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Jul 7, 2010 | 8 minute read

The 4 Pillars of Ecommerce Copywriting

written by Linda Bustos

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 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!