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Using italics, bolds, highlights, etc to add emphasis in copy is a powerful tool. But use too much, and you are actually creating the opposite effect — everything looks the same and nothing is emphasized.

So you must emphasize judiciously and strategically.

However, some have suggested that emphasis should be avoided completely. One copywriter suggested that words alone should convey the message. He referred to formatting as “speed bumps,” which reduce usability and readability.

I don't necessarily agree with this premise. After all, if that was the case (that words alone should communicate a message), we wouldn't have punctuation.

But I digress.

First, understand that formatting helps to drive important points home. It also boosts recall, and gives additional meaning to a message the written word lacks that nuances and verbal cues otherwise provide.

Plus, emphasis communicates a meta-message. The message beyond the message. Emotional subtext, deeper meaning, greater impact, and more.

When in a face-to-face encounter, a sale is not only made on what you say but how you say it. Including inflection of your voice, rhythm, tone, volume, pausing, nonverbal communication, and others.

Because “how” you say it can emphasize, support, or contradict your message. For less skilled communicators, this often occurs without their knowledge.

Lower your voice during an important point in your sales pitch causes people to lean forward to make sure they hear everything. Inflect certain key words or phrases can help drive important ideas home. And so on.

Now, on the web, there's no face-to-face interaction. You don't have the same luxury. And therefore, formatting can be used as an effective tool to underline (and I mean that literally and figuratively) important points.

Granted, I agree that “speed bumps” do reduce ease of reading. But you don't want to make it too comfortable for the reader. Especially with web copy.

What I am saying is that speed bumps, used sparingly, are good. Why? Because copy is different than, say, a strictly informational article. If you make it too easy for them, they will doze off, lose track, comprehend less, or leave.

Remember the three immutable laws of online purchasing behavior:

  1. People never read
  2. People never believe
  3. People never do

Of course, not all the time. But it is true certainly at first and if they don't know you. You need to apply the “3 P's” (or have it in the back of your mind when you write online copy). They are:

  1. Pull them in
  2. Prove your case
  3. Push them to act

(My friend and top copywriter Bob Bly has a fourth “P”, which is “paint them a picture.” I'd say you can do that with any of the three above.)

People online never read anything at first. Once they hit your website, they skim, scan, and scroll. You want them to stop scanning and start reading. So “speed bumps,” if you will, cause little distractions along the way that prod the reader to:

  1. Stop zooming through your copy and start reading it;
  2. And avoid the text appearing like one trance-inducing blur.
  3. Granted, words alone (that is, the content itself) should be interesting enough to pull them in and keep them interested. Great copy should do a good job to keep the reader hooked and hanging onto every word.

    But online and now particularly with mobile devices, where people are on the go and distractions are plentiful, your copy has a lot of competition to deal with.

    Formatless copy is like turning a fiery face-to-face sales presentation into a monotone, limp lecture that only educates and entertains at best.

    (How many pieces of copy have you started reading and, after a few paragraphs, stopped and started scrolling up and down again?)

    So without a bit of variety, in other words, readers easily get bored, their eyes get tired, and they lose focus.

    Worst case, they get tempted to scroll again. Best case, they read it all but more like an educational piece, and don't take action because they fail to understand the relevance and weren't involved in the copy enough.

    The concept is often called “copy cosmetics,” because the formatting of your salesletter (along with photos, colors, response devices, design, layout, etc) is just as important as the words themselves.

    That said, and before you go spicing up your copy with a ton of garish colors and obtrusive elements, there are a few caveats:

    1) The first job of your copy is not to educate.

    No. It's meant to attract attention, then educate, and then persuade. In that order.

    Remember the AIDA formula? It means “Attention,” “Interest,” “Desire” and “Action.” Your first job, above all else, is to capture people's attention, and then it's to captivate them and keep them captivated.

    Think of speed bumps as “scan-stoppers.” Besides photos and graphics that add eye gravity, you can also add formatting to headlines, headers (subheads throughout the copy), bullet points, captions, and within Johnson boxes with borders, all to draw attention to those elements.

    So they are indeed “speed bumps.” But on the information superhighway, where people browse at the speed of electrons, people are speeding by and will often scroll your copy up and down, quickly trying to find something that interests them — or a reason to justify reading the seemingly long copy.

    That's why most people try to look for the price. The problem is, they are not looking for the price to justify their buying decision but to justify the need to read your long copy in the first place.

    And without reading the copy first to understand and appreciate the full value of your offering, prices alone will often push them away.

    2) Scientific split-tests have proven it.

    For example, “clunkiness” does outperform clean copy. I know this, because one piece of copy I wrote bombed. It was beautiful — both the message as well as the look. I was seriously disappointed.

    So we tested the same copy, but added a few strategic bolds, italics, and underlines throughout. And guess what? Response shot up dramatically.

    I'm not saying use emphasis willy-nilly. For one, it loses credibility — working against rule #2 above (prove). But more importantly, too many “speed bumps” bleed into one and other. They transform the text into one big blur. Again.

    But the modest use of cosmetic enhancements is best, as they draw attention to themselves without “blending in” too much with the rest of the copy.

    Too much can become counterproductive. If people start scrolling up and down with massive amounts of yellow highlighting, nothing stands out and grabs them by the eyeballs, stops them from scanning, and forces them to start reading.

    Plus, if you're using formatting to emphasize certain words or phrases, then too much makes all the text look the same and, as a result, “de-emphasizing” other, more important words you wanted to stand out in the first place.

    3) Too much of a good thing can kill you.

    Possibly the single, greatest improvement I've seen in my split-tests and my clients' split-tests is the reduction of friction — some might say elements that cause friction are “speed bumps,” but I prefer to call them bottlenecks.

    (You want your readers to slow down and read, not stop and make it hard for them to read — let alone order from you.)

    Beyond usability, there's also the issue of the credibility. Too many “speed bumps” can make it hard to read, which again defeats the purpose. But also, they cause people to judge your entire business based on the image you project.

    If you become too clunky, then people will assume that your business, policies, products, and especially treatment of customers are just as clunky.

    But you can still use formatting to emphasize certain words or phrases you wish to drive home but without your copy appearing as if it was a fingerpainting created by some preschooler.

    I believe there's a happy medium.

    Remember that you do want to create a good first impression, as first impressions are not only lasting ones but also conducive to sales. Particularly repeat and referral sales. And research shows that people are more forgiving when you screw up if you made a good first impression, too.

    It's about credibility. The second step in my three-step formula earlier is to “prove your case.” That means, it's credentializing your copy, adding proof, and projecting a sound, professional, trustworthy image. And you can use proper formatting to communicate this, with or without you knowing it.

    In the end, it goes both ways: don't be overly fancy or “clean” looking, as well as don't be overly shoddy or “clunky” looking, since either one will kill your sales or your credibility. Or both.

    In other words, don't focus too much on cosmetics, either way, at the expense of the most important part of your copy…

    The words.

    Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

    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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