In show 51 of the Content Champion podcast, I'm delighted to be talking with Will Hoekenga, the experienced professional copywriter behind Copygrad - one of my favourite writing blogs and amongst the top resources of its type online. Will has developed a 'copy hierarchy of needs' to ensure our copywriting always meets our prospects' requirements - and we discuss his unique approach in this fascinating half-hour episode.
Will Hoekenga is one of those writers you're always pleased to hear from when their latest email drops into your inbox. His copy is consistently intelligent, engaging and entertaining - and when you also consider he cut his teeth on the Leadpages marketing team - you'll know why I was so excited to be able to 'pick his brain' on my latest show.
To help non copywriters create more needs-focused copy, Will has developed a simple five point framework we can all use to create more engagement and drive better results with our copywriting.
So for half an hour during this episode, we discuss how he came up with the idea, what these specific five stages are - and how this whole framework can help us.
Will was very generous with his time for this call, and I guarantee that what he has to say will change the way you look at and create your copy in future.
The Copy Hierarchy of Needs: Ensuring Your #Copywriting Meets Your Prospects’ Requirements With Will Hoekenga
The Copy Hierarchy of Needs
Hi folks. Welcome to the Content Champion Podcast. Thanks for listening. On the show this time, it’s my pleasure to introduce fellow professional copywriter and expert marketer, Will Hoekenga.
Formerly in the product marketing and copywriting team at LeadPages, Will is also a highly experienced freelance copywriter. In 2014, he started a superb online resource Copygrad.com which helps startups and entrepreneurs improve their copy and conversion rates without having to become copywriting experts.
Will is also a high profile guest blogger - and it was one of his excellent articles on another great blog, Copy Chief, on ensuring your copy meets your prospects’ needs - that we’ll be discussing today.
Let's dive in. Thanks for coming on Will.
Hey, Loz. Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Now, before we kick off, we’d love you to share your backstory with us please?
Yeah, sure. I got started really with copywriting shortly after I finished college in 2010 and I just fell into it on accident. I always was a writer. I studied English in college. I just started getting requests from people who needed stuff for their website, and I just started educating myself in copywriting, and gradually built up a freelance business.
In 2014 after I’d been doing that for about 4 years or so. I had started a few blogs here and there. Then, it all fizzled out fairly quickly because of my own lack of commitment and lack of understanding really about what it takes to start a blog, and actually build a following, and sustain your own interest in doing it. I decided for myself that I was finally going to start a blog and put an intentional effort into not just publishing stuff but attracting an audience. I decided to just blog about copywriting, and marketing, and things that I was learning about that. That’s why I started Copygrad.
This was early 2014. I published a few posts and I ended up publishing a post analyzing how a company called LeadPages does their product launches. I was a LeadPages customer. I am sure you’re familiar with them. They make landing page and lead generation software. I wrote this post and their CEO, Clay Collins, ended up seeing it on Twitter. I think I tweeted it at him a couple of times hoping for a retweet or something like that. He liked the post. He sent me a message. We started talking back and forth. He ended up inviting me to come up to their headquarters in Minnesota and hang out with their marketing team on a retreat. I went up there thinking, “This would be great. I could get another client out of this maybe.”
Anyway, I ended up just falling in love with their marketing team and the talent that they had there. They ended up offering me a job to join their marketing team just three or four months after starting this blog. I made the decision then to give it a shot. I’ve been interested in the startup world for a while and the software space especially - and thought this could be an excellent learning opportunity to be surrounded with people who are all great experts in their particular fields within marketing.
I moved up to Minneapolis where they’re headquartered in the summer of 2014, and I worked with them for about 15 months, and had an absolute blast, learned so much. I think I was the 45th employee. By the time I left LeadPages which was this past July, they were at over 150 employees. Just amazing growth. It was like getting a 4-year education in marketing every single month that I was there. They moved so fast.
Anyway, this past July, I’ve gotten the itch to get back to really focusing on writing, and growing an audience, and everything, and saw my career could go one way if I stayed at LeadPages which would have been a nice opportunity as well, but I just really had the itch to return to writing and freelancing. I got back to doing that I July, and fired things back up on Copygrad, and here we are.
It’s a great story of that and what an experience at LeadPages. I’m a LeadPages customer and they do things so well in their marketing. I noticed you there producing some excellent content while you were at LeadPages. It must just have been a fantastic time being in their team really.
Yeah, it really was. One of the fun things about freelancing is the amount of control you have over your schedule, and creative control, and stuff like that especially if you’re producing content, but one thing that can be a downside sometimes is you’re not always working with other people who are amazing at what they do. That really gave me an intensive 15-month opportunity to just be surrounded by people who are experts in paid media, business development, product marketing, usability. It was amazing.
Let’s reel things back to today’s subject. We’re looking at a post you wrote on the Copy Chief Blog all about the copy hierarchy of needs. Tell us what a hierarchy of needs is and outline the out that you’ve created for copywriting?
The idea of a hierarchy of needs, it goes back to this guy named Abraham Maslow who is a psychologist. He invented famously Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s basically the idea that before humans can pursue fulfilling higher level needs like emotional needs, needs for self-esteem, and self-actualization, and stuff like that, they have to have their basic needs satisfied.
You can’t focus really on improving your emotional life if you don’t have food or you don’t have shelter and a place to sleep. There are these foundational things that have to be taken care of before you can move on to pursuing higher level needs in life..
I probably learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point during psychology class in high school or college. Then, it drifted away from memory but I randomly found this book on Amazon. One night, I was just browsing around. It’s this book called Universal Principles of Design. It’s really interesting. It’s one of those books that you pick it up, and 10 minutes later, you forget where you were. It’s just like really interesting stuff.
Anyway, it basically highlights 125 different design principles and ways of enhancing usability, influencing user perception, and stuff like that. One page in there, they had this hierarchy of needs solely for designers. It was basically how to meet a user or a customer’s needs in your design. It started out with things like the design needs to function. If it’s something like a table, it has to have legs, they have to be able to sit at it, and all this basic stuff. Then, there’s reliability and usability. It goes up. All the way at the top is creativity. Basically, something has to be useful and functional before you can worry too much about making it look cool and stuff like that.
It was really useful for me as a non-designer to be able to start thinking about that and understanding how designers think about things. I was like, “Damn. Why isn’t there something like this for copy? That would be really great for, especially, non-copywriters to understand all the different levels of needs that copy needs to meet before it can be considered really good.” That was the inspiration of the post.
There were five stages that you go through like a pyramid structure. I’m going to put details of that in the show notes and an image of that. Look at those in more detail, drill down into those. We’ve got readability needs, formatting issues, action-critical information, emotional engagement, and creating a sense of belonging. Let’s go through all this and see how they pan out starting with the readability needs. What’s your take on that, Will?
This is the most core basic need of any copy. It’s like it seems so obvious that it’s almost like you laugh to yourself when you’re going through it but it’s when you think about it, the first thing copy needs to do is people just have to be able to read it. It’s basically useless if it’s in the wrong language or if it’s so full of mistakes that people are just distracted. Grammar doesn’t need to be perfect but there need to be words on the screen or the page that people can actually read.
Then, that really follows into formatting as well. Readability and formatting go hand-in-hand, don’t they, in that context?
Right, yeah. Formatting is where you can actually get into a little bit of the principles of copywriting. Short paragraph, text that isn’t hard to read on the screen. You don’t want it gray text on white background or anything like that. Big, bold headlines. There’s actually a phrase that Stephen King uses that I really like a lot. He basically says that, “Copy should be as airy as a Dairy Queen ice cream cone.” There should be a lot of space. It should be breathable. There should be textual variation. If you are writing out numbers, using the numeral instead of writing out the word eight, or nine, or whatever to give the eyes something different.
Then, your copy needs to be readable in all formats. This is probably the most recent new need in this category. The text needs to be readable on mobile, on desktop. A lot of times, that’s easy to overlook when you’re creating a bunch of different assets for a campaign. If you’re writing ads, and creating landing pages, and stuff like that, a lot of times, as a copywriter, you’re just writing that stuff in a Google Doc or something and that you can forget, is this text going to be an image background? What are all the formats this is going to be consumed in? It’s keeping that in mind and making sure that it’s going to stay readable in any situation.
There’s a ton of stuff on readability and formatting issues as well. You mentioned Stephen King. I don’t know if you’ve read his great book 'On Writing'.
Yes, that’s actually what that quote is from and I love that book.
Okay, I thought that rang a bell but I’m going to put a link to that because it’s well with everyone buying a copy and reading that because he goes through the whole process of the technical sides of writing, and readability, and formatting issues. You’ve touched on that. He’s a master at it. You’re just reading it. It does sound simple but when you see it presented in that way, it’s like a light bulb going on. You say, “Okay, there are things that I take for granted in my copy that you can work hard to make all the difference.”
Right. Yeah, it’s really a fantastic book. It’s not one that a lot of people who are getting into research and copywriting and wanting to become better copywriters, it’s not always a book that you go to because it’s really more a book about creative writing. Obviously, Stephen King is a novelist but it’s really a fantastic book and there are lots of really applicable lessons to copywriting in it.
We’re talking about the copy hierarchy of needs that you’ve written about. This one is a little bit contentious and I’ll come back to this when we finish the whole five. We’re looking at the third part of the pyramid, action-critical information. You’ve put this in the middle. There is some talk in the comments under the post that I’ve read about, should this be at the end? Do things that ultimately lead on to action taken at the end? Tell us first about the action-critical information in the copy hierarchy. Then, we’ll go through the rest and we can come back to that at the end.
If you’re thinking about a page that you’re writing copy for, or an email, or whatever it may be that you’re writing copy for, really to serve a functional purpose, you’re writing the copy so someone can do something. In my opinion, that means that the copy first needs to be readable. Then, it needs to be formatted well. Then, there has to be some action strictly for the copy to be functional. If there’s just copy and they can’t click a button to do anything, or click a link, or whatever, then it’s basically pointless.
The best way to ensure that you meet a prospect’s action needs is to just ask yourself, what information does my customer need to make an action decision? Action decision is going to depend, like I said earlier, based on what you’re writing copy for. If it’s an email, that decision is likely just to click through to something else. If it’s a sales page, the decision is probably to purchase something. An opt-in page, the decision is, should I submit my email address? If it’s something like a homepage for enterprise software, they’re probably deciding about whether they want to request a demo or something like that..
Basically, there’s basic information that goes along with each of those actions that a prospect needs in order to make a decision about taking action. If it is a sales page, they’re going to need things like price or maybe a return policy, money back guarantee, list of relevant features, a buy button, secure payment information, and things like that. Some of those are just nice-to-have things
Really, the only thing a person needs to take an action is the buy button but when you start thinking about what information does someone need to make a buying decision, that’s when you get things like, it’d probably be nice to know the price. A money back guarantee might make them feel more comfortable knowing that their payment and information is secure. It would also make them feel comfortable. If it’s for something like they’re buying tickets for an event, then you’re going to want to have the relevant dates on there
When you start taking about this stuff, a lot of it seems very obvious. It’s like, “Of course, you need to put the date on a sales page for an event,” but I found even myself, when you’re actually sitting down to write that stuff and you’re doing it all from scratch, it’s so easy to overlook little details. I even remember at LeadPages one time, I was making a landing page for an event, and I sent it off for approval, and I’ve completely forgotten to put the date and time of the event on the page which led to an interesting discussion. I was getting edits for that. Really, this is all about making sure that you put elements on whatever you’re creating that gives people what they need to make an informed action decision.
I’ve been copywriting for 17 years now. I feel old. In that time, the amount of businesses I’ve worked with, especially small businesses, you say it’s obvious this stuff but, you get those small static sites that might be selling a local service or local products business. The static page is about the services and the products or their about page to provide the information.
Then, you get to the end of the page, it’s like twiddling thumbs, “Okay, what do I do now?” It’s not like, “Call us now,” or “Email us,” or “Click here to contact us.” None of that. All the pages is jump off the cliff. If you just went through, if you go to a 10-page website and you go through each of your static pages, not even on your blog or anything, just put a call to action at the end to say, “Phone us,” or “Click here to contact us,” your conversion rates are going to go up. It’s so easily missed but so easily remedied.
It’s funny because even for people who do marketing professionally, who know all this stuff, it’s so easy for us to see when other people’s sites are missing things like this but then, we’ll turn around and be like, “Crap, my own about page doesn’t even have an action for people to take.”
I think it’s because when you’re working on your own stuff, you’re usually just doing it in the time you have in the margins, and it’s so easy to overlook things like that. Having something like this to use as a checklist, when you’re writing any type of copy, just being able to say, “Okay, am I providing all the information? Someone needs to take an action,” or “Is there even an action on this page?” It’s really helpful.
It’s like the doctor smoking thing. There’s probably something psychological going on in that. It’s probably a psychological phenomenon that you can be in marketing and tell people to do this stuff, and then you actually aren’t doing it yourself, and similar things to that like being a doctor that says you must eat healthily, you mustn’t smoke, and then you go home and have a burger and crack open a few beers.
Returning back then again, we’re on number four of your hierarchy of needs for copy. Coming after the action-critical information, we've got the emotional engagement. Tell us about this?
Once you have the first three elements in place, you essentially have … If you’re working on, like I used the example, the sales page earlier, if you satisfied the first three needs, you essentially have a page that functions. It has information about the product on it, people can read it, and there’s a way for them to take action. I really think that if you are able to get a survey on every website out there, I think 97% of sites would probably only satisfy those first three needs. They always have the features and you can do something but these last two areas is really where the good copy starts to separate itself from the copy that just meets basic needs.
The first way to start to do that is by satisfying people’s emotional needs. It’s going beyond just describing what the product does, what its features are, and start getting into the benefits and the needs that it fulfills. I think the quote that best sums up the features and benefits conversation because there’s a thousand blog posts written on features versus benefits and things like that but there’s this line from a guy named Samuel Hulick. It was a great website called useronboard.com where he said people don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.
He has this great little graphic, it is on the blog post, from the game Mario. It’s a little picture of the regular Mario as the person who’s your potential customer. Then, in Mario, you could get the little flower and it would turn Mario into a guy who could then throw fireballs and do a bunch of awesome stuff. The flower is essentially the product. Then, at the end is the awesome version of Mario who’s throwing fireballs and doing all sorts of stuff.
Really the idea behind this is you’re not selling the flower, you’re selling the better version of Mario that can do all the awesome stuff. This copy really shows people what the product is going to allow them to do.
The art of this - and this is something I’m still learning - I used to be a journalist, as I said, a copywriter for 17 years, it’s something that’s extremely difficult what you’re now talking about. I’ve just realized in that conversation why you’ve put action in the middle. You’re talking the prerequisites, the first three, the readability, formatting, and action information and what most people do, the minimum required prerequisites to get your content in some degree to move the needle but where you take concept further where it gets really hard is the emotional stuff you’re talking about.
Then, the fifth one which is creating a sense of belonging. It seems to me that you know when you’re reading content and you find yourself inside getting excited about the prospect of what this will enable you to do, even if it turns out subsequently that’s way off the mark, great copy without even selling to you can actually make you think this is going to change for the better light. When you say reading about an exercise program or something, and you can imagine yourself doing this and say, “Hey, this will fit with my lifestyle,” what’s actually happening is they’re pressing this emotional engagement and creating this sense of belonging through the content without you noticing and that is very hard to do but when you get it right, it’s very powerful, isn’t it?
Yes. Really, with emotional needs being the fourth need, that’s where I think copy becomes good copy. With belonging needs which is the fifth and final one, in the post, I described it as the Holy Grail for copywriters, this is really what separates great copy from everything else. When you fulfill someone’s need really to belong in your copy, you’re going to go beyond just convincing them to buy. You’re going to affect them so much emotionally that it’s going to enhance their loyalty. Increase the likelihood that they’re going to continue to purchase from you again and again. You’re also going to increase evangelism. You’re going to create customers who can’t help but walk around talking about how much they love your product.
This is extremely difficult and rare, I think, for copy to do. Really, it’s not even dependent just on the copy to be able to meet this. You also have to have a great product in order to really fulfill belonging because the copy can be good, and touch them emotionally, and get them to buy but then, if the product sucks, obviously, they’re not going to keep buying.
I used the example of MailChimp in the post. I really think if you talk to MailChimp users, there’s something about the way MailChimp writes that really makes people feel comfortable with their product. It’s very empathetic. It knows that using an email marketing service may not be the funnest thing in the world and it can be intimidating, and their copy really helps address those emotions head on, and relate to people while they’re using it. It makes them feel comforted. That’s really what belonging is all about.
I guess we moved over into the content marketing side of things as well. As you said, it goes with the product, it goes with the branding, it goes with the visual look of a product or service. Perhaps what we’re saying is in copywriting terms, this is very hard to do as well. Forget the product almost entirely and you’re your Mario being the better Mario, focus entirely on the prospect and the journey they’re going to take to get to being the better version of themselves with your product. Then, perhaps fill in gaps retrospectively to get back to, “Will I need that solution?” Do you see what I mean?
Yeah. I think when you’re writing copy for just something like a sales page and you’re trying to think, how can I meet belonging needs? A lot of it goes beyond just the sales page that you have to start thinking about, “What are they going to receive after they buy this?” What kind of message could they receive to really make them feel like they’ve joined something bigger and they’re not just another customer? It includes elements, like I was saying, that go beyond the sales page but when you’re thinking in those terms, you can start t sprinkle things into the sales page that set you up for that success later.
Totally. Why is it important in copywriting terms that we think this way in order to get results just the fact simply that people are missing out on conversions?
We’ve touched a lot on just how easy it is to leave out one or two things even if you’re a seasoned marketer who knows all this stuff. I think even for seasoned marketers, it’s good to have this mind almost like a checklist. I’ve started doing that. I list these needs out. After I’m done writing something, I make sure I have all this stuff but I really think the group of people who will get the most utility out of this, and some people are saying this in the comment section, is people who are either hiring copywriters or people who are doing a lot of marketing themselves. They're not going out and hiring someone to write their web copy but they’re picking up bits and pieces of their own so they can put something out there that’s good.
I think that’s really who it’s ideal for. It will help you remember to include everything your page is going to need in order to give yourself the highest possible chance of converting people into customer, or leads, or whatever you’re trying to do.
It’s brilliant stuff. As I said before we started recording this call, got a lot of interest when I shared it on social media. People are responding really well to it.
I’ll link to it, get everyone to go and have a look at that. It’s highly recommended. Just before the PS question which I like to ask everyone at the end of the show, can you tell us where we can find you online so we can access all your excellent material please?
Yeah. Like I said, I’m at copygrad.com C-O-P-Y-G-R-A-D-dot com. I’ve got a lot of other copywriting frameworks and tools like this one. If you go to the homepage, you can download what I call the homepage copy generator. It’s another tool for people to analyze copies specifically on their homepage or if they’re starting from scratch, it’s a way to source great copy from your existing knowledge. Yeah, go and check it out. Leave a comment. Tell me hi. I always love connecting with other marketers.
Could you share one advance copywriting or content marketing tactic we can use right after the show please?
Yeah. Actually, I’m going to switch things up and I am going to share a content marketing tactic rather than a copywriting one. I learned this all over again with this guest post. That’s to try emailing your guest post to your email list. A lot of people, a lot of bloggers I see don’t do this. They spend a lot of time going out and going above and beyond to write a guest post for another blog for the purpose of attracting new readers and new subscribers to their own list but then, they forget that they just created a piece of awesome content and they forget to share it with the people who already like their stuff because they’re not publishing it on their own website.
With this post, this Copy Hierarchy of Needs post, like you said, I wrote it for copychief.com but when it published, it was getting a lot of great comments and stuff, and I was telling myself, “This sucks that people who’ve already subscribed aren’t seeing this because it seems like people are getting good use out of it.” I typed an email really quick. I explained in the email that it was a guest post but I was like, “Hey, this is getting some great feedback and I wrote it for copychief.com but I thought you might enjoy it too.”
I think as long as you set the expectation that you’re sending them to a different website, people respond really well to it and that was the case of this one. I got a lot of emails back from people thanking me for sharing it with them. It gave the guest post to another surge of activity and engagement, new comments, new shares which in turn, makes you look really good to the website that you wrote for when they see that you’re willing to promote what you wrote for them to their own list. That’s going to strengthen your relationship with them.
Brilliant. That’s a great tip. Fantastic conversation. Will, you’re one of the writers that I look forward to seeing your stuff come into my inbox...
Awesome. Thank you.
I definitely read everything you do and I advise everyone to go and have a look at your site Copygrad.com. It just remains to say, good luck with everything in the future and thanks very much for coming on.
All right, likewise. Thanks for having me, Loz. I appreciate it.
I hope you enjoyed this episode. Will was a great guest and if you follow his 5 point framework for all your copywriting in future, I'm confident you'll get much more engagement and encourage more action from your readers.
Give the 'Copy Hierarchy of Needs' a try and let me know how you get on in the comments below...