Advertising copywriting, Business-to-business, Marketing Copywriting, Maslen on Marketing, Web copywriting

What links Darwin, road deaths, cold bugs and long copy?



How do you feel about people who say they don’t believe in evolution?

What about folk who claim wearing a seatbelt causes road deaths?

Or the ones who want antibiotics for their colds?

There’s no evidence for their beliefs. And mountains of it proving the contrary.

So we sigh, tut, roll our eyes and ignore them.

Now, how about people who say, “in tests, longer copy tends to work better than shorter”?

Do you…

a) Sigh, tut, roll your eyes and ignore them?

b) Try it for yourself?

c) Fly into a rage?

d) Nod sagely and say, “I know”?

Despite a veritable alpine range of evidence showing that longer copy tends to outpull shorter, the diehard sceptics persist in imagining that it is they who have a handle on reality.

Raise the subject, at a conference perhaps, or a marketing meeting, and the responses will vary, but are likely to include such gems as:

“That used to be true, but nobody reads long copy any more.”

“Because of the Internet, people have shorter attention spans, so copy needs to be short.”

“I can’t believe people read long copy.”

“I never read that kind of copy so we don’t use it.”

“Well that’s perfectly OK for consumer mailings, but we’re in business-to-business.”

“I don’t need to test it, I know it won’t work.” (My favourite.)

All of which are known in the trade as assertions of denied reality. Or, more prosaically, utter rubbish.

Yes, people do still read long copy. (And let’s leave, for the moment, any attempt to define what we mean by “long”.) IF it’s relevant to them. The Internet is groaning under the weight of long-form landing pages of ten or more screens’ worth of copy.

They are not there because the marketers behind them “like” doing it. They are there because they make them more profits.

Nor has the Internet changed human psychology, which evolves at a snail’s pace.

I watch my children on the Internet and, believe me, they do not have short attention spans. Evidence.

Twitter may be a micro-blogging service but people spend a lot of time on it, as they do on all social media sites, not to mention car-buying websites, fashion blogs and epic fail compilation videos. Evidence.

On my Copywriting Academy site, two people spent an average of 13 minutes and 43 seconds reading a single article. Evidence.

What we believe is of little value in determining what we should do as marketeers. I happen to believe that the actress Rachel Weisz is very beautiful. But it would be silly to attempt to hire her to promote my copywriting agency.

In any case, not believing that people read long copy is about as sensible as not believing that the moon landings really happened. Why? Because of the evidence to the contrary.

The simple fact is, in test after test, the longer piece of copy has tended to bring in more sales than the shorter.

Bill Bernbach knew the power of long copy
Bill Bernbach knew the power of long copy

Don’t believe me? Read a book. There are plenty to choose from, all pointing one way, by copywriters, admen and marketeers spanning the last century-and-a-bit.

What’s interesting is that there isn’t a single book that has trumpeted the amazing fact that short copy outpulls long. Not one. You’d think there’d be one. By now. Given how strong the sceptics’ beliefs are.

So, how about we move on to another brick in the wall the naysayers have built around themselves.

“But why does it work?”

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is what I would call a buying signal. The subtext is, “I still find this hard to believe but I am willing to be persuaded”.

Here’s why it works.

1 Buying stuff feels risky. We have money and we’re going to exchange it for goods and services that we know nothing about. A bird in the hand etc.

To mitigate the risk we need information. Lots of information. And the more expensive or intangible the product we’re buying, the more information we need.

Sure, if you’re buying a tin of beans, a three-word slogan may be enough. For a luxury watch, training course, camera or car, you may want a bit more. No, not a bit more. A lot more.

Is this just special pleading from a lifelong direct response copywriter? Not really.

General advertising copywriters of rather greater stature than I – John Caples, David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach – have all demonstrated and written about the power of long copy.

2 Even if we accept a core assertion of the sceptics – that people don’t read long copy – there is still a very plausible reason why long copy works better.

Imagine that your reader is only going to scan your copy. This should be easy since we are repeatedly instructed by web copywriting bloggers that people scan copy on the web. (Really? No sh*t!)

Well then, what are they going to scan? You got it – the headings. Now, let’s suppose we put in a heading every three paragraphs. In a five-paragraph piece of copy, that’s one heading.

In a 55-paragraph piece of copy, that’s 18.

If you make each heading a reason to buy, that means the longer piece of copy has 18 times more reasons to buy than the shorter. Which persuades more people.

3 Psychologically, a longer piece of copy feels more convincing. “If they wrote this much,” our reader thinks, “it really must be good”.

I recently finished writing a long-form promotion for a well-known magazine.

The form allowed me to include stories, testimonials, many examples of the way the product will improve the prospective customer’s life, information on how others use it and a detailed explanation of what’s in it.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the fallacy lying at the heart of this whole argument: that there is something called “long copy”. Ready?


Nor, for that matter, is there any such thing as short copy.

OK, one word is definitely short copy. But as soon as you add another, you have a comparative: two words versus one.

In a test, I am willing to believe that “Buy socks” will outpull “socks”.

And that “Fresh fish” will outpull “fish”.

Is 300 words long copy? You know what? It’s impossible to say. Your initial reaction might be that it is, or that it isn’t. But that’s only because you are comparing it to your experience of creating and/or consuming copy.

To a long-form copywriter, 300 words is short. To an advertising copywriter, it’s almost certainly long. Hence the ridiculous debate on the web a month or two ago about Apple’s “long copy” ads and why they did/didn’t work.

David Ogilvy knew the power of long copy too
David Ogilvy knew the power of long copy too

The ads in question were 124 words long. Wow. That’s the same number of words as there are in this paragraph and the preceding four.

(Incidentally, you know that reason has left the building when you read advertising bloggers referring to a computer company’s advertising as “beautiful”, “poignant”, “heartfelt” and “dazzling”. The ads in question were utterly run-of-the-mill shots of attractive people looking with doe-eyed affection at product X.) [Ahem. Time to get off the soapbox. – Ed.]

And I’m telling you this because

The subtitle of this newsletter is, “How to write better copy and boost profits”.

Really, it should read, “How to write better copy and therefore boost profits”.

My aim is to give you practical advice (OK, admittedly, I do ladle out generous dollops of my opinions as well) that will help you make as much money as possible.

Tone of voice; emotional resonance; on-brand messaging; snap, crackle and pop; SEO-friendly web copy; engaging content: these things are all important.

But not in isolation.

They are important because, done properly, they can help you maximise the difference between your sales and your costs.

But before you start tinkering around the edges of your profits-engine, make sure you’ve done the big things first.

If you want more horsepower out of your copy, bolt a turbocharger onto it first, then fiddle with the ignition timing.

Er, where was I? Oh, yes. Long copy.

So, one, there’s no such thing.

Two, if it’s such a dimwitted idea, can the sceptics please explain why everybody from Claude Hopkins onwards has been such a fan. Do they know something Drayton Bird doesn’t? Have successive publishers of The Wall Street Journal been idiots? Was David Ogilvy actually a penniless tramp living out of skips?

Three, what you, I or Joe Schmo from Kokomo thinks, feels or believes is utterly and irretrievably irrelevant.

Hold any opinion. Hold it as strongly as you like.

But use it as the basis for a testable hypothesis. Not as an absolute rule for your marketing. Gather evidence.

Because unless we’ve tested it, our opinion counts for nothing.

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