No One Reads Long Copy, She Says

February 23rd, 2009 by Bob Bly

JS, a subscriber to my e-newsletter The Direct Response Letter, writes:

“I have been reading a lot of your promos as well as those of many other of the [marketing] columnists and writers. All of them (the promos or letters) are very long. I would think in today’s busy world that people don’t want to take time to read such long marketing letters yet you’ve been in business for a long time and obviously have learned what works well and what doesn’t. When I was employed by a Chamber publisher and writing their marketing materials, everyone told me, ‘keep it short, no one reads long emails.’

“Are there studies available that prove the effectiveness of long sales and marketing letters? Or is it just a given among those of you who have been doing this for so long, and that they’ve worked for your customers?”

The question of long vs. short copy is one of those tiring arguments that never seems to quite get settled.

Do you agree with JS’s publishing boss, who insisted that “no one reads long [copy]“?

Can you cite any evidence, either way, on the superiority of long vs. short copy or vice versa?

If you “cop out” (nothing wrong with doing so) and tell me, “It depends” — then I ask you: “Depends on what?”

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This entry was posted on Monday, February 23rd, 2009 at 5:05 pm and is filed under Advertising. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

37 responses about “No One Reads Long Copy, She Says”

  1. Brian Campbell said:

    Now this is the answer that it 100% true, but nobody wants to hear…

    Test-It!

    Google Analytics provides you the free ability to split test two different versions. I own & manage several information marketing businesses. The funny thing is that sometimes long copy works better, sometimes short. It all depends on how the copy flows.

    From my experience, there is no way to know for sure without testing. If you don’t want to test, you’re leaving 70% or more of the money you could be making on the table.

  2. Chad Kettner - Sports Copywriter said:

    No…people don’t always want to an entire 10-15 page sales letter – but that doesn’t mean long copy isn’t better.

    Long copy is better because it is able to emphasize all the benefits, answer all the objections, and more thoroughly explain the value of the offer.

    Nonetheless, the only way long copy can ever be successful is if it is easy to scan. Sure, not many want to read 15 pages, but everybody wants to find exactly what they’re looking for!

  3. Jim Logan said:

    I don’t believe there’s an ideal length to a sales letter – as there’s no ideal length to a book or movie. There’s just the length necessary to build a compelling reason to act.

    The best performing sales letter I’ve written for my business is four pages long. A highly successful letter I wrote for a client is one page long. Neither letter was written to be the length it happened to be – that’s just what it took to support the call to action each offered.

    In my experience, people will read whatever length of copy holds their attention.

    A caution I’d offer is to intentionally write short copy. I’ve soon more poorly written short copy than long – people ending too fast because they think they’ve written too much, when in fact they stopped before they make their case to act.

  4. Michel Fortin said:

    I can certainly vouch for the effectiveness of long copy, but I think I’ve beaten this topic to death on my own blog.

    However, let me give you a different spin, if I may, Bob.

    When I used to teach marketing management in college, marketing textbooks categorize products into four major categories. They are:

    1) Convenience products
    2) Shopping products
    3) Specialized products
    4) Unsought products

    We did this to help understand issues like price elasticity, demand, advertising, etc.

    But I also like to look at these categories as a pretty good determinant of how long copy should be.

    Convenience products are commodities and often mass-produced products, such as bread and milk. Almost everything you find in a convenience, grocery, or drug store. Purchases are usually impulsive.

    Shopping products are a little more expensive, and tend to be products we shop around for. Such as cars, appliances, homes, clothes, etc. Purchases are a little more careful and take more time.

    Specialty products or specialized products are luxyury items, not as mass-produced, and very often high-priced. Things like Mont Blanc pens, gourmet/exotic food, Rolls Royce cars, a Rembrandt art piece, etc. Purchases are very rare and the sales process typically very long.

    Finally, unsought products are products that have little to no demand, and are unknown to most. They are a step above specialty products. For example, specialty insurance, pre-arranged funeral services, clinical drug trials, etc.

    Now, all that said, the length of the copy will tend to be proportional to the level of specialization of the product.

    The more specialized the product is, the longer the sales cycle, and thus the more copy it will need.

    Hope this helps.

  5. SEO Copywriting | SEO copywriting candy: ongoing SEO content & strategy debates said:

    [...] tiring arguments that never seems to quite get settled.” Read his recent blog post, “No One Reads Long Copy, She Says,” about the so-called proper length of a sales letter. What do you think — long or short [...]

  6. Leo said:

    I have to agree with Michael here….you don’t need long ad copy if your brand is “known”. However, there are several variables that you have to prove to your potential customer if they have no clue who you are….

    1. Why should they buy from you?
    2. Who are you and are credible?
    3. What makes your product better than similar products AND how will it affect their life….
    4. Price Point

    For unknowns (which are the majority of sales copy that don’t have the money to perform a branding campaign), you almost certainly have to have long ad copy b/c there is a lot more to prove than a product like “magikjack” that has spent the money becoming known and credible.

    I also think that price po

  7. Note Taking Nerd #2 said:

    I never depend on people to read every word of my copy.

    But I always depend on the ideal prospect for what it is I’m selling being on a constant hunt for ways to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

    So, if I have a preponderance of proof that demonstrates I can help them get what they want, I use it.

    If I have the space, I want to delve into every layer of the self-serving benefits to the prospects.

    I would rather someone see a 32 page letter or get a box from me with a CD, DVD, book of testimonials, books you’ve authored, newsletters plus an advertorial and say to themselves…

    “O.K., I get it. You’ve done your homework and you stand head and shoulders above any other source I’ve looked at for helping me with this problem. How can I pay for this?”

    The one danger to keep in mind is the whole premise of “A confused mind always says no.”

    If you’re going long, you can’t bore or confuse or you’ll kiss that sale goodbye.

    Note Taking Nerd #2
    http://www.mynotetakingnerd.wordpress.com

  8. Susan Martin said:

    I understand the arguments for long copy, but as a reader, if you don’t pique my interest in the first couple of sentences you’ve lost me. From there, I may skim headings to look for evidence or additional info, but find that I never read one of those long sales letters in it’s entirety, and when I come across one I often think “they’re just trying to sell me something…”

  9. Paul St. Amant said:

    I’m not a marketer, so I can’t vouch for any one strategy or another, but as a customer or buyer, I prefer:

    1) short paragraphs,
    2) bullet points (or numbered lists),
    3) pictures or diagrams, and
    4) an easy way to get to more information, if I want it.

    Most everyone these days scans volumes of information each day. If something catches my interest I read it and then re-read it. At this point, if it still interests me, I bookmark it or search for additional info.

    For those reasons, keep the most important stuff in the first sentences, but you can pull me back with some bullet points or better yet, a graphic of some sort…an not stock photos.

    Paul St. Amant
    http://www.softomic.com

  10. Joel Heffner said:

    I seem to remember reading how David Ogilvy got his start by sending out a postcard for his first assignment. It’s hard to throw a postcard out without at least looking at the copy side. Without testing, you’ll never know what will work best for you.

  11. Bob Bly said:

    Joel: Maybe. But I have read every book Ogilvy wrote and the new biography written about him, and there is no mention of him ever having used a postcard for anything.

  12. Shel Horowitz said:

    The better the fit among message, market and offer, the less space you’ll need. The more familiar the offer, the less space you’ll need.

    If your audience is not familiar with you, or doesn’t see a close fit, you’ll have to sell hard, and you’ll need long copy to do it. If you’re already trusted and they know you’ll perform at or above expectation, the sale is easier.

    When you do use long copy, I think it’s a good idea to put order inks at various places so you don’t waste the time of those already convinced (or worse, let themselves convince themselves back out of the sale.

  13. Govind Mukundan said:

    To paraphrase Howard Gossage: “people don’t read ‘long sales letters’ or ‘short sales letters’. They read what interests them, and sometimes it’s a sales letter.”

    And that’s very true, isn’t it? Just write what you need to persuade the reader, and do a complete job. The length of the copy is not a terribly useful measure of, well, *anything*…

  14. Ken said:

    If you can include enough information to satisfy those who respond better to long copy, but break it up along the way with subheads etc. so those who prefer shorter copy get all the info. they need, then it should be possible to persuade both.
    Especially in online sales letters it’s easy to write it long but add ‘order now’ buttons strategically along the way to capture the short copy lover’s order as well.
    I have a brand new copy of the Ten Step Marketing Plan I purchased through an email from Bob himself that did just that.

  15. Cynthia Maniglia said:

    Make. Every. Word. Count.

    Long, short, medium length. It doesn’t matter.

    Powerful, persuasive copy comes in all size packages.

  16. Cynthia Maniglia said:

    P.S. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned this yet:

    http://www.succezz.com/Articles/SalesLetterforExpedition.html

    It’s the de facto CLASSIC (SUCCESSFUL) long letter.

  17. Dan said:

    I follow Hopkin’s philosophy from Scientific Advertising almost to a fault. I do my best to tell the entire story. So long copy it is, for me.

    I read something recently which said that most internet marketers are missing out on a vital piece from direct mail campaigns. The brochure. I don’t have much of a swipe file of direct mail pieces myself. But I guess a lot of pieces include a brochure with the long copy sales letter, which gives the short version of the story. So basically, having a short copy piece is supposed to boost conversion.

  18. E-Commerce Writer said:

    So much online advice about online copywriting is geared toward those writers who write those multi-page sites selling one (usually expensive) product or service. But what about us e-commerce copywriters? We write hundreds of individual product pages for hundreds of separate products. (Mine consist of very brief attention-getting intro followed by benefit bullets.) And we’re constantly being told–by bosses who may not have a clue–that copy must be short, short, short, because Internet shoppers don’t read; they scan.

    I write about athletic performance apparel. Some of our products wick moisture, control garment odors, block UV rays, control breast motion, warm and support your muscles, and program your coffee maker. :) It is IMPOSSIBLE to convey all these benefits in 300 characters or less, yet that’s what I’m sometimes expected to do. Meanwhile, our customers actually tell us that they appreciate having longer copy with more details about the performance benefits. It’s very frustrating.

    What do you say to us e-commerce writers? We’re not talking about a one-page letter versus a four-page one. We’re talking about 300 characters versus 600-700 characters. Is there any advice out there for writers like us?

    Thanks in advance!

  19. David Vinge said:

    Jacob Nielsen addresses whether a site’s content strategy should use longer or shorter content. The best answer: “As long as it needs to be.”

    See http://www.emarketingdashboard.com/2008/02/long-or-short-copy-on-web-sites_01.html

  20. Cornelia Argabright said:

    Your write up is a good model of it.

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    Tremendously informative cheers, I think your readers could quite possibly want more stories.

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