Catablogging: Blog-Based Ecommerce and Affiliate Marketing


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.

  1. 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.

  2. You-You-You

    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.

  3. Shout

    “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.

  4. 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.

  5. Narrative

    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.

  6. 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.

  7. Informational/Educational

    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?

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Reader Comments (47)

  1. says

    If I was starting an ecommerce site today and had a big budget the first thing I would do is buy an established blog in the same industry and expand that out to sell products too. Buying a blog will save a huge amount of marketing budget and shortcut your way to the top of Google.

  2. says

    Hm. Catablogger? Not sure. What I find the most interesting about your post (asides the stories you tell, which I always enjoy) is that it’s geared for focus on product-based selling. (Or so it seems. I may not have had enough coffee.)

    My thought is… this approach would work just as well for service-based. And even more, how much of this do we all already apply to our blogs and content without knowing it?

    Hm, hm!

  3. says

    And even more, how much of this do we all already apply to our blogs and content without knowing it?

    I’m sure there’s truth to that. And I’ve found that you become a bit more effective when you become a bit more deliberate (after figuring out what works).

  4. says

    Well, I try to figure out what works, and then you bring up some great new post that comes right out of left field to completely blow my deliberate thoughts into something resembling, “Well *&^%. NOW what do I do?”


    Mind you, I’m still back on your crossroads post. That one fits like a well-worn leather jacket.

  5. says

    I love your content and the spiffy graphics that accompany your posts, like the Catablogged stamp on this item.

    Would love to see a post about how you create those graphics–where you buy photos, what you use to edit graphics, etc. Yours are among the very best I’ve seen.

    Keep up the great work.

  6. says

    It seems that timeless content that also sells something will never die.

    Even when Sears was just selling a product (watches) he was probably a darn good storyteller- and as my family knows from politics, walking across a large land mass (Florida) and meeting and greeting regular folks to tell them your story sells a lot of product (or gets a lot of votes)

    Honesty+Stories+Value+ Killer Product= A happy customer


    Thanks for the reminder and the great example Sears was. Such persuasive copy!

  7. says

    A great post; it will give me lots to chew on as I learn to develop my site.

    Just to broaden Joan Stewart’s request – I’d like a graphics tutorial (or a link to one) , but a description of how you use images to enhance the effectiveness of your text would be really great.

  8. says

    Oooh-La-La…you’ve piqued my interest with this Catablog post.

    Sounds magnetic!

    I just might have to give this catablog thing a try…sounds so tempta-licious!

    Thanks for your rich insight!

  9. says

    I just came to realize how important copy is to a business not too long ago. One can think that they can scoot past not investing in great copy, but it will eventually come back around to bite. Good blog.

  10. Shari says

    Great article. I see the potential for several catablogs for people I know. I always pass on good information. And I learn so much when I read your posts and your guests’ posts, as well.

  11. says

    On Friday I interviewed for what is essentially a catablogging job. Wish me luck!

    This is great advice for the individual, but there are also a lot of larger retailers/etailers who can be using the same strategies to get better traffic and far stickier customers.

  12. says

    I’ve heard of our site being referred as a catablog, though it doesn’t sell products, it ‘sells’ holiday (vacation) ideas.

    There’s no affiliate links, no Adsense, we built our own ad system. One travel journalists said they liked our site because “unlike a lot of travel sites it doesn’t give you the hard sell”, were his actual words.

    Two of the best examples of catablogging I can think of are: Mighty Goods and Uncrate. The former providing inspiration for our site.

    Another example is, and like our site it was built using Textpattern, not WordPress (shock!horror!)

  13. says

    interesting post…i’ve encountered catablogging but wouldn’t have know what to call it prior to today. without getting into specifics, i’m curious to know if MightyGoods, Uncrate and other cited examples can actually support someone who wants to be a full time blogger.

  14. says

    Garrison, I like Holiday Pad… that’s really cool.

    I’m not sure Mighty Goods is producing any feature content, but they should. Uncrate sometimes puts together link bait posts like “top 10 products to help you pimp your MacBook” but they should be doing more of it, imho.

  15. says

    @Brian: thank you for the compliment, appreciated. It’s phase 1 of a long-term strategy.

    Uncrate has a neat feature, the save to favourites function, known as ‘stuff’. Great thing is, you can output some code and stick your fav lists on your blog. But, I don’t see any lists appearing on other blogs on my travels.

    I liked Uncrate’s music picks but don’t see many these days.

    @JW: without going into detail, I started my blog in the autumn of 2005 and nearly 3 years later it’s still going. I can’t vouch for MG and Uncrate but they’ve been adding stuff every day for the past couple of years too!

  16. Luccio says

    I couldn’t agree more about your ‘story-telling’ approach. Shall we not forget that in ancient days, selling was done through the use of a strong throat and a ‘never-ending story’ =). Hello there, my name is Luis, an e-shopper since I can recall. I enjoyed all of your comments, enjoyed the free-space given and all honest comments. So here is one of my own: stroy-telling, great tool, it really enhances your selling power, but so does a good interface. I’m en e-bay seller myself, after tyrying yahoo and other interfaces but I feel I lack of individuallity, I feel at a flea-market, where you gotta be either lucky or a big-fish to be seen. Another thing is (as I mentioned in other blogs, Brave Journal) that the lack of seller-buyer interaction dimishes your selling power as by interacting with other e-shoppers you really gain much more than goods. And I belive that’s what marketplaces should offer, more space for communicaction, more features enabling a more direct impact on other e-shoppers like you. Hope you don’t mind my comment. Regards to all!

  17. says

    @ James Chartrand: Yes, catablogging works just as well, if not better for services… When I started TypePad Hacks a couple years ago, my whole purpose was to get TypePad to make some changes to the platform (many of which they did) and to document hacks that readers could use to enhance their blogs. It quickly became a sort of alt knowledge base full of free tutorials.

    About a year in, people began asking if they could hire me to do the work for them, instead of using the tutorials to do it themselves. At first I turned down all the requests because making money with that blog was never the goal. But eventually I gave in, customers lined up, and it became quite the going concern. I’ve gotten to the point now where I hire out most of the work just because I have more on my plate than I can handle.

    So I’m thinking… If a good tutorial site can bring in tons of business when it ain’t even the goal, well, it probably would work quite well for someone who set out intentionally to market their services!

  18. says

    Great post…Not sure you would call a blog for a realtor catablogging, but it for sure makes me think. Lot’s of people are interested in real estate and it is often near or at the top of the most searched keywords. So I guess people like to submerge themselves in this…and then also purchasing or selling real estate at sometime. I think in our area for real estate in Santa Barbara and Montecito, people do like to just browse because of the style of town we have, the price points and the list of famous faces….so I guess if a client ends up buying real estate here in Santa Barbara after spending time on my site, it could be a form of your topic.

    Interesting post.

  19. says

    Great post…Not sure you would call a blog for a realtor catablogging…

    I used to blog home listings in catalog style… Mixed in with article content, it took me to the top of the search results for the town I was targeting.

    Remember, buyers are looking for homes. So blog your listings, but also blog about other homes that you’ve previewed and link it to your IDX lead capture system. It works really well.

  20. says

    You have a great way of putting a name on something that sort of already exists, but showing us how it could be better. Seth Godin does the same thing.
    I think this idea is brilliant.
    Amen also to not becoming an “over-the-top internet charlatan”. That style was tired before it even got started.
    Would you have some examples of Chris Pearson’s e-commerce blogs? I looked at the link to his site and found some great things, but I’d like to study the sites you mention.

  21. says

    well blogging had come to another level, now its called catablogging in the sense that there are more features added in blogs not just contents or widgets but more on something new, well this article states a very good example for telling viewers about catablogging thanks :)

  22. says

    Extremely long but very useful and informative article. How i wish i can do all of that in a short period of time. But for sure doing those will produce results. I will try to spread your words through my blog and link it back to you. Thanks a lot for those tips.

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