The 4 Pillars of Ecommerce Copywriting

When writing content for your ecommerce website, the challenge is to craft copy that is usable, search engine friendly, persuasive, that will build trust and communicate your brand promise. How can you satisfy all of these objectives? It begins with an understanding of the 4 pillars of ecommerce copywriting.

Writing for usability

As many usability gurus have said, your visitor decides in 3 seconds or less whether he or she is going to abandon your site. “Bounce rate” in Web analytics tells you how many visitors “came, puked and left” (the famous words of Avinash Kaushik). If your bounce rate is high, you need to investigate reasons why that might be.

While there are many ways to gag your customers with a spoon, formatting issues such as tiny type, white text on black backgrounds, loooooong sentences and long paragraphs are common culprits.

Example: grey text, run-on paragraph

Visitors need only to eyeball your site to figure out if the copy is “readable,” so use headings, subheadings and bullet points liberally, and pictures and icons where appropriate. It is recommended that you keep sentences and paragraphs as short and sweet as possible. Always define your jargon, and keep in mind that the average American adult reads at an 8th or 9th grade level – so shoot for 6th-7th grade difficulty. (This is especially important for international customers and English-as-second-language).

However, bullets can’t save you if you don’t use them wisely.

Example: bullets to the head

Example: Walmart bullets

Altrec.com puts headings, short paragraphs and bullets to work:

Writing to persuade

Unique value propositions

One important piece of text that is often missing from ecommerce sites is the UVP (unique value proposition, sometimes called unique selling proposition). This is a statement that clearly communicates the one thing that you do better than any of your competitors. This statement is not “free shipping” or even “free shipping both ways!” These are value propositions, but not unique if any of your competitors also offer them.

With the ease of comparison shopping the Internet provides, it’s crucial to make this statement very clear and easy to find (tagline, headlines, all throughout your body copy and marketing messaging).

Make sure you have watched Marketing Experiments’ Web clinic In Search of a Value Proposition and read its companion blog post. Many folks *think* they have a value proposition when it’s really a tagline, slogan or unsubstantiated marketing fluff.

Unique value propositions are not a walk in the park to write. In fact, you may simply have no advantages over your competition. In that case, you have to work all the more on persuasive copywriting in other areas.

Persuasive product descriptions

Products also have their own value propositions (features and benefits), and some may even be unique over every other product on the market. Make sure you are romancing your products’ features and including the benefits each feature delivers. For example, I don’t have a clue why 18.5 micron Merino wool is such a big deal unless you tell me the benefit is “zero itch.”

Beyond features/benefits, persuasive copywriting aims to match customer motivation at each stage of the selling cycle. The Eisenberg Brothers‘ book Waiting for Your Cat to Bark is a great primer on developing personas and writing copy that appeals to the 4 different buyer modalities: Competitive, Humanistic, Spontaneous and Methodical.

Armed with this information, you can then get busy on “Persuasion Architecture.” You may write 4 versions of your copy and deliver persona-specific content based on the behavioral cues your visitor gives you, for example, how a customer sorts category results. You can also apply persuasive techniques to email subject lines and email creative.

Showing some personality in your copy can also be persuasive, as it humanizes your website and creates positive vibes about your brand which can make people feel better about doing business with you.

Writing to build trust

Online shoppers have to put a lot of faith into their purchase. They not only have to trust their personal information is secure, but also that the product they purchase “blindly” will really satisfy. So your copy should address both FUDs (fears, uncertainties and doubts) about your company and about the product.

Building trust for your company

Providing testimonials can be very powerful. Though it’s not copy you compose yourself, it’s a good idea to reach out to customers and ask for them. Again, Marketing Experiments offers great guidance for using testimonials effectively.

Don’t forget to write your privacy policy with care and make it easy to find in your navigation menu and at every point on your site a customer might feel anxious about submitting information (email signup, account registration, checkout process, etc). Equally important is your customer service information, including shipping and returns.

Building trust for the product

Though pundits have also proclaimed “nobody reads on the Web,” a 2007 survey by the E-Tailing Group suggests a good chunk of customers do, and they demand satisfaction when it comes to product descriptions.

  • 77% of online shoppers are “very to somewhat” influenced by the quality of content (descriptions, copy, images and tools) when deciding to purchase from an online retailer
  • 79% “rarely or never” purchase a product without complete product information
  • 76% believe content is insufficient to complete research or purchase online “always,” “most often” or “some of the time”
  • When faced with incomplete information, 72% go to a competitor or research further

Why do consumers crave content? They want to reduce their risk of being disappointed and wasting their money. They have FUDs about products, and it’s your job to answer their questions and ease their minds.

One of the best ways to get into your customers’ heads is to read reviews, lots of them, and use customer reviews to improve product descriptions. Don’t just read reviews submitted to your site, look at Amazon and others that have attracted a lot of reviews and allow customers to tag reviews, vote for most helpful or rate on individual product attributes.

You should look for answers to these questions:

  • Who buys this item and why?
  • Did the product live up to expectations?
  • How long did the product last?
  • What unexpected uses do customers discover for the product?
  • What’s the worst thing about this product?
  • Would the customer recommend it to people like themselves?

More tips on this technique here.

Writing for search engine optimization

Don’t stuff it

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The above is a contrived example of copy written to achieve a high “keyword density” in effort to rank higher. It was once believed that search engines favored pages that contained a certain keyword density of 2-5% (for every 100 words on the page, use the targeted keyword phrase 2 to 5 times). So many sites’ copy was written for search engines rather than real people. Search engines might have used keyword density at one time as an indicator of a page’s relevance to a query, but today’s search engines are much more advanced at detecting semantic relevance and don’t need to see so much repetition.

Search engines also consider factors like incoming links from other sites, and keyword-stuffed sites don’t attract as many links. It’s also possible that search engines flag site copy like this as potential spam – which can actually hurt your ranking. Not to mention, customers do not find keyword-stuffed descriptions persuasive at all, rather an insult to one’s intelligence!

By all means, use keywords in your copy – it’s especially helpful to research synonyms and variations of keywords to incorporate in your writing, including long tail queries. (Remember, keywords must appear on your page if you want your site to have a chance at ranking for them.) And there’s nothing wrong with using the keyword phrases multiple times on the same page, either. Just don’t obsess over keyword frequency at the expense of readability and persuasion. Incorporate keywords naturally into your copy and you’ll be fine.

Synonyms and variations are not only important for the big search engines, but also for your internal site search. You don’t want “0 results found” for “blue Nike sneakers” because your product page calls them “Ultramarine Nike Cross-Trainers.”

Don’t stock it

Another SEO faux-pas is using stock manufacturer descriptions. When search engines find multiple copies of the same text across web sites, it applies a duplicate content filter so SERPs (search result pages) aren’t filled with the same document. The more sites that use the manufacturer’s description, the higher your chance of being filtered out – especially if the manufacturer is deemed the most relevant or authoritative site by the search engine.

Always craft unique product descriptions, and if you run international sites, you may want to write unique descriptions for each based on cultural keyword preferences, as well as to avoid duplicate content issues across your own domains.

Need help honing your skills?

Karon Thackston has just completed an ebook on Ecommerce Copywriting for which I contributed an article about cross-selling and upselling. Karon and Wordtracker are offering Get Elastic readers a 50% discount if you pre-order by Friday, July 9!

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22 Responses to “The 4 Pillars of Ecommerce Copywriting”

  1. Alvin Tan says:

    Excellent tips as usual. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Just to add on to your suggestions on format, I find it helpful when ecommerce websites use double-spacing and a large font size. Double-spacing gives content some air to breathe; walls of text are huge turn-offs. Also, for copywriters, using larger fonts keeps the length in check. Copywriters would also find using incomplete sentences or sentence fragments (as long as they are coherent) for succinctness.

  2. dianeski says:

    GREAT article. Very, very helpful.

    Just one small quibble. Altrec’s formatting / bulleting may be great, but man, their grammar stinks.

    “A everyday trainer the Nike Blah-Blah…” Oh my gosh. My 4th-grade teacher is spinning in her grave!

  3. Donna says:

    This was a great article! SEO is so important, but I so often see the usability ignored. I am so glad you lead with that point. Copy that is easy on the eyes makes for a far better reading experience. It sounds silly, but I think back to how neat and large and w/ bullets I took my college notes. It made studying so much easier!

  4. dianeski says:

    Alvin (or anyone!), can you suggest a ballpark for e-commerce product-copy length? I try to keep my bulleted product descriptions between 350 and 550 characters. But I write for an athletic-wear website, and some of our products are highly technical, with more bells and whistles than a NASA space project. In those instances, I go up to 650 characters, give or take. Does this sound about right to you?

    I wish we could use heads and subheads to further break up the “dense sea of type” effect…but our current platform prohibits this. (Long story.) We are getting ready to transition to a new platform, however, which (I hope) will give us more flexibility. (Eventually we’ll use tabs, so we can separate the juicy benefit copy from the nitty-gritty stuff about the technology.) What with tabs, bullets, and heads/subheads, perhaps someday soon we can make our product copy more skimmable and digestible.

    Anyway–character-count recommendations would be greatly appreciated. Please bear in mind that these garments actually *do* something, so we need a bit more than the usual fashiony fluff….

    Thanks!

    Diane
    follow me on Twitter @dianeski

    • Alvin Tan says:

      Hi Diane,

      Generally, as an online shopper myself, I could probably comfortably digest around 450 to 550 characters for each product, though I wouldn’t be rigid about this. From my experience, a more effective way to reduce length is to eliminate non-unique, non-evocative, superfluous, or overall less important ideas, as opposed to summarizing and trying to retain every idea and selling short on the most important ideas.

      Tabs can be an interesting way to solve the length issue, though I wouldn’t bet on everyone clicking on every tab, so some content would be viewed more often than others. Tabs should work fine as long as some strategy is put in place to highlight the most unique features, use cases, and benefits of the product. As a shopper, I want to know the unique stuff, since I form my impression very quickly. And as you pointed out, I can always browse the other tabs if I want to know about technical specifications and other meta-information.

      Hope my perspective helps!

      P.S. I sent a request to follow you on Twitter (my username is @Fezzl).

  5. Donna says:

    Dianeski,

    I was going to suggest tabs as the best way to organize your information. Use the default open tab for the sizzling sales copy, then the others for the more technical specs, but as I read down your post, I see that is on your road map. I think the word count would really just depend on your layout and how it looks on the page. If tabs are not ideal on your platform, I think a switch would be in your best interest if other factors suit your needs too. At Solid Cactus, we work with both Yahoo! Stores and our own shopping cart software. Neither come default with tabbed display, but is is an addon feature.

  6. I see many sites using tabs to break out the description from benefits, specs, technical details, reviews, etc. to accommodate longer copy. The beauty of this is you can minimize scrolling, keep to a clean design and the search engine still reads all the text.

    The downside is, however, tabs can appear so subtle your customer might not notice them. We experienced this when we experimented with tabbed information on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic store. When reviews and/or cross-sells were behind tabbed doors, they were very seldom clicked.

    I wrote about this a while back
    http://www.getelastic.com/tabbed-boxes/

    Perhaps a better solution is to use “accordion” style vertical collapse/expand menus. So you could have

    DESCRIPTION (expanded by default)
    FEATURES/BENEFITS (+) expands
    TECH SPECS (+) expands

    etc.

    I’ve seen this done nicely in Best Buy’s comparison tools, example
    http://tinyurl.com/25nco2o
    You can collapse and expand the dark blue title bars

    Thoughts?

  7. Donna says:

    Linda – that’s a great idea, too. I’ve seen that a lot lately. Very cool how new trends in usability come up, each sometimes better than the next. I’ve really enjoyed your posts. Glad I’ve found your stuff.

  8. John Hyde says:

    Or do like Amazon and just let the text be as long as it needs to be and the site visitor can scroll up and down to read it.

    And I aim to merge benefits into the features to help explain them:

    “The shoelaces are made from X which means we can guarantee the laces for 15 years.”

  9. John Hyde says:

    One extra factor that works well for me is when the writer has obviously used the product or similar products himself. I buy a lot of cycling accessories online and it shows when a cyclist has written the blurbs. This also works well in technical / computer equipment.

  10. dianeski says:

    Thanks, y’all, for all the great advice. Linda — that is VERY interesting about the click-thru rate for tabs!

  11. Changzhou Wei Xuan Industry & Trade Co., Ltd. is a combination of industry and trade of import and export company, located in the economically developed Yangtze River Delta economic zone, Jiangsu, Changzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou

  12. Hi Linda

    I like the tabbed approach.

    > The downside is, however, tabs can appear so subtle your customer might not notice them

    One way to counteract this is to replicate the tabs using text links at the bottom of each section – I’ll make an attempt to draw this in text:

    ________________________________________
    | DESCRIPTION | FEATURES | TECH SPEC |
    | ———————–|
    |Lots of description text here, then |
    |… |
    |What now? |
    |_View_Features_and_Benefits_ |
    |_Read_The_Technical_Specification_ |
    |[Add to Cart] |
    ________________________________________

    That renders OK in a monospace font so copy and paste to Notepad if you are having trouble reading …

  13. We have found success using copywriters to re-format the “stock” descriptions for our targeted and or high-level products. Another focus from an SEO perspective is keyword cannobilization audits to make sure we aren’t targeting identical keywords on different pages. Thanks for the tips as usual!

  14. Great points we must consider. Nowadays, SEO is what businesses prioritize but usability, persuasion and building trust are also important. Serious businesses that like to build their business must interact with consumers at the same time have quality content.

  15. dianeski says:

    Hate to keep harping on tabs :) … but, well, I’m a huge fan of Lands’ End, and I love the way they do tabs. They don’t use the second tab for tech specs (obviously there’s no need for that); instead, they use it for a more detailed narrative-form product description. (The outer tab provides the quick bulleted summary.)

    I wonder how many customers click on that second tab. I always do, but that’s partly because (a) I’m in the business; (b) I love Lands’ End; (c) I love to read; and (d) I love to see what other copywriters are writing.

    So, I obviously can’t go by my behavior…. I wish I knew what Lands’ End customers in general do. I’m thinking there must be a fair number of LE customers who do click on that second (narrative-copy) tab. Otherwise, Lands’ End would not continue using that format…right?

    I’m guessing that those LE tabs appeal to different personas (per the Eisenbergs’ model). The spontaneous and competitive personas would tend to scan only the first (bullet-copy) tab, while the methodical types would also read the second tab. Still, I would be very interested in learning what percentage of LE customers read only the first tab vs. what percentage of customers also click and read the second tab. Of course, there’s no way to get this information without plying the LE marketing department with lots of liquor :D … oh well!

    • Yes I believe Land’s End was one of Future Now’s clients at one time, perhaps they still are. LE’s online store has long been a customer favorite. Perhaps they’ll divulge their secrets at an e-tail conference one day :)

  16. Enjoyed this article a lot and it got me thinking about how different retailers approach writing copy about a product that they all sell. Turns out there’s quite a range in the quality of their approaches, which I wrote about on my blog: http://www.smileycat.com/miaow/archives/002014.php

  17. Jeff says:

    Hello Linda,

    I love your articles.

    I enjoyed the book “Waiting for Your Cat to Bark“. You called the publication of the Eisenberg Brothers “a great primer on developing personas“. I want to get much better in creating personas for marketing purposes. The kind of personas you and the Eisenberg Brothers are writing about, i.e. not another kind like user personas. Please name me books which teach the creation of these personas on a deeper level.

    Thanks from Germany

    • Hi Jeff, I haven’t read any others on the topic but found these (with great user reviews) on Amazon.com

      The Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design (Interactive Technologies)
      The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web [Paperback]

      Actually, I would like to read those so if I get my hands on one I’ll review it on this blog.

      • Jeff says:

        Hello Linda,

        thank you for your answer, I’m grateful for your recommondations. I will try them.

        Sorry for my seemingly delayed answer. But I already replied to your post the next day. Because I can’t find my answer on your website now, so I send you this message again.

        Keep up the good work, Linda.

        Jeff from Germany

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