#014: Writing Product Descriptions for Clients

If you’ve ever bought a product online, at a store or through a catalog (OK … if you’ve ever bough anything!), chances are you read the product’s descriptive copy before making your final buying decision.

And guess what? That copy didn’t just write itself. The manufacturer or distributor hired a copywriter to put it together.

What’s involved in this type of writing? How well does it pay? How do you land projects? And are there any opportunities in the B2B arena for this type of work?

To learn more I interview Susan Johnston for this episode of The High Income Business Writing podcast.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes or on Stitcher to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.

Susan has provided ghost writing, blog posts, managing social media feeds and even some journalism projects for clients. She got her start freelance writing product description in college to earn extra money. Now she works full-time as a freelance writer specializing in writing product descriptions. Currently, she works with non-profits, B2B, retail and business to consumer companies.

In this episode, Susan talks to us about writing product descriptions and what types of clients use them.

Who uses Product Descriptions?

Business to consumer companies are the usual client, but some B2B companies also use them. It is much more than just catalog copy, but certainly includes that too. An e-commerce website is basically a catalog in digital format. Catalogs or online sites use product descriptions to give the consumer a good experience by creating some excitement around the product. However, some product descriptions can also include technical specs such as washing instructions or dimensions.

What does this type of work involve?

It isn’t time efficient and can be cost prohibitive for a client to provide product for projects;it isn’t available even when working on-site due to warehouse locations/availability of product. Instead Susan has received multiple images of the product from different angles or rough specs from manufacturers to use as a starting point to translate into copy.

What guidance do you get? How helpful and savvy are clients when they give you an assignment?

As usual, it depends on the client. Some may have a team of in-house writers and use a house style guide to provide parameters for projects. Others may have a content management system that limits the number of characters per description, etc. and have a strong brand voice that their writers are trained in.

Clients that are in start-up mode are looking to Susan to craft their brand voice/personality in the copy.

Why would someone go to a freelance writer as opposed to a staff writer?

A larger company may want to work with a freelance writer for various reasons:

  • High volume of product needed in short time
    (holiday products, flash sales)
  • Inconsistent needs throughout the year
  • Existing copy that needs to be re-branded
  • Need someone for vacation coverage

What kind of fees do these types of projects command?

There are two ways to work with clients:

  1. On-site/hour
  2. Remote/item

When Susan started she was paid $3.00/description. Now she is paid as much as $18.00/description. Once you understand the companies brand/voice, you can write quickly and efficiently which can translate into $100.00+/hour when writing multiple descriptions.

With an hourly rate there is no incentive to be more efficient, so charging a per description fee makes more sense for the freelance writer.

What do clients want to pay on an hourly basis?

There are a few factors that can influence the writing fee:

  1. Does the client need a technical writer?
  2. Does the client need a creative writer?
  3. Is the job through an agency or direct?

Typically, a flat fee is the better way to go regardless of the requirements of the project.

Demand – Is there a lot of work out there?

Yes, there are lots of companies out there that need product descriptions.

Companies that have flash sales cycle through product very fast and need a lot of product descriptions written quickly. Many companies publish catalogs and also have an online presence. Other companies sell appliance products which require technical descriptions.

There is a high demand for product description writers.

A few years ago when Google put out their Panda update, it ended up punishing the websites that didn’t have unique product content. Consequently, it forced companies to revise their descriptions and create more original product descriptions, so they could move up in the rankings. This created a strong demand for great product description writers!

Questions to ask before finalizing your fee

Some clients are savvy in the whole process, and they provide great directions. However, it is important to find out how you will be working with the client. Here are some things to iron out before setting your fee, because they can affect your ability to work efficiently:

– Copy process – will you be sending word docs back and forth?

– Are you working off an excel spreadsheet?

– Do you need to use the client’s content management system?

– Will you need to download client software?

Is this all you do?

No. Although, writing product descriptions is a creative challenge, Susan wanted a new challenge.

There is a good creative component to writing product descriptions, and it is very systematic. This is a great niche for some.

How does one get started writing product descriptions/finding clients?

LinkedIn is a great place to find people who need product description writers.

Do an advanced search to find people currently working at companies with titles like Copy Chief or Copy Director.

Look for brands that you feel would fit your writing style or that you are familiar with as a consumer, so you have an understanding of their brand’s identity.

You can also go through a creative agency. Explain to the recruiter that you would like to write product descriptions and submit writing samples, so they can understand your capabilities.

Networking is a great way to meet people that need writers. Most copywriting clients are not actively advertising for writers.

In smaller companies the writing hiring responsibility may fall under the Marketing Department. But typically larger companies will have a Copywriting Department.

Are there advantages to specializing in specific industries?

It is a good idea, because you develop a skill-set and understanding for industry products.

Susan has been approached by hiring managers to become a full-time employee based on work previously done in their industry.

What type of writer is best suited for this writing?

There are a few characteristics that can help make a writer more suited for writing product descriptions including:

  1. Patience – because this type of writing can be repetitive/systematic
  2. Detail oriented – products can be similar, so you must be careful about the details
  3. Adaptablity – be able to adapt to client’s needs by writing to their specs in their brand voice

It is not uncommon to have a list of forbidden words that you will need to find a creative work around!

The combination of agility and creative writing along with being able to pack a lot of information into few words could definitely make one good at writing product descriptions.

Feedback from clients/How to avoid mistakes

Clients will typically give you a few products to write about at first to be sure you are on track with their expectations.

This type of client is usually a more copy savvy client, which helps to set the correct style expectation for the writer to help minimize potential issues.

Sometimes working through an agency helps to minimize potential issues, because they have a good understanding of the client style and what they want. Additionally, they can, if necessary, re-negotiate fees if the project is different than originally stated. It is nice to have an advocate on your side!

Agencies – What would trigger a red flag?

For Susan, the deal breaker has been the fee has just been too low for the expectations.

Asking a lot of questions up front helps to understand whether the agency is reputable and one you want to work with on projects. For instance,

  • Does the agency have writers that have worked with them for
    a long time?
  • What types of projects do they offer?
  • How do they work with their writers?
  • Do they have clients that have used them for a long time?

What do you enjoy about writing product descriptions?

The challenge of finding new ways to describe everyday products. It makes you think in headlines and think really short; it stretches you creatively. You don’t always have to have long, complex sentences to get a point across.

It is very rewarding to see your copy on a website or in a catalog!

One last comment from Susan

The importance of features versus benefits for writing product descriptions.

While you need a mix of both, good product descriptions need benefits incorporated into them to help sell.

Items mentioned in this podcast include:

You can find Susan on:

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