Microcopy: Why the tiniest words have the biggest brand impact

Katie Ashford, General Manager - Group Marketing & Communications, Ovato

When you’re developing a website, or putting together a marketing strategy, you’re probably thinking big picture. What will it look like? How will it work? What’s the content schedule? Who’s creating it? This is obviously important stuff. But there’s one tiny thing you’re probably overlooking, and it can have a huge impact on your brand: microcopy.

What is microcopy?

This is the content consumers don’t really notice. It’s the short instructions on a website, app or platform that tell people what to do and how to do it. Think error messages, forms, button copy and sign-up instructions. When you log into Facebook and see the status bar asking, “What’s on your mind?”, or reach a 404 page after clicking a link, you’re looking at microcopy.

Why is it so important?

Microcopy is an opportunity for your brand voice to really shine. Think about how you want customers to perceive you. Are you buttoned-up and corporate? Friendly and easy-going? A little quirky? Totally nuts? Whatever your brand personality is, it comes across most clearly in the practical, everyday interactions a customer has with you.

When done well, microcopy gives customers clear, useful instructions and puts them at ease. It can be the difference between a successful sale or an abandoned shopping cart, the reason for a customer to sign-up, or why they click the ‘X’ at the corner of their screen.

Of course, any writer knows that the shorter the content, the harder it is to write. The good news is that this kind of copy can be easily updated at any time to improve the customer journey. Here are some tips to make yours more engaging and effective.

1. Stay consistent

There’s no point having a zany 404 message with a GIF of a dancing sheep if the rest of your site is written in stuffy corporate-speak. Align the content on your app or website with every other representation of your brand – from the images you choose to the way you respond to users on social media. It should all create a coherent set of personality traits.

2. Make sure it’s clear

There’s nothing more frustrating than hitting a roadblock online and having no clear guidelines or steps to move forward. There’s also nothing that’s more likely to make a user switch to a competitor. Any error messages or instructions should be crystal-clear, so users don’t abandon you.

The same goes for buttons and call-to-actions. ‘Next’ or ‘Submit’ don’t really say anything, so use something more specific – “Download My Free E-book” or “Save And Continue”. This example from Dropbox shows how you can help customers understand what went wrong, as well as giving them a choice of next steps, in just a couple of sentences.

3. Give it some personality

When you’re writing microcopy, consider how you’d say it out loud if you were speaking to a real person. If someone clicks on a link that doesn’t work, you probably wouldn’t say, “You have reached a page that does not exist” and proceed to stare at them blankly. Maybe you’d say something like, “Weird. It looks like that page has disappeared for some reason. You can try clicking here to find that blog post you wanted to read.” Start with the most conversational way to say something and then tweak it to fit the platform and your company tone. Just make sure you’re not trading clarity for quirkiness.

4. Get personal

Personal touches make a customer feel at home on your website and affectionate towards your brand. Given the amount of data you probably already capture, it’s also not difficult to do. Spotify does a great job of this with different messages based on the time of day. If you access the app late at night, it might ask, ‘Still awake?’, while your morning playlist recommendations are under a headline like this one:

Little details like this elevate the user experience from dealing with an algorithm-driven platform to something that’s closer to dealing with real people.

5. Don’t hide it

Microcopy isn’t only relevant in the online world – it’s also the small print on any marketing material like catalogues, posters or brochures. This copy often acts as a disclaimer or provides information you’re legally required to share but maybe don’t want to draw attention to. Squeezing it in at the very end in size 2 font just makes you look like you’ve got something to hide (and could in fact draw the reader’s eye straight to it, if it’s sitting separately to the rest of the text). You’re better off owning these elements and adding some personality to engage your audience.

Is your retail sale only available in certain stores, or while stocks last? Inject that sense of urgency into the headline rather than a tiny disclaimer. Or maybe you’re a gym and legally required to waive responsibility for injury. Put that front and centre, so readers are encouraged to take ownership of their own safety. This also gives you more creative license to play with colour, font and design, rather than limiting your brand to the small black print at the bottom of a page.

Overall, don’t be afraid of microcopy. The more memorable the small, practical moments with your brand, the more likely it is that a user will return for more meaningful interactions.