Early in my career, I wrote a brochure on a technical product. The client’s graphic designer randomly — or so it seemed to me — crossed out 90 percent of my copy, saying the layout needed lots of white space.
“Nobody reads the copy, anyway,” he said to me in an attempt to impart what he thought was his marketing wisdom.
“If that’s the case,” I said brightly, “why not just print a brochure with blank pages?”
Obviously, the notion that no one reads copy is an extremely wrong one.
But there has long been a debate about the optimal length of marketing text.
Long Vs. Short
In consumer direct response, long copy in some product categories — examples include dietary supplements, investment newsletters, mail order merchandise and business opportunities — more often than not generates higher conversions and greater sales than short copy.
But what about B-to-B?
Many B-to-B marketing experts said a year or so ago that, thanks in part to the Internet, today’s B-to-B prospects consume information in smaller and smaller chunks.
But recently I’ve read and seen evidence to the contrary, particularly in content marketing — where longer, more in-depth pieces seem to generate greater interest, readership and response than snippets, blurbs, factoids, and short articles and posts.
According to research by Web design firm Orbit Media, the optimal length for a blog post, as far as SEO goes, is 1,500 words.
The same research showed that the average podcast runs 22 minutes. At a speaking rate of 100 words a minute, that’s 2,200 words — equal in length to an article in a trade journal of around three full pages. It’s also longer than most TED Talks, which run 12 to 15 minutes.
Another study, by SEOmoz, found that blog posts with between 1,800 and 3,000 words attract over 15 times more inbound links from other websites than posts with less than 600 words. In addition, HubSpot reports that blog posts of 2,500 words or longer get the most shares on social media.
What about the pages on your website? Web pages should be at least 500 words, according to site-seo-analysis.com, but 2,000-word Web pages rank higher in search engines.
A study by serpIQ examined the relationship between article length and ranking on the Google search engine. The 10 highest-ranked articles in a search of thousands of keywords were all 2,000 words or longer (See the chart above).
Some marketers are moving toward short whitepapers or “mini-whitepapers” that are just a couple of pages. But many whitepaper experts, such as Gordon Graham, say the effectiveness and readership of longer whitepapers is better. A survey by Eccolo Media found that six to eight pages is the ideal whitepaper length.
The Myth of Copy Length
Why has the myth that no one reads copy, or that people won’t read long copy, persisted for so long?
In the pre-Internet days, this belief was definitely encouraged by ad agencies and graphic design studios. They believe for some mysterious reason that “white space” — areas on the page with no text or images — improves marketing communication. Many graphic designers I knew back then were not big readers, so it was inconceivable to them that prospects would read “all that copy.”
Also, many marketers assume that because people are so busy today, prospects do not have the time or patience to read long copy.
What we have always known is while non-buyers will not read long copy, buyers will because they are gathering information to make a decision about purchasing a product.
So when clients tell me they don’t like long copy, I ask, “For whom are you writing? Casual readers? Or serious buyers looking to spend their money on what you are selling?”
You hear, “My customers don’t read because they are busy professionals” in so many B-to-B categories, and of course, it is all nonsense.
Many medical device marketers have told me long copy won’t work because doctors have no time to read.
But reading is part of their job! They are mandated to keep current in their field. If your content helps them do that or improve their patient care or practice revenues, they will read thousands of words.
One writer on Facebook chastised me, explaining, “People do not read; they only skim.”
My answer: That’s why we break long copy up into short paragraphs, lists, bullets, charts, tables and sections with subheads — to make it easy to skim and scan. And here’s a secret: As long as they respond and convert, who cares whether they read it all? It doesn’t matter one iota.
The biggest constraint on copy length is not that people do not read today — they do. Rather, it is the format or medium in which the copy is presented.
“Many B-to-B marketing pieces have a standard format that influences how much copy you have to work with,” explains copywriter Steve Slaunwhite.
“For example, a press release to announce a new B-to-B product is typically no more than a page or two in length. So the word count will fall somewhere between 400 and 1,000. A Google AdWords advertisement is severely restricted in word count — just 85 characters in total, including spaces.”
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter who has written copy for more than 100 clients including IBM, AT&T, Praxair, Intuit, Forbes, and Ingersoll-Rand. McGraw-Hill calls Bob “America’s top copywriter” and he is the author of 90 books, including “The Copywriter's Handbook.” Find him online at www.bly.com or call (973) 263-0562.