Message & Media: When Less Is More
Do you know the No. 1 question I get asked when leading writing workshops? It's these five words: "How long should copy be?"
The answer is simple. Copy and content need to be as long as they need to be to do their job: Make a sale. Generate a lead. Provide sought-after information. Establish credibility.
As direct response writers know, the only way to know for certain whether longer or shorter "copy works better in a specific situation is to test, track and analyze results.
But sometimes it's not feasible to test, so here's my suggestion: Use common sense.
Is your objective to generate a one-step sale? If so, then common sense tells you that you need to provide a complete and compelling sales argument for why your reader should buy now, not later. This includes product benefits and specifications, answers to buying objections and a lot more. You also need to explain where and how to make the purchase. Online. In a store. By phone or mail. The result is one-step sales copy typically is longer than other marketing messages.
When your goal is different from selling off the page in one step, your copy strategy will be different, as well. Here are eight marketing scenarios in which less—in regard to copy—is more. But remember, when in doubt, test to confirm.
1. Lead Generation
Whether you're writing a lead generation email, direct mail letter or space ad, the goal is to leave your readers wanting to know more. So don't reveal your entire sales pitch. If you do, your readers will make a yes-no buying decision without giving you the opportunity to identify their initial interest.
Here's a tip: Pick the most tantalizing product benefit for your targeted audience and tease with it. Then ask your reader to click, call, mail a card or scan a QR Code to learn more. At that point, you've identified (and owned) a qualified lead, and you can take your time nurturing that lead into a solid customer.
2. Outer Envelope Teasers
The job of an outer envelope (OE) teaser is to get the mail piece opened. The fewer words it takes to do this effectively, the more likely you are to snag a scanner's attention because you only have a few seconds.
But that doesn't mean you always have to limit teaser copy to five words or less. Here are OE teasers of varying length with targeted appeal:
- Inside: Your chance to tell the NRA to go to hell.
- Welcome to the magazine for women who love to act their age.
- DO NOT BEND: Photos & postcards enclosed
- Has the Lincoln cent overstayed its welcome? Story inside …
3. Subject Lines
If you come from a direct mail background, think of email subject lines as OE teasers. The connection is that both need to hook your reader's interest in an instant. And both must motivate the reader to take physical action to open your message.
Because subject lines are gatekeepers to generating response, they should be tested. Pay special attention to words at the beginning of your subject lines because scanners frequently don't get beyond the first two or three. Here are some examples from my own inbox:
- Final hours of 2012's last big sale
- Last Chance | Save 40% off fall favorites
- We [heart] Hedgehogs & Macarons … here's why
4. Call to Action
The call-to-action copy I write for print ads and direct mail packages has improved dramatically since I began writing for digital media. Why? You don't write a paragraph or even a sentence for call-to-action "button" copy in an email or on a landing page.
Typical digital call-to-actions start with a verb and have a two- or three-word payoff:
- Try it free
- Buy it now
- Get a recipe
- Use this calculator
- Read the case study
- Watch a demo
5. Photo Captions
The captions and cutlines found under photos are another example of when fewer words have more impact. Readers are drawn to pictures, particularly of people, and once the eye lands on an image, the next stop is the copy below it.
To keep your reader engaged and the eye moving toward your CTA, use the caption to provide a brief explanation of the photo's significance.
6. Web Ads
The purpose of website advertising—banners, pop-ups, buttons and a variety of rectangular shapes—is to redirect the attention of a site visitor and generate clickthrough.
Once again, the intent is to tease the reader's interest to generate action. The message and image should be strong and simple.
7. Bullet Points
Bullets provide both scanners and readers readable snippets of copy/content. They don't have to be complete sentences, and you certainly don't want them to balloon into lengthy paragraphs. They should deliver three to five pieces of compelling information that are easily digested.
8. QR Codes
Thanks to digital technology, you can now link print marketing efforts to Web-based resources, such as product demos and TV spots on YouTube, like the ad for Turkish Airlines that you can access by scanning the QR Code. It's intriguing, integrated, interactive advertising. And, as direct marketers, we'd include an offer in the video with a way to measure response to the offer.
At this point, I need to reassure you: Please don't get me wrong; I haven't abandoned long copy. I still believe in it and write it when it's appropriate for my audience and marketing objective. But I also know that, often, the targeted audiences for which I'm writing have shorter-than-ever attention spans and demand faster payoffs. I understand every word counts and when the count is too high, readership (and response) can plummet.