Copy Writing: Long vs. Short, Does it Matter?

Torc waterfall
Torc waterfall, Killarney National Park

Today's my third day back at work after my vacation in Ireland. I have a number of ideas for upcoming entries, but as I started cleaning up the blog comments that came in while I was gone, I saw an interesting question that had been posted on the Web writers: What are we? entry. Mike asked:

What role does long form copy writing have in writing B2B copy for the internet? I must say I am confused. The 'weight' (if not quality) of opinion from largely self-proclaimed internet guru writers is that long form works. I find it hard to accept that such obviously manipulative tactics snare orders from even the most gullible consumer. Love to hear your views…"

Mike's question speaks to two issues, the length of copy necessary to achieve your goal and the copy writing techniques that may be utilized in the process.

Short copy or long? When it comes to length, I don't think there is one right answer.

Articles such as "When Long Form Sales-Copy Doesn't Outpull Short Copy: An Eye-Opening Inside Secret Finally Revealed!" and Long Copy vs. Short Copy Tested may imply that long copy is more successful, but I think what really matters is that your copy serves your goal. When it comes to marketing copy, whether it be selling widgets to a manufacturing company or recruiting students to your graduate program in Art History, one usually needs to focus on three things:

  • Features of the product, service, program, event, Web site or whatever else you are promoting
    • The online calendar makes a distinctive yet pleasant noise alerting you that an event is about to commence.
    • Art History classes are held at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
    • The uber widget comes in 9 sizes and configurations.
  • Benefits to the end user of said product, service, etc.
    • You'll never miss another meeting because you lost track of time. Our calendar will alert you when it's time to go.
    • Direct access to the permanent collections and rotating exhibits lets students examine the art in person rather than through secondary sources such as books and slides.
    • Whether your shop is big or small, we have a widget that will fit your space (and budget!) and adapt to your specific needs.
  • Instructions on what you would like the reader to do.
    • Order the calendar today!
    • Arrange a visit to tour the campus and meet with members of the department.
    • Request more information from a sales representative who can work with you to find the widget solution most appropriate for your business.
How much information you include should be determined by the amount of information required for the reader to make an informed decision and take action.

If you are selling a certain model of desk stapler, you don't need a 12 page booklet or Web site. You can probably fit everything you need on just one page of your office supply site. But, if you are promoting a 4-year long academic program, you will need to provide more information so the student has a greater sense of where and how he or she might be spending those 4 years. You can introduce the student to the program on the Web, or through a brochure, then follow that up with more options. These could include a more detailed Web site, campus visits and the opportunity to interact with current students and faculty either online or on campus.

As these examples indicate, more complex decisions require more detailed information, but that information need not all come from one place. You can include a product description, features and benefits on a postcard or home page then direct the reader to a Web site that offers more details or to a sales person who can offer a more personalized explanation.

There's really no one-size fits all solution. Instead the best thing to do is to tailor the length of your Web pages or printed matter to the situation, then offer opportunities for more details as necessary. If you've given the reader enough information to make an informed decision you've done your job.

Copy writing techniques: persuasion or manipulation?

There is far more research on the psychology of marketing than I have read so I'll just touch on this briefly. I'd like to think that those of you who read this blog (rather than those who only pop by to leave comment spam) are mostly interested in promoting sites, services or products that fulfill the needs of your target audience. If that is the case you probably don't need to fall back on the type of cheap manipulative tactics that Mike mentioned in his question.

It doesn't take a lot of arm twisting to sell an iPod. But if you are promoting something new or unfamiliar, persuasive tactics may help you to get the attention of your readers long enough to make your case. In that case I would recommend hiring an experienced copywriter and/or doing further research to determine which strategies are most appropriate for your goals.

That said, persuasive marketing is no substitute for quality content, products or services. Whether you are promoting your recipe blog or your bookstore, you'll only generate repeat traffic/business if your audience likes or needs what you provide.

Examples of the manipulative techniques to which Mike refers (Funny how they all start with "How to," eh?)
Additional copy writing and marketing references
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13 Comments »
  1. I can only really discuss this question from the point of view of my 'blog, certainly with any degree of certainty about the merits, perils et cetera. In my experience, the question is rather a silly one — and that's not a sleight against yourself, Heidi! The length of the copy really is determined when the needs of the end user (or consumer) are identified, in relation to the product / service itself. Because I discuss a range of topics, the length of any given article may vary. But that doesn't stop Kate (my adjutant of sorts) from constantly calling out the length of certain articles as being too much. My view is, if the article is a "what if?" piece, it's as long as it needs to be for me to communicate the ideas I have. For other articles, I may artificially trim the length to fit the topic and the audience. I might also employ different styling options — such as bullet points, pull quotes, images, shortened paragraphs et cetera — to keep the content visually more interesting. So the length of the copy really is a dynamic thing, not one that's arbitrarily fixed...

    Comment by Wayne Smallman — December 7, 2007 @3:53 pm

  2. Wayne, Your mention of trimming the article for certain audiences or styling an article to break up the text really speaks to the need to customize the text to the purpose. Short or long, one must simply give the audience what it needs and present it in a manner that makes it accessible to them. This could be a matter of length, format, vocabulary, style, etc. The original question focused more on the short vs. long debate regarding business to business marketing copy—a debate I'd not known of previously, but we also see similar debate when it comes to other types of Web copy. We often hear that online readers have short attention spans, but I've always been bothered by that. I think readers make quick decisions when sorting through the vast array of resources available on the Web, but that they will also stop and take the time to read sites and blogs that fulfill their needs. My blog entries are often longer than I plan, but it is usually because I discover while writing point A, that the reader will also need to know about B and C. So whether we're writing as information providers or as marketers I think similar rules apply. Write as much or as little as is needed for readers to learn, understand, make a decision or otherwise reach our and their goals.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — December 10, 2007 @11:11 am

  3. Hi, very interesting post. If you look at the websites of marketers who sell "information" products on topics such as "how to make lots of money with no effort" they often present the visitor with reams of information. I've never been able to tell if its to hypnotise the reader in to buying or trying to convince them that it actually works by telling them over and over again. I'm not a copywriter, far from it, but I really believe people should write for their audience. Personally I would love it if everything was summarised at the beginning so I know in advance if its going to be worth reading.

    Comment by Website Optimisation — February 6, 2008 @3:56 am

  4. In my opinion, copy Writing is something that both experienced and newbie Webmasters find difficult to master because everyone concentrates on sales rather than creating valuable content. Most small business fail because they miss this vital first step and jump straight in with sales and wait for an income that doesn't come, they just do it the wrong way then unfortunately after a while just decide that the internet isn't for them and miss tremendous opportunities.

    The length of the headline and the copy will depend on whatever works for whatever you are selling. In other words, the only way to know what works is to test different approaches. Go for various headlines to see which works best at capturing attention and communicating a benefit. Similarly, test the amount of information you provide. Does more or less work better at producing the desired action? Well the answer will be at your desk once after analyzing these little but ‘vital’ approaches. Ultimately, in the end that’s the only answer that will ever matter to you.

    Comment by SEO Philadelphia — March 18, 2008 @1:57 am

  5. Hi, very interesting post. If you look at the websites of marketers who sell "information" products on topics such as "how to make lots of money with no effort" they often present the visitor with reams of information. I've never been able to tell if its to hypnotise the reader in to buying or trying to convince them that it actually works by telling them over and over again.

    Comment by oyun — May 7, 2008 @6:41 pm

  6. The length of the headline and the copy will depend on whatever works for whatever you are selling. In other words, the only way to know what works is to test different approaches.

    Comment by Güzel Sözler — May 29, 2008 @5:26 pm

  7. I'm not a copywriter, far from it, but I really believe people should write for their audience.

    Comment by güzel sözler — October 22, 2008 @7:11 am

  8. very good article.. Write as much or as little as is needed for readers to learn, understand, make a decision or otherwise reach our and their goals.

    Comment by lazer epilasyon — December 10, 2008 @7:01 am

  9. Hello! Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource! PS: Sorry for my bad english, I'v just started to learn this language ;) See you! Your, Raiul Baztepo

    Comment by RaiulBaztepo — March 28, 2009 @9:34 pm

  10. With SEO at the top of everyone's minds, what an interesting article to discuss. I think the length of copy will differ for each business and will depend on their own ideas and target market. You need to write for the audience. Choosing the right words to place on the page is also important as you want people to notice the website and have it ranking highly in search engines.

    Comment by SEO Copywriting — September 29, 2010 @2:52 am

  11. Long vs short. The only definition that matters is defined by the reader, not the writer. Long copy is only long if it's too damn boring to read. The stuff that works best in any Target Market is entertaining, accurate, easy to read, and informative.

    Comment by Grant's Phoenix Arizona web design — October 7, 2010 @11:21 pm

  12. Every writer, at one time or another, has been in the position where their creativity flows unchecked. They can’t stop writing. In certain circumstances that is great, but at other times it can be dangerous leading to ‘over-written’ copy.

    Comment by kavitasyon — November 23, 2010 @3:48 pm

  13. Content and relevance who would have guessed that these are the secrets. Anyone that has been around the block understands these concepts. I'm sure we have all spent a few hours looking at the Red Headlines and erratic claims in some marketing copy. I'm amazed that people are still trying to use these tactics. I know that when I see this sort of thing I use the click off option. Usually to be met with an exit box or three. This just gives the reader a bad taste in their mouth for all marketing efforts. Much better to provide thoughtful informative copy and expect the reader to have some intelligence and make a determined decision.

    Comment by Craig — February 7, 2011 @6:09 pm

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