Boring Products? No Problem. How to Write Compelling Copy for Anything.

Writer's Block

Consider tube socks.

They’re white and made from cotton, ribbed with an elastic hem. They look bad with black sneakers and shorts.

There isn’t really anything exciting to say about them.

Or is there?

If you’ve ever wanted a pair of socks that say “tourist”, these are it.
Nothing comes between you and your sneakers. Except for these.
Worn by Dad, Made Cool by Michael Jordan
Cushioning your heels since 1973

It’s possible to entice a customer to purchase anything, even a pair of socks. The most mundane item has the potential to tell a good story. It just takes a bit of coaxing to get it out.

Read Great Copy

Before you can write great copy, you’ve got to read it. I very rarely pull out my laptop and get straight to work on copy after reading manufacturer’s notes or spec sheets. I won’t do that until I’ve collected a beefy, inspirational folder of product copy first.

When I worked in magazines, one of my bosses used to always say, “Read the New York Times before you tackle that.” She knew the importance of reading inspired prose before you can produce it yourself.

There are many companies that write excellent, compelling product copy. Some of my favorites include Patagonia, Groupon, ModCloth, Filson and of course, L.L.Bean.

Finding inspiration doesn’t have to come from other e-commerce sites though. Books, magazines, blogs, and yes, even the New York Times can end up a valuable source of copy inspiration.

Ignore the Competition…at First

When I’m writing copy, I love to see what similar businesses are doing. But doing that can also trip me up. How often have you looked at competitors websites and said, “Look at what they’re doing. We need to do that too!”

It’s very easy to fall in line with competitors and stay safe.

You’ve probably all heard the story about Schlitz beer. When the ad guy toured the brewery he was impressed with the vast array of machinery and technology that went into brewing. He asked if they were the only company doing that. The brewmaster said no, every beer company does it. But no one was talking about it. And thus, this famous beer ad was born.

I’d never suggest ignoring the competition. Instead, don’t make it your first priority. Focus on the product and who you want to sell to first. Strategize the selling points and how to make your point clear and concise. Make sure the features of the item are obvious to any potential customer. Once you’ve checked those off your list, sure, go check to see what your frenemies are doing.

Turn a 50-Word Description into a 500-Word Story

One of my favorite exercises in product writing is longform stories. A long form is what it sounds like: waxing poetic about something you wouldn’t normally flesh out into a substantial story.

When I wrote for L.L.Bean, the copywriters would pull out the top 20 products that the business wanted to get behind. We’d each try and create a longform story for each item, almost as if it was the subject of it’s own full-blown marketing campaign.

I’ve done this for everything from wreaths to gift cards to canvas tote bags.

During one exercise, I was tasked with writing a story about cotton sheets. They weren’t a fancy thread count or made from the highest quality. They were very basic—borderline boring.

For the exercise, I started to jot down notes about sheets. A few thoughts stuck, one of which reminded me of being a kid and running through them hanging on the clothesline. Then I started thinking about how great it feels to lay on sheets that have dried in the sun.

And then a story came through. Then a headline. Eventually, new product copy, convincing the customer that these classic cotton sheets are just like the ones Mom used to hang on the line to dry. They’re soft yet sturdy, smooth to the touch—maybe with a scent of summer woven in.

Tips for Uncovering a Narrative

I understand that not every site has professional copywriters churning out the copy. If the idea of producing a lengthy narrative feels downright ambitious, try these steps first.

Brainstorm.

This is going to sound a little hippi dippi to some of you, but think about the product you’re selling and write down anything that comes to mind. Seriously! If you’re selling a tractor and the name “Betsy the Cow” comes to mind, just write it. Feel free to be as silly as you want. It’s just an exercise, not something all of your customers will see.

Walk away.

Have some lunch. Go back to your list. Review what you wrote. Has a theme emerged? Do you focus on the durability of an item? The classic appeal of it? The technology? See if something jumps off the page at you and try to run with that theme.

Hash it out with someone.

Some of my best longform ideas came from a brainstorm over a beer. Get others to weigh in on your ideas, let them know what you’re stuck on and just talk it out. It never fails me. Especially over a beer.

Start crafting a story.

Here’s the hard part. You want to try and write a story about the theme that emerges. I’ve been able to produce 1,000 word longforms about a product, but even a 100 word story is great. I’ll also try and come up with at least five headlines for my longform story. These can end up being a great email subject line, a marketing campaign idea or a new angle to your product copy.

Longform exercises are a great stretch for the brain. Sometimes a great headline will come from it or a new selling angle. They may not always translate perfectly into gripping stories, but you’ll always find a gem from the exercise.

Grill The Makers

If you purchase items from a manufacturer or wholesaler, you’re not always going to know the details worth telling. Like anyone that is very close to something, they won’t often even know that there’s a story there. It takes a little digging. Sometimes a lot of digging.

I worked as a copywriter for a new fashion line and we’d have meetings where the designers would walk us through the products. As designers that already had their heads in the next season, these meetings were often very methodical: fabric, country of origin, care details, done.

Asking questions was important. I’d grill them about the stripe or a particular pattern. I would try and see if there was inspiration behind a particular style. The more questions I’d ask, the more I got out of them. I’d go through these meetings and have many a ha moments—and I think the designers would too.

I always remember to ask the “why” question too. Why this product?

It’s an important question to ask the people who made it—but to also ask yourself if you’re the one selling it. Does it fill a need in our business? Does it make someone’s life easier? Is it something a hobbyist has to have?

Get the background, but get the “why” too. That answer makes it easier to get the information you need to deliver compelling copy to potential customers.

Remember the Benefits

As much as I like to think every customer would read a killer headline about tube socks, lean back in their computer chair and say, “Man, that copywriter needs a raise. I want to order ten of these from reading that line alone!” I realize I’m kidding myself.

Though a good copywriter loves to tell a good story, it’s more than that. Our job is to craft something compelling, but to sell something too.

After I think I’ve picked up on a good story or a nice lead, I go through the checklist of what all great copy needs.

Are the most important features highlighted?

A customer should have all the information they need so they choose to make a purchase.

Is the selling benefit obvious to the customer?

It shouldn’t take anyone too long to find the selling points and key features for anything they want to buy.

Does the tone match my intended audience?

Be careful not to be too self-indulgent. Speak to your audience in the tone they expect. You wouldn’t use words like “flirty” if you’re selling Norwegian sweaters or “sleek” if you’re peddling construction boots.

Am I being clear and concise?

We all want to write fun copy that’s engaging. But taking it too far can backfire quickly. Lead people in with well-written copy, tell an applicable story and then remember the selling points.

Write Like an Editor

Have you ever googled something like “oversized beach towels” or “solar powered radios” (can you tell I want to be in Costa Rica?) and rather than find products, you stumble across a great article?

This happens to me all the time and I’ll tell you why: magazine editors are secretly awesome product writers.

The goal for print publications and their websites are similar to that of an eCommerce store. You want someone to find your site, start clicking around and stay for a while.

We all know that you only have several seconds to engage a visitor before they are off to the next thing. Oh the pressure!

I love reading copy from an editorial vantage because in many ways, their goal is the same as that of a store owner. If they write about an oversized beach towel, they want to tell you why they’re taking up space to highlight it.

Here’s a few examples of magazine copy that could easily double as compelling product copy.

Towels from Real Simple
Light, hand-loomed cotton is quick drying and wonderfully thirsty. Roll one up in a suitcase or swap your thicker set with several of these come spring. Available in nine colors.
(via Real Simple Magazine)

Suitcase from GQ
This new rolling carry-on from the Dror for Tumi line was designed to solve one of your most vexing travel problems: being able to pack light enough on an outbound flight to avoid checking luggage, but having adequate room on the return for all the goods acquired on your journey. Other expandable luggage may give you a few inches of extra space, but this one nearly doubles in volume and, amazingly, has rigid walls, even when fully expanded. The transformation is made possible by rock-solid hinges, which lock firmly into one of three positions. And, with a hardshell exterior that’s faceted for strength, and you’ve got a suitcase that’ll outwit even the most reckless baggage handler. The line goes on sale next month: Plan your itineraries accordingly.
(via GQ Magazine)

Nakiri Knife from Bon Appetit
While you won’t be able to do the food-reality-TV favorite rock-and-chop chiffonade trick, this cleaver-like shape is still great for everyday use. It’s a traditional Japanese knife specifically designed for cutting vegetables (Nakiri is the name of the style), but it makes a beautiful all-around chef’s knife.
(via Bon Appetit Magazine)

Product copy doesn’t have to be fun or informative, spec-heavy or story-driven. It’s possible to include the best of both worlds.

So there you have it. Even that economy pack of tube socks is worthy of some thoughtful story telling—even if it does come down to the difference between ankle-height or calf-height in the end.

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32 Comments

  1. This process is useful not just for B2C consumer products but also for B2B sites that have more esoteric products that have to convince other industry managers that theirs is the product they need. I know that telling a story is at the heart of what I need to accomplish, but getting to that is usually a struggle.

    I would be interested in a more extensive eBook on writing compelling product descriptions, or perhaps a webinar with a real world example you work through in front of us. We can all bring our own beer for that section!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words Will. Maybe we need to do a BYOB skype session or scheduled forum chat to talk about storytelling at length.

      I think an extensive eBook is a great idea — we might have to try and make time to do it. I agree that so much of this can also apply to B2B sites as well. Convincing anyone that “Yes! THIS is the product you need!” certainly applies to any product platform.

    1. Nice, Julian! Glad to see you aren’t afraid of being a little playful with prose.

  2. Great article!

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the “why.” I often tell people that consumers don’t buy products, they buy solutions to problems, whether those problems are real or as trivial as needing to feel better about themselves. If you can figure out what all the various WHYs are for any given product, it makes it far easier to write copy and appeal to the real triggers that make people buy.

  3. Great post Laura and looking forward to more from you. I took some coaching sessions with the exceptional writing expert Henneke Duistermaat of http://www.enchantingmarketing.com/ and she helped me immensely with how to write creative product descriptions and think about my ideal customer. Here is an example of a chair description turned into a story: http://rusticartistry.com/product/canyon-chair/. My goal is to do this type of description for more and more of my products.

    1. Thanks for sharing Carole. That is an excellent product description. It truly makes product writing more fun when you can paint a scene like that. Well done and thanks for reading!

  4. What a great article. This is something that I have always struggled with and you have inspired me! I would be happy to volunteer our website for that “real world example you work through in front of us.”

  5. I’m a copywriter too and thought this was outstanding…my process is pretty similar, because it works. The only thing I would add to this, and I only add it because I assume most of y’all are bootstrapping everything yourself…somewhere, make sure the reader knows what to DO. If it’s a great company anthem on the homepage, include a button that naturally walks them into the next step, IE “Shop the line.” If it’s compelling product copy on the side of the box, tell them whatever accessories and sister products they can consider to complement the product. Always offer the next step, and especially on web, make it very clear what that next step is. Thanks Laura, GREAT post!

    1. Great point, Kira. The “call to action” should always be clear. You’ve got to convince them to read on and ultimately make it easy for them to purchase too!

  6. Thanks for the great information! I just got my ecommerce store up and running 12 days ago, but after reading this article I believe I will be spending my next week rewriting my product copy to become much more engaging. Again, thanks for the help and inspiration.

  7. Congratulations on the new position Laura! You have certainly made an excellent first impression here. You presented and old, tired topic with energy and vitality that in itself presents a great example to emulate. Thank You!

  8. What if I’m selling supplements and healthcare products. All other online pharmacies / health stores are copying manufacturer / supplier descriptions, which include dosage, benefits, photos etc. I don’t know what I can do to be different and hold a competitive advantage in this niche.

  9. Great post, Laura! As a product manufacturer we already know the benefits, but conveying them to someone who has never seen the product is a challenge. You’ve convinced me that copywriting is a skill that manufacturers need to learn. I look forward to reading your future posts!

  10. Ill tell you – I’m inspired. I thought I sold boring products but if you can make socks interesting, there is hope. There is an element of J. Peterman I got from this that I enjoyed. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

  11. Very helpful insight. I need to rewrite my whole website. Please keep these copywriting article coming. The pens need more practise to be able to write something good. I guess I was guilty of simply writing whatever description came to me. So much to learn.

  12. I am into optimization & digital marketing and trust me, I know that writing is a really difficult job for me. I run a startup company and I publish contents on my and other blogs and websites. Mostly I depend on few writers (freelancers) for the same but I think I have to invest few quality hours each day to learn the art of web writing. This article is a good lesson for me and I am really thankful to you, Laura for writing and sharing this with us. Looking forward to reading such inspiring articles more from you and Ecommercefuel.

  13. Given limited space on a product page (especially on mobile) should this compelling story-form copy go above the fold next to product photo and follow with detailed product info below the fold? Or is it better to give necessary info right away and expand with fun, flowing copy further down?

    I’ve heard this advice for writing compelling copy in a few places and completely agree – just curious if anybody has A/B tested above scenarios or what seems to be the best practice.

    Thanks for the great post btw!

  14. Great tips! Do you have any advice for writing compelling copy for a niche that is out of your element? Because I had a connection in the jewelry import business, I created an ecommerce store in that industry (http://gemtasia.com/). Writing product descriptions was a bit challenging, however, because I am a guy who doesn’t wear jewelry and/or fully understand what is going to appeal to my audience. I’ve also noticed that some other successful online jewelry sites are quite spartan with their descriptions. I do think having an affinity for the product would be helpful for social media promotion too.

    1. I do a ton of reading to get into the customer head. When I did copy for the Right Channel Radios site, I had no idea about CB radios. I started going on jeep forums and reading off-roading blogs and magazines to get into the mindset of the customer. That’s the first step! Once you do that you’ll be able to pick up the lingo and have a better understanding on what’s appealing to your customer. Good luck!

  15. Great article Laura! I’m a product creator. I mostly sell through online marketplaces like Ebay and Amazon. The competition levels are high and product descriptions that convert are essential. However, being a one man show I have no time to devote to real copy. I’d rather hire an experienced professional to help. Any idea on where I can find someone? Maybe you perhaps?

  16. Often, people don’t buy online because they don’t know why they should. To avoid apathy, include the critical details (features) as a bullet list, a caption beneath a photo, or as a line of text next to the shopping cart button, and then clearly explain why someone should buy within the written description.

  17. It seems that tube socks with converse is the new trend with the younger generation these days. Is your advice any different for “boring” products like wire-mesh containers or ink cartridges? It seems it can be difficult for writers to come up with unique and original copy for products that don’t have a lot of information about them on the web.

    1. I think one of the things writers need to always ask for is as much details as possible during the handoff of an assignment. Back when I wrote apparel I’d sit with the product developers and designers over lunch and go over each garment so I could figure out a story for a gray t-shirt. Easier said than done I know, but for products like that, I’d work on a exciting lead and be as detailed as possible in specs since that will ultimately be why a customer will click “add to cart”.

  18. Hi,
    Laura

    Writing is not my hobby though we all need the content for our page, blogs or websites. For that reason I am learning how to write perfectly or I should say impressively. Your blog helped me a lot.
    Compelling copy fascinates its target audience and drives them to pull the trigger on a CTA.It does this by capturing their attention, unearthing a pain they’re desperate to assuage, and presenting a mutually valuable, solution-driven call-to-action.
    I would love to share some of my insights about this topic such as: Avoid weasel words, Tailor your CTA., Make it emotional. I personally follow this area. Please correct me if I am wrong in any view of mine.

    Thank you,
    Debina Kushari

    1. Debina, These are excellent points. I fully believe in testing/tailoring CTA’s and emotion is so important. Thanks for the reminder and for reading!