In 1875, noted hydrographer Frederick Evans set out across the foamy expanse of the Pacific Ocean. His mission: to fervently eradicate over 100 “islands” that existed only on parchment.

(He so enthusiastically carried out his mission that three islands he rubbed out weren’t just figments of his imagination and had to be re-added.)

Correcting and updating maps through surveys like Evans’ in the days of global exploration was essential. While mistakes from pioneers were understandable, transport and trade couldn’t afford to rely on inaccurate or muddled maps.

Even today, maps are crucial to navigation. For example, the humble GPS is a worthless piece of electronics without access to accurate maps.

(Insert old man rant about how a street directory or paper map might not be as fast as GPS, but at least you’d never lose connection.)

The same applies to our selling messages.

These selling messages are maps that guide our prospects out of the wilderness and into the promised land our solution provides. Instead of wandering onto a web page, getting “lost” and simply leaving your page or site (without acting), your readers follow a clear path that guides them to the destination you want. So, it’s crucial that your “map” is as well-structured and easy to follow as possible for your readers.

Mapping for maximum conversion applies to almost any copy you write: web, sales or landing pages, emails, and even videos. But regardless of what you’re writing, piecing together the map your prospects will use for their buying “expedition” takes some preparation.


You’ve heard the famous (and possibly apocryphal) quote muttered at the successful conclusion of Stanley’s quest: “Doctor Livingstone, I presume”. But you might not know much about the epic journey behind that famous line.

The search for Livingstone in the deepest, darkest reaches of Africa wasn’t a hastily-assembled affair. Stanley prepared for months on the island of Zanzibar, building supplies and his team before embarking on his adventure.

While you’re not preparing for impenetrable tropical jungle, vicious native attacks and monsoonal rains, you need to build your map (or structure) before you put words on the page. This should apply to any copy you write, but it’s even more important when you’re trying to persuade readers to act, like on sales and landing pages.

Getting the structure or message hierarchy wrong is like veering off the well-worn bush track and into the tangle of jungle. You won’t know where you’re going, and neither will your reader. At that point, even the sharpest copy can’t cut you out of a presentation that’s lost.

So, let’s explore how to map your way to more compelling copy that guides readers to the destination you want.

Without a message hierarchy, taking prospects on a buying “expedition” can lead down a dangerous path

(Source: Patrick Untersee on Unsplash)

How Your Expedition Can Get Lost

Without a map, your expedition may be setting out towards disaster. Here are just a few of the things that can go wrong…

  • Introducing the offer long before readers want to know more… or never properly introducing the offer at all
  • Going “off-voice”; losing focus on who you’re talking to in some sections
  • Hiding facts, fascinating stories or “must-know” copy way down the page
  • Skipping over sections your reader needs, like focusing on the solution when readers need to know more about the problem
  • Starting your page with the wrong thing (like a testimonial) when your customer’s not even aware what you’re selling


Writing often isn’t the biggest challenge for the top copywriters. The most difficult question they grapple with is what goes on the page… and where?

A lot of people start with the headline, the offer, or some “easy” part of the page that gets into the flow.

And these page elements — from subheads, calls to action, and credibility elements — can make writing the page easier once you’re ready to. But they do nothing to light the way when you don’t have any idea about WHAT you’re going to write, or the best order to present your arguments in.

One of the best ways to tackle this is with a message hierarchy. And this is effectively what a message hierarchy is:

How you organise messages on the page in order to create a persuasive argument that leads the reader to act.

In other words, a message hierarchy is the map that guides your readers through your presentation, gently steering them towards an action to take.

Here’s how you chart out that hierarchy.

Structure vs Message Hierarchy vs Page Elements

Page structure isn’t a message hierarchy, nor is it the same as page elements. Each is their own thing, and here’s how I see each…

Structure: The view from the 30th floor AKA high-level outline of your page layout. The structure isn’t often much more than one or two-word sections like these…

  • Problem
  • Agitation
  • Invalidation
  • Introduce solution
  • Proof
  • Offer

Page Elements: The mechanical “things” you use to create your presentation, like headlines, subheads, images, testimonials, and body copy. 

Message Hierarchy: Filling out the bones of the structure with the ideas and order that you’ll present in each section. The hierarchy is the most powerful of these three, as it influences both page elements (e.g. what you write as a subhead is affected by your ideas) and structure (which may change as a result of your “idea flow”).

    Your message hierarchy is the map your prospects follow to the buying decision.

    (Source: Schaeffler from Pixabay)


    Important! This isn’t the place to discuss research, but planning your hierarchy shouldn’t happen until you’ve done most of the leg work and you’ve got a firm handle on your target market.

    1. Start With Your Reader

    As you begin to map out your structure and hierarchy, you should have a good grasp on your target reader by now. And when you’re working out your page, you literally start and finish with them.

    Three questions Jo Wiebe uses can act as a launchpad for your message hierarchy:

    1. What is my visitor thinking when they land on the page?
    2. What do I want them to do by the time they reach the end of the page?
    3. How does their thinking have to change between the start and end of the page? What do I need to show and tell to move them from where they were before reading to where I want them now?

    2. Map Your Structure

    Once you’ve answered those reader questions, you often have a loose start, a hazy end and a jumble of ideas in the middle.

    To group those ideas a little more tightly, I usually refer to a structural formula. For a sales page, one of my personal favourites is PAISA. Of course, it’s contextual and a formula can (and often should) be modified for the market or situation you’re writing to.

    This is by far the shortest step of the mapping process. Sometimes I’ll have a structure chosen within 60 seconds… other times it can take a whopping 5 to 10 minutes of playing around.

    3. Build Your Hierarchy

    I group the potential messages I want to use from my research into the larger clumps of structure: problem-related tidbits, solution-oriented nuggets and so on. I then review each clump, coming back to this question: 

    Will this idea help move readers to the “desired state” I want them to be in by the end of the page? 

    Of course, there are other questions to consider, such as “Is this the right place for the idea?”.

    You’ll discard a lot of ideas doing this… but don’t delete them outright. Put them somewhere you can access, as an idea can suddenly slot into place when you’re in the thick of writing.

    At this point, you still haven’t done any “real” writing to this point. Research and organisation are what builds the map. But now you’ve got the structure and message hierarchy in place — with your target reader firmly in the focus — you can finally put pen (virtual or otherwise) to paper.

    Why We Map: The Benefits of A Message Hierarchy

    • By mapping things out first, you give your copy a logical flow that ups its “persuasive power”
    • When you map your hierarchy, you spot gaps in arguments before you dive into the weeds of writing, making it easier to fill those holes and saving time in the editing phase
    • It makes writing the page much faster when you have both the structure and order of ideas and notes on each section already in place
    • Changing or moving things is easier when you work with a hierarchy: “lightning strike” ideas can be put in their best place without reworking large copy chunks to force them in

      Once you have your “map”, you’re primed to give readers a persuasive, “makes sense” flow through your presentation.

      (Source: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)


      So, that high-level process is how I get a structure and hierarchy in place. But the message hierarchy has a huge say on how your copy turns out, so it’s worth digging deeper into how you can build a better hierarchy.

      Start by NOT writing

      I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s really that important and one of the biggest mistakes new copywriters make.

      Writing without planning, structure or hierarchy is the equivalent of sailing into the big blue without a compass or sextant. You might not perish like those explorers of yore, but your copy won’t ever arrive at its full potential.

      Research, research, research

      Having studiously ignored mentioning the value of research when planning your copy (of which the message hierarchy is only one part of), this is the point where I’ll underscore…

      Without solid research into your market, reader, and product, your copy is doomed to a “best guess” effort.

      Knowing your reader is perhaps the most important of all. As the early 20th-century copywriter Robert Collier said, it’s about getting into the conversation already happening in your prospect’s head. That’s not to ignore your product or the larger market in general, but if you’re pressed for time, you rarely go wrong focusing on your reader.

      Create your “map”… and no more

      Your research is the basis for your message hierarchy, and your message hierarchy is the map for your copy to follow.

      But that old chestnut of “write first, edit later” equally applies to laying out your hierarchy. It’s tempting to start transforming quick notes or phrases into fully-formed sentences, but that’s not the goal of the hierarchy.

      Don’t try to write copy at this point: just lay out brief summaries of what you want, where you want, and then come back to the writing once done.

      Don’t limit yourself to words

      As copywriters, we work with words. However, that’s not always the best way to capture the message hierarchy.

      When it comes to representing your hierarchy, don’t be afraid to experiment with other mediums. Spreadsheets, tables or even storyboards (perfect for things like VSLs or YouTube ads) could all be used to illustrate how your ideas will flow through the copy.

      Stop and check

      Once you’ve got everything on the page, work your way through the hierarchy and structure again. Ask yourself some questions….

      • Does Part B make sense coming after Part A? 
      • Would Part C be a better fit there instead? 
      • What should my reader be thinking after Part D… and is Part E speaking to that?

      This gives you a second crack to improve the flow and lets you iron out “what the hell was I thinking?” points.


      Your structure makes sense.

      Your message hierarchy has a persuasive flow.

      Now you can set off and start writing.

      When I struggle with conversion copy, it’s usually because I didn’t spend the time mapping things out. I started the expedition without building up supplies first… then “starved” once in the writing jungle.

      And while it feels like a time-consuming process (because it often is), it’s well worth the time you invest. In any case, you recoup much of that investment when you rapidly convert the message hierarchy into a selling masterpiece, something almost impossible to do trying to write from a blank page.

      So, ready to set off and map out your next message hierarchy?