How to write online product descriptions: Start with benefits.

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How to write online product descriptions

 

by Herman Cheng

Got a product you want to sell online? A straight-up description is fine, of course—if your brand was my only choice, and I was looking for staples or floss. But when you’re competing against a dozen products, you want them to choose yours, so you’ll need a selling point that’ll resonate.

Before you write a single word, fix on your audience and what they want. Who’s your buyer? Nobody really wants to buy your product—they just want the benefit from using it. For example, let’s say your product is:

  • Cordless and rechargeable;
  • Runs on 10 hours of battery life; and
  • Customizable for your needs.

These are features, not benefits. No one wants to recharge a battery or customize an app. They especially don’t care about your company history. Focus on benefits. Copywriters use something called a “which means” statement.

So: let’s say this tablet runs on 10 hours of battery life.

Which means:

  • You’ll be able to binge watch your favorite Netflix shows on long-haul flights;
  • It will keep your kid occupied when you’ve got your hands full; or
  • It’ll go the distance when you’re out of home the whole day.

Be picky in choosing your benefit, as that depends on whether you’re targeting families, college students or millennials.

Once you’ve your benefits, you’ll need to prioritize. There are a few strategies for prioritizing benefits, but the bottom line is to seek feedback from your customers you want about which benefits resonate most and solves their pain points. If the customer wants to address a specific pain point, they will likely go with the one brand that claims to do that one thing well.

So lead with the most compelling point, and go from there.

Startup’s guide to landing their first major story

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TL;DR

 

  1. A great story requires a lot of groundwork
  2. Build a few meaningful key relationships, instead of going for quantity
  3. Start with smaller industry publications, bloggers and freelancers
  4. Be concise when you pitch
  5. Write your blogs so that reporters have material to sift through
  6. Write about milestones and your own personal journey, so that you can sharpen your story

Startup’s press guide part II: Laying the groundwork

 

by Herman Cheng and Ovey Yeung

So you want to tell the world the story about your amazing product or platform. We talked last month about laying out a strategy for landing your startup’s first major story by getting in the mind of the reporter. And now it’s time to lay the groundwork.

The first thing you need to do now is to start by building out a few key relationships:

Build a relationship
Do your research, and aim for quality, not quantity. A spray-and-pray approach won’t work—those are reserved for major brands who pretend not to care about publicity. So look for specific reporters to build a meaningful relationship with, as those pay off in the long run, for both parties. Be careful whom you choose. If you’re a fintech startup, don’t bother targeting a writer focused on corporate sustainability. If you have time, spend an hour or so going through a writer’s history dating back a few years to see what types of technology they write about and what they think of your type of technology.

Finding the right reporter with the background you are looking for can make or break your story.

Get to the point
Be concise. Two paragraphs should be enough to get across why you are contacting the reporter and why they should care. Don’t try to cram all your details into the email. This is not a press release—remember that what you are doing is making an elevator pitch in writing. If they’re interested, the reporter will ask for more.

Remember not to follow up immediately, and to wait a day or two. If you don’t hear back after the second email, try to revise your story or go back to the drawing board. If not, try to find a freelance journalist who writes regularly for the publication—they likely will have more free time than staff reporters, not to mention warmer relationships with the publication, so see if you get them interested in your story.

Lay the groundwork
Every worthwhile story has a build. Before you launch, it is important to get some news out there, so that you’ve laid the groundwork for your game-changing product. Work with some bloggers or smaller industry magazines first so that your company has a third party online presence besides your official website. Tech bloggers, for instance, will be more likely cover what you’re doing. Many print and online publications regularly feature startups, so make sure you hit those connections.

While you are waiting for that one big score, try to carve out time to write your own blogs so you can increase traffic to your site, or at the very least offer some material for the reporter to sift through while they do background research on your company. Write about your vision and the challenges and joys you’ve experienced along your journey. Write stories of customers who have been directly positively affected by your product. Write about your own personal journey, to give audiences more insights into who you are and what drives you. You’ll be surprised how writing can help to sharpen your story and get a better of understanding of how to pitch yourself.

To recap, unless you are terribly lucky, don’t expect that big feature piece on Day 1. Play the long game. Do your research, and make sure you have established the right relationships. Start with smaller startup-focused and industry publications, bloggers, freelancers so that you’ve got your story out there. Workshop that story, and get feedback from friendly reporters and PR pros. Finally, write your own blog and start generating positive stories about your product. All this work may seem small and not likely to move the needle, but they add up to a pretty good chance of landing that big piece.

Startup’s guide to landing their first major story

TL;DR

 

  1. Tech reporters don't believe most startups are worth covering.
  2. Startups have a few stories that might be interesting, including company launches, founder profiles, strategic partnerships, company milestones or trend stories. But these are difficult to sell.
  3. Think about who you're pitching to. See how your story can cater to their needs.

Startup's press guide part I: Think like a reporter

 

By Herman Cheng and Ovey Yeung

After years of hard slogging, your startup is finally ready for its close-up. You want to tell the world about your amazing product, so the next step would be to pitch it to a reporter, who then writes a glowing feature, attracting deep-pocketed funders and scores of new customers, and everyone lives happily ever after. The End.

Here’s the problem: There are many more startups than there are major publications. That makes it a buyer’s market, just like pitching to a VC all over again. You need to explain (in email form, no less!), why your company stands out, why the technology matters and why their readers should care. That’s why you need to think like the people to whom you send those emails: The reporters.

What do reporters want?
Here’s another challenge: Almost all tech reporters will see any minor piece of news from a tech giant like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple or Facebook as more newsworthy than the launch of another startup. A major executive from any of these big tech brands can make a random public speech and generate many times more tech coverage than your launch. The only exception to this is if you have received new funding (assuming it’s a substantial amount, like over $10-million), got acquired (preferably by Alphabet, Amazon etc.) or IPO’d. It’s sad, but don’t take it personally. That is just the reality of the market, and it’s important to know this so you can adequately prepare, cause it is going to get rough.

Joel Andren once stated that there are only about five instances in which reporters might be interested in you:

  1. Company launches.
  2. Founder profiles, assuming the founder did something interesting
  3. Strategic partnerships (if they’re with a company like Alphabet, you’re all set)
  4. Some milestone you’ve hit that might illustrate you’re picking up traction in the market
  5. A trend story that can be conveniently tied into your startup

The company launch can be the most obvious starting point, whether it’s at the exact time when the product is available or during a closed beta. However, as mentioned, they can be difficult to get press for, unless either your offering or the founder is noteworthy to reporters in some way— say, your app credibly claims to solve global warming, envisions a new Internet, or you’re a celebrity founder like Ashton Kutcher.

Put yourself in their shoes
So think about whom you’re pitching to. The best reporters want to write thought-provoking stories that matter to their readership and to society as a whole, not a fluff piece for a ribbon-cutting ceremony on an obscure startup. They also want exclusive stories on the next big thing. Think about how you can pivot your approach to cater to their needs.

It helps to have a journalistic instinct (which is why so many PR professionals got their start as reporters). Think of yourself as the writer for their publication—you are in desperate need to attract views and broaden your readership. Is there a hot story angle that no one has ever thought of before? Maybe there is something about your startup that taps into a wider trend (assuming that trend doesn’t involve failed startups).

Or perhaps even one of your vendors or partners has a human interest story—say, your partner has an interesting history and their working with you has some special significance to their own personal journey. This may require some brainstorming and teasing out, and it will help to get feedback from reporters or insiders that you know if any of your potential stories have traction.

Once you’ve got your storyline and game plan laid out, you’ll need to start building some relationships with the press. Hopefully you’ve have started on this road a while ago. We’ll go more into this in our next piece.

Writing to finance, business and tech press

TL;DR

 

  1. Press releases are easy to write, but hard to get to read—you alone can change that.
  2. You’ll need a great hook. Focus your attention on the email subject line—make sure it’s not a repeat of the press release headline.
  3. Make things as easy as possible for the reporter, and break down all that jargon. The more your press release resembles an actual news article they will write, the more likely it’ll see the light of day.
  4. Most of all, your press release must answer the most pressing question of all: Who cares?

How to increase the chance your news release gets traction

 

by Herman Cheng

A press release is one of the easiest ways to grab publicity for whatever it is you’re doing—whether it’s a launch, product upgrade, new office or hire, strategic partnership or a re-branding. It’s also one of the easiest documents to write. There’s not much to it—a headline followed by a description of the story and why it matters, ending with your contact information. They all follow the same basic formula, really. So why spend too much effort on it?

In reality, the biggest problem with press releases is quite simple: No one reads them. Press releases often use buzzwords and industry jargon to sound impressive, but mask the fact that they’re not really saying much of anything. A badly written news release with no substantive news can even backfire and make reporters ignore your future blasts.

Add to this is the fact that tech and finance reporters can receive up to 1,000 emails a day. They’re not likely going to open yours unless a) They know you; or b) You have a great hook that doesn’t sound promotional to them.

1. Focus on the email subject line

So first things first. The most important thing to a press release isn’t even in the press release—it’s the email subject line. If a reporter doesn’t open that email, you’ve lost the battle before you even started.

So unless you have something of great import to say, make sure your subject line doesn’t echo your headline and that doesn’t echo your first sentence. You have approximately half a second to get the reporter hooked, and you can’t waste that on a form headline. It’s probably best to send personal emails to the reporters you care most about.

The email subject line needs to arouse interest. One problem is there’s no hard and fast rule about what to put here. You could compliment them on a piece they wrote a few days ago (reporters put a lot of work into their articles, so it helps if you praise them for it). Or you can just write “hello.” It all depends on your relationship with that reporter. That’s why relationships can be important—the subject line should come across as sounding like they’re from a friend. A friend who wants something, of course, but a friend nonetheless.

2. Make things as easy as possible for the reporter

Once you start writing the body, you’ll need to actually follow up on that eye-catching headline with something that’s actually easy to read and publishable. One of the most tedious jobs for reporters in the industry is to sift through jargon and dense language in order to tease out the main takeaway. You should therefore say why this announcement is news at the very beginning, in a clear and conversational tone.

Samantha Murphy Kelly, Mashable’s CNNTech Editor, has remarked: “I always like to say, explain it to me in a sentence or two like you were telling your Grandmother, before getting into specifics. It’s always good to know ‘why’ the news is important too.” This sentiment echoes Warren Buffett’s famous line when he advised writers to “Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters.”

Remember that the person on the receiving end of the press release is an actual person, which means they will not be interested in your marketing-speak or “news-less” announcement masked as actual news to get publicity (but then, no one interested in that, really). The more a press release resembles an actual article they would write and publish, the more likely it is that they will use it. It helps to be familiar with their publication, and read what the reporter has written in the past. If you have time, you could even tailor the press release for their specific beat.

3. A great statistic can make a story

Once the reporter gets to reading the middle sections of your press release, it’s assumed that they’re going to read the remainder to pick out other points of interest. About two-three paragraphs in, you’re going to need to be relatively thorough with your level of detail, so it has all the data points and information the reporter will need to do their work once they get to writing.

But make sure you use data and information that appeals. Let’s say you did a study for your product that suggests 35% of consumers want to waste less food, but don’t know how. Or how your product can reduce 48% of food wastage. That statistic would be newsworthy—you’d even want to put that in the headline.

4. Give good quote

A lot of times, the press release will have the executive push out banal buzzwords and business-speak—many times, it’s just an afterthought. But a good quote can really turn a news release around—sometimes, it’s the only thing that gets printed.

Your spokesperson should sound like someone the reporters wants to interview, not a robot. So instead of, “The successful implementation of this fulfillment system promises to deliver tremendous impact to the industry as a whole,” try “After putting this fulfillment system in place, we realized how this could completely remake our industry.” Try to use the active voice as much as possible here.

Make sure the quote is insightful and has something to offer, instead of echoing the press release, or they won’t use it. Save your best lines for the quote, because making your CEO or senior exec sound like a tech or finance visionary can also pay off in the long run.

5. And remember this: “Who cares?”

Finally, the most important question you need to ask when writing your press release is: “Who cares?” Before you start writing about whatever news is happening that you think deserves attention, you should ask yourself a few questions, such as:

  • What’s the story? Is there something important happening that readers should care about?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • Why now? Why is it newsworthy now?

And once you’ve finished, do it more time with that lens. Does it sound like something that the publication will publish?

If it is, then your job is done. And if the story does well, you can even capitalize on the buzz by putting out a second press release about the stories that have been written.

Writing for digital

 


TL;DR

1. Most writing is difficult. And only a small subset of it is easy. Writing for digital content or digital advertising is usually grouped into the “difficult” category.
2. In the “easy” category is most personal emails and social posts. You know your friends, and they’re a receptive audience.
3. With today’s programmatic advertising, your audience will likely be highly targeted and already predisposed to what you’re selling. You therefore need to assume that they’re at least interested in what you’re selling.
4. If you know the audience you’re writing to and they’re likely to be interested, it should be as easy as writing a personal email.
5. But be careful you don’t write to impress. No one cares how elegant your turn of phrases are.
6. And after you’ve written copy, sit on it, and read it after awhile. Then show to your intended audience.

Five steps to writing effective digital copy.

by Herman Cheng

There are many things that can be very difficult to write—haikus, investigative exposés and doctoral dissertations, for instance. Writing digital content or digital copywriting can be one of them. But it doesn’t have to be.

1. Approach your copy like you would with the ‘easy’ type of digital writing 

Let’s take a look first at a form of digital writing that we’d all agree is pretty easy: So remember the last time you sent a text or emailed a friend? Or the last time you posted a message on WeChat, Instagram or Facebook? You may have paused a few minutes, reviewed what you wrote a few times. But over all, it was probably a breeze. You intuitively adjusted your writing based on what you thought would appeal to the one person, or group you were writing to. And because you knew your audience, you weren’t afraid to say the wrong thing.

That’s the trick: You don’t need to write to impress (in fact, you shouldn’t). What you do need to do is:

  1. Have an incredibly clear picture of whom you’re writing to. The clearer the picture, the more specific that audience is, the easier it will be to write it. The ease of writing is proportional to the specificity of your audience.
  2. Assume they’re receptive to what you’ve got to say. This is particularly necessary for copywriting.

2. Research your audience first and know them by heart

Of course, the million-dollar question is: Who is your target audience? David Ogilvy would say you need to know how that person thinks, what that person needs. Don’t write a word until you figure that out first. Many of the greatest copywriters in the world have no problem writing because they know their audience by heart before they start. And if you have more than one, pick one and commit yourself to it.

Once you’ve made your decision, be very careful not to talk down to them. Your audience may be hard core Star Wars fans in the United States or casual families in China. For the former, you need to get straight to the point. For the latter, some set-up may be required, but don’t over-explain or you’ll lose them. You can be writing about the same product or service, but you’d need to use completely different words depending on who you think you’re selling it to.

3. Assume that audience is receptive

This may be controversial, but it's essential to our process. Remember, you only have a few seconds to grab someone’s attention. So unless you’re writing long-form copy, you don’t have the luxury of finding common ground with an indifferent or hostile audience. You’re also not writing a TV commercial or copy for a large billboard—you could be writing for Amazon, Facebook or your website. With the advent of digital marketing and programmatic advertising, your ads can now be highly targeted, down to the niche audience you’re reaching to. Your target audience are people who are most likely predisposed to what you have to offer.

4. Give your copy time to breath. Never, ever write to impress

Last of all, after you’ve written something, sit on it for a day or two. Ideally, you would have forgotten you even wrote it in the first place. If the words are still fresh in your mind, that means you don’t have enough distance. Never be too precious. You may have agonized over a few sentences or words, or struggled over structure or word order. But that exercise defeats the purpose of digital writing.

Remember, the reaction you want from your readers is interest and engagement in your brand, not admiration of your copy. Your target audience doesn’t care how good a writer you are. So waiting a day for things to cool off will allow you to give it at least a little bit of distance. More importantly, you may have missed important selling points that might actually mean something to your audience in favor of arguments that you sound good to yourself.

5. And finally, see if they like it.

This last point is very important: find the one or two people who fits your audience and see what they think. Getting feedback can bring closure to your writing, so you won't think of it as an interminable process. It's like handing off your assignment to your client, since they’re the ones who ultimately you’re writing for.

This exercise will help you visualize your audience as a specific person rather than an amorphous mass of people. They’ll tell you if they’re confused by your jargon or arguments, consider your writing unhelpful or unappealing, or give feedback on what points they feel are extraneous.

If you know what you’re writing will be shown to a specific customer in a week. If they’re interested, you may have to just go back to the drawing board. Trust me—you’ll find your motivation then.