Improve Your Product Descriptions Through Authentic Storytelling

Your passion has inspired you to create a unique product, but you’ve struggled to sell online. E-commerce requires the mastery of unfamiliar technologies. Customer feedback is incomplete and indirect. Furthermore, you hadn’t anticipated that you would have to become a multimedia publisher. Digital marketing gurus preach the gospel of customer engagement, but how?

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Product Descriptions are Fundamental

Too often, we don’t give our product descriptions the attention they deserve. After all, if a visitor to your site takes the time to read a product description, she’s clearly interested. It’s your time to shine. A compelling product description can build engagement, differentiate your offering, and build trust. Easier said than done, but the effort is worthwhile. Well-crafted product descriptions represent a real point of leverage.

Elements of a Story

My business partner, Laura Black, started her career as a writer and editor for an award-winning travel magazine. Later, as a consultant and college professor, much of her work involved telling complex stories in engaging ways. After all, if people aren’t engaged, they won’t pay attention to what you have to say. I spoke with Laura recently about the elements of authentic storytelling.



Laura explains that stories contain these elements:

  • Characters
  • Challenges
  • Transformation

The stories of your business and products, too, have characters who face a challenge. The customer is always the main character. They face a challenge: the gap between their current state and their desired state. Through the purchase and use of your product, they can experience transformation and overcome their challenge.

For example, consider the LOFTi, a modern take on a timeless laundry drying rack design:

The LOFTi by The New Clothesline Company

The LOFTi by The New Clothesline Company

The customer-character in this story needs to dry her laundry and wishes to do so in an environmentally friendly way. However, they don’t have a lot of space to devote to a clothesline. Buying and using a LOFTi allows a customer to overcome the basic challenge of drying clothes in a way that stylishly communicates her value of environmental responsibility.

Authentic Storytelling Means Revealing Values

Identifying a customer challenge and describing your product as a solution seems like basic marketing. It is. That said, the marketing challenge for makers of unique consumer products sold online requires us to demonstrate our real, valid, and true empathy with our would-be customers. To do so, we must share evidence of the values that drive our decisions about design, materials, and sourcing.

Laura presents the case of Penzeys, which sells spices:

Penzeys Bay Leaf Whole

Penzeys Bay Leaf Whole

Consider the way Penzeys describes bay leaves:

Turkish bay leaves are the best in the world. Though not as strong as the California variety, they have a natural depth of flavor that the California bay leaves can’t hope to match. Bay leaves grow wild on the hilly mountains of western Turkey in the area around Izmir (Smyrna).

In a very concise way, Penzeys communicates the care they take in selecting spices. That’s a value a potential buyer can share and can be the basis for a meaningful connection with the product.

The Customer Need Not Be the Only Character in Your Story

Although your customer is always a character in your product’s story, he need not be the only character – or even the main character. Consider the case of Montana Planks, a maker of wood cutting boards constructed from the upcycled wood scrap:

Medium Wood Cutting Board by Montana Planks

Medium Wood Cutting Board by Montana Planks

I love this description of the materials used in this product:

Materials: repurposed hardwoods, blood, sweat, tears, laughter, family time, Montana Planks Finishing Oil, coconut oil, beeswax, maple, walnut

The owner of Montana Planks, Heather Kearney, expresses her values regarding the environment, the creative struggle of creating products made from an unpredictable stream of raw materials, and family and place. She’s an important character in the story. By purchasing Heather’s product, a customer participates in and supports Heather’s personal transformation as well as solving his own need for a decorative, functional cutting board.

Characters in product stories can also include third parties not related to the production or consumption of the product. After being exposed to the plights of widows and orphans in Ethiopia, Josh Allen launched WO Design, which makes pet products:

The WO Bone, a "buy one give two" product by WO Design

The WO Bone, a “buy one give two” product by WO Design

The values of pet care, safety, and environmental responsibility are expressed along with a desire to help orphans in a very tangible way by underwriting the cost of two meals from the proceeds of the sale of a single product. WO Design’s customers can satisfy their desire to be caring pet owners and participate in the transformation of children such as Abdurahman.

Telling Good Stories Takes Practice

Product descriptions represent a key point of leverage in the context of e-commerce marketing. To write a good product description means to tell an engaging story of challenge and transformation through the purchase and use of your product. Learning to tell effective stories takes practice…lots of practice.

The good news about e-commerce is that it’s easy to write a new draft and share it immediately. In addition, stories published online can be A/B tested to compare storylines. Both are difficult to do in the context of the world of brick-and-mortar retailing, where changes to packaging and merchandising is expensive and time-consuming.

On the other hand, it can be difficult to get useful feedback online. If our stories are ineffective, all we hear is the sound of silence – the sound of people not buying our product. To learn, informed feedback is essential. Seek it out, from wherever you can get it. Such feedback will accelerate improvements in your stories, customer engagement, and sales.