The Long And Short of Copywriting
By Paul Tracy
Sales letters come in many lengths, ranging from one page to several. Conventional copywriting wisdom holds that long copy most often will outperform short. The maxim is, "The more you tell, the more sell."
Some copywriters have challenged this notion. They criticize much of the testing done on copywriting techniques. Testing for copywriting length is not a straightforward matter, they contend. Whenever copy length is varied, copy content should, of necessity, also vary. Therefore, controlling for just the variable of length is not possible.
Not a Scientific Method
The typical copywriting approach is to use the most successful direct mail copy for a particular product or service as the control against which other copy is tested. That is, the control's characteristics are considered optimal until other tested copy outperforms it.
Critics question whether what held true in the past applies to copywriting today. Anecdotal evidence demonstrating that people are less willing to spend time reading mail than in the past includes complaints from companies that their customers inadvertently toss out as solicitations some bills they receive.
In addition, people today generally are busier. Adults often can't spend much time reading mail. And when people find their mailboxes full of solicitations, they start looking for things to throw out. TV may also have played a role in shortening people's attention spans; people often discard mail they cannot quickly understand.
When to use shorter text
The conventional wisdom is that a two-page letter using single sides of two sheets of paper will outperform the same letter using both sides of one sheet.
Scenarios in which such short copy is appropriate include letters sent to generate leads. In this case, the prospect's interest must be sparked. A more sustained sales effort can be made at the closing. In other situations, well-known brands don't require copy that is as long as that used for unfamiliar brands.
Products or services that are popularly considered "dry" (e.g., banking services) generally should have short copy. Similarly, copy directed at busy people such as professionals mostly should be short. They don't have time to wade through pages of copy.
Useful techniques for short copy include a brief letter making major points, accompanied by an enclosure such as a fact sheet, flyer or brochure. A recent solicitation for a Visa card from Providian Financial included a good, short letter with the headline "No Annual Fee," certainly a major selling point. Subheads make the other major points and are followed by brief amplifications. A brochure also mentions more of the card's benefits.
The information needed to make a decision is all there in a compact package.
When to use longer text
Of course, many situations call for longer text, such as a mailer touting or soliciting:
* magazine subscriptions or book club memberships, because they're targeted to people who like to read;
* high-involvement items, such as health products or investment newsletters, because people interested in such things want, and often need, a lot of information;
* products used for special interests, such as car repair or golf—things about which prospects may like to learn more;
* charitable donations; letters for a good cause can offer one compelling anecdote after another.
For multiple-page letters, with pages joined along a vertical fold, an odd number of pages are preferable, because the sales close will fall on the right side where it's more likely to be noticed.
There are examples of good copywriting, however, where this isn't done. Looking at an American Association of Retired Persons' package I see the copywriter cleverly put closes on both page three and page four. The close of the letter's body is at the bottom of page three, and the P.S. is on page four. This might help the chances of connecting with someone who is just scanning the letter.
There is no simple rule for copy length that applies to all situations. Copy should be as long as it needs to be to get across the points the copywriter has to make, without losing the reader's interest. Length is contingent on the specifics of what is being sold and to whom.
Paul Tracy is a California-based freelance copywriter who writes conventional and Internet direct mail, brochures and press releases. You can reach him by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org