Copywriting for the 21st Century
During a recent conference, I spent many an hour critiquing catalogs for managers hungry for ways to make their catalogs work smarter. I noticed one prevalent flaw: Most of the catalogs were written and designed for a customer who disappeared 10 years ago.
As surely as our world is changing, so is the public, particularly catalog prospects and customers. Today’s customers are:
• overloaded with information;
• overstimulated by world events; and
• feeling a financial pinch.
What’s more, customers are jaded from being force-fed hyperbole. And while catalogers have little control over the four issues above, they're often the ones who’ve let their mouths overstep their service capabilities and product benefits.
They’ve also allowed their fear of the tiny percentage of slimy customers affect how they treat all of their customers, even the best ones. Good, old-fashioned, lifetime guarantee copy has become asterisked and bland, with limited-time guarantees that imply they think customers will try to return a product well after they’ve used and abused it just to get their money back.
What are the key ingredients to writing copy that customers will want to read and be compelled by? How can you keep their attention long enough to form a relationship that will result not only in a first sale, but many future purchases as well?
1. Get to the Point
Most of us have felt our brains freeze and eyes glaze over when copy goes on and on without adding any compelling substance. Why does this happen?
First, the writers may be in love with their own words. They anxiously work to make sure everyone knows how clever they are. While those around them may be impressed, the customer is not.
Second, some merchants just can’t say enough about a product, and they demand it all be included in the description.
Third, the copywriting budget is meager, leading to a less experienced writer doing the job. As Mark Twain pointed out, it takes more time to write crisp, elegant and well-chosen messages than it does to babble on and on. When you don’t allow enough time or money for copywriting, or you have junior writers with no strong mentors to guide them, that’s what you get.
2. Write Smaller Segments
More now than ever, people scan or skim when they read. They seek meaningful headlines and subheads they can scan over, grab onto the ones they find relevant, and make decisions on how much to “drill down.” A terrific catalog spread tells the whole story of the products seen with the crosshead and subheads only. With some skill and thoughtful writing, you can achieve that.
Your product copy should never be longer than five or six lines before you break to a new paragraph. So the copy is easy to scan, lines should never be wider than 65 characters. Designers often don’t know how to break paragraphs logically, so it’s up to the writers to keep their thoughts concise and paragraphs short.
3. Have Faith in Customers
Studies tell us that when you rewrite and convert your 30-day, money-back guarantees to lifetime guarantees, returns don’t increase — they often decrease! Consider your guarantee the place you tell customers that you trust and appreciate them by giving them the respect they deserve. Nobody wants to do business with someone perceived to be “lawyered-up.”
4. Create Extra Value
Include quality, extra-value content that reflects the products you sell and the lifestyle of the reader. Recipes, historic information, brain teasers, how-to guides, Q-and-As, gift ideas, party ideas, tips. You get the picture.
This may seem like a challenge because it “steals” valuable selling space. But I have yet to produce a catalog where our quality, extra-value copy didn’t add to the bottom line. If nicely written, with focus and a strong reason for being, adding value is the touch of “salesman” needed to move a customer’s mind from consideration to purchase.
5. Stay Fun and Interesting
The world is full of uninspired copy, so by making your copy lively yet focused, you’ll keep the customer’s attention.
To stay on track with this, don’t let your designer dictate how much is enough or too much. For example, many layouts show the name of a product and the price; nothing else. That’s not very interesting, regardless of how pretty the photograph is. Ignore those who say that nobody’s reading copy anymore — customers do read, they just won’t waste their time reading boring copy.
For inspired, fun and interesting copy, check out Lands’ End, a company that so often manages to provide healthy entertainment as well as complete information for the customer.
6. Don’t Be Coy
Tell readers what you want them to do and how you want them to do it. Encourage a buying decision with signoffs on some copy blocks that are actually calls to action.
7. Lightweight ≠ Tightly Written
What I refer to as “copy lite” is as flavorless as many of those “lite” food bars. Tightly written copy tells the story that needs to be told. If you have many retail locations, your copy doesn’t need to include as much detail. But I always recommend testing to determine when the copy lightens to the point that your catalog is no longer drawing direct sales.
If your catalog sales plummet and catalog-fueled leads to the Web start disintegrating, you’re not telling consumers enough for them to buy direct. While retail traffic is great, it’s always ideal to maintain a good balance of shopping in all channels, since the more channels customers shop and buy, the more likely they are to purchase again and again.
Treat your copy with the integrity that today’s customers demand by boosting it into the 21st century. Then watch as your customers relate to it and buy.
Carol Worthington-Levy is partner, creative services, for Lenser, a catalog consultancy. You can reach her at (408) 269-6871 or firstname.lastname@example.org.