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Once Upon A Time There Was A Product

Think of yourself as an e-commerce vendor? Google’s Matt Cutts says think again and if you haven’t yet seen this short video clip, please do watch it. The message is clear: don’t be a vendor, be a….


That’s right! A minstrel, a troubadour, a town crier, a bard. You need to learn to sing the praises of your products loud and long if you’re aiming for good Google rankings. You may have viewed your job in your e-commerce venture as little more than assembling a catalog of SKUs, but if you want to experience the benefits of garnering search engine traffic, Google is making it clear that you will have to become a storyteller.
A Storyteller. That may seem like a rather archaic job description in our brave new world of iPhones and KML files, tweets and RSS feeds, but it’s the stories you tell that are the true stuff of your connection with the rest of the world, no matter what the medium. Google’s index is already groaning with thin content price comparison sites and similar wordless lists of things to buy. In this virtually mute setting, your business will distinguish itself by altering the way you view those items commonly known as product pages and coming to see them as the chapters in the story that explains why your business exists, page by page.
Turning Product Pages Into Story Pages
Just a few days ago, I came across some old television commercials at the end of an ancient video tape. Judging by the enormous frizzed hairstyles abounding, these ads definitely dated to the early 1980s. Pretty much everything advertised, from pasta sauce to syrup, was being billed as having half-the-fat. Half-the-fat must have been really huge in the 80s! I couldn’t help thinking about how food advertising has changed since then, largely thanks to corporations like Whole Foods who came to the powerful realization that they could sell products by telling stories.
In my pantry right now, I have a tin of cocoa powder. While it doesn’t say anything about having half-the-fat, it tells me all this:
-It’s Organic
-It’s Fair Trade
-It’s produced by a method described as ‘Full Circle Sustainability’
-The scientific name of cocoa is ‘theobroma cacao’
-This means ‘food of the gods’
-Cocoa originated in South America
-By purchasing this product I am ‘directly supporting a better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development and environmental stewardship.’
-Ingredients and nutritional data are given
– And, I can learn more by visiting the company’s website
If this little tin of chocolate can tell me this much about itself, think of the room you have on any given web page to inform, educate, entertain and inspire. Whole Foods’ typical products aren’t just bread or strawberries or tea. They are organically produced in the verdant foothills of the Andes, by honored sustainable farmers whose lives are improved by the benefits of health care and educational programs. Being half-the-fat just isn’t enough any more for shoppers who have now come to expect a literary justification of a product before they will make a purchase. Recognize this trend and it will breathe new life into your entire website and especially into your product stories.
We specialize in working with niche-oriented companies and these types of businesses tend to offer the richest fodder for the creation of winning copy, but almost any business owner will be able to ask himself some of the following questions in order to get into the proper frame of mind for writing about products in a new and meaningful way:
What Problem Does This Product Solve?
Does it make the house safer, assuage hunger, organize messes, calm the mind, clean something, strengthen something, beautify something, get people somewhere they need to go? When someone purchases this product, what will it accomplish for them that they need to have accomplished? This is always the first question to ask, as solving a problem is the purpose of almost any product you could possibly hope to sell.
Who Made The Product?
Yes, who actually created this thing you are selling? Do you know? Was it fine old gentleman sitting on porches in the mountain fastnesses of the Ozarks? The active ladies of the wool-producing capitol of Minnesota who alternate shifts in the local woolen mill with giving community service talks at the chamber of commerce? Mom and Pop? The family business? Sweatshop labor in Asia…uh-oh…maybe it’s time to go into a new business where you can tell a better story.
Why Do You Sell This Product Instead Of Another One?
Is it greener, softer, more durable, brighter, more powerful, tastier, healthier, prettier, better smelling, domestic, imported, cheaper, higher quality, safer than X? What made you choose to sell candles made with beeswax instead of paraffin? Why is your trail mix created with sunflower seed oil instead of lard? Why do your garden lamps operate on solar power instead of electricity? What made you pick this product in your inventory over something similar you could have sold? What was your reasoning?
Who Uses This Product?
Kids, adults, elders? Lawyers, technicians, contractors, interior decorators? Sick people, healthy people, hungry people, eco-conscious people, busy people, religious people, confident people, scared people? Maybe young men hunting for jobs use it. Maybe women over 40 do. Maybe famous people use it. Define who the product is for and you’ll know you’re addressing the right audience, while helping that audience to identify that this is the product for them.
What’s It Made Of?
Just what is acai berry, anyway? Where does it come from? What is its place in history, its origin, its chemical and nutritional properties? What is copper? Where does it come from? How is it mined? How does LED lighting work? Who invented it? What can you tell me about the components that make up your product whether these are parts, features or ingredients?
Who Can I Give It To?
Is this suitable for gift-giving? For Mother’s Day, Easter, Hanukkah? Will it ease Uncle Joe’s arthritis or help Aunt Pat to get her first good night’s sleep in a century? This ties into the question of who uses the product but it’s a chance to shine a special light on the product as a gift-giving solution.
Where Does It Fit Into The Human Story?
Is it something used only at bath time, something once used by astronauts, something Shakespeare wrote about, a signature of the 60’s, a staple of the Roman Empire, an essential for an authentic Chinese dinner? What is the historical and modern scenario in which this product falls neatly into place? What does my purchase of it connect me to? Does a long history of use dictate the sense of buying this item or is it so new that no one before has ever enjoyed its benefits until now?
What Do People Say About It?
We can think of this briefly as customer testimonials, and the power of being able to give evidence of satisfied customers is certainly potent. Use full names if you can – even avatars. Go beyond this, too. Has the product received any press from organizations, traditional media, bloggers, review boards? Does it qualify for certification by any quality boards? Does it meet certain standards? Could trusted, well-known or influential people be persuaded to try and recommend this product? Is a form or function in place for customers to send you feedback about the product? Tell them you want to hear from them.
Does It Work Well With Something Else?
You’ve bought the barbecue. Don’t forget the coals! Are there other items in your inventory that can be tied into the product you are selling, expanding the text content on the page and strengthening your internal linking structure? Are there any additional uses for the product I might not have thought of, whether on its own or in combination with something else? Will I benefit more from a total package rather than a single purchase?
Special Instructions
Technical specifications, directions, assembly instructions, care instructions, expiration instructions, replacement instructions…the list goes on. If I need to know something about the use, maintenance or eventual replacement of the product, your page can give me those guidelines. Even if you plan to include those things when you ship off the package, why not lay it all out on the page so that I can feel confident that I’m making a fully-informed purchase?
Feeling Inspired?
I hope these few suggestions I’ve given have gotten the wheels turning in your mind and helped you to start envisioning this more in-depth approach to featuring and defining the products you sell. Don’t think you can pass muster as a story teller? For some business owners, this will honestly be the case. Writing well, even with guidelines, is not everyone’s forte. Do you have employees? Perhaps one of them is a budding writer, just waiting for you to discover their hidden talents at bringing your company’s inventory to life with the written word. No dice? Well, then….
You could always hire a professional copywriter. Matt Cutts’ video makes it pretty apparent that you are going to need someone prosy on your team if you want to compete in Google’s game.
“O! Fie!” you say. “You mean I’m going to have to hire a storyteller to write copy for me if I can’t do it myself?”
You’ll be smart if you do, yes. Companies hire pros to write their ad copy, their jingles, their press releases and speeches. When you understand that acquiring the skills of a professional copywriter may mean the difference between being somewhere or nowhere in Google’s SERPs, the essential wisdom of budgeting for this becomes suddenly clear.
Can You Do This Cheaply?
There are services out there offering copywriting for pennies, yes. The creation of your content can be outsourced to such companies which employ a stable of cheap writers who will put words between paragraph tags for you. It’s unlikely that you will speak directly to the writers and there is no guarantee that you will even share the same native idiom with the writers employed. Taking this path will result in your acquisition of some text for your website’s pages…but it certainly can’t be described as authentic story telling.
If you’ve read all the way to this point in this article, take my advice and decide that you are going to develop a relationship with an individual writer who is going to devote the time required to learning all about you and your business. How can someone write truthfully, genuinely or compellingly about your company and the products you sell without knowing you and knowing what you’re hoping to achieve?
When a potential copywriting client comes to me, I see that as the start of a meaningful relationship. I need to hear his voice, be attentive to his manner of expressing himself, listen to his stories about his typical customers. I need to see all his print marketing materials, and sometimes, I need him to send me samples of his products so that I can put into words what it’s like to hold that product in my own two hands. E-commerce sites depend on people being willing to buy things without physical interaction. Good copy approximates that interaction as closely as possible while instilling a sense of experience and correct expectations in the potential customer. Good copy informs, entertains, inspires and engages.

“Miriam, your copywriting for our soap descriptions is nothing short of fine literature.”
Jackie Barth
(A recent copywriting client).

That’s what you want to be saying when your professional copywriter hands over the stories she has written about your company’s products. You want the satisfaction of knowing that your inventory’s tale has finally been well told and that all future customers will see you have gone the extra mile to make their shopping experience exceptionally satisfying.
And don’t forget, the mighty benefit of this effort, this investment of time and creativity, will be a feast for Google’s bots. In one fell swoop, you will have seen to the needs of human users and search engines and your website will be the better for it.
Today’s a good day to take a look at those pieces of data you call product pages and begin to imagine how you can infuse them with new warmth and life. What story will you tell? Your audience awaits.