How to Write Effective Web Copy (Part 2): Make It Stick | npENGAGE

How to Write Effective Web Copy (Part 2): Make It Stick

By on Jul 16, 2019


writing effective web copy for nonprofits

Any time your organization puts anything online—e.g., a website, email, social media post, etc.—your primary goal should always be to make an impression, to stick in the mind of the reader.

In their excellent book, Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath identify six characteristics of ideas that cut through the noise and stick with people. They are:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Stories

When you aim to create web content that lodges in your audience’s mind, aim to incorporate one or more of these elements. Most content online, especially from your competitors, is 100% forgettable. If you frame your words and ideas using at least one of the six stickiness characteristics, you’ll be light years ahead of your industry peers.

Let’s dig into each a little bit.

Read Part 1 of this series: How to Write Effective Web Copy (Part 1): Make It Readable

 1. Simple

You think about your organization at least 40 hours per week. Your target audiences think about your organization approximately zero hours per week. Most professional communicators forget this. They assume their audiences are hanging on their every Tweet, so they feel the need to mix things up—to launch new content, new messages, new angles on old ideas.

Get simple. Identify your core message, figure out how to express its compactly, and then say it often and loudly.

Herb Kelleher knew the importance of simplicity when he founded Southwest Airlines. He was committed to making Southwest the low-cost airline. “Lowest cost” became the company’s single guiding philosophy. And while they communicated this idea in countless ways across countless channels, they never strayed from it. Herb himself said, “We are so committed to being the low-cost airline that we’ll ignore things that other airlines spend money on—like meals and whatnot.”

Remember, your audiences don’t think about you the way you think about you. By the time you’re eager to launch a new fundraising/recruitment/awareness campaign, your audience is just starting to notice your last one.

2. Unexpected

Commercials are weird these days. Ad agencies convince brands that, in order to slice through the content glut and get noticed, they need to “get weird with it.”

They’re only half right.

If you want to stand out from the crowd(s), you can be unexpected—but only if your unexpectedness is connected to a key idea. In other words, your weirdness needs to have a point. People will remember odd and bold and provocative messages when they lead to something more, to something interesting.

There’s no formula for being unexpected. It depends on your brand identity. But you could take a cue from local news promos. We all know the ones— “IS YOUR TOOTHBRUSH KILLING YOU??!? TUNE IN AT 10 TO FIND OUT!”

Creating a mystery for your audience can seize their attention. We hate not knowing how a mystery is resolved. (It’s why so many people loathe the final episode of The Sopranos.)

Use unexpectedness sparingly, and only if it’s relevant to the message you’re trying to make stick.

3. Concrete

Most organizations write a lot of web content that says nothing—or, at least, nothing unique. The result: One nonprofit looks just like the next one. Why should we give to your food pantry instead of the one across town?

Because most organizations speak in hazy, nebulous, say-nothing language, concrete language will set you apart and give you a discrete brand identity.

Consider a football coach giving a pep talk to his team. If he says something non-concrete, like, “Our team is all about hard work and discipline,” he creates a thousand different ideas in his team’s minds. The quarterback thinks “hard work” means one thing, while the running back thinks it means another.

But if the coach says something concrete—i.e., with a real physical presence in the real world—like, “Our team is all about arriving to practice on time and wearing a suit-and-tie on gameday,” there’s no chance for confusion.

And that’s why concrete language is so powerful: It makes you immune to user confusion. If you use the word “helpful” in a blog post, for example, each member of your audience will have a unique, personal interpretation of what that word means. It’s not concrete. But if you say “V8 engine,” they’ll all think the same thing: a V8 engine.

4. Credible

Credibility is key to any organization’s success. People have to trust you. So how do you establish and reinforce your credibility?

First, you get others to do it for you. “External credibility”—i.e., credibility from an outside source—is much more persuasive than “internal credibility,” which is you saying how awesome you are. This is why testimonials and awards are such great credibility boosters. If you don’t have them, prioritize getting some and place them all over your digital content.

Then, there are a couple of things you can do to bolster credibility on your own behalf:

  • Use details. Audiences tend to think that an organization who has a ton of details knows what they’re talking about. It conveys expertise.
  • Use anchoring. When you share numbers and data, connect it to something your audience understands and cares about so they can process it. Simply listing numbers—e.g., “Last year, 87% of our funds went directly to programs and services”—won’t move people. They need a story, even a little one. “For every dollar you gave us last year, we delivered 87 cents of fresh, healthy food and nutrition education to families in need.”

Consider this excellent infographic, which turns an unrelatable number (35 trillion gallons of water) into something compelling and memorable:

Analogies are a great way to boost your credibility and make your information stick at the same time.

5. Emotional

Humans are emotional creatures. Emotions drive our actions, even the smallest ones. To ignore this in your web content is a giant missed opportunity. You’re communicating to people—real people with real feelings, real problems, real biases, real aspirations, etc.

The four basic emotions we all feel are:

  • Mad
  • Sad
  • Glad
  • Afraid

All of the other emotions are basically shades and combinations of these four. And of these four, two are especially persuasive: fear and anger (in that order).

Most nonprofit professionals feel some ickiness about being overly emotional in their mass communications. They feel like they’re being manipulative. But as long as you’re telling the truth, you should explicitly acknowledge that you’re communicating with emotional people.

You want your audience feeling, not thinking. That is when they’ll donate and volunteer.

6. Stories

Stories are the most effective way to communicate ideas and prompt action. Stories are how we, as a species, have learned about the world from our beginning.

Why are stories so persuasive? Because the human mind is a powerful simulation machine. When we hear a story, we project ourselves into it—involuntarily. We enter a story. We exist inside it.

How you share a message tells the audience how to respond to it:

  • When you simply make a claim—e.g., “We save homeless dogs”—you ask your audience to argue with you. Even if your audience agrees with the importance of saving homeless dogs, when they hear your claim, the logical, suspicious part of their brain fires up. It sets you apart from the audience.
  • When you tell a story instead, you bring your audiences to your side of the equation. And you end up looking out at the world together. “Picture Harold, the homeless hound…”

Now, Start Writing!

Next time you craft a fundraising email, see if you can enhance it with one of the characteristics above. (Or maybe two or three.) Look for the emotion. Turn it into a story. Add details. Try stuff out, see what works!

Whatever you do, please don’t continue to communicate with ever-changing, vague, lifeless words that could’ve come from anyone. Stake your claim and your audience will follow.

Check out Mighty Citizen’s free on-demand webinar for even more tips!


Andrew writes. From an early age, Andrew has been obsessed with words—considering a mastery of language key to mastery of thought. That’s why he studied English and Communications at The University of Texas before beginning a long career in the world of nonprofit marketing and fundraising. Eventually, he combined his love of words with his love of performance to become a software trainer, traveling the country teaching fundraisers how to better manage their data. At Mighty Citizen, Andrew plays a dual role: helping craft our own marketing content and partnering with our clients on a variety of content projects—including research, messaging, strategizing, branding, and content governance. Outside of work, you can usually find Andrew performing improv at one of Austin’s many improv theaters. (Or reading. Always reading.)

Comments (6)

  • Amy Dana says:

    “You think about your organization at least 40 hours per week. Your target audiences think about your organization approximately zero hours per week.”

    THIS!!! We all tend to forget other people don’t know as much as we do about our passions, just like we don’t know as much about theirs. That’s ok! We just need to be mindful in our communications.

  • Sage says:

    I agree completely with Amy! Our mission is not the mission and daily ins and outs of other’s week. We must be super mindful.

  • Cathy says:

    “When you tell a story . . . you bring your audiences to your side of the equation. And you end up looking out at the world together.” I love this thought of bringing our story and our audience together.

  • Courtney says:

    Another great article! Thank you for sharing!

  • S. Watson says:

    Thanks for this!

  • Dawn Ritter says:

    Great article and information! Can’t wait to start applying some of these principles!!!

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