Catalog Copy: Using Print Copy Online? Fuggedaboudit

Apr 01, 2003 10:30 PM  By

Ever watch CNN? Ever watch CNN Headline News? Ever consider why the content isn’t parallel? ▪ Okay, a second question: Ever visit a catalog Website whose copy is ponderous, slow to mention price, and hair-tearingly frustrating at checkout? ▪ As hundreds, then thousands, of catalogs realize the inevitability of a Web presence, too many hire a technician, tell him/her, “We need to get our catalog online,” and ignore the creative differences.

Viewers of CNN put up with Larry King and hour-long features. Viewers of CNN Headline News wouldn’t. The parallel: Recipients of a printed catalog know the specifics they’re looking for are there somewhere. Web visitors want the information right now.

What size is it?

I’m looking at the home page of a Web catalog of art objects. The first copy block:

Welcome/NOVICA unites you with more than 1,800 extraordinary artists around the world. Read about their lives, explore their fascinating cultures, and select from more than 8,500 handcrafted works of art.

The next copy block is a weak discount offer: “Save up to 10% on selected items.” Clicking brought up some pieces, none with a description and, more to the negative point, none with prices. Getting to a specific required another click…a triumph of technology over salesmanship.

Lots of novelties on this site, most of them buried under a neatness complex. For example, paintings made by elephants (holding brushes in their trunks) were available “starting from $290.” (Wow, that’s more than Rockwell made for his early paintings, and his had recognizable images rather than smears.) I clicked on one and was transported to another page of elephant art that didn’t include the one I clicked on. On an impulse, I clicked on one of these. Up came a sort of checkout that demanded my password.

Password? For ordering from an open Website? Fuggedaboudit.

Rather than attack this one site mercilessly, let’s explore some rules of Web marketing. No, not Web production, which seems to be singing a siren song to too many catalogers; Web marketing.

First, the marketer and the prospective customer have to be in sync. The Web is price driven, and exceptions exist not on the site but in the means by which a prospect is driven to the site…which may mean avoiding the neutral home page.

Second, because so many orders are lost at checkout, a Web cataloger has to be super-aware of ease. Passwords? Only if the individual is made preaware of not just the need for a password but the benefit of a password. What arrogance, to ask for a password just as a prospect is morphing into a customer! Fuggedaboudit.

For those online catalogs that insist on loading up their databases with background information the customer might not want to spend time transmitting, a simple procedure exists: Ask for minimum information — enough to process the order. Then send an e-mail to new customers, offering a small thank-you gift to be included with the order, and asking for more information. The difference in irritation quotient is light-years.

How about product descriptions?

The Web offers far more flexibility than a printed catalog in product descriptions. Smart catalogers who recognize the nervous-finger-on-the-mouse attitude of the typical visitor limit basic copy to…well, to basics. An easy click provides additional background for those who want it. (Spartan copy is even more significant in business catalogs, whose customers often are just looking for a source of an item they’ve predetermined they’re going to buy somewhere.)

Be certain the basic description includes sizes, colors, and what the customer would find on a label or a product enclosure with “Important” printed on it.

Want an example? Retrodress.com, a remarkable Web catalog whose copy is better than that of pre-arrogance J. Peterman. Whoever controls this online catalog has read the specialty market perfectly, tailoring copy to match the typical visitor’s expectation and state of mind.

The visitor is left in control, a major factor too often overlooked in Web catalogs. Fast or slow, quick sale or long copy — it’s up to the individual, with no apparent penalty either way. The beginning of a description for a St. John women’s suit:

Slipping into St. John makes one feel perfectly, albeit conservatively, attired. Oh sure, we can appreciate the image St. John is trying to create with their print ads of Kelly Gray surrounded by all those hunky, pouty male models, but in our estimation St. John will always be more about looking like a rich-b***** than a sex-kitten.

A suggestion you may regard as off the wall: Don’t place copy to the left of the photograph or illustration. Let eye movement register the image first.

A recent issue of a 192-page Neiman Marcus catalog — “thebook,” one word — has page after glossy page of one-item-per-page fashions for both women and men (the standard vacant-eyed lip-injected female models plus the uncomfortable-looking actor Ben Kingsley, sporting a stunningly unattractive wispy white goatee).

Online, simultaneously, the Neiman Marcus home page followed a more conventional Web approach, even including “Hurry. Ends Monday.” A click on “Everything for him” revealed not a trace of Kingsley but, rather, aggressive merchandising for a slightly more proletarian product line. Somebody recognized the differential between the two media.

An easy test panel

I’ve long espoused the notion of catalogs benefiting from the dispassionate, cold-blooded, toadying-free analyses of a (part-time) ombudsman, who isn’t responsible to anyone other than top management.

In the absence of an ombudsman, why not ask three or four individuals who have no relationship with the online catalog to find and fake-order an item you specify. Their lack of familiarity with your site may be far more beneficial in planning and executing Web catalog pages than your regular staff’s overfamiliarity.

Take outsiders’ comments seriously. After all, it’s the outsiders who are your eventual customer base. They’re the ones who say, Fuggedaboudit.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 26 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, and Effective E-Mail Marketing, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.