Long Copy or Short Copy?

August 21, 2009 by

How to Plan Copy Length for Maximum Results

One of my clients is always saying to me, “I want something short. People don’t read anymore. They don’t have the time.”

But is that really true? Will business prospects not take the time to read long copy? Or are there times when long copy is better? And how do we determine the best copy length for a given promotion?

I’ll try to answer those questions for you today.

Do business prospects read anymore?

I think we intuitively know the answer to this first question. Otherwise, why would we spend countless hours writing and reviewing the vast amounts of text that go into our corporate websites?

“Business prospects are readers,” writes Bob Bly in Business to Business Direct Marketing. “For most executives, managers, and professionals in the business world, a significant part of their job consists of reading – not only reports, letters, memos and E-mail, but also proposals, product literature, and other information concerning products and services they need to acquire to perform their job function. So the business buyer does read, in fact mustread, and is accustomed to reading – something that isn’t necessarily true about all segments of the general public.”

“On the other hand,” continues Bly, “today’s business executives are tremendously busy – more time-pressured, with too much to read and not enough time to read it – than ever before. So, although your message may indeed be beneficial or useful, often they won’t get to it simply because there are too many things in their in-baskets competing for their attention.”

And that’s the real crux of my client’s fear. She’s afraid if her prospects see a lot of text in her ad, they’ll say, “I don’t have the time to read all that.” She would like her sales message condensed to just a few bullet points, in large type, so it can be read at a glance. And there are many in the advertising world who would encourage just such an approach.

But will that approach necessarily generate the most inquires?

Test results say no.

Who’s afraid of big, long copy?

Long copy vs. short copy is probably the most-argued debate in marketing. Yet, in decades of research studies and tests performed on all types of print advertising – space ads, direct mail, email, online – long copy invariably outsells short copy.

One famous study of retail advertisement results by Dr. Charles Edwards, long time dean of retailing at New York University, measured the success of ads against the number of merchandise facts they mentioned. Ads containing 6 facts outperformed those with 4 or 5 by a ratio of 3-to-1. And ads containing 8 or more facts were 5 times as successful as those with only 4 facts. Or, as Dr. Edwards said, “The more facts you tell, the more you sell.”

Long copy has been shown to work better online, as well. In a more recent (2004) study by MarketingExperiments.com, long copy landing pages consistently produced significantly better conversion rates and higher ROI than short copy landing pages, in a series of controlled tests.

The key is to tailor your message to your prospects’ interests, needs and desires.

In his landmark book, Tested Advertising Methods, legendary copywriter and scientific advertising pioneer John Caples writes: “Advocates of short copy say, ‘I don’t think anybody will read all that small print. Let’s cut the copy down to a couple of paragraphs and set it in 18-point type.’

“What advocates of short copy should say, if they want to be accurate, is this: ‘I don’t think everybody will read all that small print.’ This is perfectly true. Everybody will not read it. But the fact is that the very people you are most interested in will read your ad. They are the prospects who will buy your product or service if you tell them sufficient reasons for doing so.”

“The person who says ‘I would never read all that copy’ makes the mistake of thinking they are the customer. And they’re not,” says copywriter and marketing guru Dan Kennedy. “We are never our own customers. There’s a thing in copywriting I teach called ‘message-to-market match’. It is this: when your message is matched to a target market that has a high level of interest in it, not only does responsiveness go up but readership goes up, too. The whole issue of interest goes up.

“There’s abundant, legitimate, statistical research to indicate that virtually without exception, long copy outperforms short copy,” adds Kennedy. “There’s some significant research has been done that indicate that readership falls off dramatically at 300 words but does not again drop off until 3,000 words.”

In other words, anyone interested enough in your message to read your first 300 words (i.e., your prospect) will probably stay with you for 3,000…provided you don’t bore them to death.

“People object to reading copy,” writes copywriter Michel Fortin in his blog, “because: a) they are not targeted and b) the copy is boring. ‘Length’ is the excuse because it’s a common currency. ‘Boring’ is subjective. ‘Long’ is objective. When copy starts to bore you, you’re naturally are inclined to say it’s ‘too long.’ It’s too long because of the fact that it started to drag, causing the reader to lose interest.”

“Instead of saying write long or short,” says Dean Rieck of Direct Creative, “I would prefer to say, ‘Write clearly and concisely. Provide enough information to make a decision. Then shut up.’ The only thing worse than short copy that doesn’t sell is long copy that rambles on and on and puts people to sleep. You can’t bore people into buying.”

The lesson here is this: Don’t be afraid of using long copy. Just be sure to make it clear, concise and interesting to your prospect.

The Three Major Factors That Determine Copy Length

OK. That’s all very well and good, you say. But is long copy always better? And how do I determine how long my copy should be for a particular promotion?

No, long copy is not always better. It is true that, all things being equal, long copy consistently beats short copy. But the fact is, things are not always equal. It all depends on how much you need to say to your prospect.

A large number of considerations can influence copy length. But ultimately, these boil down to three major factors: the product, the audience, and the purpose of the promotion.

First, consider the product (or service). Complex products generally require a lot of explanation and, therefore, longer copy. If your selling technology, especially tools like software or test equipment, you’ll have many features and benefits to describe. You could literally write a book – and they have – about many software products. The challenge then becomes one of selection: which are the essential selling points that must be included, and what can be safely left out.

If your product is simple and well-understood, on the other hand, there may not be much to say about it. Let’s say you make fasteners. There may only be one thing that sets your product apart from your competition. Maybe not even that. It will be easy to be brief, difficult to be interesting. Your challenge will be to find enough to say to capture and hold your reader’s interest.

Expensive products often require long copy. Business prospects want to be assured they’re not putting money and their jobs at risk. The more expensive the product, the more people involved in the decision. And the amount of copy tends to rise proportionally.

Short copy generally works well if your prospect is already familiar with your product. If it’s something they can’t do without, buys in large numbers or replaces frequently – like a computer, printer or copier – chances are you don’t need to say very much.

The second major factor is your target audience. Different readers will have different concerns and different levels of interest in your product or service. Some won’t need much information. Others will want to know everything. Buyers of machined parts may only need a few paragraphs on your company’s qualifications and track record. Engineers shopping for a more effective testing solution, on the other hand, will want to know as much as possible to make sure your solution fits their application and will be compatible with their existing infrastructure.

You’ll normally want to be brief when writing to busy executives. However, if your product delivers significant but not-so-obvious business benefits that the competition can’t match, don’t be afraid to use all the copy you need to build your business case.

Finally, the third major factor that determines copy length is the purpose or objective of the piece. As most B2B transactions follow a multi-step process, the amount of information you need to convey to a given reader will depend on where you are in the sales cycle.

If you’re generating leads, you won’t need to talk much about your product. The materials you send in response to the inquiry will do that. Your product brochure, on the other hand, should tell a complete story – with as many relevant selling facts as possible.

Sales support documents will vary greatly in length, depending on their purpose. Case studies and data sheets tend to be narrowly focused and therefore brief. Sales presentations, technical white papers and application notes need to be more in-depth.

Of course, if you happen to have a product that can be sold in a one-step, you must tell your prospect everything he needs to know and answer all of his objections in that single package if you want to have any hope of making the sale.

Write all you need, but only what you need…then test it

Unfortunately, I can’t give you a magic formula that will spit out the optimal word count for a piece based on a set of parameters you plug in. But if you use the guidelines above, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of the amount of information you need to put in a given promotion.

And if you’d like a handy ‘rule of thumb’ Bob Bly offers the following: "The copy should contain enough information – no more, no less – to convince the greatest number of qualified prospects to take the next step in the buying process."

Finally, the only way you’ll truly know what amount of copy works best for your product, audience and purpose, is to test. My client’s bullet list of benefits, for example, might work gangbusters. But we won’t know until we test it.

Research your market, make your best guesses, and test promotions of various lengths. Track the number of inquiries and sales generated by each piece. When you find something that works, keep using it. Then keep testing to see if you can find something better.

Oh, and if you’d need someone to write the copy for your next promotion, I’ll also be happy to help you determine how much space you’ll need for it. Just call me at (+39) 011 569 49 51. Or drop me an email at info@CopyEngineer.com.

Take-Away Points

Business prospects will read your copy -- if it’s interesting, relevant and helps them make an informed decision on taking the next step in the purchasing process. So don’t be afraid to use long copy when needed.

To determine the amount of information a given promotion should contain, consider the three major factors that determine copy length: (1) your product or service, (2) your target audience, and (3) the objective of the piece.

Be concise. "The copy should contain enough information – no more, no less – to convince the greatest number of qualified prospects to take the next step in the buying process."

 

3 Comments

  1. [...] your keyphrases without degrading readability or your marketing message. And as I mentioned in a previous essay, business readers will read long copy, as long as it engages their interest and addresses their [...]

  2. Wendy

    Great article! This is a familiar debate and these tips will come in handy when developing messaging points for our direct mail campaigns and during the copy editing process. Thanks!

  3. […] is a solution to the problem of long copy versus short copy that should satisfy the champions of both sides of the question. Put a brief selling message into […]

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