Why the world needs more microcopy (and five tips to make it work for you)

Are you making good use of microcopy in your business? Find out what microcopy is, why the world needs more of it, and five tips to make it work for you.

Before technology, it was the romantic quote on a bench or a gravestone; some engraving on a piece of jewellery or a sculpture. Now, it’s the little touch that makes us pause and shows us that, behind the screen, the tablet, the website template, there are still people.

It’s the attention to detail that punches well above its weight, makes us slow down for a minute and appreciate the finer things.

It ncn be pithy, romantic or downright cheeky. Ultimately, it’s all about making you feel good, making you smile or think a little. It’s all about user experience.

What is good microcopy?

What is it? Microcopy. Those few small words, the little pointer, thought, quote or meme that appears as you navigate through a website.

I’m focusing on the lighter end of the spectrum: the comments, quotes and memes that cheer up the internet. But microcopy has a serious role to play too. It can be the instructional text used within a form, the system error message or e-commerce hints, which help to direct you to the end of a process.

For me, good microcopy is interesting, clear – sometimes quirky or irreverent – but always serves a purpose. It’s effortlessly cool. It has perfect timing. It’s understated. And I love it.

My love affair with microcopy began long before the internet became such a staple in our lives. It makes for a great combination with my other hobby – photography – and I have many pictures of quirky quotes, or unexpected words appearing in our day to day life.

Some of my favourites include the memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson, situated under a tree in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens. It’s a small, unassuming headstone with the simple inscription: “R L S A Man of Letters”. Clever, a little quirky but, above all, unexpected.

How companies are using microcopy to improve user experience

Microcopy is a break from the norm. Many websites, such as Moo, Mailchimp and Canva use it especially well at the end of your design or order process. It’s a nice touch, and means users are more likely to leave the process with a positive view of the website and their experience. It’s no wonder, then, that there’s a theory that microcopy increases conversions.

As I said at the start of this blog about microcopy, for a small amount of text, it definitely punches above its weight. Take basecamp.com, a collaboration platform for businesses.

Founded by David Heinemeier Hansson, or DHH, about 12 years ago, Basecamp aims to help people manage projects more efficiently together but remotely. (His blog about how is all started, is here. It’s a great read and shows his attitude to doing things a bit differently, which is refreshing in itself, but that’s another story.)

Basecamp has a friendly, informal tone of voice which lends itself well to microcopy. And this shows from the website. There are callouts and comments everywhere. But, far from being confusing, this microcopy adds to the user experience.

You immediately feel as though Basecamp wants to help, rather than simply to sell. Menu headings say things like ‘how it works’ or ‘learn’ rather than using more conventional titles. If you click through to ‘how it works’ you immediately see microcopy doing its job again, with a call out over the top of the video, saying ‘See how it works, in 2 minutes.’

How to start writing your own microcopy

If you’re considering using microcopy on your website, it’s important to start by thinking about context. You may have the sort of website – say, that of a financial advisor, insurance broker or similar – that is quite process driven and required users to work through a series of steps for them to gain value from your services.

If so, then you need explanatory microcopy. This holds the user’s hand during that process and minimises confusion, which, in turn, should minimise the chance of losing potential customers before they complete their order or enquiry.

If you’re lucky enough to be in an industry that’s slightly less regulated, you might decide on a more informal tone of voice throughout your website, which would open the door to some of the more irreverent microcopy that we see with the likes of Mailchimp.

Once I’ve logged in, I’m greeted with a bright and breezy, personalised ‘good morning’ message. If I click through to create a campaign, the blue button is there with some comforting microcopy – ‘let us guide you’ – I feel as though I’m working with a person, not just fumbling my way through a website.

And if something goes wrong, you may well be greeted by a page that looks like the image above!

Five tips to get microcopy right

It’s obvious that this teeny tiny contribution to a website carried more impact that you would imagine.

So, how do you get it right? There’s a wealth of information on the internet about microcopy, including some excellent blogs – goodmicrocopy.com being the best . Here are my top five tips for getting it right:

  1. Make sure your website tone is consistent across micro and maxi (normal) copy. There’s no point having serious, corporate web copy and then turning into a clown with all your microcopy. Your users will just think you’ve been hacked!
  2. Get someone to do a user test before you go live. You want your microcopy to enhance the experience, not confuse people.
  3. Less is more. Don’t forget, this is all about being small and effective, not big, brash and overbearing.
  4. Be irreverent and play around (if it suits your style) but not too much. You need to pitch your microcopy at allof your users. Some may be more traditional than others so bear this in mind.
  5. Make sure all your website microcopy is relevant and serves a purpose. Your users won’t thank you for constantly bombarding them with quotes and comments. However, a sign-off which makes them smile as they leave your website hints at some humanity in your business (see Slack’s example below).

For more copywriting hints and tips, visit the My Word blog.