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Writing compelling copy is a powerful skill that can help improve the sales of your online store. In this article we’ll be covering the power of story telling and how to write product descriptions that sell. But first, let’s start with an example.
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 Product 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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.