What Performs Better: Long Copy Or Short Copy?

Here’s a reprint of an answer I gave a student in another forum who asked:

“Long copy? Or short copy?”

1. Long copy versus short copy has been the single greatest debate since the beginning of the printing press. But long copy always outperforms short copy. Don’t be long for the sake of being long. Be long for the sake of providing as much information as is needed to make the sale — and not one word more.

2. People object to reading copy because: a) they are not targeted and b) the copy is boring. “Length” is the excuse because it’s a common currency. “Boring” is subjective. “Long” is objective. When copy starts to bore you, you naturally are inclined to say it’s “too long.” It’s too long because of the fact that it started to drag, causing the reader to lose interest.

3. Speaking of targeting, this is crucial. The previous poster said, “I would read it if it’s something I’m interested in, like John’s TrafficSecrets.com.” And that’s exactly the key. As Dan Kennedy said:

The person who says ‘I would never read all that copy’ makes the mistake of thinking they are the customer. And they’re not. We are never our own customers.

There’s a thing in copywriting I teach called ‘message-to-market match’. It is this: when your message is matched to a target market that has a high level of interest in it, not only does responsiveness go up but readership goes up, too. The whole issue of interest goes up.

The truth about long copy is that, first of all, there’s abundant, legitimate, statistical research, that’s split-testing research, to indicate that virtually without exception, long copy outperforms short copy.

There’s some significant research has been done that indicate that readership falls off dramatically at 300 words but does not again drop off until 3,000 words.

— Dan Kennedy

As Dan says, what you can pull from that is this: people who dropped off at 300 words weren’t qualified for your offer in the first place. They wouldn’t have bought from you after 300 words much less after 50 or 5,000 words.

4. Recent web usability studies show that people respond more favorably to more copy on less pages. Here’s an interesting study on long scrolling web pages by the folks at User Interface Engineering. They found that people prefer longer scrolling copy over short, multiple pages.

I particularly like these 3 passages:

1. “Our research shows that fewer, longer pages may be the best approach for users. In the trade-off between hiding content below the fold or spreading it across several pages, users have greater success when the content is on a single page.”

2. “Increasing the levels of information, similar to adding sections to an outline, also seemed to help users.”

3. “Users may tell us they hate scrolling, but their actions show something else. Most users readily scrolled through pages, usually without comment.”

Read the results of the study here.

5. Plus, here’s my reasoning behind long copy sales pages over multiple, smaller pages. For a single product-focused “mini-site,” this process is proven to have the best results in split-tests. Clicking to another page causes what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” (Also known as “buyer’s remorse” or having “2nd thoughts.”)

The idea is that, by clicking to another page while one is engaged in the reading process of sales copy forces readers to think twice, as it causes a brief, mental dissassociation or distraction, which interrupts the flow, momentum and intensity of the sales pitch.

6. And best of all, recent tests conducted by MarketingExperiments.com prove, without a doubt, that long copy outperforms short copy. Reprinted:

In the first test, we sent traffic to two landing pages using Google AdWords. The first page was the home page, which contained short copy describing the product. The second page was similar, but featured a much longer article about the product. Both pages prompted visitors to click through to the order page, from which point they would be taken to the shopping cart.

Our initial results were gathered after a five-day period:

Test 1 – Short Copy
——————————-
Clicks = 810
Cost = $94.29
CPC = $0.10
Revenue = $271.75
ROI = -14%
Conversion = 0.37%
——————————-
Test 1 – Long Copy
——————————-
Clicks = 1,163
Cost = $135.61
CPC = $0.10
Revenue = $547.50
ROI = +21%
Conversion = 0.52%
——————————-

In our initial micro-test, long copy outperformed short copy by 40.54%. Click-through traffic sent to the short copy page was unprofitable (-14% ROI), while traffic sent to the long copy page produced an ROI of 21%.

In this first micro-test, it appears that the long copy page performed much better than the short copy page. However, a five-day period is not enough to account for statistical fluctuations that may skew our real results. So we continued to test.

We maintained the same test, expanded our keyword bidding slightly, and gathered additional results over the subsequent five days:

Test 2 – Short Copy
——————————-
Clicks = 1,700
Cost = $258.62
CPC = $0.15
Revenue = $295.75
ROI = -66%
Conversion = 0.18%
——————————-
Test 2 – Long Copy
——————————-
Clicks = 1,440
Cost = $218.83
CPC = $0.15
Revenue = $1,094.15
ROI = +50%
Conversion = 0.69%
——————————-

Again, long copy outperformed short copy, this time by an even greater factor of nearly four to one. Our ROI was a dismal -66% for the short copy page and a very respectable 50% for the long copy page.

And…

In general, long copy offers the following advantages:

1. Your visitors will have most of their questions answered and will have less anxiety about ordering from you.

2. Long copy can reduce customer service by qualifying your customers to a greater degree.

3. Long copy with bolded or emphasized points can allow some of your visitors to skim, while others more interested in specifics can find all the information they want. In this sense, long copy gives visitors more options.

4. Long (and interesting) keyword-rich copy often performs well in natural search engines.

Even more…

The long vs. short debate often overlooks the most important factor when it comes to website copy: quality. High-quality short copy will outperform poorly written long copy every time.

The best possible copy should be developed and tested before you even begin to worry about the long vs. short debate. Utilize an A-B split test. This will ensure that other factors (such as time, traffic source, and so on) do not skew your results.

And finally…

Copy should be long enough to do its job effectively, and not a word longer. Long copy for the sake of long copy is not to your benefit. Always keep in mind the primary goal of your website’s copy (to sell your product or service, to solicit subscriptions, etc.).

Utilize bullets and/or numbered lists where appropriate. These make it easier for visitors to digest your information and prevent your pages from becoming one long block of gray. Utilize testimonials. Praise from your satisfied customers is much more effective than self-praise.

While our initial Long Copy vs. Short Copy micro-tests returned results clearly in favor of long copy, true optimization of your own website’s copy will only come through your own testing. However, the guidelines above should give you a good place to start. We will continue to revise our own testing and share our results.

Read the issue here, with specific results:
http://marketingexperiments.com/archives/long_vs_short.cfm

An interesting discussion is going on in one of my favorite online forums, The Warriors Forum, about short copy winning over long copy. And the author of the thread cited a study he conducted, where he proved that shorter copy won over long copy.

Some people are screaming “heresy!” Others agreed.

Personally, I believe the study conducted is indeed valid because it makes sense. In this particular case, short copy was warranted for this particular market with this particular offer.

But is this true in all cases? When you look at his study closer, you realize that it lacks information about the variables involved, which makes the study, and its findings, a bit misleading.

Here’s what I mean.

I truly believe that long copy sells better than short copy. But I base my opinion on the average, not the universal. Because, in some cases, shorter copy does sell better. But there are very specific reasons for this, and I want to go over a few of the important ones that I see all the time.

However, before I give you some of those reasons (and there are many, which I cannot go through in the scope of this one article), I’d like to make a distinction, if I could, so you understand the factors that come into play.

When people often look at short copy, even test it and then realize that it works better than long copy, there are many variables that one fails to look at. The price, the industry and particularly the target market play a significant role.

But there are also two others that I’d like to go over today: a) the product category or type, and b) the pre-selling process (i.e., the mindset of the market).

First, the product type.

When I used to teach marketing principles in college (part of the Business Administration curriculum at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada), my students learned that there are four textbook categories of products:

  1. Convenience products
  2. Shopping products
  3. Specialty products
  4. Unsought products

Each product category has a different sales process and marketing requirement. Why? Because the level of commoditization of the product delineates how much marketing, promotion and relationship-building is required to sell the product.

(And when I say “marketing,” I mean all types of marketing, from branding to pricing to availability to distribution.)

To give you some examples, a “convenience product” is one often purchased to fulfill immediate needs. The purchase is done at an almost unconscious level, too. Pricing is often moderate to low, and brand equity, reputation and relationships do not make a big difference if any.

The product has penetrated the market en masse. It is widely available. And more often than not, convenience products are impulse purchases. They are also staples, in most cases.

Take, for example, bread, milk, batteries, etc. These are often the types of products you find in convenience stores or in the supermarket checkout lines, where people just grab them and add them to their orders just because “they’re there.”

No real thought has been given into making the buying decision. Price may either be low or a non-issue, in most cases. And copy, if any is used, will be relatively short and brief. A small POP display (point of purchase stand, cardboard ad, logo with product name and description, etc) is all that’s required.

As for “shopping products,” those are less commoditized products. They are a little higher in price. A little more thought is required into making the purchase. And people tend to “shop around” when deciding on buying such products.

They either weigh the pros and cons before buying it, or they make the decision to buy relatively quickly — albeit less quickly than a convenience product.

Other times, they take a bit of time to decide, depending on the price, the availability and the market. They will analyze first, and they often require a bit more copy to gather enough information to justify their decision.

Products like cars, appliances, computers, etc are shopping products. (They can be more or less in price too, such as videos, movies, homes, vacations, even software and online services.)

As such, a little longer copy is required, often to differentiate the product from its competitors, and sell the uniqueness and the specific benefits of the product.

Third is the “specialty product.” This is a product that definitely needs more copy and a lot of selling is required. Specialty products are higher priced, highly targeted and more valuable — especially for very specific target markets.

(That is, they might not be of any value for others but of high value for a select group of individuals.)

Exotic goods, luxury cars, expensive jewelry, art and so on are specialty items. Take Mont-Blanc pens, Porsche cars and Pearson yachts, for example.

(A popular magazine is the Robb Report, which is a magazine for the affluent. Take a look at some of the ads in it, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.)

In my marketing classes, the example given was a particular brand of gourmet bread that was gluten-free, created with an exotic herd of mountain sheep’s milk grazing on the alpine slopes, flavored with rare spices and condiments grown in the Amazon jungle, fire-oven baked to very specific temperatures, and gift-wrapped inside a special, ornamentally carved wooden box shipped directly to people’s doors.

(And yes, a loaf can cost you up to $500 each.)

Therefore, longer copy is definitely needed in this case. The goal would be not to differentiate it from its competition (since there’s very little of it) but to create value, justify the purchase and add reasons why.

In other words, why would someone pay $500 for a loaf of bread? There are very specific individuals who would and very specific reasons they would, too.

Finally, “unsought products” are exactly that: unsought. Products that no one would have ever known about or looked for. Now, this doesn’t mean exotic and fancy products, either. This means products people don’t necessarily look for or believe they don’t need. At first.

Preventative type products fall in that category (i.e., life insurance, pre-arranged funeral services, financial investment services, etc). Almost all information products fall in that category too, by the way. (If not, they probably fall in the “specialty” category.)

Consequently, long copy is a must in these cases. And the copy is not only meant to differentiate, add value and justify the purchase, but also to create a need and a desire for the product.

What I mean is, you need a lot of copy to educate the market on why they need (and subsequently want) this type of product. You need a lot of copy to really build a compelling case for buying it.

Granted, these categories are not universal. Because another element comes in, which is the second one in my list mentioned earlier.

And that is, the process.

The process can help identify, isolate or even create certain markets (and therefore certain mindsets) that will buy a product with more or less copy. And that process is not limited to words — or to selling itself, for that matter.

Long copy is often attributed to a long copy salesletter. But that is not often the case. Copy is not limited to a salesletter or website. It can often take many forms, take place over time, and communicated and delivered in many different ways.

When all added, they take the form of, and replace, a long copy salesletter that would otherwise be required if none of these other steps were taken.

For example, if you have an affiliate program, then your affiliates can and should “pre-sell” the product for you. Their “copy,” in other words, is part of the entire sales engine. When they hit your site, and if they’re highly targeted and qualified from moment they hit it, then you need less copy to sell them.

In fact, if your affiliates did their jobs right, they’ve already sold your prospects even before they read your copy.

Even if your affiliate (or even yourself, when you sell to an established list of paying clients) doesn’t use a lot of copy to pre-sell, the “uncommunicated” copy was delivered in the form of building the brand (and that brand can also be you and your expertise), trust, credibility and relationships.

For example, when you promote a new product to an established audience (or if your affiliates promote your product to their established lists), a relationship already exists. The process didn’t start with that promotion but a long time ago.

How many times have you already sold this audience in the past? If you have done so, particularly several times, the likelihood that little copy will be required for the next promotion.

You don’t need copy to build credibility or educate your market, in this case, because that job has already been done.

In other words, copy was already used, albeit indirectly.

How much copy in other promotions have you used? How many times did they read your articles, websites and blog posts before they bought from you? How great is the relationship you created with them before you sold them anything? How much did they read about, learned from and educated themselves on: you, your expertise, your business or even your affiliates’ businesses?

That’s copy. All of it.

It’s all part of the sales process. And “copy,” in the case of selling to an established, qualified market, didn’t start with that salesletter. It started a long time ago through other means.

Try to sell to a brand new market for the first time, one who has never heard of you, and you’ll need copy. Lots of it.

Hire a sales representative to sell for you, and that’s copy too, albeit delivered incrementally, in different ways, over time. For example, include all the prospecting steps, qualification questions, needs analyses, phone calls, sales presentations, written proposals, objections handled, and closing attempts the salesperson did.

But it’s still all one big piece of copy. Remove all of those steps and start fresh with just a salesletter, and you will definitely need a long copy salesletter. Without question.

In other words, if you had to replace all those steps with just one, the process would have taken the form of one long-copy salesletter.

Finally, there’s also a correlation between my two points, i.e., between product categories and processes.

Because a product, which may at first be an unsought product — with a bit of copy, awareness, brand equity and credibility built over time — can change and be promoted to another category.

They can go from unsought, to specialty, to shopping, and even to convenience, after a specific point in the sales/life cycle.

Take bottled water, for instance.

Bottled water was once unsought when it was first introduced. Over time, it became a specialty product. After a while, it then became a shopping product.

(And in some cases, I’d even venture to say that bottled water is now a convenience product, especially in certain markets such as gyms, schools, offices or certain locales where water quality is known to be poor.)

So when you really look at it and think about it, long copy always wins. Always. It’s just not a long copy salesletter every time. Granted, after a period of time, it’s not always needed when the audience is pre-sold, or when the product is a low-priced convenience product.

Bottom line, copy doesn’t need to do a job that’s already been done. So the question is not “how long should your salesletter be?” But rather, “how qualified, targeted and sold is my target market before they even read my salesletter?”

And therein lies the key: the market, not the copy.

About The Author

Avatar of Michel Fortin
Michel Fortin is a certified SEO consultant, content strategist, and marketing advisor helping plastic surgeons, cosmetic surgeons, and medical aesthetic clinics attract more patients. Since 1991, he helps cosmetic and aesthetic professionals increase their visibility and grow their practices. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.

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