Why Marketers Should Write Ecommerce Copy That Taps into These 4 Proven Facets of Desire

ecommerce copywriting tips

Quick — try and name a consumer brand that goes negative with in their advertising copy. I’ll wait.

Can’t think of one?

Neither can I.

The only time you see negativity in marketing seems to be for public service announcements about smoking…

Unlike politicians, marketers are terrified of hurting their brand value by connoting negative emotions with their products. Which got me thinking, if it works for politicians, why can’t it work for ecommerce marketers?

I did a little research, and it turns out tapping into negative emotions to activate desire works. In a study published by Canadian researchers in February of 2015, they found that the experience of desire is generally accompanied by feelings of pleasure – obviously – but also guilt, discomfort, and control. Interesting and not quite so obvious…

Ecommerce copy too often focuses on that first facet of desire: pleasure.

We fail to realize that there are 3 other emotions we can use to activate desire in our prospects, which can help to convert them into happy, repeat customers.

I did a little further digging and found a 2012 study by UMass-Amherst researchers on the effects of positive and negative campaign messaging.

The researchers surveyed college students on their reactions  to different kinds of negative and positive campaign messages for a fictitious election. What was interesting was that when they tested strong negative messages alongside weak negative messages, the researchers found both had the same effect. The content of the messages didn’t matter — once students started processing a negative message, the same feelings were activated.

Which means what?

Simply this: we don’t have to “go negative” to play on these added facets of desire. By simply alluding to guilt, discomfort and control in our copy, we can activate powerful desires in our customers.

If you think about it, some of the most successful campaigns have used this to their advantage.

For example, Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.

Photo Credit: The Blaze

Photo Credit: The Blaze

It’s classically aspirational ad copy… but it also plays with our need for control.

Or consider L’Oreal’s Because You’re Worth It campaign.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Another classic aspirational ad campaign that focuses on self-esteem. But indirectly, it also assuages any guilt someone might feel about buying a luxury beauty product…

So what should you take from this?

Don’t be afraid to tap into these other three facets of desire in your copy. If not, it’s like your ecommerce copy is only operating at 25% of its capacity!

Now let’s take your ecommerce copy from good to fan-freakin-convertin’-tastic…

The 4 Pillars of Ecommerce Copy

Thanks to ecommerce CRO expert Linda Bustos of GetElastic, we know that there are four principles we should always lean on when writing ecommerce copy:

  1. Usability
  2. Persuasion
  3. Trust
  4. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Comforting, right? Let’s dig into usability first.

 1. Usable Copy

Usability copy is, at minimum, readable and easy to consume. It helps you lower your bounce so you can shrink the number of visitors that, as Avinash Kaushik puts it, “Came, puked and left” your store.

First, here is an example of some puke-tastic copy, listing some product features:

Photo Credit: Get Elastic

Photo Credit: Get Elastic

We’ll spare the perpetrator of this crime against copywriting, but let’s make clear that this is not a proper use of bullets. Sure, you want to use headings, subheadings, and bullets liberally in your ecommerce copy, but it should all be in the spirit of “readability” – not helping your customers go cross-eyed.

Here is a much more readable product description from designer furnishings company LoomDecor.com. See how they make use of headings and bullets, with a proper amount of whitespace and a readable font?


This is what we mean when we talk about usable copy.

Rather than repelling visitors, usable copy helps visitors read on.

2. Persuasive Copy

Remember the 4 facets of desire we talked about earlier? All of those fall under the persuasion umbrella. Writing persuasive copy is all about getting in your customer’s head and evoking an emotional response that leads them down your sales funnel.

Persuasive copy isn’t about tricking visitors into make a purchase, but writing an empathic, human style that will bring them back again and again to your site.

There are plenty of persuasion techniques. Let’s look at how a few ecommerce marketers knock them out of the park.

Check out this dress from ecommerce retailer NastyGal.com, described in their copy like so:

“This is one of those dresses you’ll throw on and never want to take off…Throw it on with strappy heels or toughen it up with moto boots. Either way, you’re guaranteed to turn heads.”


NastyGal evokes a desire for comfort and versatility in this product description.

Now let’s switch to the uber-competitive online travel space. As you can probably tell from Hipmunk’s name, they’re trying to persuade a certain demographic to use their ecommerce travel site.

To persuade the “in” crowd to use their site, they injected some playfulness into the copy to show they’re with the times. For their hotel listings, you can list them by price, stars , reviews, or “ecstasy” as they call it, which uses a combinations of factors to show the best rooms available.

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

For their flights, Hipmunk added an Agony button. Of course, everyone has bad flight stories, and Hipmunk plays on this by allowing their customers to “Skip the agony” and find the best flights based on price, length and layovers.

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

Showing what makes your store unique in your copy is very persuasive, because it humanizes your brand and makes people feel more comfortable buying products from you.

What copy could you change on your site today to better reflect the words that your prospects are actually using?  Instead of the marketing speak you’ve been told to use?

3.  Trustworthy Copy

According to a study by Taylor Nelson Sofres, customers will terminate 70% of online purchases due to lack of trust. This lack of trust leads ecommerce stores to lose over $1.9 billion annually. Even more, a study of UK-based ecommerce stores without customer reviews or recommendations were losing over $13 billion in revenue.

So how can you build trust with customers?

You know the “ABCs” from Alex Baldwin’s infamous speech in Glengarry Glen Ross? “Always Be Closing.”

Photo Credit: Salon

Photo Credit: Salon

For ecommerce stores, we know that our customers aren’t always visiting our stores to make a purchase. So instead of hitting them over the head with hard sell strategies and tactics, find ways to give your visitors value without a specific end game in mind.

Scarves.com does this beautifully with an ecommerce content marketing piece called “The Knot Library,” which shows 50+ ways you can tie a scarf.  They even provide step by step videos for each one and make them easy to share!

Photo Credit: Hubspot

Photo Credit: Hubspot

Your store can easily do something like this to build more trust with your customers as well. It can be a resourceful email you send to your list, or the copy you write for your return policy.

So reconsider the “Always Be Closing” approach and opt, instead, for being:

  • Useful
  • Honest
  • Transparent
  • Natural / Real

Those qualities could pay off in the short and long term, when trust and likability (a huge part of persuasion) can make all the difference.

4. SEO-Friendly Copy

Back in the good old days of SEO, all you had to do was stuff your site with relevant keywords and you could land pretty high in search results.

Today? Not so much. You could be blacklisted faster than you can say “dead business” just for pulling out previously acceptable tricks.

Here is what not to do anymore for SEO:

  • Keyword Stuffing – Quite simply, this doesn’t work any more. Google’s search algorithm is so complex and advanced at this stage that doing this actually can hurt your rankings, which can get your site flagged as spam.
  • Stock manufacturer product descriptions – This is an obvious no no. As you’ve seen in this post, having unique product descriptions not only activates desire in your customers, but it also helps with SEO results. If you use the stock manufacturer description for your products, be aware that you can get filtered out of search results because it appears on so many other sites already. (tweet this)

Nowadays you want to write you copy for real people, while factoring in the keywords that you want to rank high in both for your overall site and your products. There’s nothing wrong with using keyword phrases multiple times in your store, but don’t obsess over stuffing it everywhere. Doing so can actually hurt your results!

Beyond the Basics:
Don’t Be Afraid to Turn Some People Off

If you are looking to be more bold… dare I say even more exclusionary with your ecommerce copy… take a look at what eccentric gift ecommerce store Firebox does with their copy.

Right off the bat, the tagline for their brand on Firebox.com is “Not For Everyone,” which of course makes us even more curious as to what’s inside…which we can see is a whole lot of fun. They’re activating our desire by playing with our sense of comfort.


Photo Credit: Econsultancy

If you scanned the bullets or description above, do yourself a favor. Read them.

Most ecommerce marketers would balk at the bullets Firebox uses. Some of them aren’t even features: “Groom your child to be the fourth Bee Gee” Like, quoi??? But Firebox has it exactly right – they are trying to create a product universe that is quirky, idiosyncratic, and downright funny. The result? People might actually remember them, connect with them, feel something about them – notice them! 


Photo Credit: Econsultancy

The product description (immediately below) for this hilarious t-shirt is just as entertaining, stoking desire in the customer by sarcastically noting you can bring your kid back to the 70’s with the shirt.

Photo Credit: Firebox

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

If the products in your store are a little out there, then own it throughout your site, especially in your product descriptions. Consider it a competitive advantage of your brand that you can entertain your customers simply by owning what your brand stands for.

And if your products seem exactly the same as everyone else’s, well, all the more reason to work extra hard on your copy to make people feel something and increase the likelihood that your message will stick.

Fans of the recently departed hit comedy series Parks and Recreation know that Ron Swanson (played by the hilarious Nick Offerman) stands above all men. It turns out the copy for his ecommerce store, Offerman Woodshop (OWS), does as well.

Photo Credit: Screen Crush

Photo Credit: Screen Crush

Yes, in real life, Nick Offerman respects wood as much as the character he plays, and he writes funny, persuasive copy as well. Just take a look at his reference to Lord of the Rings’ “Middle-Earth” in his About page.

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

Of course, the manly humor doesn’t stop at the About page.

The following whiskey coasters allow you to safely get a little tipsy without worrying about your precious wood surfaces at home. *Scotch not included

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

“A boy’s kazoo is made out of plastic. A man’s kazoo is made out of wood.”

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

See what I mean by embracing your brand and letting in shine in your copy?

Firebox and OWS might make people uncomfortable with their copy, but that’s OK. They know that. And those who are uncomfortable probably weren’t going to be customers anyway. But for the people who are into it, their copy becomes the flame to which moths are magnetically drawn.

Good Copy Isn’t Just For Product Descriptions Either…

Too often we ecommerce marketers can get hyper-focused on the little things like product image sizes and descriptions without thinking of the bigger picture… and big ways to expand what an ecommerce store can be online.

A good example of an ecommerce brand thinking outside the box in their copy is the luxury men’s ecommerce store Mr. Porter, which publishes “The Journal” every week on their site. “The Journal” is essentially an online magazine that has a weekly theme and features well-known guys like tennis star Andy Murray.

Photo Credit: EconsultancyPhoto Credit: Econsultancy

The Journal is an extension of the Mr. Porter brand, helping create a content ecosystem with long-form copy that feels much larger than your typical ecommerce store. But how does it tie into actually selling products?

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

The Journal is much like a style magazine, but better. Because it lives online, Mr. Porter enables readers to “shop the story,” with links to the actual clothing those featured in the stories are wearing.

Photo Credit: Econsultancy

They also link to all the products featured in each issue on the cover, giving customers new products each week that are paired with each new issue, creating a sense of novelty and exclusivity that is irresistible.

Remember, don’t be afraid to use so-called negative emotions like guilt, discomfort, and control to elicit desire in your customers. Very few ecommerce marketers are brave enough to use this copywriting strategy. So think of it as your new competitive advantage, allowing you to stand out amongst the crowd.

Tony Mariotti

Tony Mariotti is COO at Friendbuy, the marketing platform that makes it really easy to launch a customer referral program. A/B test and optimize your refer-a-friend campaigns without developer headaches. You can follow him on Twitter.

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