Microcopy: When the smallest thing has the biggest impact

When it comes to writing copy, headlines may, er, grab the headlines.

Subheadings and paragraphs demand attention.

Captions under pictures always capture your readers’ eyeballs.

As for microcopy – it may appear micro, but its impact is always macro.

In fact, for writing copy to get people to take action, it’s your trusted partner.

What is microcopy anyway?

Those little words under the main call to action. explains what's meant by billing address

Put microcopy in the right place, and it works on two levels.

First, as part of your website design, acting as a signpost to your users.

Second, as reassurance. When you ask a user to commit to something, microcopy provides the reason why they should do it.

says 'get cool swag' under main field

“A well-known principle of human behaviour says that when we ask someone to do us a favour we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

This quote is from Influence, a book by Robert Cialdini which explores the patterns, actions and downright irrational parts of human behaviour.

One test stands out in partticular. The Copy Machine Study involved a researcher going up to various queues of people waiting to use a photocopier. Each time the researcher would ask a question designed to help them jump the queue:

  1. Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine? (60% of people let the researcher jump the queue)
  2. Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush? (94% of people let the researcher jump the queue)
  3. Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies? (93% of people let the researcher jump the queue)

Reason #3 makes no sense. Why else would you be in the queue? However, the results showed that giving a reason, even if that reason made no sense, was enough.

Microcopy: a trusty assistant to your visitors

Of course, when trying to help your website visitors you can give them genuine reasons for doing what you want them to do. Here’s how Zendesk justifies asking for your phone number:we need your number to send an SMS

That sounds fair enough. Zendesk knows most people don’t want to give out their phone number to random people, so some microcopy helps to explain why it’s needed.

Facebook do a mighty fine job as well. See how you can click and find out why they want to know your birthday:

birthday requested for legal reasons

Airbnb makes sure people don’t get confused over its forms if they make a mistake, by adding microcopy like this:

highlights incorrect field

300 million reasons for microcopy

Of course, the value of microcopy isn’t just about how it helps your users. It’s also about making a difference to your revenue. And when I use the word ‘difference’, I mean life-changing. In fact, several lifetimes at once.

That’s what happened in one famous case, where adding microcopy led to an e-commerce store’s revenue jump by $300 million dollars.

Three hundred million dollars. Here’s how.

After a user had browsed the website, added what they wanted to the cart, and reached the checkout, something happened. They were asked to click on a login or register button. The problem was, this was before they’d completed the purchase. It turned out, many people didn’t want to go through the hassle of registering. They just wanted to get their stuff, and go on their way. They didn’t want to start a relationship with the website. So they walked away.

Even existing customers ran into problems. Many couldn’t remember their login details when asked at the checkout. So they were faced with a choice.

Option one: going through the faff of requesting a new password, checking their email (assuming they knew which email address they’d signed up with), resetting their password, and then logging in.

Option two: choosing to get on with their life and abandoning their cart.

Naturally, option two was the most popular.

This problem only came to light after an agency (User Interface Engineering) carried out some testing and gathered customer feedback. They then changed the ‘register’ button to ‘continue’, and added this microcopy:

You do not need to create an account to make purchases on our site. Simply click Continue to proceed to checkout. To make your future purchases even faster, you can create an account during checkout.

In the 12 months after this change, the website took an extra $300 million dollars. Not bad for changing a word.

Look, I can’t guarantee you $300 million

But I can guarantee you microcopy that works for your visitors.

I’ve worked on plenty of online platforms and other projects which have involved me adding microcopy.

Plus a whole load of other services relating to copy, conversion optimisation, and usability (UX).

Feel free to view the portfolio to get an idea of what can be achieved, or get in touch and let me know what you’re looking for.