What does great digital copy look like anyway?

Great digital copy is seamless, effective and memorable. Bad digital copy stands out like a sore thumb. Here's how to ensure you get it right.

 What does great digital copy look like anyway?

What is great digital copy? What should it look like and, more importantly, what should it do? Here are a few tips.

Our State of Digital Copywriting survey found that a key challenge for digital content professionals is that people don’t get what good digital copy should look like. And if you don’t know what you’re looking for it’s hard to write it, commission it or fix it.

This is perhaps borne out by answers to the next question in our survey:

Can you give us an example of a company or brand that produces best-in-class digital copy?

Interestingly, the most popular answers were much-loved brands – companies such as Innocent, Apple, Virgin and John Lewis – rather than examples of usable, well-planned, well-executed digital content.

We’ve found this when we ask a similar question in our training courses too. But are people confusing best-in-class web writing with a strong tone of voice?

This is quite reasonable – partitioning how you feel about a brand into separate assessments of its tone of voice, structure, scannability and so on isn’t something that most of us do instinctively. It’s a bit like the technical awards at the Oscars: you might not come out of a film saying ‘That sound mixing was AMAZING!’ But if it’s not done right, the movie’s not about to win Best Film either.

It’s also an illustration of how influential a strong tone of voice can be. In particular, voice is good at making your brand memorable, even if it’s not always helping your copy to be effective.

So what do we mean by ‘great digital copy’?

Great digital copy should:

  • be intuitive, scannable and supportive of user journeys without being intrusive
  • convert browsers into clickers
  • work in seo seamlessly
  • be interesting, about often dull or complex subjects
  • address compliance requirements without sacrificing readability

It should make you want to complete an online form, click on a subject line, or help you extract a single piece of information from a big complex story.

It’s not the same as being well-known for your TV adsdesigning beautiful products, or having a quirkily charismatic founder.

Perhaps the only one of these big players that really qualifies is Innocent. Its email marketing newsletter makes clever use of lightweight, anecdotal stories from around the business that maintain a friendly, small-scale feel that’s very important to the brand – even though the company’s now owned by Coca-Cola.

Some of the other brands mentioned are clearly in the Innocent camp – Abel & Cole and Paddy Power inherit a lot of goodwill from their offline branding, for example – but it’s good to see more practical, functional work such as that done by MailChimp getting an honourable mention for copy that just makes users’ lives easier.

What can we learn?

  • Looking at digital copy across all companies, the bar is set pretty low. A little bit of polish on your tone of voice, an extra bit of care taken with your choice of links, some consideration of your user’s journey – these can go a long way towards improving your users’ experience.
  • A brand that’s already super-strong offline has a head start when it comes to creating digital copy – but for the rest of us, focusing on improving content can help you to punch above your weight.
  • Good digital copy is often by definition invisible to users – but think about it in terms of effectiveness, usability and fitness for the medium and it becomes easier to see past the wackaging. You don’t have to overcook your tone of voice to write effective digital copy.