While copy is often secondary to the illustrations in a general ecommerce store, it plays a vital role. It is like the salesperson’s “close”.
The basic role of performance marketing copy in an ecommerce store is to answer questions which remain unanswered after a buyer has been attached to a product illustration.
Whether you create your copy on your own, have copywriters on staff or employ freelancers, it is a clever idea to have your own guide to writing effective ecommerce copy (including product descriptions) so that all your copy is up to the standards every time it written.
The distinguishing characteristics of outstanding performance marketing copy for ecommerce needs are that it is:
- Strong on benefits
- Smooth flowing
After reading copy on several quality ecommerce sites, especially those whose owners have strong roots in classic, direct response advertising vehicles, such as DRTV or catalogs, you will be able to dissect any given copy block into the following components:
Whether it is a benefit-loaded half-sentence, a play on words, a literary allusion, a reference to a universal experience or a simple alliterative phrase, the head serves as the “hook”. Its function is not unlike the old speech giver’s ploy saying, “Sex!” and then, “Now that I’ve got your attention…”
But even within this clearly defined function, the head must lead into a benefit – if not state one. A good pun that does not lead to a benefit serves only the copywriter’s ego. The head should always be analyzed carefully for any negative connotation. Do not use a literary allusion unless you are sure of its meaning.
The Beneficial Statement
This follows the headline and most often begins with a strong verb and an implied “you,”, i.e., an imperative sentence. It can also be a conditional sentence that states the need in the “if” clause with the benefit in the “then” clause. This is almost always a complete sentence, never a noun or verb phrase.
The Descriptive Sentence
Here is where you tell what the thing is and why it is so special. One warning: your supplier does not always know the primary benefit or important descriptive fact of his own product. Remember that there is a photo, so you do not have to describe everything about the item. But you do have to wax enthusiastic in the description and help supplement the photo. Once again, try to use a complete sentence.
Here is where you give facts. Just the facts. You can, and should, use noun phrases here.
If there is room, and the item warrants it, you might want to add a restatement of the benefit with little extra oomph, perhaps even a litter hyperbole. Or if you just must – a short, snappy and clever variation of it.
In addition to knowing the elements of the style, the following might be helpful for you:
- Try to learn what has sold well in the past. It will help you understand who the customer is.
- Aim a little above your customer. She does not understand French but wishes she did. If you give her a French phrase she can easily figure out, she will think she is neat and like you for the compliment.
- Use a dictionary – spelling counts.
- Touching and feeling the sample helps. The more you know about the merchandise, the better the copy.
- Use old headlines and even old blocks of copy when possible. Nobody cares that you “copied,” and it helps lighten the load.
Take a close look at the following items. Copy averages 150 words for each item but does an excellent job of supplementing photos.
Features vs. Benefits
The first key point mentioned at the start of this guide – strong on benefits – is too often overlooked by ecommerce copywriters. Yet it is single most important aspect of strong, performance-based online shopping copy.
Emphasis should be placed on benefits, not features, of a product. This is particularly true for headings. Far more people will be interested in almost any benefit than will be interested in any given feature. Thus, a benefit in a head will encourage readership of the rest of the copy.
An outstanding example of strong benefit-laden heads in ecommerce can be found in FirstSTREET online store dedicated to seniors and their caregivers. Here, for example, is just one their “strong-on-benefits” heads:
But it is not just FirstSTREET’s heads that are strong on benefits. Consider this:
Converting Features to Benefits for the Consumer
One outstanding example of benefits copywriting are product descriptions of Russell Hobs home and kitchen products. One of the easy techniques of features-to-benefits conversion they employ is the “which means / so that” technique:
Whenever you have a feature to present, write “which means” after and see what fits. If you cannot come up with a worthwhile benefit, chances are the feature is unimportant.
Making a Common Product Unique
Another advantage of concentrating on benefits is that you can tailor copy to your specific audience and often make a common product seem uniquely your own. The following example illustrates this point.
Adding the Personal Touch
Another method of giving ecommerce copy uniqueness is by writing in a highly personal vein. This can backfire, however. If the copywriter’s ego gets in the way, the tendency is to write the copy to enhance his or her reputation and, in the process, ignore many of the things the prospect really needs to know to make a buying decision.
This is particularly true when the copywriter tries to be humorous. One of the most difficult things to use successfully in copy is humor. If done well, it can both be entertaining and entice the audience into wanting to know more about the product. That is fine if there is enough space to provide both humor and selling copy.
But what is funny to the copywriter may easily be misunderstood by the majority of users. It takes a very special skill – seldom found even among professional ecommerce copywriters – to write humorous copy that sells. Just because your staff laughs at the copy you have written, do not be deceived. They are being paid to laugh at your jokes.
It is best to test humorous copy on a wide variety of different types of users and make sure it appeals to all of them before putting it in your high traffic campaigns.
The Classic: J. Peterman Company
Humor-based copy is even harder if your products are not humor-related (i.e. not prank products, gag gifts, etc.).
Humor in copy is one of the primary things which establishes a unique personality for The J. Peterman Company. This unique olden-days-mail-order-catalog-turned-successful-ecommerce of apparel substitutes drawings for the usual photos found in online stores.
But what makes it highly distinctive is the light-hearted tone of the copy:
MyPillow and Mike Lindell
Another excellent example of writing copy with personal touch is from MyPillow and its print, DRTV, and online campaigns, including its ecommerce store.
The copy has strong emphasis on the Mike’s dedication to quality as well as his person, i.e. I created…, I wanted…, I developed…, I guarantee… wording plus his photos and his philosophies (and much of them not product-related) are all over the place.
While such copy is often criticized for being concentrated on the company and not the consumer, in this instance it completes the picture of Mike Lindell, the celebrity and the celebrity’s business.
While much of the copy on MyPillow’s site is likely written by Mike Lindell himself, professional ecommerce copywriters can write personal-style copy as well. To maintain a consistent image, however, it requires special effort.
A stylebook is a must. It should include copious examples of copy written by the personality whose style is to be replicated.
If the personality is fictitious, it is advisable to create an avatar-style biography, including photos, which will enable the copywriter to visualize the individual he or she is representing.
Before the Performance Marketing Copywriting Starts
Most of the demanding work of ecommerce copywriting occurs before you put a single word to paper.
Review Old Copy
The first step is to review previous ecommerce copy written about this product or similar products – including a study of results.
While it may hurt the creative ego of some copywriters, there is no need to rewrite ecommerce copy that is working. Nobody – at least nobody in the audience you want to reach – cares if you use old copy again and again.
Of course, one of the difficulties with reusing old copy is the boss who does not feel a copywriter is earning his or her keep if every word is not new. But smarter bosses recognize one of the real tests of a good copywriter is the willingness to utilized tried and proven copy regardless of who originally put the words together.
David Ogilvy once said, “One of the greatest wasted in advertising is to do away with copy which is still working.” And it is important that you remember the often-repeated truism that when you start getting bored with an advertising message, that is about the audience starts to notice it.
It is also important to remember that an ecommerce customer is not “the same person” from day to day. The way customers are thinking and the things in which they are interested when a new email promo campaign arrives in their inbox are often quite different than they were when a previous promotion was received. Thus, the old copy will most likely be “new” to them – and if it is really good copy which has worked in the past, it should continue to do a selling job each time around.
Another important first step is to expose the copywriter to the customer feedback received by your online store. This may be any email correspondence, unsolicited testimonials, product reviews, hate mail, fan mail, opinions on third party websites, etc. Here is where the copywriter will learn the language used and most easily understood by the customer.
When you use customers’ language, rather than the copywriter’s own language (or the language used within an ecommerce organization), the entire process of communication is improved.
If you do not get much written feedback from your customers, it is easy for you or a copywriter to pick up a phone and talk with a handful of typical customers. Try to describe the product and listen for the questions the customers ask.
And you will get a side benefit, too. When you ask customers to help you solve problems, you develop a special relationship with them, and research has shown that such customers not only buy from you in the future but remain loyal customers for a long time.
Another early step is to make a thorough review of how competitive online stores describe the same or similar products. You will not necessarily want to copy others – often just the opposite. Look for new approach with ways to give your customer a reason to buy from you rather than the other guy.
Gather the Facts
The next step is to gather all research material for each product and review it carefully. Good ecommerce copy should have a flow, and this can be broken if you constantly have to go and seek out elusive facts before you can continue with your writing.
I have made it a regular practice to develop “copywriter’s packets” which provide ready reference on all the products and services with which I have had to deal. You will find an outline of the ideal contents of a copywriter’s packet in the following paragraphs.
For instance, when it is time to write copy for an email promotion and accompanying product descriptions, I simply gather all of the copy packets for the items to appear in this promo and give them to the copywriter. Thus, he or she can start writing immediately after reviewing the contents of each packet.
It is easy for junior staff to prepare the copy packets and maintain them on file so they will be ready and waiting when the copywriting is to be done. This is very cost-efficient, since the hourly rate of good copywriters is generally considerably higher than that of junior assistants.
Editing Ecommerce Copy
The natural tendency of copywriters is to want to jump up from their favorite word processor when the copy is completed and rush over and read it to a colleague. That is the worst possible way to evaluate the effectiveness of a piece of ecommerce copy.
When you read to someone, you put the emphasis where you intend it to go. But you cannot read your copy to every ecommerce store’s user. And your colleagues know only too well the problems you have had to face in writing copy and will tend to be overly sympathetic if you do not quite overcome a difficult communications hurdle.
The Hat Trick
The best way to get an evaluation of your copy is what is called the “Hat Trick” – put on your hat, get out of the office, take the copy to someone who does not know a thing about the product, and have that person read the copy back to you.
Listen carefully to where he or she puts the emphasis… and even more carefully to any questions he or she wants you to answer to help explain what the whole thing is all about. If there are still questions your copywriting job is not over.
The Cross-out / Write-in Test
Another good test of ecommerce copy is to cross out every reference to your company and its product and write in the name of your competitor and their product. If the copy still fits, there is still a lot of rewriting to be done.
A good ecommerce copywriter should be able to come up with copy points which your competitor could not say (or has not said) about that product. That is what often identifies the true professional in ecommerce copywriting – the ability to instill a uniqueness in the copy which encourages a prospect to want to order it from you.
Someone once observed that a camel was a horse that had been created by a committee. And all to often, copy that has been subjected to a committee is about as graceful as a camel when the job calls for a sleek racehorse.
So, after the committee has done its collective damage, it is time to send the copy back to the copywriter for a final rewriting. That does not mean the copywriter can ignore the committee’s no-nos and must-musts. But the copywriter can start from the beginning again and interweave the changes into a smoothly flowing unit.
Too often ecommerce copy is written so that it can be fully understood only if the audience knows as much about the subject as the copywriter – and that seldom is the case.
It is important to keep the knowledge level of the ecommerce audience clearly in mind. A good rule to follow:
Do not overestimate the knowledge of the audience… but do not underestimate their intelligence.
In other words, do not “write down” to your users, but make a special effort to remember just how much previous knowledge they are apt to have about the product being described in your online store.
The Copywriter’s Packet
Research and copywriting are two separate tasks, even though the same individual may perform them. However, regardless of who does the prewriting research, it is a good idea to maintain a continuing file of background information which can be utilized repeatedly whenever promotion copy is needed for the same product or service – or even as a starter file for similar products or services.
Such a file is particularly important for ecommerce sites since there is an average of 80% pick-up of products from one promotional piece in whichever performance marketing channel to the next. One good copy has been created and proven to work, there is no reason to rewrite it unless there is important new information about the product.
Usually, it is just a matter of fitting the old copy into the copy space available in the new performance marketing channel, for instance, fitting email promo copy into a webpush notification, banner ad, retargeting landing page, Facebook ad, package insert etc. This may involve avoiding any conflicts with similar items which may appear in the same piece.
My personal preference for copy packets is to keep all of the information in either Evernote-like (if you are working solo) or wiki-style workspaces (e.g., Confluence for corporate needs), with latest material always added to the front of each section. There, when it is time for the writing to begin, the material is ready and waiting.
Here are some of the things which should be included in a copywriter’s packet.
Include all previous copy used to describe this product, no matter how long ago it was used. It is helpful to clearly identify which copy worked well in the past. And it is even more important to identify copy approaches which failed, so they will not be repeated.
Results from Previous Campaigns
This will help identify which styles of copy are most effective. And if the results can be broken down by audience segments, you will be able to identify the best prospects for the item.
Competitors’ Copy (or Swipe File)
Be aware of what others are saying about the same – or similar – type of products. This is not to suggest you should blatantly copy what others have said.
In fact, you will generally obtain much better results if you can find a way to make a point which is uniquely your own. But it is important to be fully aware of the competitive environment your copy will face.
Have the vendor of the product provide as much information as possible. Do not expect vendors to know all of the benefits of their products or even the key selling points.
They are often too close to the forest to see the trees. But there is no reason to waste a lot of time for no reason. Anything you can get from a vendor means just that much less time you will have to spend researching.
If the product comes in a package with information on it, it is a good idea to include a reproduction of the package information in the packet. If there are printed inserts in the package, make sure they are included in the copy packet. And if there are instruction sheets, how-to-assemble directions, etc., make sure they too are included.
An often-overlooked source of good background material is the vendor’s customer service department. Often these departments will have special manuals and enclosures loaded with helpful reference material.
There should be a standard specification sheet for each type of product. This will provide spaces for information such as dimensions, weight, colors, type of packaging, materials, when the product was first introduced, how it is packaged, country of origin, warranties which cover the product, etc.
This information should be provided by your merchandise buyer – or, if the product has been created internally, by the product manager or others who know most about the item.
A key part of this specification sheet should be answers to these key questions:
- How does this product differ from similar products?
- Why should a customer buy this product rather than something similar?
In addition, this sheet should identify the key benefits of the product and its Unique Selling Proposition (USP) – and it is my belief no product is worthy of ecommerce presentation if it does not have an identifiable USP.
It is important to establish a policy that every detail must be completed on the specification sheet before a copy packet goes to an ecommerce copywriter.
Every editorial mention of the product should be reported on a regular basis and added to the copy packet. This should not only include online and print magazine articles, radio, and TV scripts, and other “published” material from outside sources, but also anything produced internally within the vendor’s or your own organization, including engineering reports, customer service reports, transcripts of focus group sessions, press releases, etc.
The more background your copywriter has before starting to write, the better the chance he or she will produce a truly distinctive approach which will help sell more of the product or service.
The copy packet should contain all records of previous sales of the product. All too often, the copywriter is left out of discussions concerning sales results from previous campaigns, yet they are essential to a full understanding of how best to create words which will help sell the product.
This is perhaps the most important item of all. A copy of every customer review and record of customer service phone calls and emails concerning the product should be added to the copy packet as they are received.
Ecommerce Copywriting Checklist
Make sure your copy provides the following:
- Information (basics about product)
- Immediate benefit (the promise)
- Ultimate benefit (the “promise of the promise”)
- Uniqueness (exclusivity)
- Product advantages/features in order of priority
- Empathy (requires product visualization)
- Wish fulfillment
- Vicarious experience
- Proof of promise
- Competitiveness (why your offer is better)
- Appropriateness (of copy to your ecommerce site’s image)
- Explanations (of any product features needing clarification)
- Prospect orientation
- A “handle” (“the right name/the big idea”)
- Uses of the item
- Value to the customer
- A personalized approach
- Conversational tone
- Provocativeness (stimulation to buy)
- News (or newness of item, if appropriate)
Summary: 20 Questions to Evaluate Your Ecommerce Copy
- Do you know who browses your ecommerce site?
- Is your copy pitched specifically toward the biggest user group?
- Do you tell your prospects repeatedly why they should buy from you?
- What about your product descriptions motivates the reader to buy?
- Do you repeatedly use sentences longer than 15 words? Long sentences slow down the user’s comprehension, especially in narrow copy blocks.
- Does your description match the illustration?
- Does your description cover deficiencies in the illustration such as relative size, colors, or descriptions of each possible use?
- If you employ long copy, is it just a bunch of words or is it genuine salesmanship?
- Is your copy peppered with “in talk” the average ecommerce buyer might find incomprehensible?
- Can someone unfamiliar with a new product visualize a reason to buy it from your description?
- Is it easy to order?
- Does the site’s design excite the user?
- Have you cleansed your copy of egomania and megalomania? Part of ecommerce copywriter’s job is to avoid dislocating the corporate arm by using it to pat the company on its own back.
- Do you pepper your copy with “spot” testimonials, bonus gifts, order-now reminders, or early-bird discounts? Excitement does not end with your site’s design and pictures. Any design has holes. Fill those holes with inducements. Who knows when the urge to order something will strike?
- Does your copy stroke the prospect by saying, “Only you”?
- Does your ecommerce site project an image, and does your copy match that image?
- Is your copy timely, tied to the season or period of issue?
- Do you write in the active rather than the passive voice?
- Are you sure you have selected the key selling point for each item?
- Are you positive your ecommerce site has no product descriptions you could have written more vividly if you had had more time or more information?