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Does long copy really work better than short copy?

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in Business Management

Since time immemorial — or at least for the quarter century I’ve been in direct marketing — people have vigorously debated the merits of long vs. short copy.

“If you are selling something worth more than $20, I’ll put my money on longer copy every time,” says Jim Murphy. “Because it gives me a chance to provide more facts, benefits, and credibile copy. And I’ll put my money on a DM kit over a self-mailer. Because with a kit, I have a chance to get your order with the letter, brochure, or order form.”

I don’t pretend that I can settle the debate once and for all. But I’ve developed a tool, which I call the Copy Length Grid (see Fig. 1), that can at least enable us to determine copy length in a somewhat more scientific and semi-quantitative fashion.

The Copy Length Grid says there are two major factors determining whether long or short copy will work best for your promotion: emotion and involvement.

Emotion refers to the degree to which the purchase is emotional. Buying a diamond engagement ring is a highly emotional purchase, while you are moved very little emotionally when deciding which brand of paper clips to buy.

Involvement refers to how much time, effort, and thought goes into the product purchase. As with most large purchases, a lot of consideration goes into the selection and purchase of a diamond engagement ring. But most of us grab the first box of paper clips on the shelf of the stationery store without giving it a second thought.

To use this system for determining copy length, rate these two criteria — emotion and involvement — as high or low. This dictates what quadrant of the Copy Length Grid you end up in, which in turn gives you at least a rough guideline for copy length.

For instance, the purchase of a diamond engagement ring is highly emotional. And, it’s a “considered purchase” — something you give a lot of thought to — so it rates high in involvement.

As you can see in Fig. 1., this puts us firmly in the upper left quadrant of the grid, indicating that long copy is appropriate for this offer.

On the other hand, paper clips are more of an impulse purchase; when we need them, we go to the store and pick up the first box we see, providing it’s the right size. There’s no emotion and very little thought that goes into this purchase.

This puts us in the lower right quadrant of Figure 1, which indicates that writing long, passionate copy about paper clips probably isn’t going to sell more of them.

Of course, the Copy Length Grid is only a rough guide, not a precise analyzer. There are a number of other factors that also must be taken into account when determining copy length.

These factors include:
  • Price. The more expensive a product is, the more copy you generally need to sell it. Lots of copy is needed to build the case for value before asking for the order, so that when the price is finally given, it seems like a drop in the bucket compared to what the buyer is getting in return.
  • Purpose. Copy that sells the product directly off the printed page or screen (known as “one-step” or “mail order” copy) usually has to be long, because it must present all product information and overcome all objections. Copy designed to generate a lead (“two-step copy”) can be short, since a catalog, brochure, or salesperson will have the opportunity to present product details and overcome objections later.
  • Audience. People who are pressed for time, such as busy executives and professionals, often respond better to short copy. Prospects with more time on their hands, such as retirees, as well as those with a keen interest in your offer, such as hobbyists, are more likely to read long copy.
  • Importance. Products that people need (e.g., a refrigerator, a fax machine) can be sold with short copy because … well, the prospect has to buy them. Products that people want but don’t have to buy (e.g., exercise videos, self-help audio programs, financial newsletters) must be “sold” and require long copy to do so.
  • Familiarity. Short copy works well with products the prospect already is familiar with and understand. This is why vouchers and double postcards are used so frequently to sell subscriptions to popular, well-known magazines (e.g., Newsweek, BusinessWeek).

Based on the Copy Length Grid and these other factors, clearly long copy is not always better, and there are many instances when short or almost no copy works well. This is the case with items that “sell themselves,” such as staplers or garden hoses.

But for items that have to be “sold” — life insurance policies, luxury automobiles, IT systems, collectibles, high-end jewelry, career training — long copy is often required because of the degree of emotion and involvement.

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