4 Secrets for Developing
a Powerful Catalog “Voice”

In a standard direct-mail letter, you might have 24 pages to make your sale. In catalog copywriting – both traditional and online – you have closer to 24 words. But simply listing the product’s features and adding a snazzy picture may not be good enough to carry the sale.

Sure, you can make a sale … if your prospect knows exactly what she wants and is only cost comparing. But if she’s looking for something special, a unique gift, or a statement to others about “who she is,” a listing of features won’t convince her to buy something she didn’t know she wanted until she looked at the catalog.

Let’s take a look at what I mean. Here’s a fairly standard listing for a New Balance walking shoe from a well-known national retailer’s online catalog:

A flexible, lightweight shoe, suited for frequent, moderate-paced fitness walking.

Features and Benefits:

  • ABZORB® cushioning in the heel
  • Blown rubber outsole
  • Leather upper
  • Hook and loop closure provides a custom fit without laces
  • IMEVA (injection-molded EVA foam) midsole
  • Color: Black
  • Shoe Last: SL-2
  • Weight: 304 grams (10.7 oz.)

Compare this listing to the following description for the same shoe in the TravelSmith catalog:

Amply cushioned, these superlight shoes (a scant 22 ounces per pair) provide total comfort over long days spent exploring on foot. A roll bar and specially designed outsoles stabilize the foot and keep it from rolling.

Walking-On-Air Comfort Shoes

The second description is just 36 words (compared to 53 for the first listing). But if you’re a seasoned traveler – or would like to imagine yourself as one – which entry makes you feel like you’re about to set off on an adventure? The second one, far more than the first.

Knowing how to pack a story into a short description separates catalog masters from run-of-the-mill feature writers. And this skill puts these masters in high demand – earning the highest pay, upwards of $1,000 per page.

The secrets to writing high-impact catalog descriptions aren’t much different from those of writing long form direct-mail copy. The real secret is that most catalog writers forget this and abandon proven copywriting strategies when writing catalog copy. Here is how four core direct-mail secrets are adapted for powerful catalog copy:

1. Know Your Prospect

You simply will never write effective copy for any niche if you do not first get to know your prospect intimately. However, with catalog copy, there’s a twist.

Your catalog prospect has volunteered a tremendous amount of information by virtue of the catalog he’s browsing. If it’s a TravelSmith catalog, your prospect likes to travel. If it’s Cabella’s, he’s a sportsman. Omaha Steaks, he enjoys eating good food.

Even though your prospect is a complex individual with complex hopes, dreams, emotions, and so on, for catalog copy, you can focus on the specific interest covered by the catalog. It does not matter if he’s a Democratic or Republican sportsman. Or a liberal or conservative traveler. What matters is the core interest he shows by picking up the catalog.

In the TravelSmith entry, you get a sense – conveyed by a very few words – that the prospect is a traveler. If he chooses these shoes, he is a smart, knowledgeable traveler. In 36 words, you fire his imagination and stroke his ego while providing information about a product he might not have known he needed.

2. Connect Features to Benefits

The features of your product are the road to the benefits. To write effective catalog copy, you have to connect those two endpoints. For concise, interesting product descriptions in printed or online catalogs, you must combine features and benefits, weaving them together tightly yet unobtrusively.

Notice how the copywriter does this in the TravelSmith description.

“Amply cushioned, these superlight shoes (a scant 22 ounces per pair) provide total comfort over long days spent exploring on foot.”

Feature: 22 ounces per pair, cushioned.

Benefit: Total comfort for a long period of time exploring. So (implied) you’ll get to see more, do more, enjoy more, and get more bang for your travel buck.

3. Invoke a Personal Voice

Talk to your prospect like she’s a real person … because she is. The TravelSmith description does not have “you” in it, but you really get the feeling the writer is talking solely to you. Whereas the first catalog listing feels like it’s little more than a sign posted display.

How do you get that personal voice? By following our fourth catalog secret:

4. Write Big … Then Pare Down

If you start out trying to write tight, concise catalog copy, you will probably fail. This is just not the way people talk or think. Don’t force yourself into a tiny mold.

Start by writing your description as if you were talking about the product to a good friend. Tell him about the product’s features and benefits. Next, tie those features and benefits together as I described in Secret #2.

When you’re comfortable with that step, pare out any unnecessary words like “that,” “of,” or any others you do not absolutely need. Eliminate verbal side trips. If you have said “you,” can you eliminate it and still keep the personal feeling?

Use good, tight catalog copy as your model. After a short amount of time – if you write consistently – you will feel more natural writing shorter copy from the start.

One last “bonus secret”: Study the masters … copywriters like Herschell Gordon Lewis.

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Published: November 4, 2008

3 Responses to “4 Secrets for Developing a Powerful Catalog “Voice””

  1. As always, Will's writing guidelines are very helpful.

    Thank you

    Christine Muleme

  2. Great read! This article has provided more tools for my toolbox! Thanks for helping this fledgling catalog copywriter, Will.

    Gina Bradley

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