Electronic Catalog: Getting a Good Read on Copy

Most catalogers know by now that it’s not enough just to replicate the pages of their print catalogs when posting their online content. The Internet, after all, has advantages and disadvantages that are different from those of the print medium. So while the voice of online copy shouldn’t stray far from that of the print catalog, the copy itself should offer something distinctive to online shoppers.

Many of the catalogers contacted by Catalog Age say that they avoid the issue of online vs. offline voice altogether by lifting copy directly from their print catalogs: “Much of our online copy is written inhouse [in a style compatible with the print catalog], but what isn’t newly written is taken from our print catalog,” says Julie Sautter, president of Belmont, CA-based swimwear cataloger BodyLines. “We saw no need to reinvent a voice for the Web. It would be a waste of money and time.”

Besides, says Rory O’Connor, chief operating officer of Creative Irish Gifts, a Macedonia OH-based gifts cataloger, “It’s important for our customers to know when they visit the site that it is the same as our catalog,” noting that having the same copy is one way to achieve that identification.

More than more of the same

But using the same print copy blocks from your print catalog on your Website without enhancing them is a mistake, says Andy Russell, vice president/chief operating officer of AGA, a New York-based catalog consultancy and design firm. “Customers have grown to have an expectation that the Web offers enhanced content from what is available in the print catalog,” he notes.

Limiting your Web copy to the text that appears in print fails to maximize key advantages of the Web as a marketing medium: unlimited space and an interactive format. “Catalogs can have fun online and make their Websites come alive,” say Lois Geller, president of Mason and Geller Direct Marketing, a New York-based consultancy. “Online real estate gives catalogs a chance to provide their customers with more service copy,” as well as features such as quizzes and newsletters.

At the same time, one of the disadvantages of the Internet — the ease with which shoppers can flit from one site to the next — should also motivate you to enhance your Web copy. “When you send a customer a catalog, you’re able to grab a moment of his time and sell yourself without having to worry about his comparing you to your competitors, since it’s unlikely that he has all your competitors’ books open at the same time,” says Tom Hines, catalog/creative manager of Madison, WI-based Conney Safety, a business safety products cataloger. “Online, if customers don’t like what they see, they can easily click to a competitor.”

The right mix

When trying to make the most of your online copy, “think about the catalog as the inspiration,” AGA’s Russell suggests. “Ultimately you’re trying to expand the customer experience for both your loyal customer base and noncatalog shoppers.”

Russell cites kitchen products cataloger/retailer Williams-Sonoma and home accessories marketer Martha by Mail as two companies that have maintained their brand identity and voice while expanding their online copy. Within their print catalogs, for instance, both marketers use icons and blurbs to direct readers to their Websites for more detailed product information and value-added features such as recipes.

Even catalogers that rely almost exclusively on their print catalog copy for their Web text will enhance the product descriptions on occasion. “Our online copy will sometimes vary slightly from our print book because the Website is infinitely editable, and there are no real [space or printing time] limits,” says Creative Irish Gifts’ O’Connor. While core product copy is picked up from the print book, “frequently customers will find more information on the site that isn’t in the catalog.”

The virtually limitless space of the Web is a boon to catalogers that sell highly technical products. “When dealing with space issues, as with the print catalog, it’s always a challenge to decide how much sell copy is needed vs. the features/technical information,” says Shannon Oberndorf, spokesperson for Reno, NV-based mobile device accessories cataloger iGo. “Online you don’t have that problem.”

Oberndorf says that iGo’s Website copy is, for now, “basically the same — it’s all pulled from one central database. The only difference between the Web and the catalog is the length of the copy. The Internet allows us to post more copy about product features and benefits, along with technical specifications.”

Don’t overdo it

But there is such a thing as too much copy, even online. “Online shoppers tend to have less patience for long prose,” BodyLines’ Sautter says. “It gets tiring staring at a computer screen, so you have to get to the point.”

Consultant Geller recommends posting basic product details or information on one page and offering customers an icon to click for additional information. “Let the customers choose whether they want a short amount of information or a longer amount,” she says. “Give them an opportunity to go deeper — don’t inundate them with text right off the bat.”

You should also consider how your copy looks as well as how it reads, Geller says. “A lot of Websites use wide margins, and the copy is five, six, or seven inches across — that’s too long for customers to read.” Some marketers may have data processing or IS departments posting catalog copy online. If that’s the case, she says, “make sure they shorten margins.”

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