Can’t Smell It on the Web?

This column isn’t about nasty scratch-‘n’-sniff technology but about self-imposed limitations.

There’s a myth that you can’t sell on the Web items you need to smell, touch, or taste to appreciate. If you believe it, it’s costing you potential sales. People say, “You can’t smell it, so you can’t sell it,” not because it can’t be done, but because they can’t figure out how to do it. Or, they assume it can’t be done and never bother trying to find a solution.

The idea behind selling is to help your customers create a vivid mental image of enjoying the benefits of your product or service. That image creates, in turn, the desire to buy your product or service. The key is to involve them in the process by using active voice, compelling verbs, powerful nouns, and evocative adjectives and adverbs. You make it happen not with pictures but with words. Mark Twain appreciated the power of words: “A powerful agent is the right word… Whenever we come upon one of these intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.” The right copy can sell just about anything.

You’ve lost yourself in a book or an article, haven’t you? One where the author paints a picture of a setting so evocative all your senses are engaged in your imagination? Between the power of the word and your own naturally creative mind, you can easily find yourself in Charles Dickens’s grimy London, Frank McCourt’s impoverished Ireland, Herman Melville’s tense shipboard world, Amy Tan’s Chinese enclaves, or John le Carré’s underground.

Folks in advertising and direct mail have long known the evocative power of words and have harnessed it to incredible effect, selling every imaginable kind of touchy-feely-tasty stuff (saying “smelly” here might not work the way I intend — and there you have it: the power of words!). Words sell perfume, gourmet food, wine, travel, music, clothing, even art. The list is endless. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever been influenced by ad or catalog copy.

The J. Peterman Company has one of the most wildly successful catalogs on record. The text is so rich everyone loves to read it. The company continues in the same spirit on its Web site:

Signature Collection. A record of my discoveries. A fabric I couldn’t put down, a hat I absconded, an irresistible aftershave, numerous things that somehow ended up in my trunk, my office, my farmhouse, everywhere. Things I wore. Wore again. Kept finding more reasons to wear. A collection of signature items — things I think you’ll agree are distinctive in a world overcrowded with the mundane. Things worthy of the signature.

Do I want some of that Signature stuff? You bet! Cachet, lived-in comfort, distinction. I was hooked even before looking at a specific item.

Yearning for a fruit you can’t find in the local produce section? After you read this, I’ll bet you don’t have to taste or smell sapotes first before deciding you want to buy some from Harry and David: White Sapotes (Sa-PO-tays). Somewhere between a banana and a papaya — and known to only a few. Scarce and delicious, this dreamy tropical variety seduces fruit-lovers with its creamy, custard-like texture and subtle tropical flavor. Grown in limited quantities and hard to find at markets because they have to be painstakingly pollinated by hand. Delicious in a mixed fruit cup or sorbet, or sliced over ice cream.

Or how about this for perfume from

Vera Wang has captured desire in a modern, floral bouquet. The first encounter is a flirtation that begins with Bulgarian rose, calla lily, and mandarin flower. The flirtation is followed by a passionate kiss of gardenia, lotus, iris, and white stephanotis. The fragrance is wrapped in a final embrace of sheer musks, white woods, and precious floral nectar.

Good copy not only offers descriptions but also makes connections, creates images, draws on experience (either actual or imagined), and involves the reader. Good copy unifies the product with your prospect’s perceived need by exciting her emotions. We should know by now buying decisions may be rationalized with facts but ultimately are based on emotions. Want to sell something you think has to be seen, tasted, smelled, or touched to be believed? Get a good copywriter. That person can convey the experience of the most sumptuous cashmere coat in words that won’t just equal an actual touch but will surpass it by evoking images and emotions.

Selling on the Web is not just about the images people see; it’s also, and perhaps even more so, about the images that exceptional copy creates in customers’ minds. Don’t assume you can’t sell it on the Web. You can. All you need is to find the person who can take your words to the bank!

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