Online Selling: Some words about content

There are more opinions on what the role of Web content is in selling online than there are on the upcoming election. Some people think it’s the most important thing since the discovery of the atom. Others think it’s as critical as your appendix.

Here’s the thing: People see products on the Web in pictures (graphics and visuals). Search engines see stuff in words — for the most part, they can only read text.

Does that mean if you don’t want or need search engine traffic, you shouldn’t care about the verbiage on your site?

Absolutely not.

You should care, and you should care a lot. But you do need to prioritize what’s important and what’s not. A lot of companies struggle when it comes to copy because they try to do everything at once. Getting online copy right isn’t easy — and it’s a big job, so you need to break it down into several right-sized chunks.

Here are the eight things you should focus on first: 1) H1 and H2, the headline and the subhead; 2) The product name and descriptor; 3) The first two lines of the body copy; 4) The call to action; 5) Captions on the pictures; 6) Quick facts; 7) Page titles and footer tags; 8) User reviews and anecdotal information.

The headline and the subhead Most companies get the most important part of the copy — the headline and the subhead — wrong. They dump the product name into the H1 field and use the item number as the subhead. Or vice-versa. Sometimes they’ll utilize the catalog copy headline.

The headline and the subhead deserve the most attention. The best Web headlines are usually a keywords-rich way to sell the product. That’s right: When writing your online copy, first make a list of all the ways that someone would find that product. What words would they use internally (on your text search) or externally (i.e. Yahoo).

Put the different keywords you come up with in rank order from most to least popular and try to use as many as you can in the product copy. The headline should be benefits-rich and product-related. It shouldn’t just be the name of the product, nor should it just be a provocative teaser. The best Web headlines are a combination of both.

Online, subheads support the headlines just like they do offline, but chances are they’ll use different keywords. For example, if your product is a trash basket, you may refer to that in the headline, but in the subhead you’ll use garbage can or waste receptacle, along with the proper identifying adjectives and sales spiel.

About 80% of folks scan text online, as opposed to reading it, so your headline and subheads should contain the key takeaways of the product. In other words, if users read and learn only one thing about the product, they’ll most likely get it from the heads. Say what you think is the most important tickler to get them to buy.

The size of the headlines and subheads is important for eyepath dominance. The headline should always be a couple of sizes larger than the subhead. The headline should certainly be bold. Item numbers and other identifiers should be listed as separate fields — not part of the head/sub fields.

Descriptives like new, exclusive and bestseller are all great benefits that you can use to jazz up the headlines. In most cases, however they should be positioned as icons. This allows users to navigate accordingly. So, if they see something with a new burst, they can click on that graphic to get all the other things that are new.

The product name and descriptor It’s astounding how many companies use a “product name” that says nothing about the product. If you are selling a desk, don’t just say High-Quality Oak Sonoma Is a [Company Name] Bestseller! Even if those in the furniture business know that Sonoma is a popular desk style, chances are pretty good that an average user doesn’t.

So why, if you see a picture of a desk, do you need to say the word desk? Studies show that, online, the connection between what the users see and what they read isn’t as direct as it is in, say, a newspaper or a catalog.

The more you can assuage the user’s limbic system (the emotional brain), the less defensive it needs to be. (Your emotional brain’s primary purpose is to protect you from danger.) The more it feels safe, the less it needs to be on high-alert and the longer the user session you’ll have — which typically means higher sales and conversion.

The first two lines of the body copy The truth is that the number of users who actually read your body copy is pretty low. Even worse: More than 50% of browsers who start reading it stop reading it after the first two lines. (Same with e-mail.) What does this mean? Pack your knock-out punch in the first two lines for sure. Don’t beat around the bush — you have no time to waste online.

If the primary reason the user would order a particular product from you right here and now is speed of delivery, address it. If it’s your unbeatable money-back guarantee, pound it. Granted, that is a strategy different from writing offline copy. But in a catalog, you may have four to 10, maybe more, products on a page. On a Website, you ordinarily will have one, which means it doesn’t need to be neat and orderly and follow a specific format. You can do whatever you want to sell it aggressively.

The call to action Speaking of aggressive, you should ask for the order on every single page. For maximum conversions, you should use big, bold, red “buy now” or “add to cart” buttons on every view (screen, not page) and you should develop a go-for-the-jugular buy-now, call-to-action for every product. It’s fine to use the informercial “bring your trucks, bring your vans” type copy online. Especially when the calls to action have active buying links.

This especially applies if you have offers or deadlines. Too many companies put their offer and deadline on the entry/home page of their site and then drive most of their traffic into specific category or product pages — meaning that the user may not see it.

Unlike catalogs, Websites don’t have a beginning or an end. A lot of your traffic may not know you from Adam, especially if they are clicking in from Google PPC, a shopping site or an affiliate. The words you have on your pages are your sales pitch, and as long as you organize the copy well, there’s really no limit to how much you can say.

Captions on the pictures Studies have shown that captions are one of the few things that users actually read in full. They’re another great place to pack in keywords, benefits, and even your offer. Don’t try to jam too much in there, one to two sentences tend to work best. And unlike offline captions, they really shouldn’t be italicized. Do not repeat the heads and subheads in the captions — they should be written more like a second subhead.

Quick facts A lot of companies mistakenly use their Quick facts section for lackluster details such as product height and weight. The area is much better suited for bulleted benefits, such as eight to 10 reasons to buy the product. You can put the boring stuff there as well, just add it in the end.

Page titles and footer spots The truth is that these make little difference in the user experience (with the exception being those who are trained to navigate using history, which for some companies is almost all their users). But page titles are great for search engines. Same with footer spots.

User reviews and anecdotal information User reviews are unequivocally some of the best-selling copy on the Web, and there isn’t a company that shouldn’t consider using them. If your product isn’t suited for Amazon-style reviews, that’s okay. Review programs come in all shapes and sizes, and you can use them to integrate simple testimonials to boomerangs (user reviews that allow specific reviewers to answer questions on the company’s behalf).

Reviews work because they give the customers evidence that someone else just like them already exists and was on your site. Even if you can’t roll out on offering reviews on all your products, do it on the top 5% to 10%. It really is better than nothing!

Amy Africa is president of Williston, VT-based Web consulting firm Eight by Eight.

Getting online content right,
step by step:

  1. H1 and H2, the headline and the subhead
  2. The product name and descriptor
  3. The first two lines of the body copy
  4. The call to action
  5. Captions on the pictures
  6. Quick facts
  7. Page titles and footer tags
  8. User reviews and anecdotal information

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