The Web Effect on Print Copy

May 01, 2007 9:30 PM  By

Maybe in the deep future catalog copy can revert to the ancient (pre-Web) days. During those calmer, gentler times the typical catalog recipient settled for a clinical description. A picture and a statement of what an item was and how it was put together usually was enough, because that was ample to be competitive with other catalogs. Not today. Printed catalogs compete with — or are feeder mechanisms for — Web parallels.

Except the two media aren’t parallel. The very nature of the Web, with visitors wielding their mighty mouse, demands more than naked description. To compete, the description has to be clothed in promise.

Catalogers quite naturally care about what an item is. Accuracy in description diminishes the number of returns. And yes, returns have become a major factor in the Internet era. Chalk up a high percentage of returns to the seller/sellee differential: The seller’s concern is what an item is; the sellee’s concern is what it will do for him.

Has the Web infected printed catalogs? Not because it’s the Web but because of the contagious mindset accompanying Finger-on-Mouse Syndrome, a condition that infects every facet of general marketing. Buyers make an instant decision; the faster the decision, the greater the likelihood of either a case of buyer’s remorse or “I didn’t expect it to [look][taste]function] like that.”

Replacing “What it is” with “What it will do for you” usually is as simple as opening a description with benefit. An example, from a well-written home goods catalog:

Enjoy all the luxury of one of the fabulous Parisian hotels in the comfort of your own boudoir. The breathtaking Paris bedding ensemble displays all the regal elegance that the French city is famous for, combined with a romance that will make you fall in love all over again. Imported. Machine washable, follow manufacturer’s instructions….

From there, the copy reverts — as it should — to physical description. The mood has been set, and the catalog recipient absorbs the description with a prescribed mood. The second paragraph begins, “A central sunburst medallion sets the stage for this magnificently open-quilted Bedspread.”

Another catalog, this one of women’s apparel, quickly gives the reader a reason to buy. The heading: “Blissfully Silky Shirt: may good fortune shine on its wearer.”

Carefully, the text opens with a fulfillment of that promise, covering a negative factor positively to reduce returns:

The Chinese character for “double happiness” is woven into the iridescent fabric of this Asian-inspired shirt. Each is created in Vietnam from rayon/silk using centuries-old techniques….

That wording diminishes any rejection factor that might arise when the garment arrives. A recipient is unlikely to object, “I don’t want rayon,” because the inclusion already has been provided as a plus.

In the same catalog, this heading: “Jet-Set Dress moves from casual to dressy in an instant.”

Reason to buy is built into the description.

Acatalog I usually admire uses assumptive copy for many of its product descriptions. Nothing wrong with that — except in a competitive catalog, ambience copy needn’t march in place. This is the description of a set of steak knives:

Laguiole Steak Knife Set — Presented in a custom wooden box, six finely crafted Laguiole steak knives directly from France are at your service. These 18/10 stainless steel blades make cutting any steaks effortless. Full tang construction and the most recognizable mark of cutlery in the world: the Laguiole Bee. Set of six $300.

We can’t call any of this copy “wrong.” We can question “at your service” as the payoff for the first sentence. And the individual who has no prior recognition of the brand as “the most recognizable mark of cutlery in the world” or who may not be knowledgeable about “tang construction” would be nudged into a more likely buying posture if the text opened with wording such as, “The most recognizable mark of cutlery in the world…in your kitchen.”

The catalog featuring the Paris bedding ensemble demands click-throughs to find that item online. An attractive home page, on the same day the printed catalog arrived, differed totally in product. No problem, with a search/click to “Bed & Bath.” On that page, “Shop our brand name bedding.” Ah, there it is — Paris bedding.

Strangely, just about all the copy from the printed catalog appears on the Web page. But the sequence is scrambled. The first lines of text: Paris bed ensemble displays all the regal elegance that the French city is famous for. A central sunburst medallion sets the stage for this magnificently open-quilted Bedspread.

Lots of click options for immediate ordering, plus links to allied items. That’s proper Web procedure.

The home page of the company selling the knives has a “Search” box. Typing in “Laguiole” brings up a number of items. Clicking on “Laguiole Steak Knives” brings up copy identical to the printed catalog’s, with the knives shown, as they are in the printed catalog, against a limbo background.

So should Web presentation differ or not? As is so often true of comparative media, the answer is “maybe.” The applicable rule is one of logic: Remember where you are, and display accordingly.

Not easy to predict and determine, you say? Right on. That’s why we can claim the adjective “professional” before the noun “copywriter.”


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and author of 30 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Effective E-Mail Marketing.