The little-known power of captions

Legendary copywriter David Ogilvy: “Captions should appear under all your photographs. Readers are always drawn to them; four times as many people read captions as read body copy. Use your caption to sell.” Oh, and see how Mr. Ogilvy is looking off the page, drawing attention away from the post? Don’t do that. A lazy newbie move. I left it this way just for instructional purposes, of course

An update to conventional wisdom.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Actually, a picture with a 25-word caption is worth a thousand words.

The rule: Always run a meaningful, informative caption under every photograph in your web content, web materials, whitepapers. Well, in everything.

Do this and you will look like a genius. Your web content and marketing content will take on a whole new clarity and vigor.

Simple reason: People read those captions.

Your readers look for captions. It’s a habit they picked up from reading magazines, newspapers, news sites, books. (You know, the material they actually want to read, voluntarily.)

But isn’t a dramatic picture enough? That official ‘beauty shot?’


The National Geographic runs perhaps the most stunning and evocative photos in the business. And they always include informative captions that expand on what’s in the shot. As an editor told me, many more people read those captions than read the articles. So you do, I bet.

Besides, a picture without a caption subtly suggests ‘this is decorative fluff’.  (Like those vapid shots of people shaking hands, people in hardhats looking at plans and pointing at things.)

A photo with a caption suggests something useful, important. And it lets you get in more good stuff about your product.


Don’t write product copy. Write a product review.

When you’re stuck for a fresh and engaging way to talk about a product, don’t look for inspiration among other marketers. Most of them are recycling the same tired ideas.

Instead, study product reviews.

Go to the trade press and the blogs and magazines and see how journalists and columnists talk about products like yours.

They do a better job of inspiring customers than we marketers and copywriters do. I steal tactics from them all the time.

That’s because their do-or-die job is to write stuff that is interesting, useful, compelling.

And what’s compelling is not the corporate line, or the ‘key features list’ from the product team.

Customers want to hear about the experience of using the thing. Of living with it. Of selling it to the boss. They want to hear how it fixes pain-in-the-ass problems. Or, sometimes, how it actually works.

Read David Pogue of the New York Times. Walt Mossberg. TechCrunch. Engadget. Or the top publications or thinkers in the industry.

Notice what they talk about: Here’s what you see when you open the box.  Here’s how it feels in your hands.  Here’s how you put it together.

Here are some neat things you can do with it.  Here’s what it does really well.  Here’s what happens when you try this. . . or do that.  Does it fit in your rack space?  Is it a pain to configure?  How big is the thing?

Here is David Pogue on a Verizon wifi product:

Incredibly, there is such a thing. It’s the Novatel MiFi 2200, available from Verizon starting in mid-May ($100 with two-year contract, after rebate). It’s a little wisp of a thing, like a triple-thick credit card. It has one power button, one status light and a swappable battery that looks like the one in a cellphone. When you turn on your MiFi and wait 30 seconds, it provides a personal, portable, powerful, password-protected wireless hot spot. . .

. . .you’re spared the plug-and-unplug ritual of cellular modems. You can leave the MiFi in your pocket, purse or laptop bag; whenever you fire up your laptop, netbook, Wi-Fi camera or game gadget, or wake up your iPhone or iPod Touch, you’re online.

Last week, I was stuck on a runway for two hours. As I merrily worked away online, complete with YouTube videos and file downloads . . .

By contrast, we marketers and copywriters talk in brochurespeak and bullet points. We sound like a corporation talking to a target vertical about the attribute matrix derived from market research.

The ZXM-232000 Series gizmos deliver a significant reduction in OpEx and CapEx costs, increased deployment density, extensive scalability, and easily reconfigurable “personality” changes, between secure mobile and remote access . . . 

Zzzz. The boss may like such stuff, but it won’t juice many customers.

Let’s talk about what it’s like to use the thing. Talk about clever things you can do with it.

More people will listen.

Product literature should be literature

It’s interesting that we call our marketing content ‘product literature’, or ‘sales literature’.

Most of the time, of course, it ain’t even close to ‘literature’.  Those product sheets and web pages are pretty stiff reading, mostly.  (I know.  I inflicted reams of sales blather on the world before I reformed.)

The hard-boiled view is, “So what? We’re not writing goddam literature.  We’re trying sell something.”

But when you think of it, if we’re trying to get people passionately interested our stuff, literature is precisely what we need.

Continue reading “Product literature should be literature”

Technical copy, Banana Republic style

The model for compelling product copy

How do you make a technical product sound alluring?  How do you make the thing come alive? How do you get techs to think, “Oooh, I want that”?

Try a trick that I swiped from the old Banana Republic catalog.

Ages ago, before the company went yuppie, they used to sell exotic travel clothing:  khakis, boots, and other gear that Indiana Jones might wear.

Their irresistible formula:  Start with an interesting product, then paint a picture that makes you ache to own one: Continue reading “Technical copy, Banana Republic style”

Icons and idols: Writing wizards

This comes under the heading Seldom Asked Questions. SAQ.

“Which writers have influenced you the most?”

Tom O’Neill of Exodus Capital Advisors was the first client who had ever asked me that.

He explained that it was a good way to gauge a writer’s mindset and approach.  And any writer who couldn’t point to role models and heroes was no student of the craft.

Luckily, I was able to rattle off  a few  idols on the spot.  Enough to convince Tom I was no dilletante.

Since then, I have thought more about who has shaped how I build content for clients. Just in case anyone else brings up the question again.

The big guns, as I see them: Continue reading “Icons and idols: Writing wizards”