Don’t Be a Freakin’ Wallflower! Write Sticky Copy That Gets Noticed

This week, the front page of Hacker News was filled to the brim with stories* about how much cold, hard cash startups have been earning:

Nathan Barry’s
$26,679 in 24 hours: Stats from my latest book launch

Patrick McKenzie’s
Bingo Card Creator (and other stuff) Year in Review 2012

Brennan Dunn’s
Why I Gave Up A Million Dollar Consultancy

Like it or not, people love to hear about the dirty, grimy – and decidedly sexy – topic of MONEY.

In his post, Patrick even references his interest in good ol’ fashioned money talk:

“When I started my business six years ago, I was greatly inspired by a few other folks who published the minutiae of their software businesses, particularly actual sales and expenses numbers.”

People like the topic of money.

We like to see dollar signs.

Money is one of many “sticky topics”. So, what’s a sticky topic? They’re topics you can address in headlines, value props and blog posts that people will want to read, recall and – if they’re done well – share.

…I’m sure the idea of money being a hot topic isn’t the year’s biggest revelation for you… But I’d put money on your site and blog being virtually VOID of words (and stories featuring words) like:




In fact, I’d go one further and say that, if the word “money” makes an appearance anywhere on your site, it appears either as Save Money on _____ or as _____ Saves You Money.

(And if it appears as “Save Time and Money”, go here and hang your head in shame.)

In the world of conversion – and in the related worlds of Traffic Generation, Content Marketing and SEO – sticky copy written on sticky topics is critical. Everything else is just published rough drafts.

Today, let’s take a look at 2 ways to make your website copy stickier so people actually READ it and RECALL it.

The First Way to Get Sticky: Write About a Sticky Topic

In my experience, I’ve found that the copy on a startup’s site isn’t the problem so much as the topic or subject the copy is addressing.

Most marketers, startup founders and copywriters are writing bland shizzle simply because they’re writing about a bland topic.

And, now, WAIT! Before you even go there, let me tell you this: your product or service is NOT bland by nature. You do not “have” to write about bland topics. I don’t care if you’re a consultant on lining credenza drawers or the purveyor of grout paint, your subject is NOT bland. I mean, I wrote copy for freakin’ QuickBooks Accounting Software for 5 years! I’ve heard ev-er-y-thing under the sun about how “hard it is” to make “boring” software “sound sexy”. And, as a result, I now firmly believe that anyone in a position to message a product should be demoted to Assistant to the Ditch Digger if they believe that the product they’re promoting is boring.

It’s not boring! You’re just lazy!

…That’s my rant. K, on with the show.

Every piece of content that seems boring can be turned on its head to be interesting enough to be sticky. For example, QuickBooks isn’t simply accounting software; it’s the gateway to a world of money – organized money, invoiced clients, taxes never overpaid, expenses tracked to the penny so you keep every dime, and delicious pie charts showcasing where you’re making the most money (so you can make even more!).

So, how can you take your product, service or app… and position it as something sticky?

Check out these sticky topics. At least one of them CAN work on your home page, and ALL of them can work in your blog posts.

(Based on swipe files & top posts, tweets, etc.)

How much money you can make

How much money you can lose

The fall of someone great (or any form of schadenfreude)

The fall of someone seemingly terrible

Crises narrowly averted

Public fights, battles or wars

Public displays of affection

Unbelievable results achieved easily

“Learn from my mistakes”

(Sample headlines for landing pages or blog posts.)

Our Clients Saved $994K in 2012

Every Year, 80% of Americans Overpay on Insurance

Has Optimizely Annihilated Adobe Test&Target?

The IRS Never Saw Tax Software Coming

Find Your Next Job Now – Before You Get Sacked

Oprah Won the Diet Battle… But Did She Lose the War?

MailChimp Loves Unbounce

One Project Management App Can Save You $60K

3 CRO Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Way Numero 2: Turn Your Existing Boring Words into Sticky Phrases

K, so you’ve selected a sticky topic from the list above. You know people are going to want to read about what you’re saying… but now you have to make sure that, once those eyes land on your page, they keep moving over each and every word, paying attention along the way.

We need to use sticky copy to achieve that goal.

While a sticky topic is What you say, sticky copy is How you say it. It’s the words you use. It’s the tone. It’s the length of each sentence. It’s the rhetorical devices used. It’s the formatting. …It’s all of those things, combined.

For now, let’s talk about the words you’re using. Once you know what words to change, it’s easy to go ahead and do that on your site ASAP. (That’s foreshadowing, BTW. Guess what action I’m going to ask you to take at the end of this post!)

First, sticky words grab you and hold you. They force you to pay attention. That means they are usually:

Unfamiliar words, or words rarely used in the context of site copy or blog posts

Interesting analogies, similes or metaphors

Unusual-looking ‘words’, such as numerals instead of spelled-out numbers

Variations on curse words

Non-offensive slang words

You should also think about the way the words look on the page and choose words accordingly – always with the first goal of getting the stickiest words noticed. By this I mean that you will want to take a note from such classic writers as Samuel Johnson and Samuel Pepys, and interject long, interesting words in the midst of short, plain ones:


How to Host a Wedding on a Budget


How to Host a Ridiculously Jaw-Dropping Wedding on a Budget

The goal is to introduce a little healthy friction – but not the usability kind, which is bad friction – into your copy. Get your visitors’ eyes to slow down as they work over lengthier phrases – and then let them fly through a handful of easier words before slowing ’em down again. Exercise their eyes. Make them take notice. Compel them to slow down, pay attention and commit your messages to memory… but don’t slow them down too much or for too long, or you may lose them. (Ah, finding the balance! What fun.)

So now, let’s look at how to turn boring words and phrases into sticky words and phrases.


Save Money

Better Manage Your Projects

Write Sticky Copy


Save Cold, Hard Cashola

Manage the Hell Outta Your Projects

2 Easy Ways to Write Sticky Copy Now


 Save Like Scrooge… Before He Went All Soft on Us

Project Management So Good, They’ll Call You “The Taskmaster”

Don’t Be a Freakin’ Wallflower! Write Sticky Copy That Gets Noticed

Now It’s Your Turn – For Real

Open your site in a new window. Just do it – trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Consider the headline of your home page. Are you sacrificing sticky copy just to keep your headline short? Are you telling yourself that your particular audience won’t respond well to the stickiest kind of copy? …Do you realize that the assumptions you’re making may be holding back the performance of your site as a sales tool?

Play around with your headline – but don’t go into your CMS or code to do it. Instead, use this bookmarklet to edit your headline without committing to any changes. Replace your existing headline with a handful of headlines on sticky topics using sticky copy, as outlined above. Let long headlines go long. Let slang words and pseudo-swear words, like “screw”, “piss” and “shizzle”, make their way into your copy. Really, really push your comfort level. And don’t let your assumptions about what your visitors will tolerate get in the way.

Then… delete every headline you wrote. Get rid of ’em all!

And take an objective look at your control/current headline. …How do you feel about it now? Is it doing as much work as it should? Is it sticky? …Is this the year you actually write copy that is going to make a difference and sell more stuff for you? NOW, try to recall one of the headlines you wrote and deleted. If they’re sticky, you should be able to recall them… and replace your boring headline with one of ’em.

Watch Me Edit Boring Copy Into Sticky Copy (5:54 Video)

Throughout 2013, I’m planning to end every post with a recording of me putting what I preach into practice on one or more sites. Sometimes they’ll be sites you ask me to review (so email me if that’s what you’d like), and other times I’ll just randomly choose them.

Check this video out, and leave a comment to let me know if it helps and if you want me to keep doing this, k?

Happy New Year,

* I hope Nathan, Patrick and Brennan won’t mind me adding that they are all Copyhackers readers. 🙂

About the author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe - Copywriter and author of "Copyhackers"

  • Tess

    Is sticky copy appropriate for print brochures?

  • Mark

    How about writing sticky copy for charities? Can you give me a few example head lines?

  • Coward that I am, I usually have to wait until someone tells me ‘it’s ok’ before I’ll proceed. So thanks, Joanna, for giving me the green light to be more of a stickler for stickiness. One thing I’d like to know more about is how to test the copy I write. An explanation given in the simplest tech. terms possible would be appreciated, and also the simplest method of testing you know of. I love your laughter and your dare.

    • Joanna

      Green lights all around!! 🙂 As for testing, the very simplest way you can test your web copy is to 1) get an account at Visual Website Optimizer; 2) install the code as described on VWO’s site (easy! trust me!); 3) click on your home page headline for your first test; and 4) type in a new home page headline to test against it. That’s the simplest way. It doesn’t take into account how to know what to test, but that wouldn’t be simple for me to explain here at all. 🙂

  • I wish I could do that. Clients would be all “OMG what have you done with our reputation?” and the boss would hang my head on the wall as a warning for the next employee invested with the task. All I’m asked for is corporate stuff put there for SEO.

    • Joanna

      And that is why you insist on a/b testing it! If testing also sounds scary to the boss (or the client), tell them you’ll expose only, say, 25% of traffic to the risky version and a full 75% to the control.

      At least with testing you can learn something… and, in my experience, clients are always happier to hear that their agency / writer is going to seek out data to prove X tone is great… than to hear you’re going to run with a guess.

  • Love this Joanna. Headlines are super tricky and I like your advice. Keep it honest, play with the ‘taboo’ (money talk!) and just be bold!

    The video is a great addition. I’d love to see Microsoft roll with ‘So flexible you’d think it’s made of rubber’ ;). PS – hot tip on the bookmarklet.

    • Joanna

      I love that bookmarklet! I’ve only been using it for a little over a year, I think, but I find myself using it so frequently – on so many different sites – that I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned it before. Great for copywriters… but also good for peeps who want to see how something looks before they go into their code or CMS and actually make the edit.

  • Hey Joanna,

    I’ve learned a ton from you and the next update to our site will reflect a lot of that. Thank you!

    Question – do you recommend using sticky, colorful language outside of headlines? For example, I want the navigation to use terms people know and instantly understand so they can quickly get to the information they’re seeking. I see the use in sticky language for headlines, but am not too sure about areas that are meant to be more useful than memorable.

    Thanks again,

    • Joanna

      Yay — that’s awesome. 🙂 To your question, I’d stick to ‘unfamiliar’ sticky language in page headlines and the smaller headlines that run down the page. Testimonials with ‘sticky analogies’ also do well. But for items that people have to click – like nav and buttons – I’d recommend leading with usability principles first and then beefing things up from there; so, long story short, if I were you, I’d keep nav and buttons straightforward and friction-free. 🙂

  • Hi Joanna:

    Thanks for trying to use us in the review :). Some of the credit for the copy’s stickyness is due to buying your ebook bundle from App Sumo and continuously tweaking.

    However, I realized after going live in the App Store that much of my sales are gonna come through there, so I’ve been focusing on my App Store copy more.

    So maybe using ProspectSnap for an ‘app case study’ guinea pig would be better 😀

  • Killer post, and I absolutely love the video addition to gel the whole thing. A couple of notes, from someone who’s reading all of these books *again* (yes, that’s how much help I need 🙂

    Subtle changes like these make massive differences in stickiness. To me, some of these hacks (specifically, using unfamiliar words in a new context) are in the spirit of a ‘schema violation’ that the Heath brothers write about in their Truly Great book “Made To Stick”. You’ve got mental notion of something – say, flexible rubber stuff – and you slam it into the context of another world, like software. That’s a mini schema violation, and it’s one of the most powerful cognitive hooks out there.

    There’s a famous saying in the world of Chess that goes something like this: “If you see a good move, find a better one!” Same goes for copy hacks. I’ll get a bunch down on paper and the best ones get elected for more iterations. A single word change can have a massive impact. At some point the list starts to look hacker worthy, at least some of the time 🙂

    • Joanna

      I admit: I haven’t finished reading Made to Stick — but I liked what I did read. (You wouldn’t believe how many unfinished books I’ve got on my shelves.) I love the idea of a “mini schema violation” and want to learn more. You’ve inspired me to finish that book — thanks, Matt!!!

  • Taylor

    I really dig the inclusion of the video– supports what you wrote without being a total rehash, and gives us another “WWJD*” insight. Also doesn’t seem like it takes toooooo terribly long for you to make a clip, either!

    *what would joanna do?

    • Joanna

      I’m totally using that from now on: WWJD. 🙂 For the video, I’m planning to experiment a bit as the weeks and months pass, so they won’t always be as, um, lean.

  • Hello Again Joanna,

    Great post!

    As I may have mentioned Ahava and I are attempting to refine the messaging that she is putting out to a larger audience and just yesterday, as part of our year end review, she identified her own pain point that lead her down her path to “organically” becoming a creative mentor.

    Most of our efforts have been via word of mouth right here on Saltspring (though she has been teaching the “28 Day Launchpad to Entrepreneurship” at Royal Roads University) and we are now ready to seek a bigger audience for her work.

    So your post is very timely, as we bumble our way along adding material to her site. (So easy for it to get bloated it seems) I think it would be helpful for Ahava to read this post in particular!

    Really liked the video demo and would welcome the opportunity to watch you review the ProspectSnap website. Particularly with some commentary around how web design and copy “should” work together.

    Cheers Greg

    BTW could you explain sometime a bit about the (tl;dr) and how you utilize it for us Luddites in your audience 😉

    • Joanna

      Cool — what are you going to do to seek a bigger audience, Greg? Any ideas yet?

      (The “tl;dr” is largely for the developer group. If people want the short version, they can click that link – which a very kind reader put together for me and emailed to me this morning – and get the “too long; didn’t read” summary. I still get to write as much as I need to… and I don’t need to worry about peeps getting overwhelmed.)

      • Sorry for the slow reply, (got tied up in the workshop building some cabinets)

        Since Ahava works predominantly with women who wake up SCREAMING (well, figuratively at least)

        “When is it going to be MY time to pursue MY creative passions?”

        AND she absolutely LOVES performing her poetry, in person and on air (she has a radio show called “Love in the Afternoon” Mon. on CFSI 102.1) we thought it was time to seek opportunities for more SPEAKING GIGS on and off island to talk about her work. (in fact she has an upcoming opportunity with Bridges for Women)

        Additionally, I am creating a home video studio and Ahava will start SHOOTING INTERVIEWS with local creative, entrepreneurial women who are living their passions (she has already started doing this on her radio show) and ideally who have their own audiences to offer the recordings to. (via an optin to Ahava’s list)

        Ideally this idea can go beyond SSI, with interviews taking place via Skype or some such vehicle in the future.

        I also intend to do some “GHETTO TESTING” of copy and the “concepts” she is currently teaching, here on SSI (via something like CRAIGLIST, FB, PPC, etc…) to see if we get any traction with women beyond the shores of SSI AND that can possibly help us refine the messaging.

        And finally, (for now at least) we have dates booked for a RESIDENTIAL RETREAT the end of May here on Saltspring, which we intend to promote to her list using video, as well as to a few of her associates who we feel have lists that might be interested. (MICRO JV ACTION)

        So those are some of the current ideas. We know that the transformation is real and significant for women based on the results so far and we also know that roughly 80% of her clients have arrived from her performances/speaking gigs on SSI.

        So the thinking at our end goes:

        “Why not do more of what she LOVES doing and is GOOD at?”

        Long reply to a short question, sorry about that 😉 Thanks for asking.

      • Joanna

        Wow — those are some intense plans. Nice work. The retreat is particularly interesting; I’ve seen something like that done a few times, but I’ve never followed up with any of the retreat leaders to ask how it went, how the participants felt about it, etc. Let us know how it goes?

  • Great topic to start the New Year, and I really like the idea of applying everything in a video at the end of the post.

    I have to agree with you though that “Getting Sticky” on the homepage of your site feels a little uncomfortable. Moving to a more conversational tone and away from the seriously bland “speak-to-everyone” language is an obvious step that I agree with, but this seems like it could seem a bit flippant … even if is obvious that it will be better remembered.

    • Joanna

      Well, your sticky copy needs to be targeted – as with all copy – to your audience. The best way to know how to get sticky without offending or coming off as flippant is to do what I recommend you do before writing a single word down: talk to your customers and prospects. See what sticky language they use… and then use that. Even the most seemingly uptight folks will use sticky words and be interested in sticky topics said in sticky ways. (How many times can I say “sticky”?)

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