The other day I was asked the following question: “Should I use active or passive voice in sales copy?” My answer may surprise you.
The premise behind this question is simple. Traditional rules of good writing state that we should use active voice. When it comes to copywriting, it makes perfect sense.
For instance, active voice engages the reader and makes it easy for them to quickly understand the copy. They don’t have to sort through a sentence to understand it.
For those reasons, writers are told again and again to focus on using active voice. But I’m telling you that, in some cases, you shouldn’t. And here’s why…
Active voice is best for web content and in the body copy of a marketing piece. But passive voice can increase both readership and response because it front-loads important keywords, especially in headings, captions, bullets, and lead sentences.
There’s some interesting eyetracking research behind this theory, which reveals counter-intuitive results based on the first few words of the opening sentence.
I think this is particularly applicable in copy.
With the active voice, the object of the sentence typically appears at the end. For example, “John throws the object” is better than “the object is thrown by John.”
But the idea is that people never read sales letters. They first skim, scan, and scroll.
Eyetracking studies show people only read the first few words. They also show their eyes tend to gravitate toward prominent markers. People scan for these markers in an effort to make a decision on whether the content is of interest to them and worth reading.
(For example, think of the times you’ve bought a newspaper or magazine, and quickly scanned the headlines and photos to determine which articles you wanted to read.)
Of course, photos, graphics, and multimedia provide eye gravity. But in copy, markers include headlines, leading sentences in paragraphs, subheads, bullets, and captions.
The passive voice allows the object to appear earlier during those crucial first words. So when people scan for these markers, important keywords appear at the beginning and therefore may be able to stop scanners more efficiently.
They may be able to persuade more effectively, too.
From a usability perspective, front-loaded keywords in header tags increase things like SEO effectiveness and readability. They also increase traction as front-loaded keywords appear first in search engine results, which in some cases are truncated.
But from a copywriting standpoint, this idea of passive voice construction in your subheadings can also help in many ways. For instance, passive voice can:
- Stop scanners since they have to stop scanning to read the full sentence in order to understand it, and therefore, even for a moment, they are forced to focus on it.
- Push readers to start reading what follows. It’s harder to understand a passive sentence at a glance, which in many cases can be a good thing. Readers now have to really dig into a sentence to grasp it, and once they do they’ll continue reading.
- Compel readers more effectively, as persuasion and psychological techniques can be applied to those first few words, such as focusing on words that build curiosity, increase desire, create mental imagery, and drive action.
Here’s an example of a subhead using active and then passive voice:
Active: “Australian scientists discover three enzymes that beat stomach cancer.”
Passive: “Three enzymes that beat stomach cancer are discovered by Australian scientists.” Or, to make it pithier, which is starting to sound like a newspaper headline…
Passive: “3 stomach cancer-curing enzymes discovered by Australian scientists.”
From an SEO standpoint, people wouldn’t search for the phrase “Australian researchers,” unless they knew about it beforehand. But they would search for words like “enzymes,” “stomach,” “cancer,” and “cure.”
From a copywriting standpoint, the keywords are now prominent. They lead the reader. And they also tease, cause readers to learn more, and force them to read the rest — which is the point of a good headline in the first place.
By the way, if you didn’t notice, I broke another rule in the above example. Normally, the rule is to spell single-digit numbers, and to use numerals with double-digit numbers or greater (such as seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, etc).
I use numerals because the mind doesn’t have to read the number, and it can instantly grasp what it means, which is particularly crucial during those first few seconds.
The bottom line is, the less hoops the mind has to go through, the easier it is to read, the more effective the copy is, and the more sales you will make.
Nevertheless, to improve usability and SEO, apply the passive voice to your web page title tags, meta-description tags, header tags (such as H1, H2, H3, etc), anchor texts in links, lead copy, excerpts, ALT tags, even domain names. (For example, Heather Kirk, who is a graphic designer, owns “GraphicsByHeather.com.”)
However, apply the passive voice to strategic elements in your copy, too:
- Johnson boxes
- Calls to action
- Titles (in multimedia)
- Email subject lines
- Navigation menus
- Above-the-fold sections
- Order forms or response devices
- Lead copy (introduction)
- Lead sentences (first sentence of each paragraph)
Look at your current salesletter or marketing piece, and try to reword those prominent markers into the passive voice or in a way that places important keywords at the beginning. This technique will boost your sales and profits.
(Or should I say, your sales and profits will be boosted by this technique?)