The Long and Short of the Long Copy vs. Short Copy Debate

Next to “Why can’t we use postcards?” the most frequent question I get from relative newcomers to direct marketing is “Why is the copy so long?” This question is invariably followed by “People don’t read anymore,” and then by “Don’t you know we’re in the age of Instant Messaging and YouTube University?”

Oh yes, people do read, and I’m not talking about James Patterson or Harry Potter novels. Get yourself on the mailing lists—email or snail mail—for either Agora Publishing or Phillips Publishing. Look at the email efforts they send out. For their investment divisions, both still are using emails that take you five minutes to scroll. Their letters? They’re 12, 16 or 20 pages long. I haven’t seen their health mailings recently, but I can promise you they similarly employ long copy.

True, for many mailers copy length has dropped considerably in the past 10 years. This is definitely the influence of the Internet and the result of people being ever more pressed for time. However, arbitrarily deciding that “copy should be no more than one page” or “more than three paragraphs means we’re going to lose them” can cost you response.

Bob Bly, not only a great copywriter but also mentor to a generation of new copywriters, has tackled the long versus short copy subject with eloquence and intelligence. He created an emotion/involvement axis as the basis of making long copy/short copy decisions. So, if you have a subject that’s very emotional and has a high degree of involvement—his example was buying a diamond ring—that would call for long copy. A low emotion/low involvement situation (like buying paper clips) would call for short copy.

Bly also cited a number of other factors in the decision: price, what he calls “purpose” or marketing objective, audience, importance, and familiarity. Let’s look at these factors.

Price

You would think that if a product is priced at $29.95, or a magazine is priced at $14.95, you could be nonchalant about it with minimal copy. But maybe not, because to make money in your direct mail, you’re going to have to do 10 times the response at $29.95 as you would at $299.

In the consumer arena, even if you give away something free, you still have to explain the offer—why you are doing it, why people should trust you, etc. In B-to-B controlled circulation, the issue is convincing prospects that the publication is worth their reading time, and you may need more than a voucher or statement-of-benefits format to do that.

Think about it—the factor isn’t as much price as it is OFFER. If you have a dynamite offer, you probably have less explaining to do.

Purpose

No question, lead-generation direct mail normally involves much shorter copy than selling something from the package. The purpose of a lead-generation package is to sell the next step. However, you may have to convince the prospect to take the next step if you’re in a highly competitive arena or dealing with top executives. Of course, if you use a classy freemium, you are bribing recipients to take the next step and, therefore, you can get away with less copy.

Audience

In most cases, I would agree with Bly: C-level executives do not have the time to read long copy when they’re on duty. But reach them at home and write about their favorite hobbies, and they’ll read reams. Professional educators obviously will read more than retail shop owners. That’s why I was surprised to see a purveyor of marketing services for retailers using Web site copy equivalent to that of an eight-page letter.

What Bly says here is that if prospects must buy a product (like a refrigerator), you can use shorter copy. Products that people don’t have to buy require longer copy. Using the refrigerator example, though, if you are manufacturing a new brand and going up against GE, you’d better have a good case for people to trust you. In most states, you must buy auto insurance. That only means your copy doesn’t have to deal with the “whether” question, but it must answer the “who” question, and that may require more copy.

Familiarity & Relevance

Bly points out that in publishing, if you have a name like Newsweek or BusinessWeek, your package can contain very short copy. Yes, that’s generally a good rule, but it raises the possibility of including another extremely important factor: relevance.

Let’s take BusinessWeek. If you’re a corporate manager and you see copies floating around the office, you know you have to be reading it—but convincing you to get your own subscription may require more than two lines on a statement-of-benefits form. If you run a small business (25-50 employees), I would contend that you have to be convinced the editorial sufficiently tackles small-business concerns and that BusinessWeek serves your purpose better than Inc., Fast Company or even Entrepreneur. Generally, if there’s high relevance to a particular segment of your prospect audience, you can bet on shorter copy working.

Conclusion: Do Both and Win!

There’s a way around the long copy/short copy decision—do both! Think about what happens online: Prospects may begin with a homepage; then they choose what they want to read about and click on a story or product link; on the next page, they have the opportunity to drill down even further into their interest.

In a direct-mail package, this translates to having a quick summary of what’s in the mailing. You can do this either with a Johnson box, a buckslip or even a lift note. Then your letter (and brochure) can be as long as it needs to be, particularly if you use plenty of descriptive cross-heads. The prospect can take the short route—read the summary and then respond—or dig in and get as much information as she wants.

[Ed. Note: This article first appeared in Inside Direct Mail, the most comprehensive publication in the direct-mail industry. Each issue takes an inside look at what’s in the mail, what’s working and what’s not—and most importantly how to improve your response.]

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Published: August 26, 2008

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