Small Words Can Make a Big Difference

By Ben Steadman


  • Microcopy helps drive sales.
  • Use it to bring clarity to your website’s ambiguous buttons and form fields, etc.
  • It clarifies your offers and information requirements.
  • Use it to give instructions and guide your visitors through your website.
  • It eliminates uncertainty and instils trust/confidence.
  • It informs customers and boosts service with better error and service messages.

Microcopy is the small stuff that tends to be ignored when it comes to making websites that work. It’s so easy to obsess about the design of the call to action (CTA) buttons, the images, headlines and the layout; but, microcopy is often neglected.

Sure, we all say content is absolutely key to a website’s success, but then our attention drifts and locks on the design, pictures and pretty colours and we pay less attention to the words.

So, let’s hear it for microcopy—those contextual words and short sentences/statements/cues that help people to use your website interface and guide their decisions:

  • the labels on form fields
  • the copy on buttons
  • instructions
  • requesting a delivery address
  • explaining payment options
  • error messages, and
  • words that reassure the checkout is secure, you offer a guarantee, fast delivery, etc.

It’s those few, short words that help to make things clear to your visitors, keeping them on their scent trail.

How to use microcopy

As with all text on your website, microcopy should be written for your visitors/customers. That means you need to think, speak and act like them. And, if we get those items right we are able to reduce friction so that they’ll sign up for your newsletter, your free trial of the latest software, or actually buy something.

Because website visitors merely scan webpages (they read between 20 and 28 per cent of what’s there1), we offer you 5 simple tips for writing microcopy, but remember there is no magical answer, the context of the website is key and testing is vital:

  1. Use words accurately and don’t confuse: filter is not the same as search and save does not mean submit, for example.
  2. Avoid marketing speak and jargon—use the language your customers use. Your surveys and customer service interactions will educate you about the language they use.
  3. Put all your important form fields towards the top of the forms and label them clearly, first name, last name, etc. You want them to move through the process quickly, only slowing down where there is a real need to stop momentarily to read important information.
  4. Make the purpose of each button known and understood with unambiguous labels and instructions.
  5. Importantly, remember you are dealing with individuals not groups. So use appropriate singular terms, etc.

Detecting the microcopy opportunity

So how do we know when we need microcopy? The necessity will reveal itself during heuristic analysis, analytics review, and user testing, including eye tracking and form tracking research.  Among the results we gather, we’ll be able to identify opportunities where microcopy will help bring clarity to the user experience.

During heuristic analysis, there will be many questions raised about all the different elements of a website. Some of those will immediately suggest areas for improvement that microcopy could resolve, but it’s not simply a matter of running a microcopy scaffold around a broken website that really needs a serious overhaul.

So don’t think that microcopy is a sticking plaster answer to all your troubles; this is where your conversion optimisation experts will be able to give valuable insights and suggestions for where it could help.

When we eye track, we’ll get a very good idea of what is causing user problems and then we can spend time analysing the plots and maps to discover where microcopy could be useful. And, when we cross-reference eye tracking results with Google Analytics data and those from other qualitative studies we should see where there are opportunities where microcopy can be a solution or part of a solution that we can test.

Let’s look at some examples of microcopy and its various applications. (Note that I’m not advocating that these will work for you; everything is contextual and you’ll need to refer to your own data and test your own hypotheses. You’ll also see some crossover, which I’ll highlight in the commentary.)

1. Persuading a customer to take action

This is why you should give us your email:

sign up microcopy - reason for asking users' email id

Nothing surprising about the above subscription form. Microcopy helps clarify the benefits of signing up and how to do it, and the button is labelled too. Remember that word “contextual”; well what if the visitor worries about their details being shared with others?

Microcopy stating your “privacy is guaranteed/we will not share your email address” could go a long way to remove the friction. And, if you were in a hurry to get some quick conversions, you could add some text to say highlighting a special offer of the day, etc. Again, it all depends on what you are looking to do with encouraging subscriptions

Don’t forget, as with all copy, to be persuasive, microcopy has to be compelling—it won’t work if you’re using it to offer something your users don’t want or gives them no value. Again this needs to be based on your research and requires testing.

2. Helping a customer complete an action

Taking the customer from A to B:

help user complete an action with microcopy

John Lewis’s registration form is labelled clearly from top to bottom. The company isn’t looking for loads of information and the microcopy directs you from one point to another—and even checks whether the visitor has an account already.

There’s even a line for opting into communications from John Lewis and associated companies, which offers reassurance that by signing up, the customer won’t receive emails they don’t want. Security and data protection is also confirmed.

assurance on how the email will be used in microcopy

Currys puts registration plus all the address requirements on one form and it’s clear what’s needed, including why it’s necessary to include an alternative phone number.

This is what will happen next.

microcopy explaining next steps from an action

Microcopy on the Currys shopping basket page is useful in providing further information and guidance—it also clarifies installation and recycling charges, when to use voucher codes, payment methods and that purchasing is secure.

Remember to be careful as too much microcopy can actually start to introduce confusion and reduce clarity—your research should tell you if you really need it.

This takes us to the next batch of examples that look specifically at clarity.

3. Improving clarity

This is why we need some personal details.

microcopy stating reason for users to give personal information

As well as the usual contact information, Facebook wants personal details. There is some microcopy hyperlinking to a pop up explaining why a date of birth is required and also microcopy clarifying terms of use, data policy and browser cookie use.

4. Persuading, reassuring, rewarding

On some forms, microcopy has to do a lot of work to ensure clarity. In the following example, it states clearly the length of a free trial while persuading the visitor that the software will save them time and money and there is no obligation to provide credit card details.

benefit and persuasion in microcopy

Whereas, the following example uses microcopy to explain that after the trial there is automatic enrolment into ongoing chargeable subscriptions.

benefit and persuasion in microcopy

Disambiguate with microcopy

It’s no good assuming that everyone will understand icons on your website, so use microcopy to make it clear what they can do. Search bars, for example. Note various approaches below where the ubiquitous magnifying glass icon is supplemented/enhanced with microcopy.

Some simply use the word search, whereas others cue people with additional words and help direct the user to the most effective way to search the site.

in-site search microcopy

5. Helping when things go wrong

Error messages are another interesting area for microcopy. There are those for customers who’ve made errors and there are those that try to communicate that something is wrong on the store side.

This is what you can do if we can’t deliver to your address:

microcopy in error messages

This is what happens when the website is down

Out of service messages can be good, while others are clearly bad. The following uses microcopy to inform customers that there is a service problem and something is being done about it.

microcopy in error messages

While the below doesn’t give users any idea of the problem or how long it’ll take to fix it, e.g., please try again in an hour, three hours, etc.

microcopy in error messages

Finally, be mindful of balance. If you find yourself writing microcopy everywhere, you should question why you need so much of it.

Remember that customers scan websites and microcopy should help and cue them for what they want to do and what you need from them.

Therefore, you need well-written microcopy to help them find their way from webpage to webpage and guide them through the various processes. It’s also useful for keeping them informed.

View microcopy as a great customer service tool that helps convert and return customers to your website over and over again. It’s not there simply as a first aid kit to patch up something that doesn’t work as well as it should.


1 J Nielsen, “How little do users read”, Nielsen Norman Group (2008).


Ben Steadman
Hi, I’m Ben. I lead the analytics team here at Endless Gain. I’ve been analysing data and fixing analytics since 2001. Data plays such a vital part in today’s decision making world. The days of making business decisions based on opinions are disappearing fast and data is replacing it. Analytics is pivotal to this data led world.

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