The 37 Signals Approach to Copywriting

To me, Web 2.0 darling 37signals has always served as a great example of a company that “gets” copywriting. They built their highly-successful business using a longer-copy format with a powerful centered headline that instantly sucked you into the page to learn more.

Earlier this week, 37signals introduced a new home page. While the text no longer scrolls as far down the page, it’s still “copy intensive.” I personally find the page to be aesthetically pleasing, so I was anxious to see what kind of testing had been done to justify changing winning copy, especially after I saw the new two-word headline:

Work Well.

You can see a side-by-side comparison of both the new and former home page copy here (the new is on the left).

Now, I’m not saying you can’t have an effective two-word headline. Joe Sugarman made a fortune selling gizmos and sunglasses using pithy two and three word headlines that were high on the novelty factor. But I wonder whether the new 37signals headline empirically beats the old one, which has been updated and is now the first subhead:

Over 1 million people and small businesses use our web-based applications to get things done the simple way.

It seems to me that the specificity and strong social proof of that heading would beat the pants off of “Work Well” in the lead spot. But who knows, right?

That’s what testing is for.

So I headed over to the 37signals blog to see what I could find out about the decision. No mention of metrics in the announcement post itself, but the topic came up in the comments.

From Josh Hale:

I’d be curious to know how you will evaluate the success/failure of this new design. Do you have any metrics in mind to see if it’s actually an improvement (vs. just seeming to be an improvement visually)?

Jason Fried of 37signals responds:

Josh: We don’t have metrics. It’s all gut.

Interesting.

Have you ever had the impulsive, irresistible urge to rearrange your living room furniture? That’s what this feels like. The old copy took them to 1 million users, and they decide to change something that was working on a whim?

Here’s Fried’s reasoning:

The goal was to tighten up the design, say more with less words, and hone our overall message.

That might tie in nicely to the 37signals mantra of “less is more,” but does the new headline really “say more with less words?” I’m not sure, and neither are they.

I still love 37signals, but two things come to mind:

  1. Drinking your own philosophical Kool-Aid when it comes to copywriting can be deadly to conversion.
  2. Going with your gut instead of empirical testing can be a conceit that allows you to do whatever you think is right, rather than facing the possibility that you’re wrong.

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  1. I trust my gut and believe in it.

    However, I’m a info security guy from way back, way pre- blogging, and even more strongly believe, “TRUST, YET VERIFY.”

    If I were to change copy that worked damn well, you can bet I’d be testing!

  2. Yep. You know, these guys make great stuff and are so passionate, I’m sure they will continue to grow.

    But to grow they have to move outside the Web 2.0 echo chamber and hit Joe Blow small business guy. Seems like the old headline had a better chance of attacting that demographic than the new.

  3. Yeah, it’s easy to believe ourselves. We all pretty much agree. But reaching out to the rest of the real world – many of whom can really profit from this Web 2.0 junk :) is a challenge sometimes.

    It’s easy to sell bait to fishermen, but harder to relabel it sushi and sell it in NY City. Great sushi and great bait have a lot in common — the fresher the better. They are basically the same (ignoring earthworms and a few others).

    Now I’m a flyfisherman, meaning no bait. But when I’m hungry, like a not-so-long-ago 10 dayfloat trip in Alaska, I use bait! It works, period. I’ve tested it!

  4. Just because you get tired of how your site looks, doesn’t mean you just re-arrange everything.

    I don’t know if this motivation was floating around inside their “gut”, but it’s important to ask yourself what really is pushing you to change things…especially if it “ain’t broke”.

    You may have seen the design a thousand times, but it’s still new to all those prospects out there who are coming to your site for the first time.

  5. Speaking of testing new sales pages…

    How is your test going over at SEO Book?

    -James D. Brausch

  6. I use a paid version Backpack and love it.

    I didn’t and wouldn’t buy from either page.

    I bought after someone showed me the benefits of using it over what I’d previously used.

    The Quicktime videos are not that great, versus a well-done Camtasia video with sound. Voice, with the ability to make you feel the emotion, would outsell a simple audioless page 5 to 1… easy.

    Of course, I’ve had my version a while, maybe they do that now.

    A really experienced direct marketer, who knows copywriting, could take them to 2-3 million users in no time.

    As it is, they have a bit of an elitist edge to every written communication they put out. Or that’s the feeling I get when I read their blog.

    A wee bit too much to really overwhelm the world they could be dominating, because Backpack is that damn good.

    As it is, they’re very successful, but I hope that doesn’t ruin them … like it did a lot of rulers of their world.

    That “gut” comment was just the telltale sign of overconfidence and elitism that, if I were a direct competitor, would have me salivating over my soon-to-be victory.

  7. >>How is your test going over at SEO Book?

    Hey James, I’ve had two sick kids who made me sick as well this week. But rest assured, we will be testing on SEO Book and doing follow ups on the results and how we made certain decisions.

    That reminds me, how is your new little addition to the family doing? :)

  8. 37signals has never said “less is more”. They say “less is enough”. Less is more is an old cliche from minimalists. There’s nothing minimalist about 37signals’ products — they have just enough to do what you need them to do.

  9. Ok man, I hear you.

  10. Hi Brian,

    I wrote about the signals basecamp sales page recently. I was really quite surprised at how wordy it was. But wow it packs a punch. The testimonials are really quite propelling.

    It is surprising to hear that they aren’t testing. I guess though to some degree when things -are- going really well, you feel you don’t need to work so hard. I wonder if they do much usability testing of their software? Or if that is all based on gut too.

    I notice too on the new homepage, they don’t really have -any- call to action. Ok under the product name somewhat but not really.

    Still they haven’t put these design changes through on their product sales pages!

    It will be interesting to follow…

  11. I think it’s UGLY, and you know what? Ugly sells BIG TIME. Look at !!! U-G-L-Y. It screams at you. In big garrish font. I feel like slapping it, i hate being screamed at. It reminds me of macdonalds. Over 1 billion served, err one million people use our stuff. And to boot all the niggly bits are below the fold. Just the place scanners don’t ever go. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that this version by far out performs the other version. But whats even worst about it? just above the fold is a blurb that looks like an adsense block. Sheesh man I almost clicked on it. And further more I just love the yellow highlighter, Looks like a highschool home work project. Hahahah I just love it. UGLY ducklings will rule the world. Heck isnt there a sit com to that effect. Brian hope all is well in sicky sicky land. My 6 yr old boy is sick and sounds like my dogs squeeky chew toy when he talks…

  12. This ad reminds me of the Volkswagen ads from the 60’s and 70’s. The only problem is they don’t have a photo to go along with the pithy title.

    I just can’t imagine a company like 37signals NOT having somebody watching the metrics numbers or at least looking at an Alexa graph.

    This post really hit home for me. I looked at my metrics numbers for the whole year on my blog. My highest performing post was entitled, “The Power of 48 Minutes.”

    Since this post came out I made some modifications and changed 48 minutes to 50 minutes. I can tell you simply that the number 50 does not perform nearly as well as 48. 48 is unusual, 50 is not.

    I then took the whole concept of the 48 minute work period and called the whole process, “Optitasking.” Time will tell if this crafted word will gain any traction, but for now the real power is in 48 minutes.

    Hope you feel better…

  13. guts and luck… make good designs. there is no science to it, or is there?

  14. Do you have a recommended tool for split testing or multi-variate analysis of landing pages?

  15. I’m using James Braush’s new mulitvariate testing software, and it’s great. That’s my affiliate link if you decide to buy. :)

  16. Thanks for the quick reply, I will check it now.

    I think that you should write a post “How To Test Headlines And Landing Pages”.

  17. I checked out the page.

    There is no long copy on the page. The seller is asking me to buy a $100 product without taking the time, to differentiate it, explain it, introduce it or sell the features & benefits!

    What a shame

  18. James is unique in that way. He relies more on his 100% guarantee. I bought the product without looking at the sales page, because I own his statistical copy scoring software as well and simply expect good things from him.

    James, do you want to step in here and address this?

  19. Just 1 reason why it’s important to use a long copy is because I am a software developer, I know that if this is a PHP based product it may not work well on dedicated Windows Hosting accounts.

    If it is an ASP.NET based product, it may not work well on Linux based accounts.

    If it is an executbale file, many shared hosting accounts won’t accept it either!

    It’s not about the ‘money back guarantee’! It’s more about the time involved in trying to install as software that may be avoided if you knew what the software could not do :-)

  20. Brian, I am bookmarking the statistical copy scoring software also.

    May be you can write a blog post on the use of both tools.

    I will be happy to buy them using your affiliate link as soon as I understand clearly what I an accomplish with them.

  21. Yes, I plan to write about both as soon as I can get caught up!

  22. Hi Brian,

    Dunno why I ended up here on a weekend. I usually don’t work on weekends, but wanted to check out copyblogger before heading out for some more Christmas shopping.

    Brian: Out 4 week old is doing well. He’s a real joy to add to the family. I can’t believe I waited until I was 40 to start a family. This is definitely what life is all about!

    Kingsley: The answer to your complaint is really very simple. I use MuVar on the MuVar sales page itself. I have lots of paragraphs describing the product, but each one has the null dataset as one of the possible testing versions. In other words, it is testing each paragraph against not having that paragraph.

    MuVar automatically adjusts the copy as sales occur. The simple fact is that not having most of those paragraphs sells better than having them… so MuVar automatically eliminates them (or actually reduces the chances that they are shown to any one particular prospect). That maximizes sales.

    As with all testing, it is always difficult to explain why something works. It can only be said that it does, in fact, work. The sales letter you see is the result of automatic testing that has been going on since it’s launch. It is the very best performing sales letter possible given the input that is under test.

    The real question everyone has to answer is… Would you rather make the critics happy and put up a sales letter that minimizes complaints such as your own… or would you rather make more sales?

    I choose the latter. Sorry if that bugs you. It turns out that having both isn’t possible or I would certainly try to satisfy those few who are critical as well.

    -James D. Brausch

  23. I don’t think that they got 1 million users because of a longer copy — the product is good, and even before their base, commercial software, they were already a known entry. Although I’m not saying their copy didn’t help.

    I remember the longer copy and I remember wondering why they needed to write so much? May be because I’d been visiting the 37Signals website frequently. I think the current copy is better, and even their two liner: “Work Well” because eventually, everything boils down to this fact, you want to work well. Personally, I prefer this copy.

    But then, yes, they should definitely test.

  24. Brian / James:

    Which one should a first time buyer go with, Muvar or Glyphius?

    Thanks

  25. James, what about a link to some more details? What does it do? That’s the cool thing about the internet, it’s EASY to add links to more info! There’s no way I’d plunk down $100 (or $185) for either of your products based on what’s on your pages. Looks like snake oil to me very much like all the spam I get in my inbox. In fact your argument sounds a lot like the spammers too: “I make so much money, why SHOULD I stop sending spam?”

    Also a 100% guarantee feels a lot like a coupon or a rebate in that the manufacturer knows that MOST people aren’t going to send them in.

    AS for the topic of this post, my direct experience with the 37signals guys is that their heads are so big that they don’t HAVE to test (or have tact or humility or personality or anything like that). Great product, maybe, but great people, I don’t think so.

  26. Kingsley, although the two work in tandem to improve every element of a page, I think you might get the most immediate results from Glyphius. By improving the effectiveness of your headline, opening and bullet points by scoring them against the Glyphius database, you should see better conversion right there. I started to use Glyphius after I saw that Brian Kieth Voiles had scored two headlines against one another with Glyphius, and then split tested to see if the outcome held up. It did.

    You can buy Glyphius as a standalone product, or as part of the Statistical Copywriting home study course that takes you step-by-step through the creation of a sales page.

    MuVar let’s you verify Glyphius results, but also to test colors, fonts, layout, length of copy, etc. based on pure response criteria.

  27. I love this post, as “real-time analysis” is a learning method that most of us tend to be comfortable with.

    That aside, what are we even talking about here? Obviously, the old headline beats the dog snot out of the new one!

    Buuut, I would argue that the copy on the 37signals home page has never really had that much to do with their sales in the first place.

    Folks involved in the blogosphere would pretty much have to be blogged in a barn at this point not to know who 37signals is.

    That said, it’s clear that word of mouth has driven their ship thus far, and I don’t expect a home page tweak to change that in a statistically significant way.

    Personally, I would prefer to err on the side of strong copy, but hey—I’m a Copyblogger reader :)

    Although I think 37signals gets a lot of things (perhaps better than anybody else), I don’t think they get the fact that you can utilize great copy; be genuinely transparent; and be everybody’s hero at the same time.

  28. Well said ThemeDude.

    You are correct on EVERY point, Grasshopper.

  29. Haven’t seen anyone comment on the 2-column vs 1-column layout. Also product descriptions stacked to the right vs across the page. Also, starting copy with “About our Company” vs “About our Products”. I saw some recent testing where 1-column did way better than 2-column. Not sure how that would apply here. Any thoughts?

  30. Also, starting copy with “About our Company” vs “About our Products”

    Frankly, I would have started out talking about the prospect and their needs. No one cares about your company right out of the gate.

    This is all too common though, especially once a company enjoys some success.

  31. That said, it’s clear that word of mouth has driven their ship thus far, and I don’t expect a home page tweak to change that in a statistically significant way.

    The ship needs to sail outside of the fish bowl, grasshopper. Copy matters now more than ever.

  32. I agree that the copy is now more important than ever, Copydude.

    They’ve gotten the early-adopters and going from 1 million to 2 million subscribers will only happen if they :

    a) sell those that have never seen their work before, so they’ll be very harder to convince

    b) turn their customers into evangelists and double their sales thru word of mouth and/or affiliatizing the current crop of subscribers

    They may not know it, or believe it, but the next level will be harder, not easier, to attain.

    Once you garner all the traffic in a passionate niche, gathering in those who aren’t passionate doesn’t come as easy or as cheaply.

  33. Brian & Mike,

    I think someone over at 37 should realize the power of Camtasia Studio and make a video for each of the products they sell. I briefly took a look, but lost focus before I really learned about all the features of the products (even with detailed screenshots with arrows, it’s nowhere close).

    I just can’t figure out why anybody selling a detailed product wouldn’t want to.

    Regards

  34. I kinda intimated that in the 6th comment on this post.

    Camtasia videos, with sound, would be infinitely more effective than what they have and would eliminate some tech support and some of the silly questions asked on their blog about their products.

    Setting up how-to videos is the most effective customer support there is, not to mention their effectiveness in converting prospects into customers.

  35. I don’t generally mind the “aren’t we smart?” 37 attitude, but what they’re forgetting in their revision is that it appears to presume that every visitor knows who 37 is and is a true believer who doesn’t need a lot of information to get them to “gotta have it now.”

    Frankly, that’s a little arrogant and just not smart marketing.

    Or maybe they got tired of the page which generally happens waaayyy before the average visitor/customer does.

    That testing thing versus that gut thing could answer mucho questions.

  36. I started a discussion on 37signal’s landing page at JoelOnSoftware forums here:
    http://discuss.joelonsoftware.com/default.asp?biz.5.428857

    While not directly on the topic of copy, it challenges the BS factor of the number 1 million given as people using the software.

    I commented on the fact that the 1mil. number is not really a million customers nor people using the software and is seriously exaggerated.

    I am wondering, what is your take on this issue?

  37. That “work well” headline is really generic too. Any company selling workflow products could use that. It doesn’t say anything distinctive at all.

  38. Hey Megan,

    I’m heading a new campaign for a golf equipment manufacturer.

    Should I test “Hits hard.” or “Putts well.”

    Maybe “Looks Different” or “Costs More”.

    Uh, …. maybe not.

    You are absolutely correct in your assesment.

  39. Being a direct response web copywriter myself I would not have used the “Work Well” headline.

    My hunch: I think their conversion will be shot with it.

    The placement is good as that’s statistically where people look first but I still prefer the centered headline.

    The content layout on the new format is easier on the eyes though. Kind of a magazine article layout-like. The subheads on each section stick out which is good but my guess is the headline will kill the conversion a bit…

    But, you never know until you test.

  40. Brian,

    I agree with you on the headline of their copy –too generic. Doesn’t say anything.

    Thanks for bringing our attention to the comparisons of the copywriting between the old and the new (on SEO Book as well).

    Very enlightening!

  41. I can’t believe that Jason would say:

    “We don’t have metrics, its all gut.”

    In the Internet age where everything is easily trackable and measurable, that is just crazy. Why don’t they just run a few simple A/B tests to optimize their copy?

    I used to believe in my gut until I started looking at metrics which helped me rapidly refine my ‘gut’ feelings since often the way users react online can be counter intuitive.

    If you are interested in testing, you can take a look at our blog were we publish our own test results all the time.

  42. I commented on the fact that the 1mil. number is not really a million customers nor people using the software and is seriously exaggerated.

    Hmmm… that’s a whole different issue. Using numbers like that is highly effective as social proof of value, but if it turns out you’re inflating the numbers and people start talking about it, it could backfire.

  43. I love 37$ignals and their copy style too but they’re so intent on chanting out the “less is more” mantra, that they often resort to phrases like (to use your example) “less words” which, being grammatically incorrect, is quite sloppy copy, don’t ya think? :o)

  44. While I think the copy could be a bit optimized/specialized for their brand, their change in layout does functionally reduce quick-click choices which can increase conversion (i.e., too many choices on the page is believed to divert the reader away from your site’s main intention, which is to sell). By making Writeboard and Ta-Da simple links, the emphasis in “learning more” (and associating a reader with what they do) will be more fully placed on Basecamp, Campfire and Backback. I particularly like the header, but prefer the 1-column format below over the 2-column format. It will be interesting to see how it goes from here!

    As for going with the gut, gut can go a long way because you get to “feel” like a user, but it’s only through testing and testing again (albeit, moderately–too much segmented copy makes you sound like a robotic ignot) that your site messaging can be truly optimized. In the end, as someone had mentioned above, word of mouth and strength/value of product trumps copy, but it’s the true marriage of them all that makes a sure-fire winner.

  45. Sounds like marketing just to do marketing… Its like the bridal companies who change up their ad campaigns… You don’t really need to because people filter out bridal ads until they become a bride-to-be, then they all of a sudden pop up on her radar.

    With 37 signals, you either know who and what they do, or you don’t. If you are visiting their page for the first time, it might make sense for them to have stuck with what worked. But if you are coming back it doesn’t really matter… because you are either a fan or not interested.

  46. Notice also that it’s an image, and the headline doesn’t appear anywhere in the html source.

  47. Thanks for everyone’s thoughts — or should I say gut reactions to our changes. It is a bit ironic how certain some people are around here with nothing to base their opinions on other than their gut. ;)

    I’ve seen people get gut wrong just as often as I’ve seen people get tests wrong. The business world is littered with well-tested disasters. Testing guarantees a winner, but that winner can still be a loser.

    There are success stories on both sides of this issue. I wouldn’t put anyone down for testing or for going with their gut. There are different ways to run your business. There is no one right way.

    We’ve always preferred to go with what we think is right and then see what happens. If it doesn’t work then we adjust. We’re constantly tweaking things. The last design was based on gut and the one before that was based on gut and the one before that was based on gut and the one before that too.

    This goes all the way back to 1999 when we launched our first site (http://www.37signals.com/manifesto). I don’t think an all text black and white site with 37 short statements would have tested well in 1999. Things have been pretty good for us since then.

    We pay attention to numbers that matter — sales, conversions, upgrades, etc. We know if changes make a difference, but we don’t A/B test to decide if we want to make the change. We go with our gut and adjust later if necessary.

    At the end of the day you should do what works best for you. If you are a big believer in A/B testing, then go for it. If you are a big believer in intuition, then go for it. If you like a combination of the two, then go for it. Do what makes you happy — that’s all that matters anyway.

    Good luck to everyone in 2007.

  48. Thanks for stopping by Jason. Never doubt that I am a fan of your company (no matter what I scribble).

    We pay attention to numbers that matter — sales, conversions, upgrades, etc. We know if changes make a difference, but we don’t A/B test to decide if we want to make the change. We go with our gut and adjust later if necessary.

    Ultimately I have no problem with that, other than the flack you’ll catch from the faithful if you change anything substantial anytime soon.

    I guess we as observers can only follow the old adage “If they’re still using it, it must be working.” ;)

  49. Brian, you can’t worry about flack. There’s enough flack to go around the world a billion times.

    There’s always someone who’s ready to tell you you’re wrong and that you’re going to fail.

    Something I’ve noticed through meeting a lot of people over the past 10 years: The more successful someone is the more likely they are to wish success for other people. It’s often the less successful people that tell other people they are wrong and that they are going to fail.

    You have to do what you believe is right. You may succeed, you may fail, but at least you’re going to give it a go on your own terms. That’s happiness.

  50. A nice post. According to me reagranging is fine but one can’t utilize a great copy. believe in yourself and do something different…

    Originality is success

  51. Fascinating. I didn’t expect you to go in this direction; although, I agree.