Marketing Copywriting, Maslen on Marketing

Long v short copy: the truth

Every now and again, and against my better judgment, I get into it with somebody about the merits of long versus short copy.

I don’t know why, it’s like a drug, I guess. You can go cold turkey but then that inviting little phrase “nobody reads long copy” just winks at you and before you know it you’re crumpled in an alley behind a conference hall, drooling and rolling your eyes, muttering about A/B tests.

Let’s go over the three main ways this old chestnut raises its head [Oops, bit of a mixed metaphor there – Ed.]

Number one: “I don’t believe anyone reads long copy, so the copy needs to be short”. (And let’s assume, for the moment, that the speaker means a sales letter of two or more pages or an email of more than 150 words.)

Number two: “It’s for an ad, so the copy will have to be short.”

Number three: “Senior executives are busy, so the copy needs to be short.”

Now let’s take a look at these arguments in a little more detail.

First, what anyone believes is beside the point. I happen to believe that the more you write the more you sell. But what’s more important than my beliefs is my experience. Which tells me, from reading, testing and talking to other marketeers, that in tests, long copy generally makes its writers more money than short.

Second, why do ads have to be short? Is the speaker arguing that although people automatically don’t read long copy in ads, they do, automatically, read short copy?

This is illogical. Does the reader of Practical Woodworker or Max Power or Euromoney say to themselves, ‘Ooh look! An ad with hardly any words. I’ll read that’? I think not.

People read because copy is relevant to them, and not for any other reason.

Third, senior executives are busy it’s true. But so are junior executives, and, for that matter, housewives and retirees. Nobody has time to waste reading advertising of whatever length, unless they have a good reason to. (See above.)

And I’m telling you this because?

The debate about long copy has been skewed by poor terminology. It’s not about long versus short copy at all, but longer versus shorter copy. In any test, it’s likely that the longer copy will perform better than the shorter.

But that could mean a 100-word email against a 20-word email. Equally, a six-page letter against a two-pager.

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