Do you remember the Silentnight bed adverts that featured a hippo and a duck? Freemans used to sell cuddly toy versions of the hippo and duck, and someone wrote this description in the catalogue: ‘Henry Hippo is 24 inches high and comes in his own striped pyjamas.’ Oops! It fails the ‘dirty mind’ test. So did their description of a JPS digital clock where they missed out the critical letter L.

Before starting my own business in 2001, I spent 18 years working in the home shopping sector, so there’s not much I didn’t learn about selling off the page (or screen).

In print catalogues, every inch of space is selling space. There’s not much room for text as the pictures tell the story. Therefore the copy should only add information that’s not visible in the image.

For my first writing job I had to write purely descriptive copy such as: “Black skirt with two patch pockets. Material: 50% polyester, 50% cotton. All garments washable. Please see size guides at the back of the catalogue.”

Writing something short is actually harder than writing something long, so every word has to count.

I also wrote copy for Jeff Banks when he was at Warehouse. 20 pairs of black trousers had been photographed on black backgrounds, and it was impossible to see the detail. From the sample garments on the rail in the cutting room, I had to describe the differences between each pair in a handful of words.

More recently, I’ve written product copy for Ann Summers’ catalogue — that was fun! (For reasons of decency, I won’t give an example here, but will happily email it to you if you’re interested!)

Online, you don’t have the same restrictions with word count. You might also want to include keywords to help with search. And you definitely want to allow customers to leave reviews. (These days, what other people say about your products is more convincing than anything you say yourself.)

Here’s the start of nearly 500 words of web copy about a single piece of furniture, with the objective of helping people to imagine it in their own home:

The cupboard doors of this attractive larder unit open to reveal two removable shelves and adjustable shelf racks, so there’s plenty of room for all those tins and packets. Below are two half-width drawers and one full-width drawer for extra storage. Your tea towels and tablecloths all tucked neatly away, perhaps. Mind you, although it’s described as a larder unit, we think this painted pine cupboard could suit almost any room in your home. We can imagine it as a toy cupboard, or even a wardrobe, for example.

Hawkin’s Bazaar

I love the Hawkin’s catalogue, because they usually put real effort into writing interesting copy about each item. They sell retro and fun gifts, toys and games, so it’s a good fit with the brand to inject a little fun into the product descriptions. Here’s an example from their current website:

Bring some beat and rhythm to your work space with this great sounding drum set you can fit on your desk. It may not look like much, but it surprised us how much you can get out of the scaled down tom-tom, pair of snares and the cymbal. You may not become a drumming sensation overnight with this mini kit, but even Phil Collins (ask dad) had to start somewhere.

• Mini drum kit and stand.
• Has a tom-tom, two snares and a splash crash cymbal.
• Includes two drum sticks.
• Easily assembled in minutes without tools.
• Assembled drums 44cm tall.

Land’s End

Land’s End famously give extra information that compels customers to buy. Here’s their description of one of this season’s skirts. Note the friendly tone of voice, their use of the word ‘you’ (which is always good), and the way they’ve turned features into benefits:

Put the wrap on style
The awesome look of a wrap skirt, with none of the perils. (You know what we mean.) The shape is slim and straight, with an invisible back zipper. 33% cotton/32% acrylic/20% polyester/10% wool/5% other. Dry clean. Imported

• Plaid fabric has tweedy texture
• Faux wrap style is created by a single front pleat
• Slimming straight silhouette
• Smooth full lining
• Modern above-knee length
• Approximate waist to hem lengths: Regular, 22′; Petite, 20 1/2′

What you can learn from this

Don’t just take the manufacturer’s spec and assume that’s the best selling copy you can use. Instead, take your customer’s perspective, think about what’s important to them, and write your copy with that in mind.

I originally wrote this article for Fresh Business Thinking

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