Jeremy Smith Feb 19, 2019 11:31:22 AM 27 min read

The Conversion Optimization’s Guide to Copywriting

To be a great conversion optimizer, you have to either need to know about copywriting or hire someone who does. That’s the simple truth of it.

Conversion optimizer Sid Bharath wrote this for CrazyEgg:

The other component of creating a persuasive and highly converting user experience is the website copy. Writing copy for the Web is a mix of art and science. It’s about weaving scientific persuasion tactics within prose and storytelling.

He’s spot on. To successfully move users where you want them, you must be able to unleash great copy.

I can't tell you how many times I’ve seen job postings like this:

job postings

They use the language of a CRO marketer, but they want a writer. In reality, they need both. So how do you become a CRO copywriter?

Even the demigod of conversion optimization, Optimizely, parades this truth across its blog: conversion is about content.

screenshot of optimizely web-page

Where am I going with all this?

In conversion optimization, great content is important. And one vital aspect of great CRO copywriting is action-oriented language.

Chances are you’ve either heard of action-oriented language or you can at least recognize it. At the very least, intuitively you have an inkling about it.

So, what is action-oriented language?

Why does it matter?

And how can we use it to boost conversions?

Read on, and I shall tell all.

What is Action-Oriented Language?

Let’s start with terms and definitions:

screenshot of a definiton for action-oriented

In a business context, action-oriented refers to a practical method of dealing with problems.

In a marketing context, action-oriented is a style of communication that emphasizes what a customer needs to do to solve their problem or to satisfy their desire.

Inciting customer action is the only way that marketing achieves its goals. As such, action-oriented language is the best way to move the customer to action.

Action-oriented language is mostly about the verbs we use in digital marketing copy. Whether the copy appears on a website headline, a CTA button or a PPC ad, customers must be driven by action verbs.

Take this simple example:

an example of a form with action words

This subscription capture form found on Audienti is charged with action language:

  • Subscribe
  • Join
  • Subscribe
  • Drive
  • Subscribe.

Looks like they want you to subscribe, huh?

Subscribe is an action word. It communicates clearly to the potential lead what they are supposed to do.

You can find lists of these action words if you look for them — don’t worry, I took care of that. has a list of 1,378 (yes, I counted, and you’re welcome) “action verbs” that you should use in your Google AdWords marketing. (They’re not all verbs, you’ll find, but the list is useful, nevertheless.)

screenshot of list of 1,378

Job placement pros tell you to put this kind of action-oriented language in your resume. Why? Because it makes you seem like a doer.

These resume coaches may not have sexy websites, but they sure as heck understand the power of action-oriented language.

Marketing Recruiting, Marketing Communications, Executive Placement & Executive Search by Laurie Mitchell & Company, Inc. 2016-01-27 15-14-29

(Image source)

Just be sure to tell that hiring manager that you “assaulted” nosediving revenue and “extruded” some money, huh?

Your high school English teacher probably told you about action-oriented language (it might have been termed “active-voice” but it’s the same concept). Here’s an example (which is accompanied by another action verb list):

Instead of saying, “This work is a generalization of Smith’s earlier algorithm,” write, “This work generalizes Smith’s earlier algorithm.”

Action-oriented language is almost an inborn concept. It’s at the heart and soul of marketing and of cognitive theory, as you’re about to discover.

The Cognitive Psychology of Action-Oriented Language

I would argue that we have a brain for one reason and one reason only. And that’s to produce adaptable and complex movement. … Things like sensory, memory and cognitive processes are all important, but they are only important to drive movement.

These are the sage words of neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert, Cambridge neuroscientist and TED speaker.

Why do I quote this esteemed man of science? First, he’s brilliant.

Second, he has an amazing theory regarding the entire purpose of the brain. He says that the purpose of the brain is movement, Daniel Wolpertaction.

Read this simplification of his theory:

I believe that to understand movement is to understand the whole brain. And therefore it’s important to remember when you are studying memory, cognition, sensory processing, they’re there for a reason, and that reason is action.

Wolpert (Image source)

In other words, action is tied to memory, cognition and processing in a fundamental way. This directly affects the way that we perceive and interpret language.

Language, both the production and comprehension of it, mirrors the perception and enactment of physical motion. This relationship, when analyzed from a bio-evolutionary perspective, reveals that language and human behavior are inherently action-oriented.

When you’re reading a story, for example, your mind is not passively taking in information. Rather, your motor neurons are stimulated in a way that mirrors the action described in the story.

Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered the existence of mirror neurons during his research of macaque monkeys.

When the monkey saw another monkey or a human pick up a ball, mirror neurons simulated the action as if it were being performed by the seeing monkey itself.


(Image source)

Humans are no different; and yet, the process goes a step further.

As illustrated in the above example of reading a story, our mirror neurons are activated when we simply read words that have to do with a particular motion or activity.

The broader effects of this affects the way language guides our thinking and our behavior. More to the point, strong action-oriented words can have a wide-reaching influence on behavior:

  • The word the is not action oriented. We know what it means (sort of), but there is no direct action that our mind automatically correlates with this word.
  • The word grab, by contrast, is an action-oriented word. It connotes motion and activity. When you hear the word grab, you can mentally picture what this looks like. While you’re thinking grab, your mirror neurons are being activated to grab.


(Image source)

The bottom line is this: Action-oriented language is a powerful way to direct and influence the brain.

In marketing, there’s simply no verbal fodder quite like it, both in power and potential. That’s why you should understand it, refine it and implement it as often as possible.

It’s neuromarketing, baby!

Adding Action-Oriented Language to Your Copywriting

Now that we reviewed the neuroscientific and cognitive underpinnings of action-oriented language, let’s put it into action!

How do you harness its power?

First, you have to write action-oriented phrases and put them in the right places.

  • How: Lead with action verbs
  • Where: In your CTAs and headlines (and basically everywhere else that involves copy).

Action-oriented phrases are those that use an action verb at the head of the phrase. The verb should connote doing (active) as opposed to being (passive).

Action-oriented language should go everywhere: persuasive copy, calls to action, headlines and ads.

This is especially important in areas where you have a limited amount of real estate. Ads are a perfect example. Each ad must front-load a strong action-oriented verb to grab the user’s attention.

The following ad does a poor job of this.

A smattering of action-oriented verbiage creeps in at the end (“master” and “learn”) but the ad leads with a weak medley of zombie jargon.

social pro

The same weakness is evident in the Discovery ad below:


Verbs are the most powerful kind of words to use in any content.

Twitter provides the perfect case study on CTA effectiveness. Research has demonstrated that action verbs earn more shares.


(Image source)

Diving into the research, we discover that it’s not just action verbs alone, but rather imperative verbs  are the most effective — words like “Try,” “Give,” “Share,” “Retweet,” etc.

SteamFeed’s summary of 10 Twitter Best Practices made this point, too: Tell followers what to do. ... Always include a verb.

Social scientist Dan Zarrella’s research has corroborated this truth: Use action words: more verbs, fewer nouns.

a charts that evalaute action verbs

(Image source)

I use Twitter as a case study because it is a functional microcosm of the conversion optimization world.

We can slice, dice, analyze and metricize data on hundreds of thousands of tweets, and deductively arrive at applicable principles of conversion optimization.

The big takeaway here isn't that complicated: Use action words. More verbs!

HubSpot’s article explains why starting with verbs is so important.

By not including a verb in the CTA copy, you aren't prompting readers to take action, which can hurt the click-through rate of your call-to-action and negatively impact conversions.

The flipside is obvious. If you do include an action verb in the CTA copy, you can encourage higher interaction, higher CTRs, and higher conversions.


Since showing trumps telling, let me show you what that looks like.

What Action-Oriented Language Looks Like

In the CTA below, notice the action-oriented words: Try, Type and Test.

An example of optimizely CTAEach word is a command. It tells the user to do something — to take an action.


You can feel the action in Netflix’s ad below. The copy includes “watch” and “start,” both of which are well-placed action verbs.

netflix landing page

The homepage image below features a declarative headline that incites the user’s curiosity. There are two CTAs: one inviting the user to “watch,” and the other to “download.”

Both CTAs evoke a sense of movement, of action, of doing.

an exmaple of a cta on a website

Action-oriented language is a powerful force beyond just the CTA, however. Notice how the headline below is intensely action-oriented, albeit in a negative way.

Food52 landing page

The phrase, “Don’t mess with our bodega eggs,” is a strong command. It is a form of deterrent action-oriented language, and has much the same effect as standard motivational action-oriented language. ctauffer’s little CTA box is full of  action language:

  • Join
  • Time
  • Post
  • Grow
  • Schedule.


Imperatives are often the best type of action verb. They are direct, forceful and concise.

Sniply knows a thing or two about CTAs. Their headline and CTAs have action words aplenty. This is a great headline:

sniply home page with cta


The takeaway is simple: Use more action-oriented language. It's the key to the best CRO copywriting.

Sprinkle strong action verbs throughout your copy. Add these words to your calls-to-action. Use them at the beginning of short ad copy. Implement them whenever and wherever you can.

Action-oriented language is one of the irrepressible methods of increasing conversions. By strengthening your language, you can strengthen your ability to communicate concepts and increase conversions.


Jeremy Smith

Digital marketer with a penchant for dance; helping clients see the light through the jungle of tweets since before Twitter was cool.