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Outsourcing Product Descriptions – The RIGHT Way


There are a lot of great posts out there about how to write better product descriptions.

It’s a shame most of them are never put to use.

Oh, it’s not for lack of good  intentions – I think most ecommerce brands would love to have unique, compelling descriptions for every product on their site.

The trouble is that all of the nice theory behind how to write a great product description goes up in flames when it meets the harsh reality of massive content requirements and budget restrictions that make outsourcing a necessity.

So you turn to Textbroker, oDesk or Elance to farm out your descriptions at bottom-of-the-barrel pricing so that they meet the base requirement of “unique”.


Except, well, no.

As Joanna Wiebe from Copy  Hackers reminds us, product pages immediately precede the shopping cart on most ecommerce sites.

“Each individual product page has a single goal for the business: drive the visitor into the cart to purchase the product in question.”

I want to propose a better way to outsource that yields stronger results.

It’s not a “cheap” way – though it will help make the process more affordable for the quality you get in return.

Keep in mind, bad copy is just as expensive as great copy if it doesn’t sell anything (another Joanna insight).   It’s also not a fast way – though it will ultimately save you time and headaches.

NOTE: My piece today won’t cover some essential elements of product descriptions that make them more compelling. For tips on writing more captivativing and effective descriptions, I’d point you to these posts from Shopify and Visual Website Optimizer.

So if outsourcing is a necessary evil, here’s the process I use with my writing team when we’re hired to handle this kind of work:

1. Export Your Product URLs to Excel & Categorize

Before you do anything, you’re going to want to capture all of your product page URLs (or mock them up if you don’t have them yet) and export them to excel. You will use this document to keep track of the process.

Categorization will also allow you to assign similar batches of product descriptions to the same writers, allowing them to build competency on the requirements for that category, get into a rhythm and turn out higher quality work (variety might be the spice of life, but it opens doors for oversights).

2. Identify Your Target Personas

The customer is at the core of every great product description. They are written for them, in their language, to meet their needs and satisfy their pain points. In addition to demographics, ecommerce personas should include:

  • Triggers – What events make the persona realize they need the product? (Frame as a user story
  • Objections  – What obstacles prevent the customer from buying? (Cost, reputation,  quality)
  • Pain points – What are the typical problems this persona is looking to solve with your products?

When you’ve created your personas, create a quick persona snapshot that you can share with the writers who will be working on the project.

If there are fundamentally different buyer personas (ex. You have very broad product categories), assign them to the products they most closely match with in Excel by adding a column for “Persona”.

3. Create a Writing Brief

When you assign the work, you’re going to want to give writers as much information as possible in as condensed a package as you can manage. The more you share, the less ambiguous your expectations.

This document will be shared with your writing team to give them an outlay for the project. Some things to include:

Company Information

You want to give your writer a sense of who the company is and what they stand for. In a short paragraph (and using the company’s own voice and tone), explain who the business is and give a concise statement on their philosophy/attitude; the “Why” behind what they do.

Include pertinent talking points – What are they best known for? What sets them apart? Why do customers choose that company over another (price, policy, etc.)

This should ideally be 200 words or less – just hit ‘em with the important stuff.


Take all that work you just did and pop it into your brief to give writers an understanding of who they are writing for. The info must answer “Who is their ideal buyer? What do they care about? What are their needs/pain points? What keeps them from buying?

This creates a clear target to be addressed with the content.

Voice & Tone

Your product descriptions need to speak directly to the customer (using “you”) in their own language. With your personas in hand, parse out the different elements of tone, voice and language that apply to each.

(NSFW: Language)

4. Create Format Templates

In an ideal world, every product pages layout would be customized to the type of product being sold – but in reality, ecommerce websites follow templates for product pages with predefined content areas.

What you want to do is define these areas and create a template that includes instructions for each section. This serves two purposes:

1. Makes it very easy for the writer to know what they should be writing and how it should be formatted. Not having to constantly enter the formatting over and over will speed up the writer’s production time a little – and when you’re doing this for a lot of descriptions, a little bit adds up to HOURS.

2. It makes it much, MUCH easier for editing down the line, because you won’t constantly wrestle with a zillion different word documents or have to go hunting for missing information.

Here’s an example I recently used for a client:

Your template will not look exactly  the same – the goal is just  to outline the essential sections of the content and describe the type of content that should go there.

This style of template is flexible enough that it can be adapted for higher or lower touch items, impulse buys, etc. – it can be changed by the writer to suit the product at hand without compromising the formatting of your website.

Don’t worry, though – we’ll be giving your writers a lot more to work with that will help them make sense of this template and produce copy that’s completely on point.

5. Source a Short Run Batch to a Talented Writer

Holy alliteration, batman!

Before you start sending out batches of descriptions, you want to seek out a top-tier writer whose work you know to be exceptional (if you’re having trouble finding them, this will help) and have them write a small number of descriptions, running through the process using your briefs, templates and process.

This serves a few purposes:

1. You want to test how well your instructions work. If a top-shelf writer doesn’t come back with work you can use, a less expensive copywriter is going to be lost at sea.

2. You are going to use these bright, shiny examples to show other writers examples of copy that meets your guidelines and expectations. Add these examples to the writing brief you’ve already created to give writers a chance to review.

3. If at all possible, you are going to turn this writer into your editor for the duration of the project – because now they’ll know exactly what you expect.

Which brings us to my next point.

6. Bring on an Editor

Welcome to the kingpin of any successful content endeavor: an editor.

(Get it?  Kingpin? Bah, nevermind.)

Don’t think you need one? Here’s why you’re wrong:

At a surface level, yes, there’s an added cost to keeping someone on tab to edit. But a good editor will actually save your hours of time and bottles full of headache pills by making your other writers much better.

Having someone at the helm will drastically improve the quality and consistency of the work you get back. They will guide the other writers and help them realize where they’re missing the mark .

No, a great editor can’t turn an inexperienced overseas writer into an Ogilvy, but they can take a talented but less experienced writer and make them a stronger asset to you.

Don’t think you can afford an editor?

You’d be surprised. If the project will be extended, you may be able to put that editor on a retainer for the duration of the project – maximizing their output for your cost level.

You’ll also be giving them something most freelancers or outsourced hires want: consistent, steady work. When there’s a bigger, more stable project at stake, you’ll find more talented individuals ready to play ball.

7. Create Your Content Task Force

One of the biggest pitfalls of services like oDesk, Elance and Textbroker is that you do not always have the option to retain the writers over the long-term – or even know who they are.This creates a problem as every new writer who picks up a batch of product descriptions will have to go through the entire process of briefing themselves, reviewing your requirements and getting used to your templates and formats.

Not ideal.

Instead of having 25 anonymous, mediocre writers write 2,500 descriptions, it would be better to have 5 stronger and more consistent writers tackle the load together. You want to either source a steady number of writers directly (more involved) or work with a collective/team where you know the same writers will be involved for the duration of the project.

It will take longer, but the quality of the work will improve as writers adapt to the project and your expectations and the editor has a chance to get to know the quirks and challenges with each writer (and hopefully correct them).

8. Assign the Work in Batches

You’ve found your kingpin/editor, sourced your writers and created your documents. All that’s left to do is assign the work!

For easy management, break your excel spreadsheet out into manageable batches (5 or 10 seem to work best). Send out these batches along with the brief and templates you created.

If existing product descriptions are available, provide the writers with access to these so that they can chew through the info and pull out pertinent points to cover.

If you can, assign the same writer similar categories of products to allow them to get in a rhythm. Writing about 10 jackets in a row is much easier than writing about one jacket, a scarf and a snowmobile; requirements differ between products.

Track the progress of the batches in your excel spreadsheet, marking down when they’ve been assigned, written, edited, approved and paid out.

9. Review, Edit & Revise

As the batches are completed, the editor will review, revise and make changes. You will want to stay connected with them to see how well your briefs and templates are working (a second test) and make sure your quality is continually hitting the mark.

Quality Matters.

So – there’s my process, tried and true.

As promised, it’s probably more involved than yours. It probably sounds more expensive and more time consuming than just firing off a half-baked brief to Textbroker.

But ask yourself:

Do you want product descriptions that are “unique”, or do you want product descriptions that are top-notch, tailored to your actual customers?

As the competition heats up online, the ability to differentiate with quality is going to be an asset. Check your priorities now; the times, they are a changin’.