What Is Microcopy and How Can You Use It on Your Website?

What Is Microcopy and How Can You Use It on Your Website? thumbnail

Clean and concise copy on your website can be incredibly powerful. If you have to write an entire novel to convince your site’s users to take action, you’re probably doing something wrong. In many cases, only a few words should suffice to drive conversions.

With microcopy, you can quickly direct users to take the actions you want. In some instances, you can even make their lives easier by helping them navigate your website and find the information they need.

The best part? All it takes are a few words in the right place!

Mastering the art of good microcopy can be difficult, but in this article, we’ll provide you with all the tools you’ll need. Let’s get to work!

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What Is Microcopy?

Microcopy involves short bits of text that compel readers to take action or guide them in the right direction. The goal is to use the least amount of words possible to achieve your goal (usually due to space constraints).

Email campaigns and landing pages are two common examples of long-form copy. They can go on for hundreds or thousands of words, all carefully crafted to convince users to convert.

Microcopy, on the other hand, is much more subtle. Some examples include:

CTAs are the most straightforward example of online microcopy. This could include a CTA button that simply reads “Sign Up.”

“A simple sign-up button.”

Facebook asking what you’re thinking about is also a great example of this principle in action.

“An example of microcopy to drive interactions from Facebook.”

In each of these scenarios, writing long paragraphs to explain why users should take action isn’t an option. Let’s talk about why that is.

Why Good Microcopy Matters

Most modern websites are built around the concept of conversions. You want visitors to take specific actions, such as signing up for mailing lists, making purchases, or even just clicking on particular links.

There are a lot of factors that influence how many conversions you get, from traffic to your website’s design. However, since words are the primary way we interact with the web, they’re also our most powerful tools for driving conversions.

Consider these two examples of UX writing. First, we have a straightforward subscription button.

“A barebones subscription form.”

Second, we have another email sign-up form. The conversion goal is the same, but the copy takes a very different approach.

Even minor changes to your site’s copy can drive major shifts in conversions. Some words are known for having a more significant impact on users. For example, asking visitors to “Buy Now” tends to get more clicks than a simple “Shop” button.

The right words in the right place make all the difference.

3 Microcopy Dos and Don’ts

The first rule of microcopy is to keep things short. That means one or two sentences at most. With that out of the way, let’s move on to some other key considerations.

1. DO Consider the Location of Your Copy

Deciding where to use short copy depends on its context. With buttons, for example, you’re forced to use only a few words.

“An overly-long CTA.”

The same applies to error messages and form-field descriptions. Not only are you working with limited space, but you can assume that visitors have an idea of how these elements work already.

To increase an email field’s usability, for instance, you might include a short description explaining what information goes inside.

“An email sign-up form.”

Since most of your users will be familiar with contact forms, you don’t need an entire paragraph to get your point across. That’s one of the best ways to decide where to use short bursts of copy.

2. DON’T Use Vague Copy

There are two kinds of error messages: Those that give you enough information to take action and those that make you want to throw your computer out the window.

The difference? The amount of information they provide you.

The goal is to strike a balance, providing just enough information while avoiding clutter. If we return to our contact form example, imagine that its fields return this error when users input a value it doesn’t recognize.

 “A not-so-informative error message.”

This is obviously bad microcopy. It doesn’t provide the user with enough information to help in any way. A much better example would be this message.

“An example of an informative error message.”

The second example gives you all the information you need, while also making for a more user-friendly experience. This kind of microcopy lets you give users “clues” about how to navigate your website.

3. DO Write to Your Audience

The goal of microcopy is to drive users to perform specific actions. There are examples of this everywhere on the web. If we had a dollar for every “Sign Up” or “Get Started” button, we’d be billionaires.

“Duolingo’s sign-up prompt.”

There are cases where that type of generic microcopy works. However, if you know your audience well and understand what they want, you’ll have all the information you need to write better copy.

For example, Uber tells new drivers to “Get in the driver’s seat and get paid” and then prompts them to “Sign up to drive.”

“Uber’s sign-up prompt.”

This is a microcopy one-two punch that gets the point across much more effectively. Most people who visit Uber’s home page are looking for information about how to become a driver. This copy speaks directly to them.

Outstanding Examples of Microcopy

By now, you’re well on your way to becoming a UX writer and should have a firm grasp of what makes for excellent microcopy. However, let’s go over some examples of what outstanding microcopy looks like in various contexts before you get to work.

Sign-Up Forms

One of our favorite examples is the microcopy that drives sign-ups on Codecademy. This service has one goal, which is attracting more students. In turn, those students want to learn to code out of curiosity, to get better job prospects, and so on.

To drive more sign-ups, Codecademy emphasizes that millions of people already use the service, and that you can get started for free. As far as microcopy goes, you can’t beat the word “free.”

“An example of a sign-up form.”

One issue that can increase friction in this scenario is that most users don’t know where to start when it comes to programming. Codecademy addresses that sticking point through another excellent example of microcopy.

“A prompt to take a quiz.”

In only two sentences, they establish that they understand your problem. Then they prompt you to address it through a quiz. That is the kind of issue other services might take entire pages to address.

Contact Forms

Contact forms are not usually much fun. Most contact forms offer little feedback, are a slog to use, and feel like an afterthought. Some websites have cracked the code, however, by making their contact forms conversational.

Yummygum, for example, uses a stylish design for its contact form and livens up the process by breaking it down into two steps. First, you enter your email and tell them what you want to talk about.

 “A conversational contact form.”

The use of microcopy here is top-notch, from the “Let’s talk” to the unique choices you can select below. The next page of the process is more traditional, but by that point, you’ve already committed to the process.

“An example of a classic contact form.”

By taking a boring element and changing the way you approach its copy, you can drastically increase engagement. Take away the conversational microcopy, and you’re left with a pretty contact form that users might easily ignore.

Error Messages

Error messages are some of the hardest elements to write good copy for. That’s because you want to strike the right balance between providing enough information and not intimidating the user.

Some websites like to tackle this problem using humor, such as GitHub.

"A 404 error from GitHub.”

From a technical standpoint, this error message gives little information. However, for GitHub’s audience — and most potential visitors — its copy is enough to convey what the error means.

Other websites, such as Amazon, like to play it safer by giving you access to a bit more information.

“A 404 error from Amazon.”

The copy here is still simple, though, and it fulfills an additional purpose. It tells you what to do now that you’ve run into an error.

Error messages are intimately tied to a website’s UX. Unless your website is zero percent interactive, users will run into errors. With the right copy, you can guide them through with as little friction as possible. Not all websites handle this as elegantly.

“A 404 error from Rotten Tomatoes.”

If you find that users are running into problems with specific elements on your website, that’s the perfect opportunity to flex your microcopy chops.

Extra Resources to Improve Your Microcopy Skills

Using as few words as possible to get your point across is a skill that takes time to master. If you already have experience writing traditional marketing copy, switching gears is not easy.

We’ve gone over the basics in this article, but if you want to level up your microscopy skills further, we recommend these resources:

Now that you have all the right resources, it’s time to take another look at your website with a critical eye and see where microcopy can improve its UX!

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Woo Website Visitors with Effective Microcopy

The fewer words you have to play with, the harder it can be to get your point across. That’s why great microcopy relies so much on design and context. If you know who your audience is, you don’t need as many words to drive conversions.

The first cardinal rule of microcopy is to keep things clear and concise. Beyond that, you’ll want to:

  1. Consider the location of your copy.
  2. Don’t be too vague.
  3. Write to your audience.

Are you ready to put these UX microcopy tips into action and start working on your next website? Our hosting plans make it easy to launch a new project, even if you don’t have a lot of experience with development. You can focus on the copy, and we’ll take care of keeping your website running smoothly!

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About the Author:

SEO leader and content marketer, Brian is DreamHost’s Director of SEO. Based in Chicago, Brian enjoys the local health food scene (deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches) and famous year-round warm weather. Follow Brian on LinkedIn.