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Monday, Jul. 13, 2009 at 8:24 am

Can Copy Create (added) Value On Its Own?

By Jeff Sexton
July 13th, 2009

ebay_pokemon_cards_bidIf a pack of Pokemon cards cost under $7 new, how much do you think an unopened pack would go for on e-bay?

What if the seller told an amusing story about that particular pack of Pokemon cards in the product description – would you bid more based on that?  Do you think others might?

Sounds silly, but based on a real-life incident, one mother collected $103.50 from the top bid (out of 44 other bids) on her pack of Pokemon cards simply because people fell in love with the story she told about how she came to own the cards in the first place.  Nothing changed about this under-7$ pack of cards except for the story.

santa-nutcracker2-550And now, one of the coolest web projects I’ve seen in a while is attempting to recreate a similar phenomenon with a variety of objects but with a really cool twist – they want the buyer to know that the story behind the object is fake!  Here’s how the project website describes the process:

“The project’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.

A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!

Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.

The winning bidder is mailed the significant object, along with a printout of the object’s fictional story. Net proceeds from the sale are given to the respective author. Authors retain all rights to their stories.

The test’s results — photos, original prices and final sale prices, stories — are cataloged on this website. The project’s curators retain the right to use these materials in other venues and media. For example: Maybe we’ll publish a book.”  [emphasis mine]

Go ahead and treat yourself to a few of the objects’ stories, you’ll get sucked in, I promise you.  And what’ll you want to bet that these items end up selling for far more than the “few dollars” paid for them?

How this applies to selling “normal” products online

There is a dangerous assumption that because the public demands more straightforward or honest copy, that the best bet is to simply provide little factoid like bullet points rather than actual, detail-rich product copy. Here’s an example of bullets vs. copy taken from a flip-flop manufacturers website:

Sea-weed product descriptionSo focus in on the first, fourth, and final bullet points, if you would.  What you’ll find are the following facts:

  • 1st bullet = 2 piece custom bottom unit mold is an OM exclusive design
  • 4th bullet = Super soft Crosslite topsole…
  • Last bullet = Croslite is soft, comfortable, lightweight, superior gripping, and odor resistant.

So here’s the question: do you think a little storytelling on the reasoning behind and development of the 2-piece bottom and Crosslite topsole might help increase the perceived value of these flip flops?

Just as an example, here’s what the bottom of the shoe looks like (courtesy of Zappos):

2009-07-12_2055Now, do you think the two piece design might allow the shoe to flex more easily with your foot?  Do you think that might improve the comfort and possibly even eliminate or minimize the annoying flapping sound generated by most flop flops?

What if the company told you that this 2-piece sole was born of extensive gate-testing of 100s of flip-flop designs?

Would you pay more for the flip flop knowing that?

Same thing with Crosslite.  I’m betting a good story about it’s odor fighting properties, especially regarding how and why crosslite can fight foot odor, would also up the sandals perceived value.

Mick and His Bottle OpenerAs of now, the flip flops go for $35 on the company’s website, and slightly more than that from Zappos.  That’s about $15 cheaper than a pair of Reef Fannings.  Now, I don’t own a pair of Ocean Minded Sea Weeds, but I’d bet they’re roughly comparable to the Reef Fannings in terms of construction, fit, comfort, etc.  And I’d also bet that much of the Fanning’s popularity is tied up in the story behind:

  1. Mick Fanning’s input into the design of the flip flop
  2. The Fanning-inspired bottle opener embedded into the flip-flop’s sole

Yes, I’m probably simplifying things a bit.  I realize Reef is a bigger brand name than Ocean Minded and that the Fanning flip flops also have Nike-like air cushioning in the heal.  But from where I’m sitting, a good origin’s story just might account for the majority of that 42% increase in asking price.

The difference between increasing an item’s price and increasing its saleability

Will you always be able to charge more because of a good story or great product description?  No.

Sometimes you’ll just sell the item more easily, which usually translates into selling more of that item.  If I’m trying to decide on a pair of flip-flops to buy, there’s a chance that I simply won’t pay the same for a no-name brand than I will for a pair of reefs.  But that I might buy a brand like Ocean Minded’s at a discount as long as I had a reason to trust their quality.  And that’s where the product development stories come in: the stories would increase the sandal’s saleability, if not the actual selling price.

So, rather than only 1 visitor in 50 pulling the trigger on a pair, the right storyline might cause 1 in 5 browsers to buy.  You didn’t increase margins, but you did boost your volume and conversion rate, which is a lot more than industry-standard bullet points can ever claim.

Add Your Comments

Comments (27)

  1. This is absolutely true. I did the same with a Craigslist post, writing some (presumably) funny and overboard copy to sell a commodity item. Sure enough, it translated into a sale at my admittedly high asking price almost immediately. People buy something for how it makes them feel, and great copy can influence that feeling.

  2. [...] Can Copy Create (added) Value On Its Own?…   Conversion Rate Marketing [...]

  3. [...] Can Copy Create (added) Value On Its Own? via Future Now [...]

  4. Although it can work, it needs to be reiterated that you make it clear that the story is fictitious. You don’t want upset customers or to receive negative feedback because someone later on found out that it was all just made up. Open disclosure on things like that is imperative.

  5. Elizabeth,

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear in the post, but the made-up stories was just a proof of concept re: the power of stories. I was simply showing you how much a story can affect perceived value.

    What I would urge retailers and copywriters to do is to apply the *concept* – rather than literally applying the technique by making up stories. You apply the concept by using narrative within your product copy. Take key product differentiators and tell the story behind them. That’s the practical application; not the part about making up stories.

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear enough on that.

    - Jeff

  6. As someone who writes jewelry copy I really appreciate this post. For example, I will name one of our Holly Yashi necklaces the “Love Spell Necklace” and describe how a woman can cast a spell of desire and beauty when she wears it. I know this is more appealing than “Beaded, Colorful Medallion Necklace” with a basic materials description. Jewelry is a “want” not a “need” so persuasive copy is crucial (as “needed” as high-end flip flops with a cool beer opener I guess). An engaging story that people can relate to sells products and better connects them to the brand. When the customer feels sexier wearing a new necklace or looks cool cracking a beer for a friend using their shoe you know the brand relationship will likely continue.

  7. [...] is great article that talks about how great copy can dramatically improve your conversion. My collection of links to help with [...]

  8. Copy can literally create value out of nothing.
    Here a 25 year old washing machine with a reserve of $1 sells for $5000

  9. Jeff, Your post is enough to bring tears to the eyes of a copywriter who just last week heard a creative director say that “no one reads copy anymore.” Thanks for such an impressive reminder that it takes great images AND great words to sell stuff on the Web.

  10. Humorous or touching description means that people will send a link to the auction to their friends. So a lot more people will get exposed to it so naturaly more will bid. And the price will go way up.

  11. People like to hear a story. Some of the best brands had stories behind them and that is why people liked to follow the brand.

  12. Great article-thanks. Just ask J Peterman about telling stories around products! A master of creating romance, I bought many items based on the story they told in the catalog. It’s more fun to own it too.

  13. For sure, really interesting story can increase prices of many things, like cars for example

  14. Creating a decent ‘story’ is definitely a powerful way to boost sales – it is after all what a ‘brand’ is once you get past the superficial logo and imagery.
    There’s this stunning example of killer sales copy that sold a broken washing machine for $5,000:

  15. I’ve always used and advocated the impact of stories in face to face selling. But I don’t use them often when writing – and I should do.

    Thinking back, I’ve always done well when I’ve included a backstory when ebaying stuff (although obviously there’s no control to test against).

    Nice critique of the shoe website by the way – I’d definitely go for the more detailed backstory version.


  16. Storytelling is not a new thing.

    Why are we buying Coke, Nike, Starbuck etc.

    Because of the story behind the brands.

  17. [...] came across a tweet from Valeria Maltoni that linked a blog post about this she’d read from Jeff Sexton.  And that led me to finding this to begin [...]

  18. Definitely something interesting to think about and, in most cases, I think you’re absolutely right. Isn’t it rather the same reason why people would want to see ordinary objects in a museum context? Similarly an anthropological or archaeological object outside of its context is pretty much worhtless, but within its context becomes priceless. Or, exegarating it even further, why some reality shows are so succesful? Looking at your own life in a different context or with changed emphasis might cause people to reassess its value. Yet, I do have my doubts about the little test at Ebay, because the story becomes a sellable item itself and the context of the test (even though one warns against it being fictional) is yet another story in itself. So, if not for the story provided, the context of having a story with your purchase might already change the perceptive experience of buying. So, what will we be able to say with the test? Also, one should bear in mind that there’s absolutely no guarantee the story behind the package of pokemon cards was real, so does it really matter being hoaxed?

  19. [...] mon reader sans recherche particulière et je tombe au hasard sur un autre article excellent de Après l’analyse des travaux d’Ogilvy, on va finir par croire que je suis sponsorisé [...]

  20. [...] ?” A ce sujet, je vous conseille d’ailleurs de lire cette histoire édifiante : Can Copy Create (added) Value On Its Own?. On y découvre comment “une histoire” autour d’un produit peut faire [...]

  21. I can’t agree you more.
    good article
    there is no doubt that interesting story can get prices of many things increased.

  22. The only time I received attention from my family was when I did something wrong such as using drugs. ,

  23. Recife is a city with many social problems, like many big cities in Brazil, and has a low level of vol- unteerism. ,

  24. i want a piese of paper in the computer and if i make something then it can copy

  25. It is very interesting that people have a lot respect for something thats expencive. I had the small bussiness on selling t-shirts and I had the same quality of 3 different colors with the different prices and the buyers alwayes goes for the expencive one never for cheap….. conclusion: Have always different prices on your product

  26. People have a need to feel connected. Telling a story about an item or describing items in certain ways can help people feel more open to purchasing it.

  27. Hello, j’ai trouvé votre site via Google et je tenais à vous en féliciter car il est super intéressant.

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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