Most product descriptions are awful. Or worse, non-existent.
Product copy and product descriptions seem like such minor parts of a website in the grand scheme of conversion optimization, so many brands brush it off. But for companies doing it right, writing excellent product descriptions 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?
What we do have is empirical support from an ecommerce 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. Brian Peters gave an example of a great way to avoid this in his Sumo article:
Instead of simply listing features of this light for the sake of adding keywords, they’ve used related keywords to create a unique product description. Painting a vivid picture with it is an added bonus.
As Peters put it, “They could have gone with the standard generic description of the light and its features. Instead, they start with, ‘Greet guests with a warm and welcoming glow.’ I don’t know about you, but that immediately makes me imagine hosting a party and this beautiful light hanging above.”
There’s a lot more to consider for SEO implications, but we won’t waste too much 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. Long enough to cover the essentials but short enough to keep it interesting.
That advice is a bit vague, here, though. How do you know how much is necessary for a given product description?
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:
- Don’t waste space with superfluous or irrelevant words.
- 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 is a Trinidad? What does “more” mean?
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 and 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:
The art of the one sentence product pitch
While the following advice is more focused on innovative technology companies, the idea can be transferred to any sort of marketing writing, including product descriptions.
David Bailey wrote about a method to strip your product description down to one sentence. This is useful if, like most startups, you rely heavily on word-of-mouth distribution for customer acquisition. In a given conversation, it’s unlikely your customers will deliver a product pitch as granular as you would. Therefore it’s important to convey the value quickly and concisely.
So Bailey studied the most popular companies and how they pitched their product in the early days. He found that all of them had one thing in common: a lead feature.
Early on, Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook as, “Something where you can type someone’s name and find out a bunch of information about them.”
In 2011, Travis Kalanick pitched Uber like, “You push a button and in five minutes a Mercedes picks you up and takes you where you want to go.”
Here’s how Bailey put it:
Of course, it’s not easy to boil down your product into a sentence. That’s kind of the point. This can’t be a tactical communications hack—it’s really a strategic reframing of your positioning. It takes some hard thinking and research about the customer journey and your value proposition. But the exercise will benefit more than just your on-site conversion optimization or SEO.
Talk how your customer talks (or ‘everyone’ is not your customer)
Copy research is at the core of good copy, no matter where you’re writing it. Copytesting is the copy research tool we recommend.
Here’s how Jen Havice put it in a previous blog post:
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.
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. They’re models of your actual customers. 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:
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.”
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 Amazon review mining post, she explained how she pulled direct quotes from Amazon book reviews.
She then turned one review that stood out into a main homepage headline:
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 and tactical copywriting expertise that will result in good product descriptions. What follows are some general principles and strategies of companies that do product page copy well.
Tell stories with your product descriptions
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.
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.
Storytelling is powerful. Most people approach product descriptions as if they must be dry and feature-based, but this example shows that you can inject storytelling in quite boring products—the results can be stunning.
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:
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:
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 in your product descriptions
Fears, uncertainties, and doubts. Provides answers to them in your product page copy.
Whenever you ask for money, there is a level of friction. Depending on the complexity of your product and the price at which you’re selling it, the friction could be a lot or a little.
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 or 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 used to do this well (before they shut down) with the combination of fan submitted photos and lively comments/review section:
Product descriptions need to 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. ThinkGeek used to have great examples of product descriptions. Here’s an example that gives all the necessary info for a bar of novelty soap:
Oh, and they actually gave you more via a “read more” button:
There’s really not much else that I, personally, could ask about a bar of soap.
Product descriptions should help people 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. Ecommerce 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:
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. One 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 six 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.
The best product descriptions show 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. I grew up ski racing and we were all technical specification nerds. Knew the benefits already. 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:
But, what if we projected the features AND the benefits? We get super-powered copy like this:
“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 product descriptions
In an older CXL 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.
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 (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:
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.
Product description format can affect user engagement
We compared three types of products across the experience ‘experience–search’ product classification economic theory developed by Philip Nelson (essentially, is it design or tech-spec-based?). This means three products: a t-shirt, headphones, and a hard drive.
And we compared three types of product description format:
- Paragraph format;
- Bulleted format;
- No specifications at all.
- Text format changes how people read text descriptions.
- ‘Techy’ product classes (i.e. spec-driven things like hard drives) are influenced the most by text format.
- Generally, people read bulleted text for a longer amount of time than paragraph text, though this pattern depends on the product class.
How can you apply these findings?
- If you sell ‘tech’ type products (e.g. electronics like printers, hard drives, routers, etc.), then text formatting matters a lot. Test it.
- If you sell ‘design’ type products, test a smaller image size. Longer copy does get more attention, but format matters less.
- More generally, test your assumptions with format. It’s not just the words that matter, but how you present them.
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.