You know the importance of making a great first impression. You’re also aware that you only get one chance to make that great first impression. When presenting yourself online, that first impression comes in written form. Whether a social post, website, or email, your first contact with new customers is via the written word.

There is so much competition for people’s attention online. You don’t want to give potential customers any reason to leave your website early or delete your email without reading to the end. You don’t want them to unfollow you on social media because you inadvertently offended them. 

One of the great SEO and internet gurus, Neil Patel, writes about how important writing is. He lists several stats about how many startups go broke within their first few years. He says that many of them cite a lack of market need as the reason they failed. But I suspect what they meant is that they couldn’t attract enough of the market. It’s likely poor copy was partially responsible for their failure.

Trust takes time to cultivate—but only a moment to destroy

One of the points that Patel makes is how writing creates trust in your brand. When somebody comes into your store or office, you can use many tactics. You can greet them, smile, offer them coffee and speak to them in a friendly and respectful way. You start winning over their trust. 

An image of a smiling man dealing with a smiling female customer at a counter.

But when you are interacting with them online for the first time, those strategies don’t work. You can only deliver a professional-looking website with a clear and engaging brand message.

An element of creating trust in this situation involves rhythm and flow. If your writing doesn’t have that flow, potential customers become bored. They don’t form a bond with your brand—and they leave your site.

A great writer is capable of crafting a story that will keep people enthralled. Some movies suck you in, keeping you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what happens next. With others, you lose interest and stop watching halfway through. The same thing happens with a well-written book. Where do you think the expression “a real page-turner” comes from? 

Words can take you on a journey, but they can also interrupt that journey

The words you write determine if the reader will turn the page, or close the cover, never to pick up that book again. You want to do the former with your website. You want to keep your potential customers engaged and interested. You want them to keep scrolling and engaged.

I picture of a young boy hiding under his blanket, reading a book by flashlight

Successful authors write, rewrite, and rewrite passages and sentences until they’re perfect. The ideal phrase can be the difference between someone turning the page or closing the cover. You try to craft a story that will keep potential customers engaged and reading your website. Even when you do everything right 98% of the time, one moment can ruin everything.

A site visitor has read almost to the end of the page. The call to action is a few lines away. You’ve spun your tale and lured them in. But then an awkward sentence with a glaring typo smacks them in the face. 

The spell is broken. You’ve lost them. Imagine a phone ringing during the tense climactic scene in a movie. It completely breaks the spell. The moment is ruined.

How do you create copy that engages and keeps people reading?

The first thing you want is someone who can write well. Not an award-winning novelist, but you want somebody very familiar with the language. You want a writer who knows how to write, edit, and rewrite. You want someone who’ll keep searching until they discover the perfect word or phrase. 

A picture of a hand holding a pen, writing on a piece of paper with a notebook and a cup of coffee in the background, on the same table.

It is 100% possible for people who aren’t native speakers to write compelling copy. But in most cases, native speakers have a distinct advantage. If you use a copywriter who’s writing in a second language, I urge you to use a native-speaking proofreader. 

Even when the ideas are there and organized well, it only takes one small mistake to bump readers. A copywriter writing in a foreign language is more likely to include poor word choices or awkward phrases. A native-speaking proofreader can ensure all copy comes across naturally and flowing.

You can always use non-native speaking proofreaders. Non-native speaking proofreaders may ironically be more knowledgeable of grammar rules. But they may not be able to distinguish the nuance of two similar words. Besides, the more familiar you are with the language, the easier it is to spot mistakes. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a mistake I made with my Korean Instagram tags. Even when this typo was pointed out to me, I struggled to see the error. I finally found and corrected it. But a native Korean speaker noticed it immediately, with ease—and he wasn’t even looking for mistakes.

The long and short of it is length doesn’t matter when your copy is poor

A picture of the hashtag symbol that's been drawn in the sand

The other issue with bad copy is that it doesn’t keep people reading. Many top copywriters believe each line of copy has only one purpose—to get you to read the next line. You strive to keep people reading until they reach your call to action. If you’ve done your job well, the reader will take that action. 

Boring, awkward, error-filled copy doesn’t keep people reading about your product or service. They’ll stop reading long before reaching your call to action.

These copywriters argue that short copy is more effective due to our short attention spans. But even with succinct copy, you need readers to stick around until your call to action. 

Yet, others argue that long copy is more effective. They claim that long-form copy delivers more information. But it also must be more engaging to keep readers interested to the end.

This week, I’ve scheduled a post on my Instagram feed about a company claiming to be very professional. It’s scheduled for Tuesday, but you’re getting a sneak peek!

There’s one small problem—they’ve misspelled the word professional. If I were considering using their services, that mistake would tell me all I need to know. If they can’t spell the word professional right, what other details did they overlook? What other shortcuts did they take? 

If you can’t be professional about your own company, you’re making a bad first impression. There is no way a native English speaker would’ve missed that mistake, even with a cursory reading.

With one of the clients I work with, every piece of copy that goes live is announced to the team. Everyone then checks it for typos, incorrect links, and any other errors. Every piece of copy undergoes rigorous proofreading before this stage. 

But we still catch things after things are posted online. Sometimes seeing copy in a different format will let you spot mistakes. The site mentioned above likely didn’t go through that process.

An ad for multifunction fan. The copy in the image says 3-in-1, while under the image it says 4 in 1 retractable car charger

Let’s look at some examples of copy that destroy trust in the product or service

This first example was actually the inspiration for this post. When I saw this in my inbox, I was immediately distrustful. Why? Because the picture says it is a three in one charger, but the listing says it’s a four in one charger. It feels like they’re lying to me.

It’s like the company knows its product sounds better with the number 4 in front of it, rather than 3. But the fact that they can’t keep their story straight within the space of a few lines is cause for concern. I’m confused about what the product actually does and what functions it has. I’m also suspicious of the company. 

Also, the only line of copy doesn’t start with a capital letter. It doesn’t have any end punctuation. Is it a heading? Is it a sentence? Is it a bullet point? It’s also confusing. I’m not sure how the cable being retractable facilitates easy charging. Surely the benefit of a retractable cable is that it’s neat and tidy.

An internet ad showing an image of a person's midsection with a drawing of intestines superimposed over the picture. The words clogged anus are at the top of the image.

The following example appeared in my Facebook feed. At first glance, it seems to be some sort of cure or treatment for constipation. The first line of the copy is intriguing. “The response has been nuts since I last posted about this”—but the absence of a period gives me pause. The biggest issue I have here is with the word anus. In fact, the phrase clogged anus is generally awkward and unappealing. 

Looking at the caption at the bottom, it says, “The best belly flattener I’ve ever tried.” So it would appear this product is actually related to weight loss. Clogged anus may convey the concept, but it’s a very harsh term that doesn’t come across well. 

There is also an image of a person’s intestines superimposed over the picture. This confused me even more. Does this product relieve constipation or burn fat? Either way, nothing about this ad makes me want to click on the call to action. I’m confused, distrustful, and wary.

The ‘ick’ factor is high, but not for the reasons you assume

The following example comes from a crowdfunding site. Again we have some poor word choices that do not help this copy. I understand it is targeting environmentally-conscious women. Women who are concerned about the pollution created by regular disposable menstruation pads. But I’m not sure referring to them as reusable menstruation pads is the best strategy. 

An image of a round bamboo tray with three reusable menstruation pads on it. The text reads "T Reusable Menstruation Pad Making you period a little less shitty for you and the environment,"

For example, we don’t refer to them as reusable diapers. They’re referred to as cloth diapers. Yes, they are reusable. But calling them cloth diapers is much less off-putting than reusable diapers. They could have done a better job with the first line of this copy. 

The next part of this copy that I don’t like is the tagline. I bet somebody thought they were being clever with “a little less shitty for you and the environment.” First, that seems like a mixed metaphor. Shitty can mean terrible, but when we’re talking about bodily functions, it’s confusing. 

Additionally, this reusable menstruation pad could significantly impact the environment. It depends on how many times you can reuse it. That could be more than a little less shitty for the environment. People tend to emphasize the environmentally-friendly angle of their product—not downplay it. 

The final English example I have is definitely for weight loss, but again it features a poor choice of words. As a university instructor, I emphasized the importance of denotation and connotation. For example, thin, skinny, and slim have the same denotation—they mean “not overweight.” I would ask my students which of these three words would they would consider a compliment. 

  • Wow, you’re so thin.
  • Wow, you’re so skinny.
  • Wow, you’re so slim

My students usually answered that slim was the most complimentary. Thin and skinny have the connotation, or extra feeling, of being unhealthy or malnourished. Slim carries the connotation of being not overweight—but in a healthy way. Thus the product Skinnylab may be sending the wrong message. 

A screenshot of a web site showing an attractive Korean woman next to the text skinny lab benefit.

There was a famous diet shake from the 1980s called SlimFast. It wasn’t called ThinFast or SkinnyFast. But SlimFast originated in the US, whereas Skinny Lab comes from Korea. Perhaps the native-speaking copywriters knew something the non-native English speaking copywriters didn’t.

In Korea, you should use native Korean-speaking copywriters and proofreaders

I’d like to finish with a couple of Korean examples to help make my point. Native speaking copywriters tend to be familiar with the language. This ad uses a clever play on words. 

A photo of a Korean ad showing an athletic woman doing a pushup, with large Korean writing in the foreground.

The English translation reads, “This is Seoul. Why are you living in the countryside?” But the word “지방” (ji-bang) can mean both countryside and fat. I doubt a non-native speaker would’ve come up with this clever double entendre. (Why are you living in the countryside/Why are you living wrapped in fat?)

My final example is also Korean. It is related to the smash hit Netflix show, Squid Game. The first children’s game played in that show is the Korean version of Red Light, Green Light. When playing the game in Korean, ‘it’ covers their eyes and repeats the phrase “무궁화 꽃 이 피었 습니다.” That means “The rose of Sharon has bloomed” The transliteration is “Mugunghwa kkot-chi pi-eot seumnida.” 

무궁화 꼬찌 피엇 소리다.
Mugunghwa kko-jji pi-eot sorida.

Somebody wanted to capitalize on the show’s popularity. They designed a Korean t-shirt using the doll’s silhouette from the game. To the untrained eye, this may look fine. But I am sure any Koreans reading this are doing one of two things.

They’re either laughing hysterically or trying to figure out what the heck this phrase means. The first half of the top-line is correct—the rose of Sharon. But the second part is not a Korean word, though some people allege (incorrectly) that it is slang for penis and/or vagina. Yet the Koreans I’ve checked with have said this is incorrect and that the word has no meaning.

The bottom line is also gibberish. The closest translation would be, “It’s the bloom sound of the Rose of Sharon kko-jji.” I’m uncertain how these Korean typos were achieved. But searching for this incorrect phrase on Google returns almost 9,000 results. The mistranslation is spreading—and fast. Yet on the most popular Korean search engine, Naver, there are only 5 search results.

This is why you need to involve a native-speaking proofreader. If you don’t read Korean, or at least not well, you could easily Google the phrase and copy and paste this incorrect one. It’s written in the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). It looks right. It must be right. It ain’t right. Not at all. I can confidently assert that no native Koreans were involved in the making of these shirts. 

This is so perplexing I had to dig deeper. Squid Game debuted on September 17th. The first post using the incorrect phrase that I can find appears on September 21st on a lyrics site. Very interestingly, it lists the line as 무궁화 꼬찌 피엇 소리다 (Mugunghwa Kkoci Pieot Seumnida). What’s so interesting is that the Romanization, while non-standard, is correct, yet the Korean is incorrect. I wonder if it spread from this one site. So confusing.

Engaging content and error-free copy are your best chance for success

Writing copy that sells, that draws customers in, is never easy. Native English speakers use copywriters to do the job for them. They also use proofreaders to do that job for them. If English is not your native language, I urge you to use a native English speaker if you wish to get your message across effectively in English. 

A picture of some papers on a desk with a red pen on top of the papers, and a cup of coffee next to the papers.

Using someone at your company who can translate might be a good first step. But translating something from one language to another doesn’t always work. The first Korean example above would not work in English. The double meaning of ‘ji-bang’ (fat/countryside) wouldn’t translate. You’d need someone to rework the idea or come up with something new.

Employing a native English-speaking copywriter to write your English copy or a native Korean-speaking copywriter to write your Korean copy doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You are not inferior. You’re smart enough to want to do the job properly rather than cutting corners to save a few bucks.

If you need help with your English copy, don’t hesitate to contact me. Remember, I even offer a free service for short, simple tasks. What’s better than free help? But you gotta ask! Oh, and if you’ve got any inside info on the Squid Game mistranslation, please share! It’s driving me crazy—my wife will no longer indulge me on the topic.

One thought on “How poor copy destroys trust and costs you customers—[with examples]

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