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Why Copy Should (Often) Be The Last Thing You Optimize

By Momoko Price

If there's one thing I've learned working as a CRO copywriter over the years, it's this:

Landing page copy is THE whipping boy of the conversion-optimization world.

If online sales aren't coming in as expected, one of the first things businesses want to change is the copy.

... Doesn't matter if the page takes 15+ seconds to load on desktop and looks like a Cubist art project on mobile.

... Doesn't matter if the payment form has a submission-blocking bug in it, or the product is priced 3X higher than its competitors in a highly saturated market.

It's always the COPY's fault.

seymour skinner questioning himself


Because "it's terrible."

Or because "we hate it."

Or because "it's not on-brand."

Don't get me wrong: If I had to throw a number at it, I'd say a good 85+% of landing page copy on the Internet is ... well, god-awful.

But if your website is suffering from low conversions, the landing page copy usually isn't the first thing you should fix — in fact, most of the time it should be the last.

Seems weird that I would say this, considering I'm a copywriter. If I were following direct-response best practices, this post would be all about amplifying the critical importance of good copy and agitating all the pains and problems of having bad copy on your website.

But as a copywriter who does a fair amount of CRO-critical checks before tackling the words on the page, I know from experience that companies of all kinds — from tiny startups to massive enterprises — routinely overlook huge, conversion-killing issues in their sales funnels while hyperfocusing (and quite frankly, over-investing) in "optimizing their copy."

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 3 occasions where a company came to me looking for copy help only to realize once we dug a little deeper that re-writing the landing-page copy the way they'd envisioned would be an enormous waste of time and money. Specifically ...

1) The high-traffic SaaS that wasn't tracking conversions or CPA

This one still bugs me, because to be perfectly frank, it could have been a hugely profitable AND interesting project for me if the company had just fixed their departmental silos and straightened out their analytics. But because they didn't, I couldn't in good conscience agree to working on the copy because it would have been the CRO equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

This startup reached out to me because they wanted me to "optimize 60-80 landing pages as soon as possible."

... Sixty to 80 landing pages!!!

chris pine saying cha ching

For what I was charging at the time, that would have come out to a $170K+ USD project, not to mention SO much fun investigating what specific messages would resonate best with their audience.

Unfortunately, once I popped the hood on their analytics, I discovered ... well, a big ol' mess.

It turned out, despite driving tens of thousands of dollars in paid traffic to dozens of lead-gen landing pages every month, the company wasn't actually tracking conversions at all.

How is this possible, you ask?

Well, like many SaaS companies, their marketing website and in-app experience were on separate subdomains (i.e. www.company.com vs app.company.com), and also like many SaaS companies, they didn't bother setting up subdomain-tracking to ensure that visitor and user sessions were unified and tracked accurately.

So visitor sessions were only tracked to the point of landing on the account registration page, not through to completing registration and actually converting to trial users (let alone paying users).

And what was their workaround for this (enormous) oversight, you might ask?

... To assume that landing on the registration page would be proportional to the real conversion rate, and just track that instead.

This is like tracking fitness by assuming that the number of times you walk past your treadmill is proportional to the number of times you actually get on it and run.

2) Ecommerce company that didn't know 95% of their traffic was mobile

One time an ecommerce company tracked me down to re-do one of their top lead-gen landing pages after they'd hit a wall in-house trying to figure out what wrong with it.

During discovery, I myself conceded that I thought the page was clear, the offer valuable, and the design intuitive and aesthetically pleasing, to boot. I even told them up front that finding ways to optimize the page might be difficult, since at a glance, I couldn't see any glaring violations of CRO copy or design best practices.

... Until I checked the data, that is.

All it took was segmenting their traffic by device to discover that the vast majority of their traffic was on smartphones (Like, over 95%).

The instant I looked at the page on mobile, a rash of conversion-critical issues came up: everything took far too long to consume and complete.

... The call-to-action (and offer) was pushed waaaaaaaaaaay down the page.

... Disproportionately large images broke up the flow of content, throwing off the pacing of the sales narrative.

... The multi-step form (which included several extra input fields to filter spam and fraud leads) was agonizingly difficult to complete on a phone.

But ALL of these problems had been flying under the radar for months, because the team designed and QA-ed the page on giant desktop monitors and never once bothered to check and see what the devices their visitors were using to digest their content.

3) Giant marketplace company that failed to message-match with their ads

Occasionally I work with companies whose funnels are so complex they don't have lead-generation pages, they have lead-generation websites — i.e. entire sites devoted to SEO-driven informational articles which then drive paid and organic traffic to specific lead-qualification and ecommerce funnels.

One company came to me hoping I could optimize the home page one of these lead-generation websites. They'd already spent several weeks overhauling the page in-house. They gave it a slick new design and re-did the copy, too. But despite changing the entire page, they didn't see any conversion lift once it went live.

Again, popping the hood on their analytics revealed a clear fix immediately:

By checking their referral traffic, I found an entire network of display ads — managed by a department no one had mentioned to me — driving traffic to the page, and what the ads offered ("get free quotes from providers in your area") had nothing to do with the pain-focused hero-section copy they'd adopted on the new page ("we hate shopping around for [ service ], too ...")

Overhauling the page copy ended up being entirely unnecessary — all we had to do was align the top-level messaging of the page with what visitors were coming for in the first place (i.e. free quotes from lots of local providers).

The result? A ~40% boost in lead-gen pretty much immediately.

... See, that's the tricky thing about copy:

It takes up so much real estate and is so emotionally triggering that it often FEELS like it must be the problem when leads and sales are lagging.

But (as shown in Bryan Eisenberg's classic Hierarchy of Optimization graphic below) the persuasive elements of your sales funnel (i.e the content) can only have a real impact on your conversion rate once you've fixed the other (admittedly less sexy & more technical) aspects that facilitate the customer journey.

eisenberg's hierarchy of optimization
So, what should you check first before you decide to focus on optimizing your copy?

Here are 3 easy checks I always do at the beginning of a sales copy project (usually as part of my funnel audit service), which have historically revealed major, sales-blocking snags for clients before even touching the page copy:

1) Traffic & conversion rates segmented by device & browser

This an easy one — all you have to do is go to the following default report in Google Analytics:

Report: Audience > Mobile > Overview (or Devices, if you want full details)

image of GA report for mobile overview

... and then use the scary-looking-but-easy-to-use developer tool that's built-in to most web browsers to checkthe exact content your users are seeing by specific devices.

For example: Let's say I check the "Devices" report in GA for a given client, as shown:

image of GA report for mobile device report

Hm, more than half of users on mobile are using iPhones, so it's probably be a good idea to see what the experience is like on that device. (It'd be an especially good idea to see this if conversion rates are mysteriously low on iPhones compared to other devices.)

To check what your page's content looks like on an iPhone, right-click on the page and choose 'Inspect' to open up Chrome's developer mode:

image of how to open inspect mode

Then click the little device icon in the left-hand corner:

image pointing to device icon in developer mode

And voila: You can see exactly what the page looks like on an iPhone (and other devices and models), and even scroll and click around, to boot: image of kiso on an iPhone

Seeing how your page behaves on different devices — even if they're not REAL devices — can not only expose device-specific bugs, but also gives you a great sense of how much work and attention your page's content is demanding from your mobile audience.

2) Page-load speed on desktop & mobile

This one is even easier and less technical to do, but can reveal all kinds of invisible, conversion-killing issues in a matter of seconds:

Use Google's PageSpeed Insights Tool on your funnel's pages.

google page-speed insights

You might wonder why, as a copywriter, I'd care about checking page speed and digging up page-rendering bugs and delays.

The reason I care is because the biggest thing that page speed affects is the landing page's bounce rate, or more accurately, the % of prospects who leave before reading ANY of your copy or learning ANYTHING about your offer because it's taking too damn long for your page to load.

The % of people who disappear prematurely because of page-loading delays increases at an enormous rate with every extra half-second you make users wait to read your content, as quantified by Pingdom in this graph:

graph of bounce rate vs. delay

Not optimizing for page speed on a product-selling website is having a brick-and-mortar store with doors that are rusted shut. There's no point in re-writing the posters and promotions if the customers can't get inside to see them.

To check your page's speed, just type in the URL into the PageSpeed Insights tool and you'll get an exhaustive list of content and code issues that should be fixed in both your mobile and desktop experience, along with specific recommendations for how to fix them, straight from Google. Here's what my company's home page scores, as an example:

kantan home page performance on desktop

Pretty great score on desktop! But not so fast: kantan home page performance on mobile

Hmmm ... looks like there are a few issues to fix here, specifically swapping out old, less efficient image formats for newer ones that take less time to render.

3) Pre-click copy and CTAs from SERPs, ads or referrals

This one takes a little more effort, but not much. Go to the Overview dashboard of Google Analytics' Acquisition reports, as shown:

Report: Acquisition > Overview

image of GA report for acquisition overview

Then create a custom segment that limits acquisition traffic to the page you're optimizing: image of GA segment

... What are the top acquisition channels for your page?

... Where are visitors coming from and what message (or promise) is compelling them to click over to hear what your page has to say?

Wherever the majority of your visitors are coming from, you better make darn sure that the copy at the top of your page lets users know that they're in the right place and will indeed find (and be able to get) what they came for.

Finding out exactly what is prompting users to click over to your page depends on the acquisition channel you're investigating, but if your Google accounts are linked properly (i.e. Analytics, Adwords, Console, etc.), you should be able to click into specific reports and see extremely useful clues about your funnel's key messages, whether you're looking at top search queries in Google Search Console, top performing ads and keywords in Google Adwords, or the CTAs and links driving traffic from your top referral source pages.

And if Facebook is a significant source of traffic, it can also be worthwhile to confer with whoever is managing the funnel's Facebook Business account and get their notes on what drives the highest number of clicks to your page.

You would be amazed what kind of conversion improvements you can achieve for your company (or your client) by looking beyond the copy just a little bit. It doesn't take a lot of know-how, just a little curiosity and persistence.


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