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September 9, 2015 (Updated: February 8, 2023)
The grass is always greener on the other side, especially when it comes to product descriptions. I’ve worked for companies that managed their PDs in-house, and then for agencies that offered them as a service. Unsurprisingly, I found myself longing for ease of outsourcing and then the close proximity of internal processes. But which is more efficient, hiring out or staffing in? The answer lies in your business needs, current structure, and yes, even your products.
For retailers across the country, the countdown is on for Black Friday. As stores bring in a variety of new products full of seasonal and trendy options (did someone say Star Wars?) e-commerce teams and copywriters are up to their ears in ornaments, scarves, boots, and action figures that all need creative, well-written product descriptions. We’re approaching the busiest time of year that can quickly become too much for in-house staff to handle.
The beauty of working with a content vendor is the dramatic scalability that you can match with the seasons. Agencies like CopyPress are stocked with an arsenal of freelancers and employees that can handle the influx of Holiday items. Any company that experiences seasonal changes – from a Halloween store to a Fireworks factory – can save money and reduce stress by working with an agency.
One of the greatest benefits of in-house teams is the ability to touch the product that you’re writing about. Sometimes the flow of a chiffon dress or intricacies of a lace scarf are lost on a small photograph provided by the company. Working in-house is further beneficial if the copywriter can ask the buying team follow-up questions about the fabric or exact measurements. How can that be replicated in an agency setting?
Communication about product information is a two-way street. Agencies should create wish-lists of information that they’re lacking that would make the process easier, and companies should always try to improve the resources provided to their vendors. Here are a few ideas for both teams that I’ve used to kick-start the process:
If you ever wanted to work at QVC, now is your chance. Set up a webinar with your agency to walk them through upcoming products for the season. What are the top items that you’re expecting? Why are they different from your normal line? Show how the product moves and let the agency ask follow-up questions and make notes to reference later.
Let’s say your store is selling a particular brand of shoe that provides extra grip when hiking and has stay dry material. If you just send a photo of that item, you’re going to get a product description about how fashionable sneakers are. Forward the same promotional pamphlets that made the buyer choose that item in the first place to your agency. They’ll realize what makes this brand special and highlight its unique features. Not only does this make the job of the copywriter easier, but it also makes your copy more compelling – which quickly turns into conversions.
If you can’t get the actual item or sample in the hands of your copywriters, try to get them the best photos possible. I’ve seen writers squint at a tiny, grainy photo wondering if a dress pattern was of cats or birds. Poor information and photos won’t hurt just your PDs, they’ll cost you in the long run when frustrated customers are returning products they thought would be different.
One more thing: if you’re not happy with the copy you get back, be detailed in explaining why. Agencies won’t know that the issue was the tone or the industry jargon unless you clarify the problem. Re-tuning copy like cold soup will leave your team scratching their heads and guessing at what needs to be changed.
How many different ways can you describe cookware? Do the words durable, easy-to-use, light, and strong come to mind? Have any others? After a while, your internal team is going to get tired of highlighting the same qualities, and your copy will get repetitive.
Your agency will approach your products with new eyes, and a deep talent pool will offer different words and see your products in better ways. I highly recommend testing agencies if only to bring in a fresh word cloud of ideas to your products. Take a chance and see how others perceive your product.
Realistically, any outsourced team that manages your account will have a handful of other clients they work for, and that’s not a bad thing! When your copywriters have their hands in multiple industries, they’re able to avoid the burnout that comes with writing about the same subject matter every day. Plus, they can bounce around new ideas and reach out to peer teams for solutions.
Unfortunately, outsourcing also means your team doesn’t have their fingers on the pulse of the company like you do. They’re not at the table when management talks brand initiatives and tend to focus on the brand only as long as the task requires. An in-house team will live your brand and have a full workweek to carry out company objectives.
As the liaison to the agency, it’s your job to make sure your vendors are up to date on where the company is going. This means going deeper than sample descriptions and photos. Context will go a long way in helping content vendors. Is your company trying to chase millennials? That affects the copy. Are they doing a gift push for graduation season? Copywriters can speak to that audience specifically, meaning your product descriptions will shine.
Let’s start with companies that have a strong internal staff. Convincing management to budget for an agency when you already have a copy employee is tough. The key is highlighting scalability. Find a content company that you like (maybe us?) and give them a handful of product descriptions to see how they do. If you like what you see, you’re not making that staffer redundant; you’re making them a coordinator between agency and client.
If your current company outsources and you’re looking to create a farm system of internal talent, grab an intern, part-timer, or contractor and see how they approach the brand for a few weeks. Remember: you can improve your content’s quality through an agency, so the purpose of bringing someone on staff is to make turnaround, communication, and quality better for your whole department. If you find yourself more frustrated than when you started, try sending the intern down to finance instead.
Even if you’re happy with your current agency, you should always test against them. Give a handful of products to new vendors (again, maybe us?) just to see if there are better and easier teams out there. You’re not married to your vendors forever, and you might find that the change you need isn’t a matter of bringing the external internal, but changing up partners instead.
You shouldn’t lie awake at night worrying about the quality of your product descriptions. The key to deciding between picking a vendor and taking on an employee is ease of use for you. The right content agency can take a lot off your plate and deliver quality work in a timely manner. If that’s not what you’re getting, why haven’t you made a change?
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