Ecommerce Copy 101
How to Create a Tidal Wave of Excitement That Compels Your Visitors to Whip Out Their Credit Cards on the Spot
“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.”
Anybody who has studied marketing or copywriting has likely heard this saying before. Originally coined by Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt, this quote is used to illustrate a very important distinction in the world of marketing: people want the benefits that products provide, not the products themselves.
If people could snap their fingers and magically have a quarter-inch hole in the wall, they wouldn’t bother buying the drill bit. The same can be said for many other products: nobody wants a dumbbell—they just want to be fit. Nobody wants toothpaste—they just want to have pearly white teeth.
But let’s take this example of the toothpaste a bit further. We left off at, “Nobody wants toothpaste—they just want to have pearly white teeth.” But why do they want pearly white teeth? Because they want to have a nice smile. And why do they want that? Well, when you know that your teeth and smile look good, you are more likely to feel confident and smile freely. Having a bright, welcoming smile and the confidence that comes along with it can open up a lot of doors. It may make you more popular in your social group, give you the confidence to ask for a raise, help you attract a future partner, and generally make you more likable.
Do you see where we’re going with this? Aside from maybe a dentist, nobody gets excited about toothpaste. People do, however, get excited about being popular and liked, feeling confident, making more money, and receiving attention from someone they’re interested in.
The point of the exercise above is to drive home that, when people buy something, it’s because they are seeking a transformative benefit from that product, not the product itself. In the example above, the transformative benefit is to change from being an insecure person who is ashamed of their yellow teeth into a confident person whose smile can light up a room. This newfound confidence leads to a host of other benefits as well; among them are making more money and finding a mate—not bad for a simple tube of toothpaste.
So remember: Don’t try to sell them the toothpaste. That’s boring. Sell them the transformative benefit that the toothpaste is promising to provide—money, confidence, social acceptance, romance, and more.
Content Clarity: Nobody Will Buy Your Product If They Don’t Understand It
Copywriting is simply sales in a written form. When you’re in the act of selling something, you’re trying to persuade someone that the product you have for sale will give them the transformative benefits they desire—a slimmer waist, more hair, more money, and so on. However, before you can begin the process of trying to persuade someone, you must clearly define what you’re offering, and you must do it in verbiage so simple that even Homer Simpson could understand it.
Think about it: if your customers can’t understand what you’re trying to sell them, how can you start persuading them? It would be like traveling back in time and trying to sell a gun to the ancient Romans only by talking about how the gun is reliable and accurate, without first defining what the heck it is. You absolutely must tell them, “This little piece of metal I’m holding is called a gun. It’s a weapon from the future that I’ve brought back in time with me. It shoots small pieces of metal at such a high velocity that they can even pierce armor, allowing you to defeat your enemies with ease.” Start with that before getting into how it’s accurate and won’t jam. They need to know it’s a weapon that shoots bullets first.
In my 2.5+ years of doing revenue optimization for Build Grow Scale, I’ve seen that this lack of clarity is the number one problem people have. And you wouldn’t believe how many ecommerce business owners do a terrible job of describing their products.
I have been guilty of this, so let me share an example from my own experience.
Once upon a time, I was selling solar power banks online. A solar power bank is an external battery, roughly the size and shape of an iPhone. Once charged, it can be used to power mobile devices on the go. Mine were designed for the outdoors and included a solar panel on one side. You could simply set one out in the sun, let the solar energy from the sun charge it, and then use the power bank later to charge your cell phone.
I thought the product was pretty straightforward, but I noticed a lot of confusion about it. I was getting a high volume of customer service questions, many of which I thought were (to be frank) kind of dumb. (Actually, I was the dumb one for not making the descriptions clear enough!) Here are some of those questions:
- What type of phone does this charge? (It works for any phone.)
- What type of phone does this case fit? (Yes, some people thought it was a phone case, even though it’s just a battery.)
- Does it come with a charging cable? (A picture of it on the box clearly shows a cable.)
And there were others. But the point is that after clarifying the copy, I saw an incredible 25% increase in conversion rate. And that was all from further clarifying a few details that I’d thought were already pretty clear.
Determine what issues to clarify
So, how can you clean up any clarity issues in your copy and imagery and achieve similar results?
- Ask your customer service people (email, live chat, phone). This is an excellent place to start. They can tell you right away about the most common issues.
- Create on-site surveys. Software such as Lucky Orange, Hotjar, and Crazy Egg allow you to create on-page survey questions. I like to ask, “Do you have any questions that you can’t find the answers to?” That’s on a trigger to pop up after two minutes. The responses you get here will be gold.
- Try user testing. This is by far the most powerful of the three. I cannot stress how valuable this is. You can read an article I’ve written on user testing for ecommerce to learn more.
Address these clarity issues
In addition to addressing the clarity issues you uncover with the three methods above, make sure you do the following:
- Show the size of your product. Have at least one image that shows the size or scale of the product. Have it in someone’s hand, next to a coffee mug, and so on so that there won’t be any question about the size. Also consider including the exact height, width, and depth measurements as well as the weight. (This won’t be necessary for some products, but for something like furniture, it’s essential.)
- Show why your product is unique, different, and/or better. Explain clearly why your product, out of the millions of others on the market claiming to solve the same problem, is better. Is it of higher quality? Does it have a better warranty? Is it healthier? Is it easier to use? You can try representing this information as a graphical comparison chart. Any time I’ve added a comparison chart to a client’s store, it has increased the conversion rate.
- Clearly state the transformative benefit your product provides. Think back to the toothpaste example above. Don’t simply state: “It will make your teeth whiter and your breath better.” Ask why customers want those things. The more closely you can align your product to solving one of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (safety/security, accomplishment/purpose, love/friendship, water/food/sleep, etc.), the more successful you’ll be. Remember, people don’t care about the toothpaste or even about having white teeth, per se. They want the confidence, love, sex, acceptance, and popularity more than having a nice smile.
- Include an image to illustrate every major feature that the product has. If you are selling Swiss army knives, have an image dedicated to each one of the tools: the screwdriver, knife, scissors, and so on. Also include a photo of the knife when it’s completely folded up and no tools are exposed. And finally, include a photo that shows all the different tools fanned out at once—this provides excellent clarity as well. Even better would be to include a video.
To summarize: Make sure you cover all the bases. As I’ve said many times before, any time you can add more clarity to your copy or address more objections, good things will follow.
Visual Clarity: How Text Is Laid Out Is Just as Important as the Text Itself
The section above was dedicated to clarity in the literal sense—the word and image content that make up the product description.
However, there’s something just as important that we refer to as “visual clarity.” Take a look at the table below, and consider which version you’re more likely to read.
The copy on the left is nearly identical to that on the right in terms of words, but, as you can see, one is much more appealing to the eye. The spacing and bold headlines provide the reader with an easier way to scan and digest the content. Applying visual clarity like this greatly increases the odds that people will actually read it. And the more they read and engage with your marketing message, the more they buy.
An Objection Missed Is a Sale Missed
There are a lot of scammy marketers out there peddling junk products that don’t live up to the hype. Everyone has been duped by these unscrupulous marketers at some point, so people are inherently cautious. So it’s very normal for people to have all kinds of objections about your products. These objections must be addressed because an objection missed is a sale missed.
The best way to find common objections is to use some of the same methods we talked about earlier when describing how to find clarity issues.
To recap, these were (1) asking your customer service people, (2) using onsite surveys, such as: “Is there anything stopping you from making a purchase right now?” and (3) user testing.
You want to create an extensive list of anything that your customers might object to (including questions like: Does it really work as advertised? What’s the price? Will it fit correctly? Is it safe? Is it durable?). The more you can think of, the better.
Without knowing exactly what it is that you sell, it’s impossible for me to know how to address all of these objections individually. So, let’s look at an example, once again with a car.
Anyone looking to buy a car is likely to have these objections. If they’re having these types of doubts and you don’t address them, then you’ve just lost that customer. Do your research and address every possible objection you can think of.
How to Actually Write Copy for Ecommerce
The number of books written on the subject of copywriting could fill up a large swimming pool. It would be unfeasible to try to cover every little nuance of how to write copy, and diving deep into the topic is beyond the scope of this article. But I can go over the broad strokes and give you a few good tips to keep in mind.
If you can internalize the following principles, along with the ones we’ve already discussed, then you’ve basically mastered the “80/20” (fundamentals) of how to write copy.
Features tell, benefits sell
You might be thinking, what’s the difference between features and benefits? A 250-horsepower engine is a feature. The benefit is that a fast car offers an exhilarating driving experience.
While you want to focus more of your energy on selling the transformative benefit the product provides (as described earlier), you definitely want to list the features as well. In certain circles—among “gearheads” (car enthusiasts), for instance—talking about the features can be immensely powerful since the audience is so technically knowledgeable on the subject. So, don’t ever exclude the features. Just put more emphasis on the benefits.
Create a “slippery slope” that compels the reader to keep reading
“Naked Man Arrested for Concealed Weapon.” Try reading that headline without wanting to know more!
It’s been said by many famous copywriters, including Joe Sugarman and Gary Halbert, that the only purpose of a headline is to get you to read the first sentence. And the only purpose of the first sentence is to get you to read the second sentence. And the second sentence’s only purpose is … You get the idea.
Use curiosity and bold claims of value to compel people to keep reading
Take a look at this headline and tell me if you’d like to continue reading: “Is Your Spouse Cheating on You? They Are If They’re Doing Any of These Five Things.” This headline makes a bold claim of value (how to tell if your spouse is cheating), and it also compels your curiosity (what the heck are those five things?!). It would be hard not to continue reading.
Write using concise sentences, simple words, and a conversational tone
Write like this. One small sentence after the other. This will make your content much easier to digest.
Also, don’t use words that are too fancy or complicated. Remember the clarity principle: the last thing you want to do is confuse your customers. Never write sales copy that contains words such as “boisterous” or “gregarious.” I didn’t learn those words until my 30s, and even just now, I had to look them up to double-check. So instead of using “boisterous,” just say “rowdy” or “festive.” Instead of “gregarious,” just say “sociable” or “outgoing.”
Lastly, write in a conversational tone. You want to come off as your customers’ peer, friend, and trusted advisor. When you talk in an overly “businessy” tone, you put distance between your brand and your customers. You want to do the opposite, which is to build rapport and familiarity.
Use stories whenever possible
Storytelling is the oldest form of human entertainment in existence, and for good reason. Stories are captivating, and they help us to better compartmentalize and understand things.
Music is to noise, what stories are to information. In the same way that music can make generic sounds into something beautiful and memorable, stories can transform generic information into something beautiful and memorable. Whenever possible, use stories in your copywriting.
Make sure that the story positions the main character, someone who ideally represents your average customer, as the hero of the story. Position your brand as the “guide” that helped them achieve the transformative benefit they were seeking. Think Katniss Everdeen and Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games, or Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. Just as Obi-Wan helped Luke to become a Jedi, your brand is the guide that helps your customers achieve their transformative benefit.
Here’s an example of practical storytelling for ecommerce. Pretend we are selling a pet joint-support supplement. Let’s use the story of a troubled dog-mom, Sharon, who’s worried about her aging labrador, Cooper. Cooper just isn’t the same these days. He mopes around the house looking sad, doesn’t want to play anymore, and avoids stairs at all costs. Seeing her beloved dog Cooper suffer from joint pain makes Sharon suffer as well. But then, one day, Pet Brand X comes to save the day. As the guide, Pet Brand X informs Sharon that they have a joint supplement that can help Cooper. With the guidance of Pet Brand X, Sharon is now the hero of the story for she’s alleviated poor Cooper’s joint pain. Now Cooper can run and play again, and all is right in the universe.
This story is relatable to Pet Brand X’s target demographic and is likely to evoke a strong emotional response. Stories such as this one tend to be believed, whereas publishing facts, data, and studies about a product tend to be met with more resistance. If you can craft powerful stories around your ecommerce brand, you’re going to win big.
The number one conversion-rate killer on ecommerce stores is a lack of clarity. Before you can even think about persuading someone to buy your products, they must first clearly understand them. What’s the transformative benefit they’ll receive from using the product? Why is it different or better than the competition? How do you use it? How big is it? Tell them everything.
Once you’ve clearly defined the product and the benefit it provides, you can start thinking about being persuasive. Address every possible objection that customers may have: If they say it’s too expensive, offer a payment plan. If they doubt its effectiveness, offer a free sample or a money-back guarantee. Be thorough, because every objection missed is a sale missed.
Write copy using short, punchy sentences. Use verbiage that even a highschool freshman would understand, and do it in a conversational tone. Your goal is to come off as a friend or a guide. Make customers feel like you understand their pain and can help them because you’ve experienced it yourself.
Make bold claims of value and use curiosity to compel your customers to read your copy. The more they read, the more they understand the benefits of your product—and the more likely they are to buy from you.
Use storytelling in your copywriting whenever possible. Stories captivate your customers and help them understand and relate to your brand. Position yourself as the guide (Obi-Wan) and the customer as the hero (Luke Skywalker). Make sure the story is relatable to your target demographic and evokes a powerful emotional response.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll see a massive improvement in your ecommerce store’s conversion rate. Even if you can’t craft a compelling story about your product and you suck at creative writing, just focus on the basics. Clearly explain the product, the benefits it provides, and address all common objections.
Handling just these fundamentals will put you ahead of 90% of your competitors.
Halbert, G. C. (2013). The Boron Letters. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Levitt, T. (n.d.) in Godin, S. (2018). This Is Marketing. Portfolio Penguin. p.20
Maslow, H. A. (1943, 2013). A Theory of Human Motivation. 2013 ed.: Martino Fine Books.
Sugarman, J. (2006). The Adweek Copywriting Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Powerful Advertising and Marketing Copy from One of America’s Top Copywriters. John Wiley & Sons. p.33