Content 101: What Is a Differentiator?

One of the core skills for an ecommerce content developer is understanding how to (1) describe an individual product in a simple string of descriptive elements, or attributes, and (2) distinguish similar products from each other.

Attributes describe a product’s physical properties (size, color, dimensions, material, sterile), functionality (for underwater use, disposable) or other specifications (Replacement for, Country of origin, Certifications).

The list of potential attributes is infinite. A product’s classification, or taxonomy, determines the set of attributes generally associated with that type of product. The attribute set for a microscope would be quite different than the set for a bottle.

Ecommerce product descriptions are strings of attributes in a logical order starting with the object name end ending with very specific information.  A product descriptive template for a child’s ball, for example, might look like this:

[Noun|Brand Name|Material|Diameter|Weight| Country| Color], or

Ball, Hi-Bounce, Solid Rubber, Dia. 3 in. (7.6cm), Weight 3 oz. (85g), Made in China, Color: Pink

The reader knows exactly what this item is from the information given.

For a piece of equipment, the string is somewhat different, as in this example for a stirring hotplate:

[Noun|Brand Name| Model |Top Plate Material| Heating Range| Stirring Range| Top Plate Dimensions| Electrical Requirements], or

Stirring Hotplate, Corning, PC420D, Ceramic, 5° to 550°C | 60 to 1200rpm | 13 x 18mm | 120V 60Hz

For a standalone SKU, the order of attributes isn’t necessarily important. But for a group of SKUs from the same product family, the descriptions must allow the reader to tell them apart. The attributes that identify these differences are the differentiators.

Suppose we sold six rubber balls, all of the same size, weight and material, all in different colors. The color is the differentiator between the six SKUs.

If we sold six pink rubber balls, each in a different size, the size and weight are the differentiators.

Differentiators are placed last in a product string, preceded by characteristics shared by all SKUS in the family. For example, returning to those six rubber balls:

Ball, Hi-Bounce, Solid Rubber, Dia. 3 in. (7.6cm), Weight 3 oz. (85g), Made in China, Color: Black

Ball, Hi-Bounce, Solid Rubber, Dia. 3 in. (7.6cm), Weight 3 oz. (85g), Made in China, Color: Blue

Ball, Hi-Bounce, Solid Rubber, Dia. 3 in. (7.6cm), Weight 3 oz. (85g), Made in China, Color: Orange

Ball, Hi-Bounce, Solid Rubber, Dia. 3 in. (7.6cm), Weight 3 oz. (85g), Made in China, Color: Pink

Ball, Hi-Bounce, Solid Rubber, Dia. 3 in. (7.6cm), Weight 3 oz. (85g), Made in China, Color: Red

Ball, Hi-Bounce, Solid Rubber, Dia. 3 in. (7.6cm), Weight 3 oz. (85g), Made in China, Color: Yellow

At first, new writers often find the concept of the differentiator easier to understand than to execute. It takes practice to train the brain to think How is Product A different from Product B? A good exercise is to read the ordering tables in print catalogs; the differentiating information is right there in subheads and in the information provided under each column.

Differentials are critical for the reader because often the family-level text is general and does not discern between SKUs. Therefore, it is essential that each SKU’s differentiator be accurate.

This blog was inspired by and is dedicated to Angie S., a data maven extraordinaire who lives, breathes and sleeps content!

Dan Skantar is Director of Content Services for JP Enterprises, Inc.

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