I got this question from a reader, and even though yesterday was Mailbox Monday, I’m in the mood to answer it today…

Sometimes, I do that.  My essays, my rules!

The question, in short, was, “Is catalog copywriting still a viable niche?”

My answer, in short, is, “yes.”

However, I know my most loyal readers are as interested in my commentary as a simple binary yes/no answer, so I’ll give you a few reasons why PLUS some insights into the changing opportunities in the catalog market.

It’s all about that list…

Here’s the thing.  The traditional catalog market is best-known as a direct mail market.

And since many of the traditional direct mail businesses have gone online in recent years, it’s a valid question to ask.

Direct mail lists have shrunk.  As fewer marketers have gone to the mail to get customers, their list of mail-buyers have shrunk.  Which feeds back to less reliance on direct mail.  Leading to less mail-buyers.  And so on.

This move was especially pronounced throughout the 2000s.  However, in the 2010s it seems to be reversing, some.  Many of the classic direct mail companies, who moved big-time onto the internet, have been going back to the mail.

What they find are that direct mail buyers spend more, more often, and stick longer than internet buyers.

Direct mail is still a thriving marketing medium.

And today, while the total list universes are smaller, so is the competition in the inbox.  Which means direct mail remains attractive as one source of customer acquisition.

But are there people still buying from catalogs in the mail today?  Well, my household is still getting them.  And we’re heavy online shoppers.  A quick search on Nextmark’s Mailing List Finder reveals a compiled list of over 63 million catalog buyers in the United States.  That’s basically 1 in 2 households in America.

Browsing deeper into the listings, it’s not hard to find catalogs that report recent buyers counts into the hundreds of thousands.  The American Girl catalog, for example, has over 1.5 million buyers in the last year, according to their list information.

Dr. Leonard’s Healthcare Catalog reports 1.2 million catalog buyers in the last year.

Harry & David’s Gift Catalog reports 1.4 million buyers, who spend an average $115 and 70% of whom come back and buy again.

If these numbers are still flying around today, catalogs — by mail — are still a viable marketing channel.

But, if you’re interested in this kind of copywriting, I encourage you to think beyond the traditional direct mail catalog…

Consider: The $82.8 billion catalog…

Let’s imagine for a minute that we didn’t have the word catalog.  And instead, we had to expand the language we used to talk about what we’re doing when we’re selling through catalogs.

Generally, we’re talking about: “Descriptions for physical products sold remotely, and delivered by mail or courier.”

I know, it’s a mouthful.

But think about this…

How different is the copywriting when you’re writing to sell a product on Amazon.com, versus selling via a catalog?

Honestly, not very.

Which means if you’re interested in catalog copywriting, you should absolutely consider Amazon product descriptions as part of what you do.

Last year, Amazon moved $82.8 billion in retail products.

These are products sold just like they were in catalogs.  A picture and some copy.  Selling a product to be delivered by mail.

Many of the same rules and challenges apply.

YES, there are extra considerations.  For example, any good Amazon listing will include some SEO best-practices, because Amazon is a huge search engine, plus many Amazon visitors get there through Google and other search engines.

However, if you can write compelling catalog copy, you’re about 95% of the way to writing good Amazon product descriptions.

But you don’t have to stop with Amazon.

Every entrepreneur who wants to sell products online needs copy to sell them.  And again, the same rules that applied to really good catalog copywriting apply to writing product description copy elsewhere.

You can work with product inventors.  You can work with folks launching crowdfunding campaigns.  You can work with online catalog companies.  You can work with traditional retailers to help them list their brick-and-mortar catalog online.

And so on, and so on.

The media being used has expanded, but the same principles apply.

That brings me to my final thought…

The old and new rules of catalog marketing…

What’s still the same about catalog marketing?

“Mail order marketers” — to lump them together — still need compelling product descriptions that give the consumer the feel of the product before they can experience it in-person.

As consumers continue to buy more and more online, this is actually more important now than ever before.

This involves infusing a story into the product.

It involves creating a personality for the brand — either the product maker, or the retailer as connoisseur and curator of the product line.

And importantly, it involves understanding what moves prospects to take action and buy.

So what’s different?

The new rules require thinking outside of the channel and medium, into the unique challenges and opportunities presented by, for example, launching a “catalog” product through Kickstarter instead of on page 43 of an 128-page catalog.

Do this well, and you’ll find that catalog copywriting is still a viable and even thriving niche.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr