If I stepped into my kitchen right now and tried to whip up a Beef Wellington, it would not go well.
Could I make something halfway edible? Maaaaybe. But I’m not a trained chef. Nor an amateur chef, to be honest. My husband is the cook in this family. I just eat gratefully and do the dishes.
If you’re a small business owner or marketer, you’ve probably had to step into the role of a copywriter. But crafting effective copy is a skill that requires training and practice, just like running a successful hotel, event venue, restaurant, or making Beef Wellington.
And if you’re not a copywriter by trade, you may have fallen into some common traps that could be hurting your sales and your bottom line. Here are eight common copywriting mistakes, and what you can do to fix them.
1. Writing without a clear target audience
Your customers are not a nameless, shapeless mass. They’re unique individuals with their own wants and needs. Your specific audience will have certain common features which can help you to craft a compelling message that speaks to them. But you can’t do that unless you know who you’re talking to.
How to fix it:
If you’ve been in business for a bit, you have the ultimate source of audience info…your existing customers. What features tie your existing audience together? Google Analytics and your social media data may be a good source of some of the demographic basics, like age, gender, and location.
But you need to go beyond demographics and into psychographics. What problems do your customers have, and how do you solve them? Or alternately, what are they passionate about and how can you feed that passion?
To find out, you can conduct customer surveys to get more detailed data. For example, you could ask hotel guests how often they travel, the most important features they look for in a hotel, and if they travel more for business or leisure.
Once you’ve nailed down your audience, don’t write to them. Write to ONE person in that group. It will make your copy feel more personal. Yes, by doing this you narrow your audience. But you can connect with that group on a much deeper level, improving your overall sales.
2. Crafting copy without customer input
You may think you know exactly what your current customers love about your products or services. But the gap can be between what the business believes and what the customer knows can be a large one.
When you craft sales or marketing copy without speaking to customers—or at least looking at customer reviews—you have to make major assumptions. And those can cost you big-time if you get that messaging wrong.
For hotels, a prime decision motivator is location. But you can’t only rely on location to make the sale, as there could be half a dozen hotels within as many city blocks. Customer feedback could tell you the next most important factor. Maybe it’s your pool and grounds, or maybe it’s the hotel’s historic character.
How to fix it:
Talk to yo’ people.
Interview your customers to find out why they chose you and what features of your product or service made the biggest impact.
Customer reviews are also a great source of feedback and information. Encourage past customers to leave reviews with an automated email that links to your review platform of choice.
3. Writing like a business, not a person
There’s a common phenomenon that occurs when people write for their businesses. They completely forget how human beings talk. Instead of using, they utilize. Instead of eating, they have a dining experience. Instead of tasks, they have action items.
It’s one “synergy” away from being completely incomprehensible.
People do not respond to corporate jargon and adverb-heavy prose. We don’t talk like that, so we shouldn’t write like that either.
How to fix it:
Keep it simple. There’s a reason that good copy is written at a middle school reading level. It’s clear and easy to understand. And don’t make the mistake of conflating “simple” with “dumb.” Ernest Hemingway’s books score around a fifth-grade reading level, and no one would call his books dumb.
Your copy should be written in conversational language, like you’re talking to a friend. After you’ve written your first few sentences, read them aloud. Do they sound stilted or robotic? If so, try again.
4. Inconsistency (especially on menus!)
Menus are a restaurant and catering-specific minefield of copywriting inconsistencies.
- And vs. &
- With vs. w/
- $6.00 vs. $6
Do you want a period at the end of your entree descriptions or not? Either way is okay, as long as you keep it consistent throughout your whole menu.
Menus are notorious for this kind of error. It makes you look careless and unprofessional, and it can damage the customer’s perception of your operation.
How to fix it:
Review a printed copy of your menu with a pen and a highlighter. Don’t do it online. I don’t know why the paper makes such a big difference, but it does. Look for errant periods, dollar signs, abbreviations, capitalizations, and quotes. If you decide to capitalize Brussels sprouts, you should also capitalize French toast.
Do you have any specialty sauces or condiments? Make sure they’re spelled and capitalized the same way every time they appear.
This can be especially taxing with extensive wine or beer lists. But taking the time to make sure that California is CA consistently or that the price is listed before the ABV throughout the menu will make your restaurant look that much more polished.
When you’re done, hand it off to someone else to get extra eyes on it.
5. Skipping what makes you unique
What makes your event venue special? Why is your hotel the place to stay for business travelers? Why should I have a cocktail at your bartop instead of the one down the street?
The answer is your unique selling proposition (USP).
Too many small businesses ignore this crucial differentiator. A restaurant sells burgers, so they call themselves a bar and grill and call it a day. But what’s special about those burgers? Or your atmosphere? Or your staff? Why should I spend my burger budget with you instead of at Whataburger?
Because Whataburger is delicious.
How to fix it
If you’re unclear on your USP, ask the people who know best—your customers. They’ll tell you why you’re special. Maybe you have the best beer selection this side of the Mississippi. Maybe your fried chicken once made a grown man cry. Maybe your event planner’s attention to detail makes couples feel like weddings are easy-peasy.
When you know what your “it” factor is, start with this formula as you work on your USP: [Business name] is a [business type] that [unique benefit to the customer].
Example: Hildy’s Hideaway is a rustic B&B that welcomes you to vacation in a real gold rush ghost town.
You don’t have to stick with that formula, but it’s a good place to start!
6. Not enough content—or too much
Another common copywriting mistake is either sharing too little content or too much.
Restaurants in particular tend to keep their website content thin. And while you don’t need to write a novel waxing poetic about your appetizers, you do need to provide enough content for search engines to understand what your website is all about so your site will show up in Google searches.
But you also don’t want too MUCH content. I recently chatted with a venue manager with an interesting problem…her event venue brochure was sharing too much info, and it wasn’t helping to make the sale. It included all sorts of services that they didn’t provide, like flower arranging and some planning services.
How to fix it
You have to know your audience. How much do they need to know to make the sale? What do they need to know now, and what do they need to know later in the sales process?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution here. The best way to find the sweet spot is to test it out. You could start with a short, simple website and see how that performs for a few months. Then switch it up. Add a longer About page, an FAQ, and some recent press.
Then compare your traffic and any online sales. Does the longer content move the needle more or less?
7. Putting yourself first, instead of the customer
As the business owner, you want to talk up the awesomeness of your own company…but it’s a costly, common mistake.
Here’s the hard truth: most people aren’t reading your copy because they want to know more about the founder or why you started the business or your philosophy on hotels. They’re readying your copy because they’re trying to figure out if you can solve their problem or make their lives better.
That’s why we buy things.
So the words on the page need to be about how you can help the customer.
How to fix it
Here’s a good place to start: search your copy for every instance of the words we, our, and I. Now see how you can turn them around to focus on you.
For an example, download this quick guide: How to Take Your Homepage from Meh to Marvelous in Under an Hour.
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8. Typos and usage errors
No matter how good your copy is, you lose a lot of credibility if it’s riddled with typos, grammar errors, and wrong word choices.
But it’s almost inevitable that as soon as you finalize something, you’ll see a mistake or two. The longer you work on something, the easier it is to miss these little errors. There’s probably a scientific explanation, something about evolution and how our eyes skip over little details so we have more attention to focus on lions.
How to fix it
There’s the tech fix and the hands-on fix, and I suggest using both.
For the tech fix, download the Grammarly web browser extension or something similar. Grammarly is great for spelling and good for catching grammar and usage errors. But it’s not perfect.
So for the hands-on fix, get a second pair of eyes on everything you write, especially if it’s going to be in print. Ask someone with good attention to detail to go over your work with a magnifying glass and a red pen. You’re looking for teh instead of the, i instead of I, and $8,00 instead of $8.00. A fresh set of eyes on your work will be invaluable in helping you to catch these little mistakes.
Think menus, signs, event venue brochures—anything that has a hard copy.
To Wrap Up
If you’re rushing through your copy and content and assuming it’s good enough, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Words are what turn a potential customer into a real one. So give your copy the attention it deserves, instead of treating it as an afterthought.
And if you need help, here’s what I can do for you.
This article was originally published on August 2, 2019. It has since been updated.