The Great Copy Debate: Clear Vs. Clever

Coming June 11!

After nearly 2 months of prep and execution time, Joanna and I just wrapped-up the final A/B test for our brand new ebook, The Copyhackers Great Value Proposition Test, where we ran headline-only tests on a wide range of websites – 11 in total. And what a fun, worthwhile experiment it was!

The adventurous souls who took part in our grand experiment agreed to let us develop new value-propositions-as-headlines, even though some were very bold departures from their existing copy. It’s a good thing, too, because our most insightful learnings came from those bold moves. Here’s a big thank-you to our 11 fearless participants!

As part of our experiment, we had the opportunity to challenge some web conventions. One of those conventions states that web copy needs to be clear, and not clever.

Copywriters Love To Pick Fights

If you’re an agency or in-house copywriter, you’re likely familiar with this controversial topic. If you’re more of a generalist at your company, or you wear many hats in your role, here’s the gist of it:

In one corner is Clever Marketing. Have you ever laughed aloud while watching a TV commercial but struggled to identify the product being sold? That’s him (at his peak weight). At his optimal weight, Clever does pretty well for himself, most notably between plays at the Super Bowl – creating millions of fans and generating a ton of revenue for advertisers.

In the other corner is Clear Marketing, who fights using a very different style. He’s not there to dance or dazzle. His strengths are messages that make immediate sense to customers, and he packs a mean punch when it’s time to close.

Everyone loves a good fight, and these two heavyweights of the copywriting world have been pitted against each other since people started selling stuff over the airwaves.

But off the airwaves, and on the web – especially of late – Clear Marketing has been the clear fan favorite. Clear websites may not deliver a first-round knockout, but they sure can convert. And unfortunately for Clever’s fans, the most commonly referenced web-based interpretations of clever have turned visitors off.

Isn’t it possible for both to exist on a well designed landing page? Can we get clear with our website visitors and then apply some creativity?

There seems to be a mistaken assumption by many CRO copywriters that clear writing and clever writing are by their very nature mutually exclusive – that clear writing is for the web and clever writing is for print. Hmm.

The Copyhackers team doesn’t believe that clear and clever are mutually exclusive, and so we decided to put it to the A/B test.

Putting Copyhackers To The Test

For all 11 tests in our new ebook, we used a scoring system to determine the potential for our test headlines. We scored each proposed headline (as well as the default, or existing headline) across 5 attributes: Unique, Desirable, Specific, Succinct, & Memorable. Each attribute received a score from 1 to 10, with 10 being a perfect score.

Being clear helps the Specific and Succinct attributes score well (and on the other 3 attributes, too), but there is definitely room for some clever on Unique, Desirable, and Memorable. As such, we decided to introduce some “clever copy” into 2 of our tests… 1 of which I’ll share with you now…

JCD Repair offers while-you-wait iPhone screen repair services in 4 US cities. On their website you can book an appointment, then show up to their shop with your cracked screen, and walk out with a just-as-new repaired iPhone in about 45 minutes. JCD Repair is not only customer-focused but also super-fast – two great ways to differentiate.

Their ideal customer is an image conscious person (or parent of an image conscious teenager) that has a cracked iPhone. These people tend to be more affluent, but not so well off that dropping $500 on a new phone doesn’t matter.

JCD’s top customers include college grads with a professional career or middle class parents of teenagers that are simply hard on their stuff. Some customers like to have fun, too, because a lot of phones come in after the weekend. St. Patty’s Day is like their Black Friday!

Here’s the default copy:


We scored the default copy 30/50.

The default copy is very clear. Visitors will quickly understand what JCD Repair offers. The service itself is obviously very desirable if you have a cracked screen. And there is certainly nothing wrong with making a nice promise to customers.

But beyond clear, we didn’t see any of the personality of this company come through, and yet they’re all about the people (i.e., their customers and employees). We saw an opportunity to make visitors feel something about the problem they’re trying to solve, thus making the copy more memorable and the service even more desirable.

Here’s Variation 1:


It’s also very clear, but with improvements across several attributes, this test variation scores 37/50 on the Copyhackers scale.

Variation 2:


In Variation 2, we’re trying to trigger a more emotional response in visitors about the iPhone repair service. If people are in fact embarrassed about walking around with a cracked screen, then this version should perform well.

Score = 39/50.

Variation 3:


This is the more clever variation. We’re still trying to elicit an emotional response – but this time, a smile. We decided to go in this direction based on the background information JCD Repair provided us… that St. Patrick’s Day = Black Friday for them. In other words, people have a few drinks; they drop (or worse) their iPhone; and they wake up the next morning with more than a hangover.

Score = 41/50.

Based on our scores, we expected Variation 3 to perform the best. Our friends at JCD Repair weren’t so sure. Here’s what Matt McCormick of JCD Repair had to say about Variation 3:

“I didn’t like the Hangover version of the headlines at first. I thought that one might prove too offensive. But that’s testing, so I had no problem seeing how it would do.”

And The Winner Is…

You probably guessed it — clever takes it. Variation 3 delivered a statistically meaningful 18% lift in conversion:


… which means 18% more visitors clicking the “Schedule Repair” call to action:


We’re glad Matt was open to the “offensive” version – and we’re pretty sure he is too!

In the end, the two variations that tapped into visitors’ emotions performed best, but focusing on “embarrassment” was not as effective as using some light humor.

Making Sense Of Clear & Clever

There is a happy medium.

Your landing page visitors need to understand (1) where they are, (2) what they can do on your site, and (3) why they should stick around. If you’re at all unclear about any of these things, you’ll lose credibility and the visitor.

But once you have the essential messages in place (and as clear as Voss water!), it’s okay to have some fun and let the creative juices flow. Chances are that if your message makes your target audience smile, you’re more likely to be remembered. And in a sea of Google search results, being memorable is a very good thing.

To be clear, we’re not advocating clever for clever’s sake.

It’s always tempting to be clever. It’s all too easy to let all that creative genius take over and muddy your message – so be aware of the line and when to cross it. If you’re not sure exactly where that line is on your own site, let your favorite split-testing platform help you figure it out.

Do you have examples of where clever failed miserably? Perhaps where it succeeded?

Do you stand firmly on one particular side of the debate?

Tell us in the comments below – we always love to hear your thoughts!

About the author

Lance Jones

  • You can be clear and not being boring. And you can also be clever and be informative–which this test demonstrates. The problem arises when you’re clever and provide nothing else.

  • Edward Byrne

    Oh, and Latin does use prepositions…

  • Edward Byrne

    English is indeed a living language yes. Would be nice if that implied evolution as opposed to slow decay. But that’s just me 🙂

  • Edward Byrne

    embarrassed “of”? Are you joking?

    • Uh oh… a purist. 🙂

      I tend to write as I speak — and how those around me speak (North Americans in my particular case). While I do understand traditionally “correct” usage of prepositions (they didn’t exist in Latin, so they’re a somewhat recent development), it’s not at all uncommon to see or hear the phrase “embarrassed of” in these here parts.

      If you were from the UK and wrote a piece about having “to visit hospital” and “studying maths”, it would raise some brows (again, in these parts) because those phrases sound incredibly strange — off-puttingly so.

      English is a living language, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable to embrace the changes (and regional differences). I only hope that “being defeated” never actually evolves into “being a looser”.

      And for your weekend reading pleasure:

  • Valuable post. Enjoyed it, especially such practical experiments. They have weight and are all that’s needed in a fight between two sides. It seems to me that the a clever headline is made clear by a comprehensible image right next to it.

    Hmm, what about images being clear or clever?

  • Ramsay Leimenstoll

    A very interesting test & analysis, Joanna! I’d venture a guess that one reason y’all were able to “get away with” something rather clever was that the image made it pretty darn clear what you meant by an iPhone having “a rough night out.” Without the image, the meaning of the clever line might not have been as instantly clear, at least not to all of their target market (20-somethings who are likely to anthropomorphize their phones in that way anyway might’ve gotten it, but other groups? Perhaps not as readily). Just my best guess!

    • Lance Jones

      Why thank you, Ramsay! 🙂 And I agree with you… without that accompanying image, the meaning of the headline is lost.

  • Raphael Negrão

    Thanks for sharing some interesting info again & again!!

    Although I have read all yr books, there’s always room for surprise and new information 🙂

    One question: which tool did you use for A/B testing? Optomizely? Is that what you always use?

    • Lance Jones

      You’re very welcome, Raphael! For this 11-company experiment, we used whatever testing tool the business was already using. If they weren’t using any testing tool, we gave them several options, which included Optimizely.

  • Nick Marshall

    Just got your weekly email, Joanna – I can’t believe it but it seems I won a copy of your new eBook. Thank you so much. I feel quite guilty to get a freebie – your 4 book set has been so helpful and worth every last penny. I am also coming round to the idea of long form copy so I will just have to get that too!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      That’s so nice of you to say! Thanks, Nick. I hope the next two books help you as much as you say the first four did. 🙂

  • Craig Sullivan

    There’s only one problem. The hung over people never turn up for their appointments, so always check the onbound conversion rate

    • Joanna Wiebe


  • Lance Jones

    Hi, Bruno. The “Copy Hackers scale” is simply a scoring system we developed to determine the potential of our test headlines. We scored each headline across 5 characteristics that we identify as critical to a great value-prop-as-headline: Unique, Desirable, Specific, Succinct, & Memorable. Each attribute received a score from 1 to 10, with 10 being a perfect score.

    In the ebook we provide a complete breakdown of the scoring results for every headline across the 11 sites we tested!

  • Lance Jones

    Truthfully, there’s no easy answer to your question, Phil — as the interest in and tolerance of cleverness will vary wildly by site and audience. We advise stepping very gently into those waters… especially if you don’t know your visitors well. There is only 1 sure-fire way to find out, and that’s to run a test!

  • Laura Frisbie, M.Ed.

    I stand firmly on the side of taking a risk..AND testing it~! Fantastic post, AS ALWAYS! Can’t wait for your new books. Thank you xoxoxox

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Laura!

  • stefanie_jarantowski

    Thank you for the great copy post with the very clear example. As a young and bootstrapped startup I have a little problem with A/B Testing: probably not enough user. What is your experience, how many users do you need in order to get meaningful data?

    P.S. Looking forward to your new ebook!

    • Lance Jones

      Hi Stefanie! That’s a common problem (i.e., sufficient traffic when you’re a start-up), and one that we encountered during our Value Proposition Experiment. To run a headline test on a home page within a reasonable time frame (measured in weeks, not months), you should have at least 100 unique visits per day. Any less than that and your test will likely require more time than most are willing to wait. 🙂

  • Nick Marshall

    Great post. I just love the way you show the How and the Why by way of example. It is a very clear example of why split testing is so important. A nice little excursion into present day psychological motivation too. It would appear that its fine to be a chump and smash your phone because of overindulgence – “Hey, at least we are not boring people – we were having a good time”. As opposed to the rather snobby person overly concerned with Personal Appearance. Being embarrassed these days is apparently not worth owning up to but making a prat of yourself and having “scars” to prove it is a sign of a life well-lived. Or maybe it just boils down to sheer numbers – most phones being broken as a result of over indulgence!

    • Lance Jones

      Very interesting perspective, Nick! You could be right about people not wanting to admit to themselves that they’re embarrassed.

      When I venture out for a little overindulgence, I leave the car keys and the iPhone at home!

  • I love this test. Finding the balance between the two sides is a delicate dance.

    In the performing arts world, the copy is nothing but clever for the sake of being clever. The marketers that write it are all about wordsmithing and making it sound good. I don’t think I’ve ever seen really good copy that support the desire to see it. At most, just a synopsis of the show.

    And i’ve written plenty of that copy too…. but then I saw the light.

    And yet the personality that a little cleverness can bring is always fun for me. I can’t imagine selling art in a completely dry manner.

    Though, it would have more to do with the audience than anything else, right? I’d imagine that cleverness works less for, say, companies buying construction materials as it does for party supplies. And arts audiences are looking for something a little more creative, just like people that want some of my services are looking for my personality associated with them.

    • Lance Jones

      Hey Gedaly! You raise some great points. I think that cleverness can be used as a form of tone, and that’s something people may expect from certain types of businesses and websites — but “boring” businesses don’t have to move toward boring copy! Being clever definitely exercises one’s creativity… which can be a ton of fun to write. Just don’t let creativity take over as the primary objective, because people still need to make quick sense of what they’re seeing/reading. Like you say, “… a little cleverness…”.

  • Cheryl Binnie

    Love this study! And can’t wait to see the rest of the tests for the new ebook. I feel like I always come away from your emails/blog posts/ebooks/interviews with soooo many wonderful, actionable things to try out. Thanks for challenging the accepted “rules” — and for sharing the results.

    • Lance Jones

      We love to share. I was practically bursting to share this case study on the blog today — and there’s so much more in the new ebook. I hope you’ll check it out, Cheryl, and let us know what you think!

      Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  • Tonia

    I’m so glad you did this test. My company does something that’s about as boring as boring can get (data cleanup) and I’m always walking the tightrope of clever vs clear.

    On one hand, I feel like I have to entertain to catch anyone’s attention with a “dull” product, but on the other I know I need to be clear about what we do and the benefits of choosing us to appeal to the guys/gals with the checkbooks. It’s definitely a fine line.

    I think one of the reasons clever may work so well here is the use of imagery to support “clear”. This post definitely has my wheels turning!

    • Lance Jones

      We know how you feel, Tonia. Joanna and I had to write copy for and optimize the website for QuickBooks Canada. Accounting software isn’t the most exciting product, but what it does for customers is pretty exciting (seriously). Unfortunately for us, we had to contend with the “brand police”, who made it very difficult to push the boundary between clever and clear. Continue to fight the fight! 🙂

  • David Anderson

    I really appreciate this info… I’ve read all 5(?) of your Copyhacking books and the articles like this really help me push my colleagues to up their writing.

    • Lance Jones

      We’re really pleased to hear it, David — and you’re quite welcome. It’s nice to know that people are using Copy Hackers to improve their business! We couldn’t ask for more.

  • Joanna Wiebe

    Love the comparison to a telemarketer’s pitch. Even though people are opting to come to your site — vs. a telemarketer intruding on one’s space — it may not serve you well to jump on them because you think they’re uber-motivated OR to sit back too coolly because you think you’re the sh*t. The combo of clear + clever — of addressing what your visitors want in a cool way — has been shown here to do a sweet job of confidently selling.

  • Lance Jones

    On some days, I would love the simple world you describe, Matthew! 🙂

  • Barry Nordby

    So…the ‘rules’ can be broken. I guess the lesson is don’t get caught thinking you know everything, remember to have fun, and test. Thanks!

    • Lance Jones

      Our rule of thumb here at Copy Hackers is that it’s healthy to question the “rules”. No two website audiences are exactly the same, so what applies to 1 site may not apply to the other.

      I like how you framed things, Barry… have fun with your testing indeed!

  • Why do you use such terms as “wanna”, “gonna”, “k”, “‘cos”, as you did in your most recent newsletter? I find that folksy tone condescending but you must be doing it for a very good reason… right? Please share.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      D’oh! Well, y’can’t please everyone. Sorry, no condescension intended! I just write the way I talk, and I guess I talk like someone from, I dunno, some mix of Saskatchewan, Ireland and California. 😉

    • JasonEnzoD

      Probably doing to piss you off, smarty pants.

  • OK I’m ghetto I didn’t know what “succinct” meant – but now I do, thanks to google & you…

    This is a great split test and a really clear easy to understand example of small changes big difference.

    Loving the shares peeps & thanks

    • Lance Jones

      You’re very welcome, MS! Don’t feel bad, either — I come across words I don’t know every day. It requires a sharp (and curious) mind to take the time to look ’em up though!

  • Awesome! Have you guys read the Marketing Experiments article, “Clarity Trumps Persuasion”? Looks like it’s informed your thinking (and right so, it’s great data).

    This is a cool test, and makes a great point: clarity is essential, cleverness can boost performance. But you shouldn’t do the latter without the former! Thanks.

    • Lance Jones

      We have indeed read it, Melanie — and we’re big fans of Dr. M. and his team at Marketing Experiments. He’s a riveting speaker, IMO.

      Your summary is spot on. We have a super smart audience at Copy Hackers — thank you for chiming in!

  • Along with Ben Hunt’s book Convert!, you guys have most revolutionized the way I think about scientific web design. Thank you for your continuous work and for giving me the fuel to educate clients and other designers.

    Down with subjective design!

    • Lance Jones

      Ha — we love Ben over here at Copy Hackers! He’ll be glad to hear it, Jason (and we thank you too).

  • When I saw the email about this post, I wondered “why can’t copy be clear and clever?” I am glad to see your test showed that a combination of both prevailed.

    Being clear and clever is the way we should all strive. At the least, it must be clear. I agree with that wholeheartedly.

    Clever means nothing if too few people understand what you mean. Louis CK may be able to do that when he works [on his F/X show], but even he experiences a risky trade-off.

    • Lance Jones

      Agreed. It shouldn’t be a trade-off, which is basically how it’s being positioned by the less informed. Clarity should be the foundation on which clever sits. But it doesn’t work so well the other way around (we’ve found, anyway). Thanks for commenting Hubert!!

  • As the subject of this test I wanted to say how grateful I am to Joanna and Lance for their insightful work. I’ve been reading your blog for awhile (since I saw it recommended in Patrick McKenzie’s blog about a year ago. Needless to say, I was pretty happy when you selected JCD Repair for your test. Sort of honored even.

    I’d love to add one thing to the conversation. Not only can clever and clear coexist, but so can different media. By having a prominent picture of a cracked and then fixed iPhone, it becomes pretty clear, even without reading, what we do. I think that enables the copy to be a little more daring.

    Coming soon to my Copyhackers inspired A/B testing will be a (hopefully) clever and clear photo to go along with the great new copy.

    Thanks again.

    • Lance Jones

      Matt, it was a sincere pleasure to work on this with you! Joanna and I wish everyone was as open as you to new copy possibilities (seriously). And I couldn’t agree more with your approach to supporting images — can’t wait to see what you create!

  • Ryan Mathews

    I love seeing A/B tests like this. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lance Jones

      Ryan, thanks for your feedback. We love to share results like these! Another blow to so-called best practices.

  • Embarrassed *OF* … When did that happen!? … is that a North American thing? That looks so wrong to me 🙂

    • Lance Jones

      Okay Mr. Dooley — how would it look Down Unda? I can’t imagine that headline without “of”. 😉

    • Joanna Wiebe

      What is it supposed to be? Embarrassed *by*?

      (Four years with university Latin totally messed up my use in prepositions.)

    • Andres Caro

      Embarrased by (The fact of whatever). However, “of” is being used a lot lately. I know, I know, I am little late haha.

      • I guess it’s yet to filter back to Australia. I’m sure we’ll start seeing it in Vodafone commercials soon enough.

  • Pablo Sanchez

    I think the use of clever copy allows the business/individual to convey their message in their own unique way, and allow the values/outlook/personality of the business and owners to shine through. It may turn some off by doing this, but it’s probably likely to more easily convert those “ideal” customers they may be targeting and those who feel more aligned to the business as a result of this “personality”. I’m all for optimising business, but also want it to be personal. I think business as a whole is getting back to the personal touch rather than the mcdonalds homogenization of everything.

    By the way, love the books, and would love to win a copy of the latest additions 😉

    • Lance Jones

      🙂 Awesome, thanks Pablo!

      We’re advocates for using copy to target your ideal customer segment, as we’ve seen “going narrow” work countless times in our split tests.

      If your use of clever copy ends up as a filter for attracting the types of people you want as customers, then all the power to you! Again though, be sure to test this against your KPIs/desired outcomes.

  • Thanks for proving that while clear copy is essential, clear with a dose of clever, if done right, can deliver better results. You really CAN have both, but it’s not easy to do– that’s where a little help from a professional can make a big difference. And thank you for also showing how essential it is to split-test– it’s the only way to get beyond theory and see what really happens, which is the part most businesses forget to do! Well done.

    • Lance Jones

      Julie, you’ve captured the essence of our post very succinctly! That’s precisely it!

      With this test, we showed that moving toward a more memorable message can generate positive business results. In the second test where we used some clever messaging, we saw an even more impressive conversion lift!

  • James Barron

    That’s very interesting… I almost always tried to get some clever content in somewhere but the more I’ve been getting into copyrighting the less clever content I’ve used (maybe not so clever). I don’t have clear tests that show the variation but my results have been improving overtime the clearer the content is. Maybe its time to drop some clever content in to get some results. On the personality / tone note what are your thoughts on Easter eggs and hidden content such as 404s, I always try to include some clever and quirkiness?

    • Lance Jones

      James, great question — and thank you for sharing your experience.

      You should strive for clarity first… the clearer your copy, the better your visitors will understand what you’re offering. To your point, you may eventually hit a “peak” when it comes to optimizing your clear headline/sub-head/supporting copy — and if that happens, I see no reason not to inject some cleverness into your message. But be sure to test it! Cleverness can also take your conversion rate in the wrong direction.

      That’s the thing about clear vs. clever. There is upside with clever, but there is also risk.

      As for your question about the fun stuff… “hidden” content like 404s and such, I believe they can be mini-delighters for your visitors — provided they are done well and don’t make the visitor feel silly or stupid. 🙂

  • Is it possible to have the best of both and be clever and clear? Or does copy generally fall toward one or the other?

    • Lance Jones

      Hi Ben! Our answer is absolutely! Copywriters tend to fall into one camp or the other. Traditionally it’s been [TV] ad copywriters that have relied on clever. On the web, most beat the “clear drum”. I think it’s simply easier for CRO consultants and copywriters to vote for clarity at the expense of cleverness, because doing clever well is tough. And I agree with that rationale… it’s very easy to mess up your “clever copy”.

      That said, when done well, a little does of clever can really work wonders for engaging visitors to your landing page — as demonstrated by the split test results we shared above.

      Thanks for your questions!!

      • That makes sense. It’s very easy to write a bad groan-inducing pun. Harder to be witty and clear.

        I think clever, like humor, works best when it doesn’t draw attention to the effort put into it (that’s not to say it’s effortless to create). When you can tell someone was trying really hard to be clever/funny, it’s a turn off.

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