Back in the early 20th century, a guy named Richard Warren Sears was a master at writing copy that worked. He was in the mail order business, and he sold to the market he knew best—rural America—because he grew up on a farm himself.
He started out selling watches along the railroad lines, and soon discovered the power of writing profit-pulling copy for a multitude of products. Ol’ Rich had a way with words that made his wholesale wares irresistible at even marked-up retail prices.
After his partner Roebuck quit, Richard’s company became known simply as Sears, and expanded (just a bit) beyond mail order. Sears was one of the first major corporations, and it was built by a writer from the sticks.
If Richard Sears were a young man starting out today, he’d be working the Internet like a Black & Decker 180 pc. Accessory Tool Box with Extra Storage. And since he wouldn’t stand to be underpaid by companies unappreciative of writers (or even clients, for that matter), he’d start up his own gig, selling direct as always.
But this time, he’d sell unique gadgets, use a blog to do it, and Digg-bait till he hit auto-bury. And he’d do it like a champ.
What’s stopping you from doing the same?
What the Heck is a Catablog?
A catablog is basically a blog that is designed to mix content and commerce in a very deliberate fashion. It’s looking to attract people who are interested in buying things, but who are also interested in immersing themselves in the lifestyle surrounding the products.
Back in 2006, I did a guest post over at Problogger that featured the story of John Unger, who, at the time, was a struggling artist working in rural Michigan. Thanks to an early version of the catablog concept, his life has totally changed, financially and otherwise.
I’ll be doing a podcast interview with John as a follow-up to this article so you can hear his success story in his own words. It’s truly inspiring.
In the meantime, this post will focus on the writing side of catablogging, since, after all, that’s what this blog is about. But from a technical and design side, I’ve seen Chris Pearson build sites with WordPress into a slicker looking ecommerce site than most ecommerce sites. And John Unger has covered some of those issues from a TypePad angle in his article Blogs as Stores.
Here, let’s look at the essential content and copy components of a catablog in 2008 and beyond.
Step One: Fill the Narrative Gaps in People’s Lives
Back when I first wrote about this topic for Problogger, I reminded people that the vast majority of things we buy are things we don’t truly need. I quoted Hugh MacLeod to drive home the point:
If people like buying your product, it’s because its story helps fill in the narrative gaps in their own lives.
When it comes to selling online and attracting prospects in the first place, we use content marketing to get the job done. I guess it would be fair to say that we fill in the narrative gaps in people’s lives with content before we sell them the product that closes the crevice.
So why bother with the content? Besides being an excellent pre-selling tool, it’s mainly because of this simple truth:
No one is going to link to a product page.
Now, there are exceptions. John Unger’s eclectic Great Bowl O’ Fire scored links from BoingBoing and many other blogs, because it’s a unique and remarkable item. But for the most part (outside of my Black & Decker shout-out above), scores of otherwise in-demand products will not gain that sort of attention on their own.
Without links, you’ve got no direct traffic and no search engine juice. And if we’re trying to sell online, we’d like to go ahead and have those things.
But great content can attract links on its own. And that’s why the catablogging concept works compared to your typical “business as usual” e-commerce site. The same goes for affiliate marketing, because thin affiliate sites are a waste of time these days. You need the compelling content angle to make traffic (and sales) happen.
Quality content and unique positioning are the only differentiating factors you’ll have when it comes to selling stuff that others are also selling. Start off creating some killer cornerstone content that applies to your niche, and build from there.
But don’t forget that effective selling (or pre-selling in affiliate marketing) also counts. That’s where the art of catalog copywriting comes in.
Step Two: Sell it and Don’t be Shy About It
The most self-limiting thing I see about bloggers trying to make money is a self-defeating approach. Outside of the new breed of purposefully over-the-top, make-money-online charlatans, many bloggers seem pensive or apologetic about making money.
That doesn’t work.
People buy from people who are confident, likable and unquestionably enthusiastic about what they’re selling. And that’s got to come across in your copy when trying to close the deal or prompt the click to the merchant site.
Luckily, there’s an entire established discipline devoted to copywriting that’s specific to catalog-style selling. And, as usual, it all comes down to understanding who you’re talking to and what they want to hear.
Copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis identifies 14 catalog copy approaches in his book Catalog Copy That Sizzles. Let’s look at seven of those catalog-copy styles and see how they might apply to blog-based commerce.
- Down Home
“Down home” copy is written to make the reader feel like one of the family, or a welcome guest in your home. Readers feel as if you’re speaking to them directly, so the copy is naturally conversational and benefit driven. The problem with this approach is that it can feel forced over time, but I think many bloggers have been practicing this style of writing for a while.
You’ve been told over and over to focus on the reader, and that you can’t go wrong using the word “you” over and over. And sometimes that’s true, if the focus is truly there and the insertion of “you” is not merely a grammatical function. Otherwise, the reader will become sick of the artificial attempt at engagement.
“Shout” copy is more about the deal, and less about the product. If you’re attempting to move product via a special promotion or sale, copy that jumps up and down about how good a deal you’re offering can work. Do it all the time, however, and people won’t trust you or the products you’re pitching.
- Image All the Way
“Image all the way” copy creates a sense of exclusivity by creating associations between the product and desirable people or lifestyles. This is the copy that “fills the narrative gaps” when a person is seeking to “become” what they perceive to be a more desirable person in some aspect of their lives, whether that be more attractive, more productive, or more hip.
The narrative approach to catalog copy tells a story, and if you’re great at spinning yarns, this is a great way to combine your content approach with your sales or pre-sell copy. The content can be remarkable while linking to the product page that continues, accentuates, or closes the narrative.
- All the Facts
This catalog copy approach predicts that the more information the reader has, the more likely the purchase. And catalog copy pros know that this approach works well in business-to-business and many consumer markets. The problem with the approach for catalogs is space (or a lack thereof), which isn’t a problem on the Web.
This may well be the best approach to an online content/copy hybrid such as a catablog, even though it only works in certain situations in paper catalogs. With this approach, you’re avoiding the hard sell altogether, even as you’re persuading via a tutorial approach that realizes that teaching people how to achieve desirable benefits is selling. Combine an educational approach with select anecdotes, quotes and metaphors to create “edutainment,” and you’ll be an under-the-radar selling machine.
Mix and Match
None of these techniques are mutually exclusive. You can take different approaches at different times, and even combine techniques. As long as you keep a consistent voice along the way, you keep regular readers happy even as you tantalize first-time visitors.
Check out Catalog Copy That Sizzles for seven more copy approaches and a whole lot more information about this particular style of copywriting.
Step Three: Retire
Well, I can’t exactly promise you that. But Richard Sears retired at 45, which sounds like a good target for yours truly.
The great thing about this model is that it allows you to build that crucial authority as a content-only site at first. Then you can add in products via affiliate programs to start monetizing your traffic. After growing your revenue, you can enter into joint venture arrangements to get better commissions, or look into drop-shipping or other merchant solutions to be a true-blue ecommerce kingpin.
So what do you think? Is there a catablog in your future?