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Expert Copywriters Take On the Age-Old Question: Clear or Clever? [VIDEO]

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Image by Ryan McGuire via Gratisography.

Since the beginning of humankind, philosophers and laypeople alike have pondered the meaning of life. But what I really want to know is: Should copy be clear, clever or concise?

It’s the age-old copywriting question. Sure clever may get you a laugh, a giggle, a chortle, a chuckle… even a guffaw — but if it’s not clear, then does it even matter?

Now I’m not trying to ruffle any feathers. I’m no copywriting expert, so my lowly opinion on the matter is next to irrelevant. But a few months ago Unbounce hosted an event (coughCall to Action Conferencecough) featuring a ton of talented copywriters, so we asked them for their opinion. And we filmed it.

Check it out.

So what do you think? Do you agree with the experts? Let us know in the comments below — we’d love to hear from you!

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About Amy Wood
Amy Wood is a writer and editor at Unbounce. She previously worked as an editor at a nationally published health and wellness magazine, where she learned about the benefits of vitamin D and em-dashes. She enjoys eating tacos, reading graphic novels and binge-watching tv series on Netflix. But mostly eating tacos. Find her on Twitter: @phoenixorflame
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  • I agree that “clear” is more important, but if can be a little “witty” with the words you choose you can sometimes get nice results too.

    • Amy Wood

      I agree wholeheartedly, George! I think the point they were trying to get across, though, is opt for clear FIRST and then be as clever as you like :)

  • Dan Levy

    Love this video. Really interesting that clarity even beat concision in Joanna’s experience. It can be sooooooo tempting to try and be clever. This is a good reminder that it’s usually the wrong instinct.

  • Conrad Abraham

    Clarity is a rarity. And other such clever phrases to make a case cor clarity.

  • I vote for clarity, with a dash of clever. Except when you’re speaking to a niche market like sports fans and skiers, then clever is better. It demonstrates your entrenchment in their world. Groupon does this with their copy.

  • CONCISE – Clever is good and CLARITY is a must but if it is not concise, you will loose the reader. Basically we all get so much e-mail every day we do not have time for lack of clarity. I personally do not have time to wade through lines of cute to find the point of the article. My pet peeve is stories that begin with Acronyms and you have to wade through a paragraph of clever to find out what they are talking about. Most copy writers these days did not study journalism and have no idea how to be concise. The 23-word lead is still the foundation upon which all good writing must be built. If you do not know what that means, take a basic writing course. Who, What, Where, When, How and Why in 23 words or less !

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  • When discussing this topic, I’ve noticed three problems.

    1) No one discusses the terms.

    How do you define “clever”? Everyone always opts to use the negative definition: “superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile:” Keyword: “superficially”.

    But there is a positive version: “showing inventiveness or originality.” You can be clear in your meaning, but convey it in a way that’s original. Why say you’re selling a security motion detector when you can say you’re selling “Motion Detectors: The watchdogs that never sleep” with the picture next to it. It’s a clever but clear metaphor. Clarity and cleverness don’t have to be at odds. If they are, you’re doing it wrong (as some have already commented).

    Concise means “giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive.” So to ask clear vs. concise is to ask “Do you like dogs or short dogs?” Which is silly. One is a subset of the other.

    “Brief but comprehensive” also works well with clever, because some clever lines can allow you to say a lot in a little, giving you the trifecta! Made to Stick talks loads. about this

    2) No one discusses context.

    What are you writing? Blog headline? Homepage headline? Subject line? You’ll approach these all differently. Something a bit less clear works for a subject if it creates curiosity and gets people to open an email.

    3) Copywriters assume that images can’t help deliver the full message.

    In old school ad copywriting they teach that if you’re clever with the headline, the image clarifies. And vice-versa. By only focusing on the copy side of things, you’re limiting what you can achieve. But if you have a good relationship with your designers and developers (I’m spoiled at our agency), you have more at your disposal to communicate a better message to your audience.

    Sorry for the long (not-so-concise) post. I’m just a lover a rhetoric and get fired up about this topic :).