Two Reasons Online Copy Doesn’t Sell

The ongoing meltdown online reminds us how little we really understand this new business environment. A lot of tough questions out there right now need answers.

But some pretty simple questions are out there, too. Here’s one of them: “Does copy online work hard enough to close the sale?”

The simple answer is no. On most sites the copy that attempts to close the sale is soft.

I think there are two reasons for this.

First, I don’t think that we’ve quite got a handle on how we should be writing online. None of us has much of a history of writing copy that sells online. And we’re still searching for the right way to do it.

How are we meant to be writing? Is an online retail site like a catalog? Should we be using more of an editorial style? Or perhaps we should be more hard-hitting — like direct mail.

Jakob Nielsen, the usability guy, says we should be writing in smaller, more “scannable” units of text. That’s sound advice to help people get the information they want and find their way through your site. But it doesn’t really help us when we want to grab that visitor by the collar and close the sale.

The Cluetrain Manifesto” folks tell us that we should hold “conversations.” After all, the Internet provides a unique opportunity for interaction between your company, its employees, and your customers. Again, great advice, but it doesn’t help us close the sale right now.

And the brutal truth is if we can’t close more sales online, we won’t be around for much longer to engage in conversations.

The second reason why writers have trouble closing the sale online is the structure of the process.

Give me a full page in a magazine, and I’ll use 400 words to sell you a three-piece patio set. I’ll start by painting a picture of you and your family having memorable moments together. Then I’ll firm the copy up a bit. I’ll pace the text so that I first win your heart, then begin to work on your brain. I’ll tell you to buy the patio set right now. Why? Because spring is coming. Because the preseason price is unbeatable. Because it has a three-year guarantee. And if you order right now, I’ll add a free planter for some patio plants. Call this toll-free number now!

Why do I get more urgent and pushy as I go along? Because I know that if I don’t make the sale right now, I probably never will. You’ll turn the page, and I’ll have lost you.

Same online. If I don’t make the sale, I’ll lose you. Trouble is, I had a big advantage with that ad. I could begin and close the sale on a single sheet of paper. One view. One page.

But online I can’t do that. First, there’s the home page. Then the visitor has to figure out where to go to find lawn and patio furniture. If you’re lucky, she’ll find the right page. Then she’ll see lots of thumbnails. She clicks on one and reads the description. And that’s pretty much what it always is, just a description. Then she may decide to put it in her shopping basket and embark on the purchasing process.

But at which point during that process did I have the opportunity to start making and then close the sale? I didn’t. The whole process is fragmented. I have very little control over sequence. I have no “single page” on which to pitch my sale. That’s a problem.

In the medium term I think there’s a big issue to explore. Is there some way in which the pathways we create at our sites can be designed to be more “sales friendly”?

In the short term when the customer gets to the page that describes the product in detail, use that space to sell a little harder. Close the sale there and then.

Because if she doesn’t buy from that page at that moment, she probably never will.

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