How Long Should a Sales Letter Be?

Sales letters — how long should they be? In this age of multitasking and the Internet, isn’t it more sensible for marketers to send short ones to prospective customers?

That’s the question posed by Connie Prin, an AWAI member from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“As a decently educated busy parent and community volunteer trying to build a new career, I cannot, do not, and would not invest the amount of time in reading sales letters that often come to resemble written ‘infomercials,’ whether via Internet or direct mail. Only for this copywriting program do I suffer through as many as I do. MORE and more people must share this same perspective in dealing with increasing competition for our attention in this era of the ‘information availability’ explosion.

“Even Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, whose writing you featured a while back in Early to Rise (ETR), advocates nixing newspapers and uninvited email completely in order to take control of productively scheduling your time.

“Wouldn’t a more effective style of copywriting concise the sales message to a page or two? Unless your intention is that more people base a letter’s credibility (and thus, their order) on the amount of content rather than actually having to read the whole thing.

“My gut tells me in order for people to read through them, effective letters will have to be shortened in the overall picture. You and your successful team know far more than I — but I can’t be that wrong about this … or can I?”

The answer, dear Connie, in a word, is yes, you are wrong. At least when it comes to want-to-know information products.

Let me explain.

There are two kinds of information products that can be sold by mail (posted mail or email): need-to-know products and want-to-know products. The need-to-know products would include information about food, clothing, fertilizer (for gardeners), auto parts (for mechanics), labor law case analyses (for labor law lawyers), etc. The want-to-know products would include just about everything Early to Rise sells: how-to information on becoming healthier, wealthier, and wiser.

Do you see the difference?

Need-to-know products don’t need long copy because the customer needs them. In order to sell a need-to-know product, the copywriter has to do two things: establish the product’s USP and make the offer irresistible. You can do those two things relatively quickly — usually in two pages or less. That’s why need-to-know products are so often sold by catalog and by space ads — two direct-marketing methods that don’t give the copywriter much room.

To sell want-to-know products, you need more length. That’s because you have to do something you don’t have to do with need-to-know products: you have to stir up a desire for the product where none existed. People don’t actually need another book, newsletter, or CD collection on negotiating or investing. But when a good copywriter gets finished talking to them (via a long sales letter) they think they do.

It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true: when it comes to want-to-know products, longer letters usually work better than shorter ones. That has always been true and it’s still true today — even with email sales letters.

The feeling you have is based on logic and your own experience as a consumer. You are very busy. You don’t have time to read long letters. You throw most of them in the trash or delete them. Like Tim Ferris, you are annoyed by all this long copy. So if you hate long copy so much, doesn’t everybody?

Well, yes! Everybody hates long copy. At least that’s what everybody says. But the truth is that though we think we don’t like long copy, we respond to it. If you have bought any want-to-know products in the past, Connie, you probably responded to a long sales letter — even though you don’t like them. (AWAI’s Retire This Year promo is 32 pages!)

I used to do focus groups with my clients’ customers. I would ask those people which they preferred: short sales letters or longer ones. They all said they preferred shorter sales letters. Yet they had all become our customers by responding to the longer ones my clients were sending out!

I have personally overseen at least a hundred long copy vs. shorter copy tests. When the leads were the same, the long copy always did better.

I had Jason Holland, my research assistant, contact three of the top copywriters working today and ask them, “How long was your best-selling sales letter?”

John Forde said: “My most successful promo this year, measured in subscriptions sold, clocked in at 32 pages. And this, by the way, is a promo I actually wrote seven years ago and have been revising and updating ever since. It’s added thousands of readers to a resource-investing newsletter, and it’s made me a pile of cash. I have a 24-pager that’s done about $1.3 million since the start of 2008. This one, I probably could have written shorter, but not by much.”

Mike Palmer said: “The best package I wrote in the past year was a 52-page bookalog, which translates to at least a 25-page letter. You know, I hear this all the time from new copywriters — ‘Why can’t we write shorter copy?’ One important reason, I tell them, is because good copy must ‘startle’ your reader with an idea he’s never heard before. That’s the only way to have a breakthrough promotion. And an idea that truly startles your reader takes a lot of explaining … proof … answering objections. You simply need a lot of space to get your point across.”

Paul Hollingshead said: “My best mailing recently was a financial package that ran about 22 pages. In fact, when I look back at most of the financial packages I’ve written, they typically fall within the 20- to 24-page range. The main reason, I think, is because that’s how long it takes to get in all the needed elements of a strong financial sales letter — your promise, your credibility, the track record, the offer, bonuses, and whatnot. Also, I tend to write in a more conversational ‘chatty’ tone, which can lengthen a letter. And I make an effort to keep paragraphs very short so there’s a lot of ‘white space’ in my copy for easier reading.”

You see, direct-response marketing is not about fitting your sales pitch into the small amount of space most people will read. It’s about finding the one person in a hundred who will give you the time you need to sell him.

Have you ever walked down a city street and seen people canvassing for some charitable, political, or religious cause? What do they do? They say something — a short, catchy sentence — to get you to stop and listen to their pitch. In most cases — perhaps 99 out of a hundred — passersby won’t give them the time they need to make the sale. They listen for a few seconds and then shake their heads and go on. But those canvassers are pros. They don’t worry about the people who don’t have time for them. They focus on the ones who do stop and listen, because those are their prime prospects.

Imagine if, instead, they tried to fit their entire sales pitch into the 10 or 15 seconds they could get by following a prospect partway down the block. What chance would that strategy have?

It all boils down to this fact: the Internet has changed the world, but it has not changed human psychology. If you are going to convince someone that he needs something that he really doesn’t need — you need time to do it.

So, Connie, don’t resist this part of the copywriting program. Go with it. Later, after you’ve proven yourself as a master of long copy, you can try shorter copy and see if it works.

By the way, you should know that copywriters who can write long copy (i.e., want-to-know copywriters) make about twice or three times the money that need-to-know copywriters make.

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Published: August 19, 2013

2 Responses to “How Long Should a Sales Letter Be?”

  1. Great explanation. As always, testing proves the point. My best promotion this year is also a 20-page letter.

    Steve Roller

  2. Need-to-know products appeal more to logic. In my mind, the "sale" is already made. So just give me 2 or 3 good reasons to buy and make it a good value, and out comes my wallet. Plus, I'm not really buying. I'm retrieving. I see what I want. I get it. 1-2 pages tops.

    Want-to-know products must resonate with me.If I'm not feelin' it, I'm not buying it. And when I'm reading your copy, time stands still. I absorb it. 20 pages feel like 10 minutes. So the longer you hook me, the faster I buy.


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