How to Write Catalog Copy That Sells

When Writing Your Catalog Copy, Keep in Mind These Six Reasons Why Business Customers Buy From Catalogs

Catalogs are sales tools, designed to generate either leads or direct sales. But the copy in most business-to-business catalogs doesn’t actually sell. It merely gives straightforward technical descriptions of the products - no advantages, no benefits, no motivation for the reader to call a sales rep, mail a reply card, or place an order.

To write catalog copy that does sell, you have to understand the reasons why business customers buy from catalogs. Surprisingly, business customers buy for many of the same reasons that consumers do. Below are six of the most powerful reasons managers, engineers, purchasing agents and executives turn to a business catalog:

  1. To save money. Saving money is the number one motivation for a buyer to order your product instead of your competitor’s. Your catalog should stress cost savings on the cover, on the order form, and on every page.

    In Radio Shack’s catalogs for example, every item is on sale! Each item description lists three things: the price off in dollars or percentage, the regular price, and the sale price.

    A catalog from Boardroom Books shows a markdown on every book in the catalog; the original price is crossed out with an “x,” and the new price is printed next to it in red type.

    An office supply catalog from Business Envelope Manufacturers, Inc. includes the phrase “Lowest Prices in the Industry,” right on the front cover.

  2. To be right. The business buyer wants to be sure he is buying the right product from the right vendor. If he makes the right purchase decision, he is a hero. If he makes the wrong decision, he’s in the doghouse.

    How do you assure the buyer that he’s making the right decision? Here are a few specific techniques:

    • List well-known firms that have done business with you.
    • Use testimonials. Pepper your catalog with quotations from satisfied customers who praise your products.
    • Make a guarantee. Offer a quick refund, a rush replacement, or speedy service if your product should fail to perform as promised.
    • Give facts that demonstrate the stability of your company: years in the business, number of employees, number of locations, annual sales, etc.
  3. To make money. Business customers buy products for one of two end uses: to resell the products at a profit, or to use them to operate their business more efficiently and profitably.

    Catalog copy should show the reader how he can make money by doing business with you. For example, “Telephone selling skills that increase sales” is a better headline than “Fundamentals of Telephone Sales.” The first headline promises wealth; the second is merely descriptive.

  4. To get something for nothing. Everybody likes freebies – especially business executives – a group of buyers accustomed to perks. Your catalog could offer the buyer a free gift in exchange or his order. One that is a personal gift for the buyer, and not a discount or gift of merchandise to the company.

    Popular gift items for business executives include pen and pencil sets, clocks, calculators, mugs, ties, golf balls, t-shirts, and watches. (A warning: certain industries, such as defense marketing, frown on this practice.)

  5. To fulfill a need. To the purchasing agent, whose job it is to buy things for his company, a good catalog is a valuable sourcebook of much-needed merchandise. The more the catalog and its contents fulfill his needs, the more likely the purchasing agent is to order from it again and again.

    How do you create a catalog that fulfills the buyer’s needs? First, find out what those needs are and fill the catalog with products that satisfy them. Next, make sure your product list is broad enough. Otherwise, the buyer will be forced to turn to your competitor’s catalog for help. Be sure to include a wide variety of models, sizes, colors and styles. And feature your most popular or hard-to-get items near the front of the catalog.

  6. To solve problems. Often, the business buyer isn’t looking for a specific product. Rather, he’s looking for a solution to a problem. If your catalog shows how your product solves the problem, you’ll make the sale.

    For example, a shop steward might not be thinking of ultrafiltration. He might not even know what it is. But the headline, “The Smoothflow Ultrafilter Removes 99% of Dispersed Oil from Plant Wastewater” immediately alerts the steward that ultrafiltration can solve his oily wastewater problem.

Other reasons why businesspeople buy from catalogs: to save time, for convenience, to feel important, to gratify curiosity, to take advantage of opportunities, to avoid effort, to make work easier, to avoid embarrassment, to be the first to try a new product or service, to be exclusive, to avoid salespeople.

Keep these reasons in mind the next time you’re writing catalog copy. It’s a good way to make sure the purchasing agent picks up your book instead of your competitor’s.

A Good Catalog Tells and Sells With Copy Basics

Most business-to-business catalogs don’t do nearly enough selling. If you leaf through some industrial catalogs, you’ll see that most are chockfull of product specifications. They include table after table listing weights, dimensions, model numbers, ratings, and ranges. They’re devoid of any descriptive and/or persuasive reasons why you should buy. Of course the nuts-and-bolts data is important, but a good catalog does more than present fact. It shows the business buyer how the products can solve his problem, why he should buy your product instead of another, and how easy it is to order the product from your catalog.

These fundamentals of catalog copywriting can add to the pulling power of your next mailing:

  1. Use colorful, descriptive language. Product spec and tech talk don’t move buyers to action. Persuasive language does. It’s colorful and descriptive, painting a picture in the reader’s mind of what the product can do for him. For example:

    Tech-talk: “The XYZ mixer is devoid of pinch-points or dead spots where viscous material might accumulate.”

    Persuasive language: “Our mixer is free of sharp edges, nooks and crannies where gunk might get stuck and clog up your pipeline.”

  2. Use precise language. Beware of language that is overly colloquial or general. You want your writing to be conversational enough to win the reader over without becoming so vague that it doesn’t communicate your meaning.

    An ad I once saw for a microwave relay system began with the headline, “If you thought microwaves are too rich for your blood, look again.” At first glance, one might think the ad has something to do with the danger of microwave radiation and blood poisoning. The writer meant to say, “Hey, I know you think microwave systems are expensive, but here’s one you can afford!” More precise language is needed here, something like, “At affordable microwave system for cable TV operators.”

  3. Use specific language. Recently, a Hollywood screenwriter spoke about the secret to her success in writing major feature films. “Specifics sell. When you are abstract, no one pays attention.” And so it is with the catalog writer, specifics sell. Generalities don’t.

    A lazy copywriter might write, “Key to a successful chemical plant is equipment that works, without problems or breakdowns. And our gear drive works and works and works, a long, long time. Put it in place, turn it on, and forget about it. It’s that simple.

    Sounds nice, but empty. Exactly how reliable is the gear drive? How long can it go without maintenance? What proof do you offer for your claims of superior reliability? This is what the buyer wants to know. So the skilled copywriter fills his catalog copy with specifics that give the answers:

    “Continuous internal lubricating sprays keep our gear drives well oiled and virtually friction free. As a result, there’s no wear and tear, and service life is greatly increased. In laboratory tests, our system has operated 25,000 hours nonstop. In the field, we have more than 25,000 units installed and not a single failure.”

  4. Descriptive heads and breakers. Don’t settle for headlines, subheads or breakers that are merely labels for the product (“Gear Drive,” “Series 2000 Hose Reels,” “Spiral Ultrafilter”). Instead, put some sell in your headlines. State a benefit. Promise to solve a problem. Mention the industries that can use the product. Tell its applications. Describe the range of sizes, colors or models available. Give news about the product. Or stress the ease of product evaluation and selection in your catalog. Some examples:

    • A Quick and Easy Guide to Hose Selection.
    • Widest Selection of Laboratory Stoppers from 1/4" to 1 foot in diameter - rubber, plastic, glass and cork.
    • Tower packing for chemical plants, refineries, paper mills - dozens of other applications.
    • Color-Coded Floppy Diskettes Save Time and Make your Life Easy! Here’s the Full Story:
  5. Make it easy to order. If your catalog is one of those monsters jammed with tables of product specs, be sure to explain these tables to your readers up front. Tell them what’s in the tables and how to use them to select the product. Give simple procedures and formulas to aid in product selection. Illustrate with a few examples. Also, make sure your reader knows who to call for assistance or order placement.
  6. Make it easy to read. Use short, familiar words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs with space between each. Stick in underlines, bullets, boldface type and breakers for emphasis. A catalog crammed with technical date and tiny type is a bore and a strain on the eyes. You can make your business catalog effective and yet fun and easy to read.
  7. Stress benefits, benefits, benefits. What the product does for the reader is more important than how it works, how you made it, who invented it, how long you’ve been making it, or how well it has sold.
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Published: November 25, 2008

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