Ian Pullen

Common sales page mistakes to avoid – +1 even experts make19 min read

I read a lot about the various aspects that go into creating effective sales and opt in pages. However, there’s something that never seems to get mentioned.

We’ll get to that later.

Most sections of this article are intended for newcomers to making landing pages. I’ve chosen the things I’m covering because I’ve seen these mistakes repeated in pages of new businesses. The contents will give a brief idea of each section.

Because of that, you won’t find every aspect of page building covered.

For example, you’ll need to look elsewhere for copywriting advice. I’ll touch on a few things, but you really need to go and read some books to get to grips with that.

Now, if you’re experienced in building your own pages, a lot of this article is going to be teaching grandma to suck eggs.

In that case, feel free to jump to the accessibility section. Despite the heading, that section’s about more than just accessibility.

Copy sells, not design

The most important part of any opt in or sales page is the copy.

You could remove all the design from a sales page and still get sales.

Remove all the copy and you’re left with just crickets and tumbleweed.

Yet most people I know when they create their first landing page go straight to the page builder. They start laying out the design of the page and then write their copy on the fly to fit the page.

If that’s you, stop it now.

Design can only reinforce the copy. Assuming it’s good design of course.

We’ll see later how bad design, even if it looks good, can undermine the copy, reduce the persuasiveness and cost you money.

Before you create your page, write the copy. Open Word or Google Docs and type. Just type.

That is so important, if I could share just one thing from this page, that would be my second or third pick.

Know who you’re talking to and their state

Actually, this might be my second pick. Before you start typing, you need to know who your audience is.

New business owners are often told to niche down. Target a very specific audience.

It’s natural for us to push back against that. By targeting a small niche, we naturally feel we’re limiting our chances for success.

Small audience means less sales, surely?

Yet you can find many examples of businesses with small lists and audiences that are hugely successful. Kevin Kelly talks about this in his 1,000 True Fans essay if you want more depth.

With a small audience, it’s easier to make a stronger and deeper connection.

Knowing who these people you’re selling to is only one part of the question you need to answer.

What state are they in?

You also need to know what state they’re in in order to be able to write copy that resonates with them.

This is a topic from Gene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising, though it might be clearer to call them stages. There are five in total.

  • Unaware
    These people don’t even know a problem exists, let alone the solution your product offers
  • Problem Aware
    They have encountered the problem you address, but know nothing about how to deal with it
  • Solution Aware
    These know that solutions exist and are familiar with some
  • Product Aware
    These know about your product and brand specifically, but haven’t bought
  • Most Aware
    These are your customers who have already done business with you

You need to speak differently to each one of these states or stages.

The Most Aware will feel patronized if you try to describe the problem to them.

Meanwhile, you’ll waste everyone’s time talking to the Unaware about your product. They don’t even know they have a problem so what good is your product to them?

Know when to shut up

If you’ve got a child, I bet at some point you’ve accused them of something. Then in response they’ve flatly denied it and in that moment you’ve fully accepted their denial as truth.

Then the kid carried on talking.

Dumb move.

The more they said, the more you realized they were lying.

You’d imagine copywriters just want to write copy. Yet most successful copywriters will tell you to never say more than you need to.

The more you say, the more opportunities you present your reader to create counter arguments.

The lower the investment your reader is making, the less you need to say.

So an opt-in page really can be just a few sentences highlighting the main benefit or benefits of joining your list.

Similarly, a wait list page generally doesn’t need to go into any great depth about the product. Just call out out the strong arguments supporting your product.

When you come to sell the product, things ramp up a bit. Yet again though, the level of investment of the reader should be the guide.

For low cost items, copy length can be kept relatively short.

As the price rises, you’ll need to say more to make the reader more comfortable with the investment. The greater cost, the greater the effort the reader will make to find counter arguments.

We’ll touch the psychology of this later.

As a quick aside, it’s worth noting that consumers usually aggregate arguments. So if you have five really strong arguments for a product and five weak to medium arguments, you’re usually best to stick to the strong five. You can read about this in more depth in this paper by Troutman and Shanteau (you should be able to download the PDF for free).

Note this can be reversed when the product is something that the reader has no experience of. In that case, quantity can be more persuasive as they’ve no way to assess the relative quality of the arguments.

Make your images work for their keep

Don’t see your images as just a way to make your page pretty or more interesting.

They can be much more powerful than that.

Strong imagery can help communicate a message more quickly than text. It can also be used to let the reader see that an offer is for them by showing similar people.

Much more interesting than that is a study by Mandel and Johnson from 2002. This is summarized in Robert Cialdini’s Presuasion, but you can also view the details in this PDF.

They tested the effect of “priming” visitors to a website to influence what they looked at and what was most important to them.

On a site selling furniture, they discovered they could make visitors prioritize comfort or price. Just how they achieved this I find fascinating.

Remember this was 2002 when websites were still quite garish and bold tiled backgrounds were common.

To make visitors focus more on comfort, the home page had a blue background with fluffy clouds on it.

Priming for price was even simpler. A green background with pennies on it.

Incorporating visual metaphors may not always be straightforward. If you can achieve it though, you may reap previously untapped and surprising rewards.

Colors talk and differently to different people

I’m going to be deliberately brief on colors as we’ll return to it later in a slightly different way.

Plus if you google color psychology you’ll find a shed load of resources.

The two most common points to consider are color meaning and gender preference.

For example, blue has become the trusted color of enterprise and green talks of caring eco-friendly ventures. You’ll easily find explanations of color meanings for the whole rainbow.

Remember though those meanings can vary by culture. That’s probably not too much of an issue if you’ve just got an English speaking audience.

In that case, more important may be the gender preferences for colors. The Hallock study from 2003 has some interesting findings in this regard. Note that if you try searching, you will find other studies which give differing results. However, a common theme is that blue tends to be the most popular choice across both genders.

Ugly sells, not!

It used to amaze me how often I’d hear the claim that “ugly sells”. Even from people I respect and hold to be on a different and higher plane to simple little me.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no science backed research to support the claim that “ugly sells”. If you know different, then please correct me in the comments.

Literally billions of dollars have been spent on advertising and marketing research, so why no evidence if it’s true?

J Scott Armstrong’s Persuasive Advertising devoted space to the appearance of ads, but I don’t recall ugliness being promoted.

I do recall that attractive spokespeople were found to be more persuasive. That shouldn’t be a surprise as we’re all drawn more to attractive people.

Think about the most prolific serial killers. They may not have had movie star good looks, but few were unattractive. It’s hard to regularly get people to trust you enough to let you kill them if your looks are parked towards the right munter end of the attractiveness scale.

The real truth behind “ugly sells”

The simple secret super power behind “ugly sells” is contrast.

Contrast is a common and effective technique applied across a wide range of artistic and design disciplines.

Few people set out to design ugly adverts. Flick through any kind of magazine and you’ll see that most ads are fairly attractive. That may be less apparent in the smaller ads in the cheaper slots, but they’re generally still trying.

So if you drop an ugly ad in among that lot, it’s going to stand out because it contrasts with everything around it. So readers are drawn to the ugly ad.

Bill Bernbach, kind of a real life “MadMen”, said “You can have all the right things in an ad and if nobody is made to stop and listen to you, you’ve wasted it”. That helps show how grabbing the attention is important.

Now if the ad just happens to have been written by a renowned copywriter (that’s the case in several anecdotes I’ve heard), once the reader starts reading, they’re drawn in.

Personally I believe that if they had used an alternative form of contrast, the success would have been greater still. Low quality design can lead to lower trust levels.

If you still need convincing, try and find a brochure for some local community event. If it’s anything like the ones we get here, you’ll see that it’s the well designed ads that stand out thanks to contrast.

How you can use ugly

The great thing about contrast being the key is that this gives you an extra design tool.

Assuming you’re creating good looking ads and sales pages, you can use splashes of ugly to draw attention.

If there’s a line of text in an advert you want people to read, a bright red hand drawn arrow pointing to it will grab attention. If the ad is heavily red in color, obviously pick a different color for the arrow.

You can use a similar technique in sales pages to highlight features. If you want people to leave comments, for example, again a contrasting color arrow will make that clear to readers.

This may upset you when you see your lovely design seemingly ruined by one ugly element. However this can be hugely powerful in making more people do what you want then to do.

So why do otherwise rational people believe ugly sells?

It was only when Daniel Kahneman revealed in Thinking, Fast and Slow that he’d fallen foul of a similar issue that this started to make any sense to me. In Kahneman’s case, he’d accepted a commonly held belief among economists for many years without questioning it.

When the belief was tested, he found it was flawed and, with the benefit of hindsight, it seemed obvious that it had always been flawed.

He labelled this condition Theory Induced Blindness.

It strikes when we accept something as true and correct on the basis of what seems good evidence. We then go onto accept it into perpetuity because we have no reason to go back and reassess the belief.

In the case of ugly sells, it only takes one trusted source to share anecdotal evidence to support the claim. Because the source is good, it’s accepted. If the recipient is trusted, they can expand the reach of the belief, all the time based on the same flawed anecdotal evidence.

If Nobel Laureates can fall victim to Theory Induced Blindness, I guess we all can.

Accessibility and why you need to care

Accessibility is the aspect of landing pages that I see roundly ignored. Even by those with many years of expereince.

Even if you don’t give a damn about people with impairments, you still need to focus on this.

Yet most businesses barely pay lip service to accessibility.

For a few years I freelanced for a company that handled internal communications for big businesses. Some of that involved designing web and app interfaces. Across several decades working in Graphic Design, it was the only time in my career I’ve dealt with clients who cared about accessibility.

In their case it was because those billion dollar businesses knew they’d make tasty targets for being sued over discrimination.

In your case it should be because the benefits don’t just positively affect those with disabilities.

Of course, that should be reason enough. However, there are potential benefits to you and your bottom line too.

Let’s deviate for a moment.

Did you know “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary?

If there’s someone with you now, turn to them, sound surprised and say “did you know the word gullible isn’t in the dictionary?”

If they’ve not heard that before, they probably replied with something like “really”, followed by a groan.

The “really” is the unconscious mind responding.

The groan marked the conscious mind intervening.

The unconscious mind is often referred to as lazy. I prefer to think of it as trusting and optimistic. It has to process a vast amount of information constantly, so it should be no surprise it can be tricked.

Conversely, the conscious mind is distrusting and pessimistic.

Why should we care about the two parts of the mind?

Which part of the mind would you rather sell to?

The trusting unconscious mind? The part of the mind happy to take things at face value.

Or the distrusting conscious mind? The part of the mind that actively seeks out counter arguments to most everything presented to it.

Obviously the unconscious mind looks most attractive here.

Of course, you have to engage the conscious mind when it comes to payment. But the more time you engage with the unconscious, the easier it becomes to deal with the conscious.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt

Another study referenced in Presuasion looked at the effect of banner ads on readers of web pages. You can read a PDF of the research here – the study starting on the third page is the one of interest to us.

In outline, participants were asked to read an article on education. While reading, some were subjected to banner ads for a new brand of camera. These ads were shown for five second flashes and were displayed five or 20 times in just five pages of text.

When shown the same ad later, the subjects were significantly more favorable to the product than those who hadn’t seen it. In fact, the more people saw it, the more favorable their reaction.

This was the case even when the participant couldn’t recall ever having seen the ad before. The pages also included various filler ads.

The takeaway from this is just that when you engage the unconscious, you can help the reader to feel better disposed to your product. That’s because they become familiar with the product without formulating counter arguments.

So what benefits can we gain by making accessible pages?

I claimed earlier that we can gain benefits by making our pages accessible. Time to explain my position on this.

Copywriters will tell you that copy that scores lower on the Flesch Reading Ease test is less persuasive.

The more difficult copy is to read, the more the reader has to concentrate on it. When the reader is concentrating, they’re using their conscious mind more. If their conscious mind is engaged, they will more readily formulate counter arguments to the copy.

The thing of note here is that it isn’t just the copy itself that makes it easy or difficult to read. How the copy is presented affects this too.

The font, color and contrast can all affect how easy text is to read.

Some effects of the readability of text

In Colin Wheildon’s Type & Layout book, he reported the effect of background shades behind text on comprehension.

He found that when shading greater than 10% black was applied behind large blocks of text, comprehension fell. For reference the shade behind this paragraph is 10% black.

He reported there were large drops in comprehension as the background shade increased to 30%. To help you along, this is what 30% black looks like. Doesn’t look incredibly dark does it?

This is a 53% shade of black. I placed it here to make comparison easier. I’ll reference it later, even though it slightly undermines part my accessibility argument. Really, I’m too honest for my own good.

So reducing the contrast between text and background makes it harder to understand. If the text is harder to understand, the reader has to concentrate more.

Note that light text on dark backgrounds is also more difficult to read, so despite strong contrast it may also force the reader to concentrate more.

If it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do

If It’s Hard to Read, It’s Hard to Do is the title of a 2008 study. This took a look at an interesting effect resulting from using harder to read fonts.

It consisted of three exercises for three groups of students. The results were basically the same for each exercise, so I’ll focus on the first.

Participants were presented with an exercise routine. Some saw the text written in Arial and the others in a less legible script font called Brush. They were then asked to estimate how long the routine would take to complete.

For the easy to read font, the mean of the estimates were 8.23 minutes vs 15.1 minutes for the hard to read font.

Also, the hard to read font not only lead to the belief it would take almost twice as long. It also led to a lower willingness to undertake the exercise routine. On a scale of 7, with higher being more likely, the Brush font led to a score of 2.9 vs 4.5 for Arial.

So applying that to a sales page, copy that is harder to read may lead readers to view the product as being harder to use and get value from.

How to make copy more accessible and easy to read

There are guidelines that clearly specify minimum values to make text accessible. You can read the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, but they’re a bit of a dry read.

A better suggestion would be to install the WAVE extension for Chrome or Firefox and test your sales pages. That will highlight low contrast text elements in your page. Be aware it isn’t fool proof and sometimes will flag false problems because it gets the background color wrong.

You can also get a free color analyzing tool from https://developer.paciellogroup.com/resources/contrastanalyser/ that you can use to plan your color scheme. The last time I tried that app, it was a bit buggy, so I still use the older releases. Get the old Windows version here and the old MacOS version here.

Using these tools will help ensure that your text is higher contrast and easier to read.

However, do you remember the paragraph earlier with black text on a 53% black background? WCAG 2.0 considers that acceptable contrast for small text, but Wheildon’s findings show that comprehension will be markedly lower in that case.

I think the WCAG 2.0 spec is worth using as guide, particularly for buttons and calls to action of just a few words in large text.

For the most important messages though, you should probably aim for much higher contrast to maximize comprehension.

What is small text?

You may have missed the reference to small text two paragraphs earlier. If you’re using WCAG as a guide, small text should be set at at least 19px. The actual calculation is slightly smaller, but I always use 19px.

If you normally use smaller fonts, 19px will look big and less sophisticated.

What’s more important though, making your copy easy to read or making your copy look more sophisticated?

As a point of reference, Medium, a site dedicated to reading, sets body copy at 21px. If you make the change, you’ll find you get used to it surprisingly quickly.

Take care with your line lengths

One last thing to consider if you want to make your copy easy to read. When adjusting your page for display on laptop or desktop computers, watch the line lengths.

Longer lines of text are harder to read as it’s easier for the eye to scan back to the start of the wrong line. Despite that I regularly see text set that spans the full width of a page.

There are differing opinions on optimal line lengths, ranging from 50 characters up to about 90. I try to keep line lengths on computer displays to about 75 characters.

For Arial at 19px, a width of 650px will give about 75 characters to a line. That will obviously vary for other fonts, particularly if they’re extended or condensed.


Did you read all of that. If so, I apologize deeply for it being such a ramble. When time allows, I’ll look at breaking this down into a few easier to consume articles.

If I could share just one thing, it would be that you focus on making your message as clear possible.

When you design a sales or opt in page, it’s easy to focus on what it looks like and only focus on the page’s purpose second.

Should you follow the advice here, your pages will probably look less beautiful to your eye.

On the other hand, your message should be clearer and more easily understood. That should lead to more conversions.

Research isn’t perfect

I tried to support the claims in this article with research when possible. It was important that it didn’t read as an opinion piece.

Don’t forget though that research isn’t always perfect. If you don’t like a compromise supported by the research, you can do your own research. Try comparing the results from different pages of your own.

You may find you have different results or convince yourself that the change is right after all.

Something I missed or you disagree with?

If you think there’s an aspect of landing page design I’ve missed, let me know in the comments below. I’ll look to extend this article if possible.

Alternatively, if you just flat disagree with anything above, again let me know below.