The Science of Persuasion with Words: An Interview with Kayak Copywriter Jaime Walke

The Science of Persuasion with Words: An Interview with Kayak Copywriter Jaime Walke

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Writer.

When you tell someone that’s your job, they assume you:

  • Spend your time in a distant turret writing novels. (“Anything I’d know?”)
  • Are not really a writer. (::Skeptical frown:: “But what do you do for work?”)

There are so many career paths for a writer these days that it can be confusing for outsiders and writers alike. Once upon a time, writers published their work in books, newspapers, magazines or academic journals. Today, the number of platforms that need good writing has exploded. Here at Managing Editor this past year, I’ve enjoyed getting to explore some of those many paths.

Jaime WalkeCase in point: I recently spoke with Jaime Walke, a writer who specializes in persuasive microcopy, which sounds straight out of a spy novel. Jaime is director of content strategy for the travel booking site Kayak; he literally writes the words that encourage you to book the flight, research the tickets, or come back to plan your trip. Fascinating, right?

I was curious to learn more about his work, so I asked Jaime how he got into copywriting and what he’s learned about the human psyche by experimenting with copy as seemingly benign as button text.

How did you get into copywriting? Most kids don't grow up thinking they're going to be a copywriter (or a content marketer), so I'm curious how you landed where you are.

I kind of meandered into it. My parents always encouraged me to study what I loved and not to obsess over where it would take me. I’d always loved languages so that’s what I studied at university. From dipping into linguistics I got really interested in the impact and psychology of word choice.

After studying abroad I basically knew that I wanted to work in the travel industry, but the “as what?” question was still there. In the end I managed to get a job at Booking.com as a content editor and gradually worked my way to their HQ in Amsterdam.

My first copywriting role was creating longform destination descriptions and city guides. I loved it, but I still really wanted to know the true impact of my writing. That was when I made the switch to Booking’s tech department and became a short-form UX copywriter.

The role used persuasion and psychology to streamline the “funnel” of customers through the website and to make them feel confident enough to book a trip. It was all rooted in A/B testing different phrasing on the site to see which words worked best. With that knowledge you can build an entire strategy around how to talk to your users and what they really want from you. Once I got a taste of that I was pretty much hooked!

What were some early lessons you learned about how words can influence people's actions?

To be honest, I was always pretty prescriptive with my views on how language should be used. I think people expect that of a copywriter, too, that we flinch at a split infinitive and that kind of thing.

Now, though, I’m a total descriptivist. Language is alive and the internet is a living conversation, and I’ve had to adapt to stay part of it. If you want to influence someone’s actions then you have to get on their wavelength and talk like them, otherwise you’ll never have their trust. It’s as basic as saying “things to do” instead of “activities”. One axiom I learned: good UX copy is literally the result of simply copying how people speak.

What are the biggest mistakes people make in their microcopy?

We forget that people don’t easily give the benefit of the doubt. You’ll often see websites that forget to clarify why a tool or a service will benefit the user.

Or there could be subheader text that basically reiterates the main header simply because there was room for more words. People might think a header needs to be quippy or punny to get someone’s attention, but with website navigation people just want to know what you’re talking about and why it matters to them.

Take a review form, for example. How do you get someone to spend time reviewing an experience when they could be out there having all new experiences? You might think you need to call on their selflessness with a header like, “Help future visitors to Boston by reviewing your trip”. But when people are alone on their laptop without anyone around to judge them they’re actually pretty selfish! You should see the difference in submissions when you test that against a header like, “Review your trip to Boston in 3 simple steps”.

What would people find surprising about your job?

How much I need to know about coding and translation. A big part of writing microcopy is writing to scale, so if I want to put something on the website like this:

                      “Hey Lee, 10,320 other travelers say Mendoza is great for wine tasting in December”

...then I have to write it with placeholders for the different data-points like this:

                     “Hey {user_name}, {number} other travelers say {destination} is {adjective} for {activity} in {month}”

First, I have to check with a developer to see if we even have those data points ready to drop into the different placeholders. The next step is to think about how that sentence gets translated. Certain languages will have a single word for “in December” like “Decemberin,” so the question is whether we have that translation stored somewhere. Otherwise, those languages will have to rephrase their translation like this:

                     “December: 10,320 people say Mendoza is great for wine tasting”

...but then they lose the {user_name} bit. But does that even matter? Maybe not, since names can also be a problem in languages where you add different endings to them, depending on the sentence.

Basically, writing a line of copy that sounds good and scales well is a lot more complex than it seems. You have to consider the limitations in terms of what can be coded as well as the limitations of what can be translated.

What can long-form writers learn from your experience with writing short copy?

What I learned from the switch to short-form was how to separate myself from my words.

When I was writing [long-form] city guides, I would get really invested in the imagery and narrative I’d created. I would dread the inevitable several rounds of critique. Now I’m fine if someone has a different opinion on what my copy should say, because we can A/B test both versions and learn which wins out with our users. At the end of the day it’s the audience who matters most, not the writer.

Learn more from Jaime about copywriting on Medium.

Are you a writer with a unique job? I’d love to interview you! Email me at hello at managingeditor dot com.

Lee Price is managing editor of Managing Editor and content marketing consultant at Rep Cap. She's a proud University of Virginia fan, Twizzler enthusiast and feminist. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her on Twitter @leevprice.

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