

Lately, it seems most online direct marketers, particularly new ones, are lazy and tend to use Dan's rule as an excuse to pay little attention to the cosmetics.

While I agree the copy is the most important part of a salesletter or website, I equally believe that, in some cases, perhaps in most cases, good design increases response. I've tested this extensively. As top copywriter Clayton Makepeace said:

“If you're a business owner, marketing pro or copywriter, good graphic design is absolutely essential to producing peak response to your sales promotions. I've seen poor design cut sales by half or even more. Conversely, I've seen stronger graphic design bump response by 20% or even more.”

Personally, I've always been a proponent of projecting a good, clean, professional image, as credibility is important to me and my businesses. And I've tried or tested clean, symmetrical, proper, appealing copy for my own websites as much as I can.

Because, in this day and age where scams and snake oils are rampant, I prefer to stand out, and inculcate credibility, trust, and professionalism in the minds of my readers.

And design plays a huge part.

For example, a few years ago I ceased taking on new clients and took a sabbatical. I later re-opened the doors to accept a few new clients, but in an agency-style fashion.

Thing is, most online veterans know me personally. But since I'm taking on new clients as an agency and not a freelancer, and work with associate and junior copywriters whom I represent, the design is therefore playing a vastly more important role.

Coincidentally, a recent study proves what I've been teaching for years.

Dealing specifically with web design, the study, revealed in a BBC article and conducted by Carleton University — a university in my own home town of Ottawa, Canada — revealed how people make split-second decisions about websites they visit.

I particularly liked this passage:

The researchers also believe that these (quickly formed first impressions) last because of what is known to psychologists as the “halo effect”. If people believe a website looks good, then this positive quality will spread to other areas, such as the site's content. Since people like to be right, they will continue to use the site that made a good first impression, as this will further confirm that their initial decision was a good one.

I would add they would also frequent other websites, and buy other products, from the same vendor or marketer because of that first impression. Does this mean to go spend a huge chunk of change on dazzling graphics, fancy animations, and stylish designs?

No. I did say “clean,” not “clever.” Or “pretentious,” for that matter.

But while copy will always be the most significant element on which you must focus, don't do so at the expense of other elements that will stifle that powerful first impression.

Why? Because poor design can immediately deter readers, make you look “scammy,” make your offer suspect, or stop people from reading your copy in the first place. They will ask, “How can he take care of me when he can't even take care of himself?”

In fact, according to the study, a first impression, being a “split-second decision,” is not too far from the truth. It really is a split of a second. The study concluded that people make a decision not in a few seconds, as originally thought, but in 1/20th of a second.

People don't read at first. They skim, scan, and scroll. What they see — what they perceive — the moment they hit your website is more important than what they read.

So like it or not, your appearance communicates as much as the words in your copy. It even prepares the reader for what they are about to read, and cements what they are willing to accept, believe, and trust from what they will read. And it does so very quickly.

As that famous idiom goes, “Don't judge a book by its cover.” But if such a saying exists, it's because we, as human beings, have a natural tendency to do so. Like it or not.

What does your “cover” say about you?

Michel Fortin

Chief Experience Officer at Supportibles, Inc.
A copywriter and consultant for close to 30 years, Michel was instrumental in selling millions worth of products and services. His most notable success is a salesletter that sold over a million dollars online on launch day. Today, Michel is a best-selling author, in-demand public speaker, and highly sought-after marketing consultant. Get his free report, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," at Supportibles.com.

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