How To Write Product Page Copy That Doesn’t Suck

How To Write Product Page Copy That Doesn't Suck

Most product copy is awful. Or worse, non-existent.

Product copy seems like such a minor thing in the grand scheme of conversion optimization, so many brands brush it off. But for companies doing it right, excellent product copy is a great way to sprinkle brand personality in a place that most people don’t expect it.

In fact, some companies do product copy so well that it’s almost a feature of the product itself.

Is Product Page Copy Actually That Important?

Do people really read product page copy? Maybe. While there’s evidence that most people skim, instead of read, online, there’s also good evidence that product descriptions matter. Substantially.

There aren’t many A/B test case studies online about product page descriptions, but that’s fine. Case studies can be misleading and the winnings illusory, anyway.

What we do have is empirical support from an e-commerce study conducted by NNgroup. In it, they found that 20% of overall task failures – when the user failed to successfully complete a purchase when asked to do so – could be attributed to incomplete or unclear product information. Here’s how they explained it:

“Leaving shoppers’ questions unanswered can derail a sale or even worse, make shoppers abandon not just the purchase, but the site as well. One shopper in a recent study could not find the information he needed in the product description, so he left the site to search Google for more product information. In the course of his search, he found another site with the same product, a more complete description, and a lower price.”

So while it’s not as blatant as a hero image or a value proposition, product page copy is an important component of a successful eCommerce site. Especially if you’ve got a large amount of traffic, beefing up your product page copy could produce noticeable lifts.

And of course there are SEO benefits, too…

I’m not going to expound upon this too much (there are tons of other blog posts on the subject), but writing awesome product page copy helps SEO.

Not writing copy – or leaving the manufacturer’s description – is the fast-track to search engine irrelevance. This is pretty intuitive. KISSmetrics gave an example image:

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And as they put it, “For example, these boots. Nothing special, just boots. Of course, the picture speaks a thousand words, but the search engines cannot see images. So make sure to add a description of the product.”

Lots more resources on the SEO implications, but we won’t waste time on that. Suffice to say it’s important for more than just conversion optimization, and is a pretty low-hanging fruit on your eCommerce site.

How Much Product Page Copy Do You Need To Write?

The short answer: as much as necessary, and no more. Like my high school English teacher used to say, “Like a woman’s dress: long enough to cover the essentials but short enough to keep it interesting.”

That’s not very helpful advice, though. How do you know how much is necessary?

Get To The Point

As the NNGroup found, users usually only skim text while reading online, and they usually read more at the start of a sentence and at the start of a paragraph than at the end. Therefore, we can extrapolate two strategies from this:

  1. Don’t waste space with superfluous or irrelevant words.
  2. Give important information first (or write in an inverted pyramid).

NNGroup explained this principle using Fannie May chocolates as an example. Fannie May starts their description of assorted creams with, “Sweet dreams are made of these creamy centers and each one is its own pleasing reward.”

According to NNGroup, this isn’t a strong way to start a description because it doesn’t teach us anything that we didn’t already know. Creams have creamy centers? Of course!

Similarly, the last sentence that says, “If our rich buttercreams are your heart’s desire, this is the treat for you,” doesn’t give any pertinent information either. And they mention the one sentence that provides informational value (where they list the types of chocolates) still leaves unanswered questions. What id a Trinidad? What does “more” mean?

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Then NNGroup gives the following heuristic to follow for writing product page copy:

“Don’t waste the first few lines of product descriptions on text that doesn’t help the user understand the product. Even a single line of text that answers no product questions can deter or distract a user”

Short Words, Short Sentences, Short Paragraphs

In 1982, advertising legend David Ogilvy sent an internal menu to all of his agency employees titled, “How To Write.” Four of his 10 rules directly dealt with simplicity, especially rule #3:

“Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.”

This echoes writing advice from other greats. Mark Twain advised that you, “Employ a simple, straightforward style,” and Hemingway lived by “short sentences,” and “short first paragraphs.” And of course, Mark Twain offered the famous advice:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

That’s all to say, don’t waste the reader’s (the customer’s) time. Get to the point. You have such a short space to tell a full enough story to quell doubts and inspire motivation. So don’t waste that with wordiness, marketing jargon, or any other unnecessary language. Here’s a good example of that terseness (with a little humor) from Firebox:

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Talk How Your Customer Talks (or ‘Everyone’ Is Not Your Customer)

Qualitative Research

Copy research is at the core of good copy, no matter where you’re writing it.

Here’s how Jen Havice put it in a previous blog post:

jen haviceJen Havice:

“Knowing what your customers want, when they want it, and how they’d like it served up to them is not just at the heart of game changing television shows. It’s also the core of developing winning test hypotheses. It’s the why behind the quantitative data – Behind the ‘what’ of quantitative data there is a ‘why’ that informs your copy and gives your visitors an easily navigable path to becoming a customer.

When you understand the motivations driving your prospects and customers, you can reflect their feelings back to them (in their own words, I might add). That way, you’re way more likely to convince them buying from you is the right call.”

Though Jen was talking about Voice of Customer research, there are many ways of doing copy research. In an article titled Quick Course of Effective Copywriting, Peep laid out a few common ways:

  • Gauge the competition. You need to be aware of your direct competition, how they present their product, and what claims they seem to be making. If you are not selling something unique, you are selling as much for your competition as you are selling for yourself. Being “like” others or choosing to be “one of the leading providers of” is a losing strategy.
  • Get out of the office. The answers are not in your office and you won’t have eureka-moments at brainstorming meetings. You have to interview people.

In addition, there are multiple data collection methods you can use for copy research. You can read about them in detail in our Advanced Guide to Qualitative Research.

Buyer Personas

Qualitative analysis feeds into developing accurate buyer personas, for whom you can write well-aligned copy. Buyer personas are essentially fictional representations of segments of buyers based on real data reflecting their behaviors. Their purpose is to put the people behind company decision making in the shoes of the customer.

When you understand your target audience really well, you can write copy like Chubbies’ Shorts:

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This type of hyperbolic and ridiculous copy helps Chubbies sell short shorts to bros, but this style probably wouldn’t push high-definition televisions. So the lesson you should extrapolate here isn’t that witty copy sells, but rather witty copy sells to a very specific audience of Chubbies’ fans.

Everyone is not your customer, and developing accurate buyer personas helps you write for your specific fans.

There are many ways that you can structure buyer personas, and tons of blogs have written about their ways of doing it. If you’d like to read more on this, we have our own guide to creating customer personas you can check out.

Get Copy From Your Customers

One more thing regarding copy research: if you’re clever, you can pull copy from directly from your fans. The goal is to write copy in the exact same language your prospects use. As Peep said in a previous article, “If you talk about “scribing devices” and he needs a pen, there’s a mismatch.” [Tweet It!]

You can do this by analyzing your qualitative and voice of customer research. You can also do it, As Joanna Wiebe suggested, by scouring authentic customer reviews. In her KISSMetrics article, she explained how she pulled direct quotes from app reviews, like:

  • “It was like having my own personal coach while I ran.”
  • “I knew i needed to get off my lazy butt and start doing something.”
  • “I can’t stand the music on [competitor products]. I can pick whatever playlist I like from my own music.”

Then she incorporated these phrases into the following product copy:

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So with that, know that copy research is the heaviest lifting you’ll be doing. It’s how you come up with specific copy that motivates your own prospects into putting in their credit card information. After that, it’s a combination of creativity, strategy, and expertise that will result in good product page copy. What follows are some general principles and strategies of companies that do product page copy well.

Tell Stories With Your Product Page Copy

There was a project a while back that you may have heard about called ‘The Significant Objects’ project.

If you’re not familiar, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn embarked on an anthropological experiment to see if they could resell cheap stuff on eBay and make a profit, all by adding personal stories to the item descriptions.

They hired a bunch of professional writers and let them go to town. They figured that emotionally charged stories would increase the perceived value of the products.

The results?

Each item sold at a similar profit margin, and overall the project brought in nearly $8,000 combined. The power of storytelling is real.

In one stunning example, they resold a ceramic horse head for $62.95 – A 6258.58% increase.

HorseBust1

BigCommerce wrote a an article on product page copy a while back where they discussed the power of storytelling:

“As the shopper browses, they instinctively imagine having each product in hand, using it and enjoying it. The more powerful the shopper’s fantasy of owning the product, the more likely they are to buy it. Therefore, I like to think of product descriptions as storytelling, incorporating the elements of both prose writing and journalism.”

Inject Some Fantasy Into Your Copy

Okay, but what the hell does storytelling look like when you’ve got such a short space to tell one? Here’s a good example from DrunkMall:

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Now, DrunkMall simply curates funny products from different websites, and then they write their own amusing product descriptions. This squirrel costume originally came from Amazon, where you can see that the copy is not nearly as engaging:

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When Frank Luntz wrote about the most persuasive word in the English language, he gave the crown to the word “imagine.” That’s the strategy DrunkMall used with the squirrel costume, telling a story with the reader as the protagonist. Not only that, but the copy also addressed the reader’s probable doubts of buying a ridiculous squirrel costume after Halloween.

Answer Questions and Doubts

Fears, uncertainties, and doubts. Answer them in your product page copy.

Whenever you ask for money, there is a level of friction. While you can never remove this friction entirely, you can minimize it. And the best way to overcome objections is to prevent them from happening.

Remember that qualitative research you did? Analyze that again and find all the possible reasons someone might not want to buy your product. Identify trends, and figure out which ones are fears, uncertainties and doubts are most common. Then, write an answer to those.

Your analysis might bring you results that look like this:

  • “What if it’s not what I’m looking for?” -> We offer a full 30-day no questions asked money back guarantee. If you don’t like it, you get all your money back.
  • “I don’t think it will work in my case.” -> Show or link to testimonials / case studies where people like X have used it successfully.

…and so on. Now just work on finding a place to include that information. Even though it’s not traditional ‘copy,’ ThinkGeek does this well with the combination of fan submitted photos and lively comments/review section:

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Provide Sufficient Information

According to NNGroup, most users that failed to make a purchase simply didn’t have enough information to do so.

Of course, it’s impossible to preempt every worry every single consumer could possibly have. But with the above research, and constant iteration, you can eliminate a good portion of objections on the spot. At the very least, you can be ahead of 90% of ecommerce sites with a little bit of preparation.

Often, but not always, the price (or complexity) of a product positively correlates with the amount of information necessary. Bar of soap? Maybe don’t need many details. Car? You’ll want to insure there’s sufficient information to make an important decision like that. Here’s an example from ThinkGeek giving all the info necessary for a bar of novelty soap:

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Oh, and they actually give you more via a “read more” button:

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There’s really not much else that I, personally, could ask about a bar of soap.

Help With Comparison

Another common complaint NNGroup found with product copy is that sites don’t often offer adequate information for comparison.

Comparison is one of the most important steps for the user. As NNGroup put it:

“You can’t assume that people will know which of multiple products is the best for them without having to compare the options. You can reduce the need for comparisons by simplifying your product line: as always it’s easier to make a simple user interface if the underlying concepts are simple. But few companies can make their product line so simple that there’s only one choice for any given customer. E-commerce sites that carry multiple vendors definitely can’t do this. Thus, we need to help users compare.”

Of course, there are comparison tools that do this, but NNGroup suggests that one of the most helpful ways to allow comparison is to give comparable information, presented in a similar way, about similar products. This helps users find the perfect product for their needs. They give the example of Pottery Barn, as you can compare all the essentials between the products:

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Use Specific and Active Language

Instead of using vague superlatives, in most cases it’s better to use specific and descriptive words. Research backs this up. A 2001 study found that descriptive menu labels at restaurants “increased sales by 27% and improved attitudes towards the food, attitudes toward the restaurant, and intentions toward repatronage.”

And in general, we trust specific language more than vague superlatives. Which of the following do you find more believable?

  • “Fastest delivery in town” vs “We deliver your pizza in under 10 minutes.”
  • “Best Indian food in Austin” vs “Our restaurant has won 6 Golden Spoon awards in the Indian Food category.
  • “Cheapest web hosting plans” vs “Our monthly plans start from $1.99.”
  • World’s best cup of coffee” vs “Major competitions have voted Ruta Maya the consistent winner five years in a row.”

In most cases, I’d wager the specific language will win the customer’s trust.

Write Benefits AND Features

This benefits instead of features trope has been repeated so much that it has lost its meaning. It’s also simplified.

Features aren’t all bad. Hell, I grew up ski racing and we were all technical specification nerds. You didn’t even need to speak to us in full sentences, really. For certain classes of products (expensive skis), features remain an invaluable part of a product description. Here’s an example of a simple bullet point list of features:

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But, what if we projected the features AND the benefits? We get super-powered copy like this:

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“Everyone’s gonna hear you.” That’s an example of a user benefit.

Of course, because this is on DrunkMall, I’m sure the benefits are a little different than they would be for a military supply buyer.

Readability Matters

In an older ConversionXL article, Peep wrote that “if you want people to read your text, make it readable. Even the most interesting copy in the world is not read if the readability is poor.”

The research backs this. As NNGroup found when testing different wording styles for a website, “concise, scannable and objective copywriting resulted in 124% better usability.”

In practice, think about restaurant menus. In 2009, the New York Times chronicled an Indian fusion restaurant, Tabla, that experimented with menu design to increase sales. As the article said, they were hoping that some magic combination of prices, adjectives, fonts, type sizes, ink colors and placement on the page could persuade diners to spend a little more.

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Among their tactics were removing the dollar signs from item prices (9 instead of $9), the use of price decoys, experimentation with several different fonts and colors, and good old visual hierarchy. And though the restaurants in the article employed different styles and lengths of copy, they all agreed that presentation and readability were important.

So what does that mean for product page copy?

Ann Handley offered the following bullet points in Everybody Writes:

  • Use bulleted or numbered lists
  • Highlight key points (like this one, either in bold or italic, or as a pull quote.
  • Use subheadings to break up text.
  • Add visual elements, such as graphics, photos, slide shows, and so on.
  • Use lots of white space to give your text room to breathe.

Part of readability is using simple language, as well. That includes what I mentioned above, with the short words and short sentences. But it also means avoiding unnecessary jargon and complex language. Famed copywriter Joseph Sugarman once wrote:

joe sugarmanJoe Sugarman:
“The use of big words to impress is one example of writing up to somebody. You’re trying to impress with your use of words while somebody else who might not be familiar with your fancy words will be lost. Use simple, easy-to-understand words…Using words that everybody can understand has a greater impact than words that most people have difficulty with.”

Here’s a self-test you can perform: Go over the texts on your website and read them out loud. Imagine it’s a conversation with a friend. If there’s a sentence you wouldn’t say to a friend, re-word it.

Conclusion

Bottom line: It’s all contextual.

It’s tough to write an article about writing product page copy, because it’s all based on the fundamental implication that you know your audience. No amount of copywriting tips can push you past that.

That said, there are certain principles that will inject a bit more power into your prose, like accentuating the product’s benefits, writing clearly and concisely, telling compelling stories, and addressing questions and uncertainties.

You have a limited amount of time and space to push your prospect to interested to purchasing. Don’t waste that space.

Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Great summary of useful tips. Thank you for sharing. I couldn’t agree more.

    1. Alex Birkett

      Thanks Veronika, I’m glad you liked the article!

  2. Excellent article. I do have to admit the header image just about killed my attempt to read this before I got started (the blurry text, the artifacting especially in the reds, the placement of the arrow touching the paper) … but I managed to persevere.

    My point? “Readability Matters” – especially in the top of the article.

    Oh – and you said “get to the point” in a three-thousand word post. Hashtag Irony. ;)

    1. Peep Laja

      Educational content and sales copy are very different contexts, incomparable.

    2. Agreed. I read this blog religiously precisely because the articles take the time and space required to provide solid, usable advice and tools rather than cute but useless tweetable tweets.

      I teach writing and plain language courses. Readability involves not just look and feel, but also level of engagement with the reader. If you’ve hooked me, I’ll read 30,000 words.

      Conversion XL gets it right every time. Don’t change a thing.

  3. Great article. I liked how you mention the SEO benefits of these tactics. I’ve often found that clients often don’t value the importance of CRO, and any CRO-based adjustment to their site is a tough sell. But the second you tell them it will give them a boost in their rankings – boom! They’re on board!

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How To Write Product Page Copy That Doesn’t Suck