Good vs. Not-Bad: How Negative Copywriting Hurts Conversions

Estimated reading time: 13 minute(s)

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” they say—but they’re wrong.

In content, branding, and copywriting, it’s paved with “not-bad” intentions.

And when it comes to conversions and optimization, not-bad website copy can bring the pain: fewer clicks, less leads, depressed revenue, and anemic ROI.

What’s the difference between good and not-bad?

Good copy takes a positive stance that stands for itself.

Not-bad copy negates a negative in an attempt to stand out.

It’s the difference between touting what you can do, and whining that you’re not as bad as the rest. Good website copy makes its own case, not-bad copy contrasts against the competition.

Here’s an imaginary example of good, positive copy:

Gain peace of mind with easy, intuitive widgets.

And here’s a taste of not-bad, negative copy:

Stop struggling with frustrating, poorly made widgets.

One leaves you feeling optimistic and at ease, the other riles and agitates your nerves.

The second example tries to differentiate the product, but doesn’t actually tell you anything it—it just badmouths the competition. Even worse, it conjures up negative emotions associated with widgets—emotions that can accidentally rub off on your not-bad widgets.

But don’t take our word for it: let’s look at the data.

Not-bad copy drops conversion rate by 18.7%

How does not-bad copy work in the real world? Let’s say your audience is seconds away from giving you their email address via an online form.

You know they might be hesitant to hand over their contact info after being burned by spammers, so you reassure them with a small note highlighting your privacy policy.

In a fascinating experiment, Michael Aagaard of ContentVerve tested this exact strategy. He added a note that read, “100% privacy – we will never spam you!”—a perfect example of “not-bad” copy.

Guess what happened?

A sign-up form indicating negative copywriting.

Conversions dropped by 18.7%. Why?

It’s a classic case of not-bad backfiring. Aagaard hypothesizes that, “although the messaging revolves around assuring prospects that they won’t be spammed, the word spam itself gives rise to anxiety in the mind of the prospects.”

Even if you’re trying to distance yourself from a negative practice, naming that negative still gives it power. The reader may not have even thought about the possibility of spam before seeing the note—and now they’re on guard.

When Aagaard changed the copywriting to focus more on a positive, authoritative message—“We guarantee 100% privacy. Your information will not be shared.”—conversion rates improved dramatically.

A sign-up form indicating positive copywriting.

Arguably, “not be shared” is still not-bad, but it doesn’t leap off the page like “spam.” Instead, positive, affirmative words like “guarantee” and “privacy” are more prominent—even the negative verb, “shared” is far more warm-and-fuzzy than “spam.”

Negative emotions can unconsciously taint your brand   

When you sling mud at a competitor, you’re bound to get your hands dirty. Raising the specter of a negative outcome gets it swirling around the reader’s mind—even when you pivot to your not-bad solution.

Again, don’t take it from us—there’s science to back up this idea of accidental contamination.

In a brilliant post weighing the light and dark sides of copywriting, Daphne Sidor refers to a fascinating New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova about the power of headlines. The article highlights a neuroscience study demonstrating that after reading a negative headline about a murderer, readers will implicitly view an accompanying photo negatively—even if the photo shows the victim, and the copy clearly says so!

Sidor then gives us a great example of how this negative, not-bad approach backfires in commercial copywriting.

A dentist appearing beside a quote which indicates he may be dreadful

“Just by virtue of appearing next to the negative headline, Dr. Jones himself is likely to be subconsciously viewed as one of the ‘deceitful’ dentists the headline warns against,” explains Sidor.

While the underlying copy makes it clear that Dr. Jones is not-bad—he’s one of the good ones—the headline screams negativity, and that taints our image of his business.

Handle words with care

That’s not to say you should never use negative terms or compare yourself to the competition; it’s important to recognize the reader’s pain and differentiate, and negative language can actually be more effective in creating urgency (a topic we’ll explore further in a future blog post).

But it’s important to remember that going too negative is more likely to hurt than help.

Our minds work in mysterious, fuzzy ways—when we hear something bad, we put our guard up and become more cautious, even if it’s a good person telling us all the ways they’re not-bad.

Good copywriting makes its case positively, without stooping to the level of lesser competitors. Instead of telling the reader you’re not-bad, take pride in the good you can do for them—your conversion rate will thank you.

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Gregory Lewis

A winsome wordsmith, Gregory M. Lewis loves nothing better than absorbing new information and crystallizing it into clear, captivating copy. Greg brings his incisive insight and easy-going approach to every project. In his free time, the Chicago native can be spotted at Nets games, art galleries, and local concerts in Brooklyn.

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