Adventures in Cataloging: The Vital Importance of Good Copy
“Just make the photos big, and people will buy.”
The cataloger had reviewed our production budget and was now on the phone.
“What’s this big bill for copywriting?” he asked.
“That’s the cost of writing all of your catalog copy.”
“But we don’t need any copy,” he said.
“You really do. Copy does for catalogs what a salesperson does in person: describes features, explains benefits, answers questions, asks for the sale.”
“We still don’t want any. Who reads any more? Just put the photo on the page. If they like it, they’ll buy. If not, a bunch of words won’t change their minds.”
Among the skills required to create an effective catalog, copywriting is one of the most critical and probably the least appreciated. For new catalogers, the biggest hurdle often is accepting the idea that copy is necessary at all. I often hear the claim that nobody reads any more, and I hear it most often from hard-driving entrepreneurs who seem to have little time or patience for the written word.
Catalog shoppers can’t learn much about a product just by looking at a photo, no matter how detailed or beautiful the photo. A picture can’t tell a shopper what fabric a sweater is made of, how soft it feels on the skin, how colorfast it is, or how warm it will keep her. If you think of catalog copy as simultaneously playing the roles of a knowledgeable shopping friend, a helpful salesperson and an informative product package, you’ll be closer to understanding the vital importance of good copy to the success of your catalog.
“I’m sorry, but following your copy guidelines would interfere with my ability to express myself as an artist.”
The cataloger had just hired a new copywriter, and my job was to train her. I scanned her latest efforts.
“Could I ask your age?” I asked.
“22,” she said.
“This catalog’s audience is mostly age 60 and older, and the copy guidelines specify a lot of nostalgia, of looking back to the good old days. Your copy doesn’t have any of that.”
“I don’t really care for that style. It’s boring. Copy should reflect the honest feelings of the copywriter.”
“You’re 22!,” I exclaimed. “Your audience is age 60 and older. Your feelings and theirs probably aren’t going to match. Wouldn’t it be better if you tried to adopt a somewhat older copy voice?”
“I’d really rather not.”
If you counted all of the exceptional catalog photographers, designers, art directors and copywriters in the world, there would be fewer copywriters in the group than anyone else. I say this based on more than 20 years of hiring catalog copywriters and writing a good deal of copy myself. Copywriting isn’t generally considered to be a glamorous occupation, but I become much more excited when I run across an outstanding catalog copywriter than any other practitioner.
Among other things, a good catalog copywriter needs to have these six qualities:
1. The ability to analyze a product and figure out the key benefit for the customer. Note: This is a rare skill.
2. The ability to write copy that will make that key benefit instantly clear to the reader. The importance of clarity cannot be overstated here.
3. The ability and willingness to adopt different voices for different catalogs. Many copywriters have one voice, and that’s it. That’s not good enough for creating most catalogs.
4. The ability to write without simply resorting to puns and wordplay. While they may work for recreational publications, puns and wordplay simply waste time and space in your catalog.
5. The ability to rewrite. Many copywriters have “first-thought-best-thought” syndrome—if their first efforts are rejected, they can’t think of anything else. Wholesale changes in point of view or product benefits often are needed.
6. Copywriters also need good organizational skills. Catalog copywriting involves coping with a vast array of details. A copywriter who can’t keep track of things is a headache you don’t need.
“I see a big black blob above and a small white blob below.”
Cataloger: “We have a new clock. We need you to write the copy.”
Copywriter: “When can I see a sample?”
Cataloger: “You can’t. It’s not built yet.”
Copywriter: “How about a color photo?”
Cataloger: “I don’t have one.”
Copywriter: “Do you have a manufacturer’s sheet?”
Copywriter: “Can you at least describe the product to me?”
Cataloger: “I haven’t actually seen it. All I have is a sketch. It’s on your fax machine now.”
Copywriter: “I’m looking at your fax now. All I see is a large black blob above, and a smaller white blob below.”
Cataloger: “Have the copy here tomorrow.”
A weak copywriter can’t produce good copy no matter how much information he or she has. But a good copywriter can produce a reasonably effective string of words from almost no information. Indeed, a strong copywriter working with good information can produce remarkable copy that will substantially boost your sales.
To achieve that result, consider giving your copywriter the following:
*a product information sheet for each product, filled in by you with basic information (e.g., price, SKU, dimensions, country of origin), plus key feature and benefit data about each product;
*any available manufacturer’s sheets; and
*a product sample; if that’s impossible or impractical, a good photo or several photos if you need to show various features of the product.
It’s important that the copywriter has access to an actual sample of the product. Your customers can’t actually touch, taste or smell the product from just looking at the photos. But a good copywriter can embed the sensory impressions directly into the copy in a way that makes readers want to buy.
“Just say, ‘Loved by young and old alike.’”
Copywriter: “Based on a detailed taste test of all your sausages, I’ve written this catalog copy to clearly distinguish each variety.”
Cataloger: “I hate it.”
Stunned copywriter: “Why?”
Cataloger: “Look at this one here, you say it tastes spicy.”
Copywriter: “It does.”
Cataloger: “Some people don’t like spicy.”
Copywriter: “You could say that about every taste description, that someone may not like spicy or mild or rich.”
Cataloger: “That’s why I don’t want you to use any taste descriptions at all.”
Copywriter: “If I can’t describe their tastes, what can I say?”
Cataloger: “All you can say is, ‘Loved by young and old alike.’”
Copywriter: “That’s it? For 42 different varieties?”
As this true story illustrates, some catalogers bring strange prejudices to the table when they review catalog copy. Your copy will be much more effective if you can ensure the following:
1. Don’t be reluctant to sell.
Many catalogers come to the field because they’re deeply—even idealistically—enchanted by a particular product category. For them, actually trying to sell can be uncomfortable—presenting real problems for a copywriter.
No matter how idealistic your goals, you probably can’t achieve them without actually selling product. Selling doesn’t mean tricking people into buying what they don’t want. It means informing people about products they genuinely want but wouldn’t know about if you didn’t tell them.
2. Resist trying to sell everything to everyone.
This is the problem from which the cataloger at the head of this section suffered. He was terrified of thwarting the interest of anyone about anything, and ended up forcing his copywriter to write copy so generic it was ineffective.
Copy can’t be targeted toward all customers. Rather, good copy is written by first figuring out what a given product’s key features are, discerning who will want and respond to those key features, and writing copy that communicates clearly and persuasively to those specific buyers.
3. Don’t fall for the absurd notion that catalog copy is a waste of good space that could be better devoted to bigger pictures.
If you feel this way, you’d do both your customers and yourself a favor by letting someone else review, or at least assist in reviewing, what your copywriter produces. Copy is important to your catalog, and little is more demoralizing to a good copywriter than to have everything he or she does get edited down to just product name, SKU, price and legally required notices.
4. Resist the urge to be utterly grammatical.
If you find yourself becoming a fifth grade English teacher whenever you review copy, remember that catalog copy isn’t only about correct grammar—it’s about clarity, appeal and persuasion.
A good copywriter will use punctuation first to maximize clarity, second to enhance readability and only last to adhere to the basic rules of grammar. Don’t hamstring a copywriter by insisting on rigid punctuation and grammatical rules.
Even the world’s great novelists play loosely with grammar—and you can, too, whenever it helps readability and clarity.
Susan McIntyre is president of McIntyre Direct, a catalog consulting company based in Portland, OR. She can be reached at (503) 735-9515.