The Write Podcast, E05: Conversion Copywriting Tactics with Joanna Wiebe

The Write Podcast, Episode 5: Conversion Copywriting Tactics with Joanna Wiebe

by | Mar 30, 2016 | The Write Podcast

What does “conversion copywriter” mean? What is the target aim of all good copywriting? How does SEO fit in, if at all, to conversion-oriented copy? Joanna answers these key questions and more in my episode today for The Write Podcast. I was thrilled to capture a slot of her time and get an interview in–I’ve been a fan of Joanna’s for a long time! An expert copywriter and founder of Copyhackers, she’s optimized web and email copy for brands like Wistia, Buffer, Crazy Egg, Neil Patel, Shopify, just to name a few. She’s been invited to teach conversion copywriting on the stages of Mozcon, Heroconf, CXL Live, CTA Conf, SydStart, Problogger, and many more.

Joanna’s really cool, down-to-earth, and fascinatingly intelligent: I bet, no holds, you’ll learn something you didn’t know about online copy. Enjoy listening!

conversion copywriting joanna wiebe the write podcast

In Episode 5 of The Write Podcast, Joanna Wiebe discusses:

  • How she (and her boss) came up with the term conversion copywriter 
  • What copywriting is: writing that moves people to action
  • Her background in copywriting: she learned writing in school, was 100% self-taught in copywriting
  • How being self-taught usually means you’re learning from experts who put their ideas online
  • The hugely growing need for online copywriting wasn’t something she dreamed of when she started
  • What the 3 major parts to conversion copywriting are
  • How she got an 8% lift for Crazy Egg by tailoring home page copy
  • How she doesn’t really care about “SEO” in conversion-oriented copy, but the keywords usually come in naturally
  • Copy tips for businesses/brands just starting out with creating online copy

If you like what you hear, please leave me an honest rating and review on iTunes by clicking here. It will help the show and it’s ranking in iTunes immensely. I appreciate it! Enjoy the show!

Transcript of Episode 5: Conversion Copywriting Tactics with Joanna Wiebe

Julia: I’m here with Joanna Wiebe, the founder of Copy Hackers, and a conversion copywriter. She’s been the speaker at Copyblogger’s Authority Intensive event, MozCon, Inbound, ProBlogger and many more.

Joanna, it’s so great to have you here today, as you know I’m a big fan of yours.

Joanna: Thank you, that’s very nice of you to say. Actually for MozCon, I was invited to speak, but I was going to Paris instead, so I had to make that choice. So I haven’t been on the MozCon stage yet, but soon.

Julia: Well Paris sounds like more fun. [LAUGH]

Joanna: Don’t tell the Moz people that! [LAUGH] No, it was one of those things where you can’t really say, well I’m gonna cancel my Paris trip.

Julia: Right.

Joanna: But it was very nice to be invited to that, yeah.

Julia: So do you think you’ll do one down the road?

Joanna: I think so, yeah. There’s no reason not to, so yeah.

Julia: Awesome.

Joanna: Yeah.

Julia: To get started, how did you come up with the term conversion copywriting, and what exactly does it mean?

Joanna: I have a background in copywriting, way back to creative copywriting is where I started as an agency copywriter, which wasn’t called copywriter because it wasn’t to the direct response part of the agency, but rather just the creative side of the agency.

Which doesn’t mean that other people who work in agencies don’t have the title copywriter, but I got to choose what I wanted. And my boss and I, when we were sitting there going over like, what title should I have? [LAUGH] And he was like, what about copywriter? And I was like, gross, that sounds awful!

Julia: [LAUGH]

Joanna: And then so we landed on conversion copywriter, and we both thought this was fantastic, and for me, years down the road that initial decision kind of shaped a lot for me.

When we talk about copywriting, we’re talking about so many things. 

There are different ways to approach that, and so when we look through the history of copywriting, and yes there is a long one, way back at the beginning it was kind of what we’re talking about now with conversion copywriting, writing something that was designed fully to move people to act. [clickToTweet tweet=”If you’re copywriting, you are writing something that is meant to move people to action [email protected]” quote=”If you’re quote on quote copywriting, you are writing something that is meant to move somebody to action, so copywriting if it’s there to move people to action, let’s do that immediately, whatever that action is.”]

Then there was this period in there, when award shows started happening for agencies, and you’d find people looking at copywriting more as a creative exercise, like how do we get a brand story out there? Not that, that’s so far moved from conversion copywriting because telling a story can help to convert people, but there was a really big focus on coming up with concepts, and with concepts that means like to creative concepts.

So to turn something into a billboard, or a commercial, or a campaign that isn’t designed to move people to act, it’s designed for other reasons, there maybe a lot of them. But conversion copywriting is there to take the best of direct response copywriting, that old school kind of stuff, and the best of what we know about human decision-making, the best of user experience styles, like we know about designing experiences, and moving people to act using an interface, or just the experience itself.

All those pieces come together to create what we call conversion copywriting, again where the goal is to get people to act.

Julia: So to get where I’m at in writing, I just basically taught myself all the skills I needed to know to learn how to write online content, and I left nursing school to do that.

Joanna: Yeah.

Julia: So as far as your background, and how you got into writing, was it like self-teaching, or did you go through school?

Joanna: Well for writing itself, it was in school. So I did an undergraduate degree in English. With creative writing as a big part of that, and then I did my masters in communications and technology, which was less about writing and more about communicating online.

So I would say for copywriting, I am 100% self-taught. And the self-taught part, it’s hard to say that when people are learning so much online today because one of the differences between reading everything Copyblogger has got, and going to school where you’ll learn everything Copyblogger’s just said; self-taught, it feels like, but you’re still learning from smart, smart people, we’re not living in bubbles, but I agree.

[clickToTweet tweet=”‘When I started copywriting, I didn’t even know what copywriting was.’ @copyhackers @writepodcast ” quote=”When I look back, I didn’t study Gene Schwartz when I started copywriting, I didn’t even know what was copywriting. I didn’t know, and I think many of us don’t know what it is that we’re actually doing.”]

[clickToTweet tweet=”‘You can make your life so much better by teaching yourself: go read the right books.’ @copyhackers” quote=”And the history that’s there, and all the things you could be learning to make your job, and your life then so much better if you just go read the right books, and do all that stuff to help you as you’re essentially teaching yourself.”]

Julia: I love that explanation. It’s so true that you’re teaching yourself, but you’re still learning from someone else.

Joanna: Yeah, right? And that’s really the quote unquote the future, not that I dare to imagine that I have any clue what the future holds, [LAUGH] but it does feel like all, or so much of what’s traditionally done is moving to a more user-driven online at least, or mobile, or just not in a bricks and mortar location, whether that’s a school, or a store, or whatever.

It’s all moving, right? And so the idea of being self-taught, I think it’s more and more people of course are just gonna say I was self-taught, but that’s because you were taught by all of the people who are putting their great ideas online.

Julia: That’s true. That’s true, and also on that, I saw that you taught a web writing course back in, was it 2008?

Joanna: Yeah, you did your research!

Julia: I saw that on LinkedIn, and I was actually approached several years ago by someone who was like, why don’t you teach this in our local college? Because there is so little known about how to write for the web.

So I saw that and I was like, oh, wow! Joanna has done this. [LAUGH]

Joanna: [LAUGH] Yeah it is cool, and there are so many opportunities. There’s a copywriter who is now teaching I believe it’s a masters level course. I think it is, I might be wrong. On copywriting at the University of Iowa, which is of course a school that’s very well known for it’s writing, with the people who it turns out that are writers, and so for them to be offering a copywriting course now too. I’ve been lucky to do like little guest sessions there, where I get to go in and tell people what it’s like to be a copywriter in real life, and so it’s cool that they’re doing that. So when I taught there, that was like in the extension or not the faculty of extension, whatever it is, the group that’s like you don’t have to be approved, you don’t want to be an accepted student, you can just drop in and take the course through it. So it wasn’t a program from the university, at the time it was still a college, and now it’s an accredited university. It wasn’t like trying to do anything with copywriting, but it was the same kind of situation you’re talking about, where they’re like, I actually had taken a web writing course because I had to.

I was working at Intuit, and they have requirements for what you’re supposed to be doing to improve your knowledge, and train in your area, and so that was one of the things where my boss at the time was like, well just take that, and I was like, okay fine, whatever. It’s a Saturday, I’ll go in and have coffee and see what’s up.

And while taking it, then afterward I was encouraged to go and just teach it the next time. So it’s the same kind of situation you’re talking about, but yeah there’s lots of opportunities to learn, and to teach.

Julia: Yes, and it seems like there’s a growing need for that, like that will just happen more and more.

Joanna: You’d never think when I was sitting there, I would never think sitting at the agency ten years ago, and not knowing what a copywriter really was, even though that was my job. I would never have thought, oh! there is a big demand for this, or there are a lot of people who need this.

But today especially, I don’t know if it’s because of everything online and content marketing, inbound marketing and everything, I can only assume that’s what’s driving so much of the demand for copywriters, but there is a huge demand. And so it’s always telling to me how many people are interested in learning, how many do sign up for courses, or sign up to learn more from us by subscribing to our stuff, there’s just a lot of interest.

Julia: Wow! Yeah.

So I also wanted to go into just the actual conversion copywriting you’ve done, and maybe some of your success stories with the clients, or just a couple of examples of conversion copywriting.

Joanna: So conversion copywriting for me, it follows a pretty straightforward process, there are three parts to it. Phase one is research and discovery, and that’s the biggest phase. Phase two is actually writing, which includes wire-framing, and then going over and editing your work, to add in all the stuff that’s going to make it great, take out all the stuff that isn’t doing any work, that’s phase two.

And then phase three is the split testing side of it, so it doesn’t mean you always have to split test in order to be writing conversion copy, that’s not critical. But it is, thankfully with technology, there are ways that we can really measure things that previously copywriters had a very hard time measuring, where you couldn’t point to just how much you’ve done for a business even though you’re the online sales person.

You’re the one that connects to customers, and brings in more leads and more customers, it’s all on your words largely, but traditionally it’s been difficult to measure the impact. So that’s where I do say, as phase three of writing conversion copy, do your absolute best to measure how it worked, so a split testing tool could do that.

Now a little while back we did the home page test for Crazy Egg, the heat mapping software, click tracking software, that was cool. The whole objective was to keep the layout as similar as possible, excluding things if need be, but not rearranging elements necessarily, and really just rewrite the copy, so we did that.

A couple things there. When you’re writing copy online, when you’re writing any copy, you are directly impacting whether people will or will not sign up, or buy, or share, or whatever it may be, and so we have to be careful when you’re writing that copy of the things that you’re doing.

So we were careful going into this Crazy Egg test, just like we’d be careful in anything. Any assumptions that we were making, like one particular assumption we had was, they had a Johnson’s box, the traditional Johnson’s box on the Crazy Egg home page.

For everybody who doesn’t know what a Johnson’s box is, people talk about call-out boxes today as Johnson’s boxes, but those are not Johnson’s boxes.

[clickToTweet tweet=”‘A Johnson’s box comes from the old school salesletter printed on paper.’ @copyhackers #quote” quote=”A Johnson’s box comes from the old school sales letter that was printed on paper, where when you open up the letter and unfold it, there at the top above the first fold is a box that has a border around it, and it really summarizes in a nutshell what you’re about to find inside.”]

It may say the offer, or it may just point you to some things that get you interested in reading the entire, what could be a twenty-page letter that you’ve got in your hands, sometimes less, sometimes more, but it could be a very long letter, so that Johnson’s box was doing a lot of work on that sales letter.

So Crazy Egg had a Johnson box of a sort. It was kind of like navigation, but it was doing what a Johnson’s box tries to do, which is trying to get you to get excited about what’s in store for you if you read this. I didn’t see it working. When we did click tracking on the Crazy Egg home page, we didn’t see people really engaging with it, but we couldn’t be sure.

So before we did any copywriting tests at all, we just did an exclusion test. So exclusion tests you just take out an element, and see what the impact is. So we did an exclusion test on that Johnson box, so a new variation of the page that’s exactly the same except the Johnson box is gone, to see if it was critical to keep that when we moved forward.

It turned out it wasn’t. There was no real lift or drop, nothing significant, so we felt comfortable pulling it out, so we did. And then when we went through and we did our next variation, where we were actually optimizing the copy, we had several recipes that we came up with. A recipe being each new variation that you’ve got to be split test.

So we did three different versions of that home page, where we were really just shortening the copy in each one. So the Crazy Egg home page at the time was super long, and it was also very optimized. That long page had been tested by a group that I used to actually work for, I wasn’t involved in that test when it happened though, Conversion Rate Experts. They’re fantastic, and they had this really optimized version that I was supposed to be improving on, which was intimidating to say the least, but theirs was really long, and so we did three different versions where each one was shorter. And we just rewrote the copy using language that we had found in surveys and online, like message-mining that we would do to see how people really talk about in this case Crazy Egg, or just solutions that are part of a conversion optimization strategy.

So we went and we looked for messages online, and in survey results, we interviewed some Crazy Egg users, just going out there is a core part of conversion copywriting. It’s going out finding your message, rather than sitting there and staring at the page and hoping to come up with it, which is where most of us, [LAUGH] generally start out, right? Which is tragic.

Julia: Right, right.

Joanna: Right? So we did that, and we pulled in a few different messages, we did some more exclusion testing to get down to those shorter versions, and in the end we got a lift. Now this lift was not incredible, it’s not like, oh wow! We doubled their revenue! We got an 8% lift.

Julia: That’s still good.

Joanna: That’s still good though, right? It is still an improvement. We condensed well, now they’ve got a very short page that they’ve tested and it works for them, so that’s great. But that 8% lift is still a great lift, and it does speak to the fact that when you revise your copy, and when you test it, you can see if it worked or not.

It also speaks to the value of having a process in place and not looking internally for those messages, but actually looking externally and finding your messages in the words of your prospects and customers. So that’s one example of a page that we did.

Julia: It’s really interesting to see how you worked that out. Back when I was hired as the writer, maybe four years ago, I’d been mostly hired as a SEO writer, so that’s kind of how I started out. So do you use any optimization, or do you not even look at keywords?

Joanna: I have found that if you’re writing using the words of your customers and prospects, then you’re generally using keywords.

Julia: That makes sense.

Joanna: Yeah, right? Although we do take into consideration any particular keyword phrases that have to appear in let’s say an H1.

Julia: Right.

Joanna: Just because we don’t want to have a problem with the internal, or [LAUGH] contracted SEO, we wanna get along well. So, we’ll consider it, but for example right now we’re doing a test on, on their home page, we actually just launched it. And in that, their keyword phrase that they had in their H1, that they still have in their control variation at least, the control. It was just a keyword phrase, it was I think email and social media marketing, that was their headline.

Now a copywriter [LAUGH] Comes in and says like, what? That’s not a headline, that’s not even close to a headline!

Julia: [LAUGH]

Joanna: So we have to then have the discussion with the team that get’s them onboard with the fact that, we’re gonna test something that may not, probably will not read like the current headline does.

So we may not get that keyword phrase in there, but if our new page outperforms the control, then we will from that point on do another test afterward that tries to get that keyword phrase in there. But the first things first, we have to get people to choose you. So when they land on your site, you have to make a choice, do you want to get more people to your site? Or do you wanna get more of those people to convert on your site? You bring us then if you wanna get more people to convert on your site, and that doesn’t mean we’ll sacrifice SEO, we’re not trying to hurt your page, [LAUGH] and have you not rank as well, absolutely we’re not, but that’s not gonna be our first thought.

[clickToTweet tweet=”‘We have to lead with the language that comes from our prospects and customers.’ @copyhackers #quote” quote=”And so if they’re cool with that, if they’re not cool with that, we can’t move forward because we have to lead with the language that comes from our prospects and customers.”]

Not the language that comes from some internal department, or some contracted agency that has their own agenda, and not necessarily the user’s agenda first and foremost, or even the business bottom line first and foremost.

So we have to have that hard conversation, it’s really that hard because we do have a plan, right? If the page loses, then it’s gone and you don’t worry about it competing with, about having to figure out a new way to squeeze that keyword phrase into a certain place, because you’re control one, so you get to keep it.

If our new variation beats the control, then we have a system, right? Then we’ll put together another variation of the page that has that keyword phrase in the headline, or wherever it is that you think it needs to be that it wasn’t. Test that, and if that still does least as well as the one that we produced does, then we can go with that one that’s both CRO and SEO-friendly.

Julia: It’s interesting too, to me to see that SEO mindset has changed so much. So I think people are starting to realize they have to speak the language of their customers, like you said.

Joanna: Exactly. It’s not just working the way as well, right? [LAUGH]

Julia: [LAUGH]

Joanna: I think we’ve all heard the horror stories of somebody who put SEO first, and then Google changed their algorithm, and now they’re not only not ranking, but they’re penalized dramatically.

Julia: Yeah.

Joanna: So they’re not in their former spot even, but it’s even worse than that. So I think Google is always gonna reward you for putting the user first, that’s their whole job, is to get people to the right places. So if you’re using your visitors language, we would always vet first on using your visitor’s language rather than trying to optimize for other kind of, not to negate what SEOs do, because I have really good SEO friends, but we don’t wanna do some of the trickier things that have been done traditionally by SEOs, which I know are really not happening anymore.

Julia: Yes, that’s really good. I think a lot of them have died out.

Joanna: Yeah.

Julia: So just to wrap this up Joanna, what would be some, let’s say startup tips, or just initial things? Let’s say a business owner is just starting out creating their website content, what would be just some good strategies for them to think about as they start creating it?

Joanna: Yeah, if you’re starting that’s a great place to be.

I would say throw out all of your ideas about what copy should sound like, about how your page should look, and start by going out and just eavesdropping on your prospects, and that’s like the best way to put it, I think. Is going out, not stalking them because that always sounds very, very bad, [LAUGH] but if you can just listen in on their conversations, listen in to the ways that they talk to the things that they’re thinking about, you’ll be further ahead than if you hired most copywriters actually.

Because once you get out there and start listening, you’re bringing in all that information that any good copywriter would wanna bring in anyway, and you’re doing it yourself, and you care about your own business, and all of that good stuff. So, that’s where I would say to start, and there are really easy ways to eavesdrop.

Like if you’re somebody who’s comfortable talking to people, which I know a lot of people are not that comfortable with. So if you are though, you can obviously set up good interviews with any existing customers you may have. If you don’t have any, then you can set up interviews with people who look like, or are very similar to the types of people you want to build the business for.

So if you want to help nursing students with a nursing course let’s say, or a course on how to move from nursing into the best form of nursing possible, I don’t know what it is. But whatever it is, if you’re building a solution for a certain group of people, if you’re building it for nursing students, well the most natural thing to do would be to try to talk to those nursing students. So reach out to some. Go into the faculty of nursing, and sit there as student nurses go by, and ask if you could please set up a time to buy them coffee and just pick their brains. This isn’t complicated, it doesn’t have to be crazier than that. Now if you’re not comfortable doing that, or let’s say you’re not in a position where you can just go walk into a space where you know your audience is, and ask them things, there’s other possible things you can do online to find your messages too, where are those nursing students talking? What are they doing to express their concerns?

And that could be, we talk about, because we learn from Jay Abraham, who teaches us and it’s brilliant, to go on Amazon, and look up a product or a book that’s closely related to the thing that you’re selling.

If you’re selling a service, go on any of those service review sites. All you’re really doing is going to look for reviews that people have left of products, or services that they’ve purchased that are similar in some way to the thing that you’re trying to sell.

So that you can find their objections, what they were hoping to get out of something, which means the pain that they’re really trying to solve, what they had most desired, and all these big ideas, these ultimate benefits they were looking for, and the outcomes they wanted. They say this stuff in natural language in the reviews. Tweets are harder, I wouldn’t recommend you go through tweets, and look for what they’re saying there because people have to shorten their language so much. But in places like reviews again, or comments on blog posts, or on YouTube videos, or wherever it might be where you can find how people are really speaking about what they really want, then that’s the best place to go to find your message. Pull all of that information in, and then start organizing it in a persuasive way on the page, and that can be as simple as taking that information, and writing a letter to your prospect. So have that nursing student in mind, have your solution for him or her in mind, and write a letter to him, say it’s a male nursing student, write a letter to him that is trying to get him to sign up for the thing that you’re selling, or buy the thing that you’re selling.

But these are really basic, easy things that a lot of people skip over, but that can be the big difference between actually writing a high converting page, or just writing a ho-hum page that nobody can really connect with.

Julia: I love it! Thank you so much for sharing your insights, and joining me today Joanna.

Joanna: Thanks a lot for having me, Julia.

[MUSIC] For more online content tips and strategies, visit [MUSIC]

Julia: Joanna is a fantastic expert to follow to learn copywriting hacks, tips and strategies. Follow her on Twitter @copyhackers.

Also if you’re a marketing owl, go join our weekly Twitter chat. It happens every Tuesday at 10 AM Central Standard Time. Join us with the #ContentWritingChat. We feature weekly guest experts, and we talk about all things content creation and marketing.

Also, my book is coming out this March, it’s called So You Think You Can Write? The Definitive Guide to Successful Online Writing. And in this book I share everything I’ve learned in order to create a career around, and succeed in online content writing. So keep an eye out for it on Amazon.

Thanks for joining today’s Write Podcast! For more episodes go to