Catalog Copy: The Internet Effect and Print Catalogs

Jun 01, 2003 9:30 PM  By

If you’re an archivist, take a look at some 10-year-old catalogs. Then inspect a current issue of the company’s catalog, assuming it’s still in business. Notice anything different? • Chances are considerably better than 50/50 that you’ll see The Internet Effect cast upon the pages of the print catalog. Now, understand, please: The Internet Effect isn’t necessarily bad. It’s evolutionary, and typical of evolutions, it includes favorable and unfavorable elements…depending on who you are and how hung in tradition you may be.

The Internet Effect is the amalgam of four 21st-century adjustments in force communication, all superimposed by the new Web influences that drive our target individuals’ reactions at warp speed:

  1. increasing informality.
  2. increasingly emphatic persuasion.
  3. inclusion of validation.
  4. indication of quick payoff.

The nervous finger is on the mouse — “Tell me and sell me and do both fast, or I’m gone.” The individual moves, apparently seamlessly, from the computer screen to the day’s mail, but the attitude lingers on: “Tell me and sell me and do both fast, or I’m gone.”

Some catalogs acknowledge the evolution quietly, by using their print version as a referral mechanism to the Website. That’s at best a mixed blessing for two reasons. First, the process becomes a two-step conversion. A two-step conversion is out of sync with two of the four adjustments, but that isn’t why I opine it isn’t a professional marketing technique; rather, it’s because the process is defeatist. The salesclerk says, “I don’t think I can sell, so if you’ll head over there my brother will do a better job.”

Another reason is pure arithmetic. While the number of online shoppers is growing quickly, we still are a long way from 100% use of the Internet. The old-line, unconverted print-catalog shopper will simply pick up a competing catalog…which the database era undoubtedly will have brought to the same household or office.

A second group of catalogs adopts Web techniques so that the print catalog becomes more parallel to what the recipient expects to see online. A page or a spread will have a “blanket” headline. I’m looking at just such a catalog. The blanket headlines are far from inspired —

“quick, easy, affordable”

“modern classic”

“get organized, inside and out”

— but the Web influence is pronounced.

A third group of print catalogs leans toward longer copy and bigger graphics with more inserted explanatory photos or drawings. References to their Websites may or may not appear, but when they do such references are peripheral, not suggestive.

Cover vs. home page

The standard Web home page is a conglomerate of index-type listings, current hot offers, and chest-thumping.

The standard catalog front cover, excepting product-crammed computer and health products catalogs, is inspirational, arty, or a single-product visual.

Each message mirrors its medium. Online, the visitor had better not be challenged. Quick “click here” options not only had better abound; they had better lead to whatever reason led that visitor to the site.

Those of us who toil in the sweaty cauldrons of catalog creative are often asked whether a catalog of 48 or 56 or 64 pages should have an index. Depending on how many product segments exist and whether the catalog lumps hot sellers regardless of type, my recommendation usually is yes. That’s because of recognition: Today’s catalog recipient may love your catalog as much as his/her grandparents loved the old Sears and Ward’s big books…but the very rationale behind hyperspecialization of product display justifies every tool and weapon we can bring to bear, to get that individual to the sought page-destination fast.

But ah, you ask, doesn’t that get in the way of casual catalog browsing, the serendipitous finding of what they aren’t looking for? Dream on. That’s why covers exist. Unfaded memory of the 20th-century browsing pattern is why so many catalogs mindlessly ignore catalog evolution and wonder why their once-proud catalogs no longer produce results.

If you’re content to produce catalogs with veteran customers as the only targets you envision, you’re safe with that attitude — provided you also realize the gradual shrinking of your universe.

Awareness of who’s out there, what their reading and buying patterns are, and what percentage are wandering in and out of the Web not only will keep your printed catalog healthy; it will also keep you happy.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and the author of 26 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Effective E-Mail Marketing.