How to turn Your Website into a Selling Machine – An Interview with Nick Usborne

Nick Usborne

How to turn Your Website into a Selling Machine – An Interview with Nick Usborne


Nick Usborne is a copywriter who specializes in writing for the web. In this interview Nick reveals how you can make more money from your website just by making a few simple but massively effective tweaks

Nick reveals…

  • Why web copy is different from offline/print copywriting
  • How to structure the pages on your website to make as many sales as possible
  • Why you should treat every page on your site like a landing page
  • Plan A, Plan B and Plan C of what you want a visitor to do before leaving your website (And there is no Plan D, by the way)
  • How to write blog posts that not only give huge value and content but make money as well
  • The 2 most important elements of email marketing
  • And lot's more. Just click the play button to listen to the interview or read the full transcript below.

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Joey Bushnell: Hey everyone this is Joey Bushnell, today I have with me a fantastic copywriter by the name of Nick Usbourne. Nick, thank you so much for being with me today.

Nick Usborne: You’re very welcome.

Joey Bushnell: Thank you. Nick how did you become a copywriter?

Nick Usborne: By accident really. I was about 22, my dad was gently shunting me out of the house and gave me a ticket to go up to London and told me to get a job. I had an old school friend there, I rang him up and said I needed somewhere to stay, he lived in a house share but there wasn’t a room free so I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

The first weekend I was there we were all sitting around the breakfast table and there was introductions, there was one guy there and I asked “What do you do?”, he said “I work in an ad agency”. I said what’s an ad agency?”. I thought that companies did their own advertising, I’d never heard of an ad agency before. He explained a bit about it and I asked if it was fun and he said “Yeah it’s great fun” (this was back in the late70’s early 80’s).

So Monday morning they all went to work and I didn’t have a job so I took out the yellow pages and I looked up advertising agencies. On my manual typewriter I typed out 20 letters. I think I got as far as the C’s in ad agencies in London and I sent out the 20 letters, got 3 interviews, 1 job offer and took it. That’s it, it wasn’t my ambition, I didn’t even know ad agencies existed so I started working there, quickly discovered that copywriting was my thing and I was on the way.

Joey Bushnell: And these days you’re a freelancer?

Nick Usborne: Yes, for most of the time over the last 30 years I’ve worked for myself. There have been little spots where I’ve been an employee of someone else but not for very long. But I’ve been a freelancer for most of that time.

Joey Bushnell: Is it true to say that you specialize in web copy at the moment Nick?

Nick Usborne: Yes absolutely. I was doing print, predominately direct response up until December 31st 1997. I made a decision at that point that as of January 1st 1998, I’ve been exclusively online. I haven’t written a word of print or offline media since then.

Joey Bushnell: So how does web copy differ to offline copy? Firstly, does it differ? If it does, how does it differ?

Nick Usborne: Well there are similarities, there are certain fundamentals in terms of communication and selling in direct response that are the same, whether it’s offline or online. That said, it is a hugely different medium and I think it’s principally because of the ownership of the medium.

If you go back to direct mail, print, TV, radio and traditional media those mediums are owned by media companies and basically those companies do what they want with those media. They create these broadcast messages whether it be a piece of direct mail or a TV commercial, they are crafting their message and throwing it at the audience.

Online is somewhat different because the companies don’t own the medium, the users and public own the medium. Regular people publish far more online every day than companies, corporations and organizations do. This is a medium that is owned by billions of regular people, they have their own expectations and way of communicating online. It is much more conversational and about engagement, it’s much more about transparency.

I’ve spoken about this a lot and sometimes I look at the difference between a print brochure and the web. In fact back in 1998 my big thing was that writing for the web is different. I used to give these presentations, back then companies were still cutting and pasting their offline copy and text onto the web and in my presentations I showed off example of this. A piece of text that works fine in a glossy brochure when you put it on the web it’s just ridiculous, the voice is wrong, the whole approach is just wrong.

Although there are some fundamental truths about communicating and marketing with words, the way in which you do it online is fundamentally different. The conversation is very different because there is a conversation and there is feedback. The audience is no longer voiceless which they are in terms of a TV commercial or a piece of direct mail. The recipient can’t send  back a piece of direct mail or add their own TV commercial to a television. They are just a passive recipient and that changes the language, it changes how you write for the web.

Joey Bushnell: Nick on your website you do have a free report which is called “Writing For The Web”. In that report you talk about 7 challenges that we face as people who write on the web. One of those points that you make is about making sure that the visitor to your website does not get lost on the website. Do you have any tips to help us avoid that happening?

Nick Usborne: Yes, a lot of it comes down to the organization of the website which we professionally refer to as the site architecture, the way you organize the information.

Then it also speaks of usability which is the science of making a website usable, which means you help people find where they want to go. Look at it this way, if you walk into a large store like a Tesco or Walmart, if you look around you can see at a glance all the different departments it’s all in one space. You put Walmart on the web and all you’ve got is a front page, a home page. In fact it doesn’t matter whether you are Walmart or a corner store you have the same hosting space for your home page and everything else is hidden behind that. It’s not like walking into a store or leaping into a catalogue where you can see stuff at a glance. You can’t see a website at a glance you can only see the homepage or whatever page you have arrived at. You have to organize, if you’ve just got a 10 page website, it’s not a challenge compared to 10,000 pages.

I did some consulting for a very large company that everyone would have heard of and I asked them how many pages they had on their website and they said “We’re not quite sure but we think it’s somewhere between 10-15 million”. So some websites are very large and deep so you have to organize your information in such a way that people can find what they want.

Back in the 90’s Amazon invested a hugeamount of work into this because of course they have a huge store. What they try to achieve is, if someone comes to the homepage they want to get you to the product page that you want within 3 clicks. In fact there has been a lot of testing done on this, if it takes more than 3 clicks for the person to get to where they want to be, you start seeing a dramatic drop off in conversion rates.

It’s about site architecture, usability and making it really simple. Again unless it’s a very small website and small business, people will never find exactly what they want on the homepage, they have to find it on an interior page. You might have thousands of those as a business so it’s quite a challenge to help people get there within 3 clicks.

Joey Bushnell: So would that be a case of having a really clear navigation bar or search bar for example?

Nick Usborne: A search box is certainly helpful and if you look at the horizontal tabs on a lot of websites, across the top beneath the header, let’s say you have 8 different tabs there, they will correspond to the principle categories of information on your website. If it’s a garden website they might have a tab about garden furniture, one for plants and maybe a tab for a landscape design. So those would represent 3 principle areas of the website so at a glance as I come to the website if my interest is in garden landscape design I can see that tab, I go straight to it and click because that’s where I want to be. So sometimes it’s just down to simple and clear navigation.

Another thing I used to do when I was working a lot with large corporate companies is I’d say “I’m guessing that there are just 4 things that 80% of your visitors want to do when they arrive at your homepage” and that is generally true. There isn’t an equal interest in every page or every category on a business website, there are usually some that are more popular than others. So I’d say give me those 4 or 3, but don’t make it more than 4, let’s please 80% rather than not really pleasing 100%. I’d take those 4 interior areas of the site and then I would create something on the homepage. It may be a boxed off area, it may be a strong linked area so that most people at a glance can see what they want to get to and think “Yeah that’s it” and click.

Joey Bushnell: A second point that you mentioned in your free report was that you’ve got to write in a way on your website that is both for the reader, for your company and also for he search engines. So does that create a bit of a conflict, can we write in a way that works for all three?

Nick Usborne: That’s always been a challenge and in fact I’ve got to update that report because of course there is another one which is social media. You can not only optimize content for search engines, you can optimize it for social media to maximize sharing and distribution.

Is there conflict in there? There can be.

The conflict that I generally get out of the way as quickly as possible is the second one you mentioned which is saying what the company wants to say. Usually I push back on that and say “You saying your thing about your company is the least valuable thing among this mix“. First is, let’s please your readers because if you please the search engines or you please social media but you don’t please your readers then you are dead. So if nothing else, the first priority is to write content, write pages and websites that will please your readers. Like I say, if you fail in that area, you fail in everything.

Then the next thing used to be that we want to optimize this for search engines maybe we are going to tinker around with the phrases we use so that we are still pleasing our reader but we’ve also got a strong keyword here for this page so we can attract some organic search traffic. So that’s a whole skill, how do you optimize for the search engines without messing up the experience for the reader.

Again like I say there is this additional overlay of “we’ve got to keep this as good as can possibly be for the reader but we want to optimize for the search engines and we want to optimize for social media” so this content, page or video becomes as sharable as possible. It’s a juggling act and there is a skill there, sometimes you get it just right and sometimes you don’t.

Joey Bushnell: It’s very true what you said about pleasing the reader is the number one thing becauseif they are not pleased then they are not going to share it on social media. Also Google and the other search engines, they want content that the user is going to find valuable.

Nick Usborne: Right, and Google for the last couple of years ever since panda is much, much tougher now, it’s much smarter at finding pages that have clearly been created with a priority to please the search engines so a lot of those pages will have just disappeared off the rankings altogether. Google has always wanted us to please the reader first, they have always said it, they have just become more sophisticated, more aggressive in weeding out all those pages that are primarily optimized and created to attract search engine traffic.

Joey Bushnell: Why should we be treating each page on our website like it’s a landing page?

Nick Usborne: Well, let me take one step back because maybe not everyone is familiar with the term landing page. Basically a landing page one way or another, it’s a sales page. If you want to sell a product or service, if you want to get someones email address, get someone to register or have a free trial, landing pages are sometimes not even part of the permanent architecture of the site.

That page is created specifically to drive sales and very often we drive traffic to them through email, social media, pay per click or some other channel. The thing about a landing age is that it’s all about conversion rate. That is the only thing you measure, this is a sales page, we are trying to get the visitor to do something and what are the percentage of visitors that do what you want them to do? That is the conversion rate and that is all we are concerned with on our landing page.

Now when I say that every page on a website needs to be looked at a viewed through that lens, I guess what I’m saying is that whatever the page, if someone arrives at your website, maybe a stranger or first time visitor, and they read a page and they may think that page is fabulous, if they read it or listen to your video or go through a slide show, think it was great and then hit the back button you just failed. They probably won’t be back again. They might hear about you six months later, read another page and think that page was really great then they leave and you’ve failed. If somebody comes to your home page and they just look at your homepage and don’t click through to any other page you’ve failed because you’re not closing a sale.

Basically most home pages, with the exception of very small websites, are step one, so you have to get people to click. On a home page the minimum requirement is that someone clicks through to another page, they haven’t left and you have another chance. But if people come to a page and read it and maybe just absolutely adore it and love it but leave you just failed.

So that’s why I say use that same lens whatever the page, wherever it is in the website. When someone comes to this page we to get them to do something. We have to measure conversion rate and measure the click through rate. Of the people who come to this page, how many leave? And how many click through else where or take some kind of action? Without action you’ve failed.

Joey Bushnell: So on each available page on your website, on each interior page, would you say it’s a smart thing to have an opt-in box somewhere available on the page or your social media buttons showing or your phone number showing on every single page so that however they come in to your site they can take an action at the end of reading the content?

Nick Usborne: Well, it does depend. I do, on all my side usually on the right hand side, there’s a sign up for my newsletter and various social media things. But that right hand side of any website is not nearly as powerful as the central main body of the page.If you look at eye tracking studies you’ll see predominately almost all the attention is in that big center column. Very little attention is paid to the right hand side.

So just as an example, if you read my blog post this morning or the one last Thursday, you will read the content and then underneath that it will say “If you found this useful and want to make sure you don’t miss the next post, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you by email.” So what I’m doing is, if someone likes a page I try and capture them because if I don’t then they leave, I’ve achieved nothing.

When I talk about this in terms of a website, I talk about plan A, B, C and there is no plan D.

Plan A is someone comes to your website, maybe it has one page or 5 it doesn’t matter, you want them to buy something, do a free trial or something else, that’s great you’ve clearly succeeded.

Plan B is if someone doesn’t buy on that visit, you want to at least collect their name and email address so that you have an opportunity to get back to them. So plan A is buy something, plan B is, if they don’t buy then let’s at least capture their contact information.

If you fail in those 2 areas, plan C is to get them to click on a Facebook, Twitter, Google plus or Youtube button and get them to follow you or subscribe to your channel. You don’t have the same control and attention quality as you would if you had them on your mailing list but at least they are not all together lost. So this is declining quality of attention… the buyer, the subscriber and then the social media follower and there is no plan D, if you don’t hit one, two or three then you’ve lost.

Joey Bushnell: So the editorial kind of content that you produce on your site for example your blog post, how is that helping in the selling process?

Nick Usborne: I guess in terms of the selling process there are 2 things that I’m trying to do when I write content. Obviously I want to write something that is useful, interesting and relevant to my readers because I want them to come back, subscribe or follow me on Twitter etc. So I’ve got to work hard to create quality content that is useful to the reader.

Another thing that I do with my content is I want to build trust. I want people to read my stuff and think “This guy Nick, really knows what he’s talking about, he seems sincere and he’s not one of those totally hype people, I think I can respect and trust what he says. This sounds like a place that I should come back to.”

In terms of the sales process first I have to find someone, a stranger and I have to get them to find me. I then need to turn that person into a friend in a sense, like ‘Hey I like Nick’s stuff”. Then I have to get them to trust me so they think “I kind of respect this, this is a place here I can feel safe and comfortable learning from.” Once I have gone from introduction to friend to trust, I’ve actually got about 80% of the sales process done now.

If someone trusts me and I say “Oh by the way and now we’ll get into the content” Some of my content is just “Hey I think you’ll find this useful” but probably about 80% of my content my blog posts I have an ulterior motive, of course I’m a business. 

So what I do is I write a post that I think will be helpful, useful and informative. Then if you look down, either within the body of the post or as a related information underneath the post it says “Oh and by the way if this is something you would like to know more about, as it happens I have written a book, published a program or a course about this”. So there is a pre selling element.

My content pages are not sales pages but many of them are actually pre selling. But again I can’t be too “selly” because I’m trying to build trust with my reader. That’s really important. So if my readers trust me and then they come across a bit of a pre-sale they may think “This guy has taught me a lot just reading his posts, if I got his book or program I would probably get a ton of useful information”.

Joey Bushnell: So you’re building trust with them, you’re showing you clearly have expertise, you’re showing your credibility and all of that is over time changing someones attitude towards you, so when the time comes to sell to them properly then they are in a whole different mindset and receptivity towards your offer. It’s very important isn’t it Nick, that you include a call to action at the end of the post, is that correct?

Nick Usborne: Absolutely, I’ve written since 1998 somewhere between 2,000 – 3,000 articles or posts, I’m not doing it just because I’m a nice guy and I want to share what I know. I’m doing it because I want to make a living and pay my bills. So there is purpose behind my content. A lot of people just throw out content and think “Oh maybe the readers will love this” or “Google will love this” But that content is a dead end, it has no purpose. All the content that I create has purpose.

If I write a post it’s because I want you to sign up, register or buy something. If I sell you an eBook for $9.95 it’s not because that $9.95 is going to make me rich it’s because after reading that eBook you’re going to think “This is great, this guy really knows stuff” and at the end of the eBook you’ll find a link to a $300-$400 program or course.

So content has a role in the sales funnel, but again it’s just balance. It has to be authentic, valuable, useful and relevant. It has to build authority and trust. If you can do that, when you say “Oh and by the way…” then 80% of the sales work is done.

Joey Bushnell: So the content is helping transition people to this point where you will make an offer and be selling something. I imagine at this point you will need some sort of harder hitting direct marketing type of copy to make the sale. If that’s so, what occasions are we using this? And whereabouts on the website does this kind of direct marketing or direct response copy appear?

Nick Usborne: There’s a lot you could talk about there but just as a typical case if it’s a sales page that’s not a stand alone landing page, it’s a product or service sales page that is part of the permanent architecture of the site. You go to the home page think “This is what I’m looking for”. You click through maybe with one or two clicks you get to the sales page and yes at that point you are writing like a direct response writer.

Now the way in which you write and the length of that page depends very much on your audience and the market you’re in. If I want you to sign up for my investment news letter I’ll probably write a very long sales page and I probably won’t ask for a ton of money on your first purchase, that’s just the nature of that kind of product.

I’ve done a lot of business to business where I’m selling a $500 or $1000 report and on the business to business side generally the sales pages are shorter. People sitting at work don’t have time to sit and read a 10,000 word sales page, they don’t want to do it. So I’ve successfully sold product, whether it’s $500 or $1,000 with a 400 -500 word sales page in business to business.

So the length of the page, the tone and how “selly” you are really does change according to the product and the audience. But it is hardcore direct response, I use all the same skills and disciplines I learned as a direct mail copywriter. That doesn’t mean to say it’s always a hard sell but there is a structure and a process there. I have to convert someone who is interested at the headline into a buyer when we get to the bottom of the page. There’s nothing fluffy about that, it is a very precise very disciplined and structured sales process on those pages.

Joey Bushnell: And when you’re selling a higher priced item, is that something that you would have available for any visitor who comes to a typical multi-page website? Or is that maybe something you would send to your email list that know you more, is there any sort of strategy in there?

Nick Usborne: I would do both. The page is there for anyone to find but in terms of conversion rates, if a stranger stumbles across your products sales page and reads you’ll get a pretty low conversion rate. If however you have a list and if I’d been sending people this wonderful content in my newsletter for a couple of years and then in next weeks newsletter I do a promotion for a new program, product or service I will then get a much higher conversion rate. Because I’m talking to the converted, I’m talking to an audience who already listens to me.

So my own experience with not just my own site but hundreds of sites is that if you want high conversion rates on your sales page then you can’t just write your sales page and sit back. You have to have a plan, you really want to build a list again same with direct marketing and direct mail, it’s the list, list, list. It’s not always the size of the list but it’s the quality, you want a list of raging fans and when you have a list like that then for sure your conversion rate jumps up significantly on your sales pages.

Joey Bushnell: Can we explore that a little bit further Nick? Do you have any tips for a good email marketing sequence and then actually selling and making an offer via email?

Nick Usborne: Well, I’ve been involved with this across all kinds of companies, very large to very small ones and B2B to B2C. The most successful strategy that I have found across all of those is, again I’ve written about this before and I describe it as “give, give, give, give, ask”. That is the more value you give, the more information that you give away, the more amazing stuff that they think “Hey, I can’t believe that he gave me this rather than trying to package and sell this”. The more you give, when you come to the ask, the higher the conversion.

I think one of the things with email is patience. You don’t get a list and then bam, just try and sell them something on day one. You have to build up that trust so that they love your stuff and they can’t believe that you’ve given them all of this great stuff and they’re only too happy to buy your stuff when it comes out.

Email is wonderful but email is tricky because we all get so much garbage in our inbox’s and an email list is a very delicate thing. I’ve seen this with someone who actually had purchased a 100,000 name email list, this is going way back. It was B2B, very valuable list that was involved with the previous owner of the list. The new owner destroyed it within 2 months. He simply destroyed it because basically he undercut trust. I kept saying to him “Don’t do this, don’t do this” and he didn’t listen to me. That list was worth nothing within 2 months.

So the most important thing, and this isn’t just me saying it I’ve been involved in a ton of testing and everything else, is that with a list the most important things are first of all recognition. When people see your name in the front box they need to recognize it, if they don’t recognize it they’ll probably not bother reading it or put it in their junk mail. So you have got to be in front of them a number of times to achieve recognition so they say “Oh look it’s from Joey, I’ll read this”.

The second thing is reputation. When I see the email coming in from Joey I think “Oh I know Joey” and then I’ve immediately got to think “his stuff is always worth reading” that’s reputation. If you get recognition and reputation you are 80% of the way there.

I did a test once with a company who were testing a whole bunch of subject lines, the company was obsessed with their subject lines and the impact of open rates and conversion rates. I said it’s less to do with the subject line than you think, it’s about recognition and reputation. I said we are going to test it and we were testing about 5 subject lines against a small portion of their list the day before the big send, so we wanted to see which subject line would achieve the greatest open rate. So I put in a test there and my subject line was “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” they said you’re crazy and we tested it. Now “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” was not the winner and the point was it did not have a huge impact on open rate or conversion rate.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay attention to your subject line, you should because it can make a difference but it won’t help you unless you’re getting recognition and unless you’ve built reputation. The reputation part is so important. If you send out 3 disappointing emails in a row something like 50% of your list won’t open the next one. So some people get in a rush “Oh I have to send out a newsletter”, they rush it out and they do enormous damage to that asset in the process.

Joey Bushnell: Great, that’s some fantastic tips Nick and I really appreciate the time you’ve spent with me today. Where can we get more of this type of information from you? I know that you have a blog, do you have any books or products that we can learn from?

Nick Usborne: I do. The first thing is, you can wonder over to and there’s a blog. I post a couple of times a week but you’ll see up in the tabs on there I’ve written numerous books, most of them short but not all of them, and I’ve written a bunch of programs and courses.

Basically I write for 2 overlapping groups so I write for freelancers and do a lot of coaching as well. I help freelancers build a better business and my other thing as the subject of this call is writing for the web.

So I have programs on freelancing but most of my programs are related to writing for the web. Like we’ve been discussing there is a process here, a lot of people don’t know me right now, so they can read a few posts and if they like that, they can spend $10 on an Bbook and if they get a couple of eBooks and they think this guy is on the up and up, they can spend a bit more on a course, program or coaching.

Joey Bushnell: Fantastic Nick. I highly recommend that you go over to Nicks site and check it out. There’s lots of really helpful information over there and it’s going to help you sell more with your website. So Nick, I just want to thank you once more for this brilliant interview that you gave me today.

Nick Usborne: You’re very welcome it’s a pleasure.