Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?

September 11th, 2007 by Bob Bly

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told: “Why is your copy so long? … People are too busy to read today … They won’t read all that copy … Use bullets, pictures, and white space.”

The late Bill Jayme, one of the greatest copywriters of the 20th century (he wrote the classic “Do you close the bathroom door even when you’re the only one home?” for Psychology Today), disagrees.

“Pay little heed to talk about America becoming illiterate,” wrote Jayme.

“First off, unless you are selling reading courses, today’s illiterates are’t your market.

“Second, if cockroaches, fruitcakes, and opera can survive, so will the written word.”

But Jayme wrote this years ago, pre-Internet.

Do you agree that his advice still holds today … and that the ‘people don’t read’ crowd doesn’t know their anus from their elbow?

Or do you think reading is dead … and long copy doesn’t work as well as it used to any more?

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 11th, 2007 at 2:56 pm and is filed under General, Writing and the Internet. 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.

40 responses about “Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?”

  1. Robert Rosenthal said:

    Some clients would never approve Bill Jayme’s 13-word headline. They’d say it’s too long.

  2. Michael said:

    I don’t think reading is dead, but I myself have a problem with reading long copy. I find that in a lot of the AWAI e-mail offers I get, for example, I find myself scrutinizing the headlines, part of the lead, and then scrolling down past all the pages of the sales letter in a blur to get to the end where I can read the encapsulated version and find the price. And, this isn’t my habit just with AWAI sales letters, either, but with pretty much all sales letters I receive. If it’s longer than 3-4 pages, I tend to stop reading and skip to the end.

    I don’t know why I do this. Maybe because as a copywriter, I already know where the information I want is. Or, it could be that the Internet age has rubbed off on me. With so much eye candy online and so many opportunities to read a little and then click away, I’ve become accustomed to getting ants in my britches after a few paragraphs.

    I think Marketing Experiments Journal did a test of long vs. short copy. I’ll have to check again.

    For the record, I close the bathroom door when I’m home alone. That way, I don’t get an unexpected surprise when the wife comes home and brings an unexpected visitor with her whom she told while getting out of the car “Oh, the bathroom is right down the hall. I’ll be right in…” ; )

  3. Bob Bly said:

    Robert: Many of Jayme’s headlines were even shorter. For a package offering a free issue of Money magazine, he used two words: “MONEY. FREE.”

  4. Ted Grigg said:

    A few of my colleagues are Internet marketing specialists and they tell me that web sites with long, GOOD copy perform better than short copy web sites. They also tell me that higher priced items take more copy to sell than less expensive items.

    I’ve heard this Attention Deficit Disorder explanation thing you mentioned for over 20 years. Professional direct marketers know full well that for selling — as opposed to lead generation efforts — longer copy outpulls short copy regardless of the medium.

    There are always exceptions, but they are few and far between.

    Show me the testing evidence and I will be the first to reverse that generalized statement. The problem is, my testing shows that long copy performs better in most industries assuming the product or service offers benefits.

    Those who advocate short copy with the assumption that readers don’t have the time or won’t read long sales copy usually comes from marketers who never subjected their opinions to the rigors of reliable testing.

  5. Matt Spergel said:

    I think Jayme’s advice still holds true today. Reading is definitely not dead. More people read today than ever before.

    As far as long copy is concerned, I think it depends on what you’re selling. Simple products require less explaining/selling. However, as long as you keep it interesting, you can keep the reader engaged. All you have to do is get them to that next sentence …

  6. Joel Heffner said:

    Reading is certainly not dead. It just has more competition these days. My son never liked to read. When the Harry Potter books came out, however, he stayed up nights until he finished them. If it’s worth reading or its really well written and it might fulfill a need, folks will read it. The area that I see as being down is that many people prefer to listen to books, rather than read them. I’ve got a bunch of stuff on my iPod that I listen to when I’m in the car. Maybe, in some ways, we need a new definition of what reading means? Haven’t I “read” those audiobooks?

  7. Bob Bly said:

    Joel: I think listening to an audio book and reading a book are two different methods of learning. If listening to an iPod is “reading,” why isn’t watching TV also “reading”? Matt: the challenge of course is keeping the reader engaged and interested enough to read the next sentence, which is why good copywriters still earn high fees.

  8. Sheri Cyprus said:

    I really want to know if readers do read to get to the next sentence in long copy sales letters or do they scan over huge amounts to get to the next bolded section, headline or testimonial that connects with their emotions? Does anyone think that on some level, the reader feels something like “look at all these pages saying how great this product is. I wasn’t sure it was so great, but look at this part and this part that really make sense — and then of course the P.S., P.P.P.S. and the P.P.P.P.S — (ad naseum, lol) drives the benefits to them in swift sucker punches to the gut that rebound to the heart and they want the product?

    I have a regular gig writing long copy sales letters for a psychologist who sells parenting products online. He’s tested 6 page, 9 page, 12 page and 15 pages letters consistently and the 15 page letters pull the best, with the 12 page ones second best. That said, I agree with Matt that whether to use long or short copy depends on whether the product can be considered “simple” or not.

    These parenting products are definitely more complex than simple so maybe the long copy helps explain the products better too? Jayme’s point that the target market is not illiterate seems to be strongly accurate in this case as the parenting products are mostly guidebooks meant to be read!

  9. Jill said:

    I think anything over one page doesn’t get read unless your reader IS in the bathroom while home alone.

    Like Michael, I have a tendency to skip down through a piece of long copy just to get to the conclusion.

    For example, once I receive a long copy about copywriting (go figure). It was a direct mailing for a correspondence class, which probably got my name from Writers Digest. For me, it was all about time and money; there was no sense in reading that whole thing if the last paragraph would show me that I couldn’t afford it. If I had actually had the money I would have probably gone online for the short version.

    But that’s just me and I’m a computer geek.

  10. Dara said:

    Do I dare leave this comment?
    Have you ever thought that maybe there is something to a writers (copywriters) block. How am I going to reach this group of people, what’s my next slogan. Sometimes, you’ve just got to hit that refresh button and start new. And yes, close the bathroom door.

  11. Bob Bly said:

    Jill: the group you mention has scientifically tested many different copy approaches in measured A/B splits. For them and many others direct marketers, especially those selling information products, long copy frequently wins.

  12. Jim Logan said:

    Bob, Regarding your comment – “the group you mention has scientifically tested many different copy approaches in measured A/B splits. For them and many others direct marketers, especially those selling information products, long copy frequently wins.”

    What conclusions have been made as to why longer copy performs better?

    I believe the answer to that question is the real issue behind the long copy versus short copy debate.

    My personal belief is the length of copy is irrelevant. Copy should be as long as necessary to create a compelling reason to answer whatever call to action you’re supporting. And not one word longer.

    A 300 page book isn’t inherently better or worse than a 200 page book. The story is what’s important. My $.02.

  13. Matt Spergel said:

    Bob: Good copywriters deserve the highest pay in the marketing ecosystem.

    P.S. I don’t smoke, but I just came up with an awesome USP for a cigarette. Watcha think? “We deliver twice as much nicotine as our competitors”

  14. Dianna Huff said:

    Bob — I have had people tell my Website has too much copy, that I need to break it up with images, that I need less copy, that people don’t read anymore, yada yada yada.

    Here’s why I think those naysayers are wrong:

    When prospective clients call me they say, “I read everything on your site. You’re just the person we need.”

    Long copy? Short copy? Who knows. I just want copy that makes the cash register ring — to quote a famous person, hahahaha.

  15. Cheryl Lohner said:

    I believe that if people are interested, they will read further. I think of copy as a way to continually qualify your prospects. I speak directly to my target market and their pain within the heading or subheading of nearly every page on my site. I’ve found if they are in fact who I am trying to reach, they will keep reading through my very copy-heavy site. The deeper they get into my site, the more qualified they become. I also highlight the main subject in most paragraphs, so if someone is a “scanner” they can still pick up the message I am trying to convey.

  16. John Gilger said:

    There is no such thing as “too much copy” — just too much stuff I’m not interested in reading.

    That is the case most of the time.

    When I was doing face-to-face sales, the rule was shut-up when the prospect was ready to buy. As copywriters, we don’t have the luxury of an interactive conversation. We have to write out the answers to all the questions and objections we know.

    In DM packages most of us look at the order form or the P.S. first for a succinct explanation of the offer. Web sites that include a link to the order page early are on the right track. Tell me the offer. If it sounds good I’ll order or read the letter if I need a question or two answered.

  17. Michael said:

    I’m still not ‘entirely’ convinced that if people are interested they will read the long copy. I’ve been VERY interested in the various copywriting sales letters (and other DM pieces) I’ve received, yet still skipped the long copy because I didn’t want to wade through it all. But, as I mentioned, it might be because of my copywriting experience that I skip all those pages–i.e., I know where the offer and price are found, and I know that the end typically includes a capsule summary of the offer. That’s really what I’m after. It might also be because I’m already interested in the subject–I don’t need all the convincing with the 6-12 pages, so I cut to the chase.

    And, how do we know that people read the long copy? By the success of the mailing? If I responded to an offer of yours that came in a 12-page mailing, you might conclude that I read through all 12 pages. But in reality, I read the beginning, took in a few sidebars, made my decision to purchase, then skipped ahead to the offer so I could find the price and instructions. But, a test would conclude that “long copy worked” to get my sale.

  18. Char said:

    I think John is right. I, not being a fan of ad nauseum copy, will click the first link if I’m interested irrespective of cost. If I need to know the bottom line I’ll do a cntl end and find out just how much that is … if then the cost is at least commensurate with my pocket limit and interest I’ll hit “buy.” If there is no price there I exit, stage left.

  19. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Lately there have been a bunch of emails from a famous copywriting training organization where I have taken a look at the first screen, then hit delete because I just didn’t have time to scroll through 15 pages of copy just then.

    I wish that group – which I have a great affection for! – would ASK if I preferred a quick email (one screen!) with all the details and a link to more-more-more if I had the time/inclination … or the whole she-bang. It would be great to have the CHOICE.

    A lot of times with them, I’m prepared to take part in their events with minimal sell. Basically, I agree with the post-er above who said that if all a group sends is a 15-page email and I buy from that, it doesn’t mean I read the whole thing. (Although it can be a huge waste of paper to print it all out — and reading long-text online is about my least favorite thing to do).

    That being said, so many clients think 100 words is “too much copy. Why can you do bullets?” What would they ever say about 15 pages?!

  20. SpongeBob Fan said:

    That should be “Why can’t you do bullets?” above!

  21. Dianna Huff said:

    SpongeBob — What I hate is when I can’t even *find* the price to whatever is being hawked. I hate when I have to click around to find it. I’ve seen conferences do this. “Sign up now!” the copy will state. Then you hit the link and it takes you to the reg form but you still can’t find the price. Drives me insane.

    Also, I wonder if we get impatient with marketing copy because we *are* marketers. I know when I’m in a store and a sales person starts a pitch I’ll immediately say, “I’m in marketing. You don’t have to sell me.”

  22. Bob Bly said:

    Michael: May I suggest that in your example, all that matters is that the 12-page letter DID outpull the 8-page letter, and how much of the copy customers actually read is irrelevant? Char: You are making a common error of letting YOUR personal preferences dictate how to do marketing rather than letting what WORKS guide you. For instance,I hate sweepstakes. But does that mean sweepstakes don’t work? Of course not…..

  23. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Diana – I agree about not being able to find the price. And it may well that we’re a little more sensitive to “the sell” because we’re in the biz.

    Bob – Obviously if someone sends both long and short letters and the long pulls better, that’s an A to A comparison. I know I used to read all through that training company’s emails when I first discovered the group. Now I’m totally sold on them and would pretty much buy from a 3-liner … What, When, How Much?

    I do find myself more likely to read long actual letters … possibly because they’re easier to handle and it’s always very easy to find the offer.

    Good question.

    (BTW, in the advertising end of the business, we get paid for writing shorter copy. Sometimes I do only have 150 words … and it’s hard work getting everything in there and making it work. It’s not top-DM writer $$$, I want to be clear about that. But it’s only 150 words. ;) )

  24. Steve Yankee said:

    When writing fairly technical copy for the Internet, I’ve often considered writing three versions of the assignment, ranging from very complicated to very simple…and then giving the reader a choice: Click here if you know a lot about , Click here if you know a little about , Click here if you’re brand new to . I’ve been tempted to interrupt my long online sales letters with strategically placed buttons that read “I want to cut to the chase. Show me how much this is and how I can order it.”

  25. Bob Bly said:

    Steve, what works in my experience is to write a long copy page … but place order buttons throughout the page, not just at the end. Whenever the prospect has learned enough to make a purchase, he just clicks on the button and buys. You could test your idea of 3 versions to choose from, but I do not think it will work: it adds complexity and another layer of decision making, whicih usually depresses response. Sponge: will your company give me a staff job? I’d love to get paid for writing 150 words!! :)

  26. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Anytime, Bob. Anytime!

    (In a serious vein, I have wondered if sometimes DM writers write more than they really need to because, A) They often have the space, and, B) They’re getting paid a whole lot to write it. I ABSOLUTELY know there is more to DM writing than “poundage” and I HATE the tons of p*ss-poor advertising I see. So this IS NOT DM vs. advertising. At all! It’s just that if DM writers got paid the same amount for writing 150 words that they do for 15 pages, who’d ever do the latter?! And again, the pay IS NOT the same. I do know one woman, tho’, who gets nicely paid for writing the world’s simplest press releases and sending them out. Is that alone gonna’ make her a millionaire? No way? But it is v-e-r-y e-a-s-y money.)

  27. Jennifer said:

    Not to self-promote, but I did a post about long vs. short Internet copy on my blog recently: http://catalystblogger.blogspot.com/2007/08/how-people-read-online.html. Anyway, the gist is that there’s a new Poynter eyetrack study that suggests people actually read online more than anyone realizes. In the study, people read over 20% more of articles (they were using newspapers) online than in print. It’s interesting, and it explains a little bit why those long letters pull: people do read the whole thing, when they’re interested.

  28. Sheri Cyprus said:

    SpongeBob: I don’t write 15 pages because “I have the space” or because I’m “getting paid a whole lot to write it.” Yes, because I’m paid by the page, I do get a lot more for a 15 page letter than a shorter letter, usually. But, as Bob seems to keep having to point out, longer copy usually seems to test better. My client has found that it does test better so he has me write 15 page letters. Copywriting really is about the $$$$money$$$$ result for the client, so why would the client pay me to write a 9 page letter if his ROI would be much more profitable if I write him the 15 pages?

  29. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Hello, Sheri — No disagreeableness implied or intended. Guess I’m sometimes jealous that I often only have a smaller space and (a few!) clients who think 150 words is more than anyone will “ever” read. I have wished there was more “real estate” in the formats I tend to write for (newsletters and ads mostly) but the form is what it is. If A to A tests show long copy pulls better, who would do anything else? That test-ability is unique to the various forms of direct response, tho’. I’ve often begged clients to put some sort of tracking thing in their ads, but many times they can’t and/or won’t even ask a person whose name appears in an ad to keep a log of the calls they get — that’s something I will n-e-v-e-r understand!

  30. Sheri Cyprus said:

    SpongeBob — Yes, the lack of any type of tracking or testing is quite foreign to me and I really can’t understand it! I know direct response and advertising can be different worlds in that regard, but I agree with you that even advertising clients should have at least SOME way of tracking their results. Isn’t that just good business? And yes, personally, I would love to write something in 150 words! I’m analytical and like to put things in a nutshell like advertising concepts. I love headlines just for that reason — you can sum up benefits and about 2,000 words of copy in a good headline. :)

  31. Krista Johnson said:

    Bob,

    Thanks for your advice. I agree that reading is not dead. Your piece was helpful, it provides my readers with another point of view. Thanks again!!

  32. Harry Potter said:

    greetings fellow wiz,

    i, harry potter, am going to tell you whether i close the door when i’m home alone when i am in the containing room of the restroom facilites. in my spare time i prefer to take long broom rides down the hogwarts castle and glisten my beautiful boot-um, unlike some ba*****ds who make fun of my likings and decide to shoot paintballs at me. as you know, i am a star in many movies, called HARRY POTTER etc. . . i am currently working on my 6 movie, and yes i am only 17 years of young age. i do give out free autographs, opposite of Britneyt Spears who charges 10 cents per letter, oh jee wiz. well back to my main subject, peeing with or without door closed. as you know hogwarts is a very large campus in which us ‘wizards’ have a dorm room, i have a door room, and if the whole floor is empty i do, indeed, have the door open just a smigde of wizzy wartons dust.

  33. E-Commerce Writer said:

    As an opera fanatic, I resent Mr. Jayme’s crack about opera’s survival (comparable to that of cockroaches). Opera Rules!!! It will live forever. :)

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