When it comes to long copy vs. short copy…long copy wins every time.
It’s the “dirty little secret” of today’s most successful direct response marketers. And, one of the most highly contested debates in marketing. Has been for decades.
The sticking point for most marketers has always been cost. Of course, in print advertising and direct mail campaigns, the cost difference of implementing longer promotions versus shorter ones is significant.
For example, full page advertorials cost more than small display ads. Sixteen page direct mail packages cost more than 5-page packages. That certainly explains the pile of single-page flyers and postcards you get in the mail every week.
Plus, longer promotions take more time to create. More time to research, write, review and edit, design and format—you get the picture. But you’re not just paying more to your writers, editors, and designers. You’ve also got higher printing and mailing costs with long copy.
When it comes to long copy vs. short copy, long copy must convert much better for it to be more profitable.
And that brings us to the dirty little secret of direct response marketing…
Regardless of the media used, high quality long copy beats out short copy in maximizing response to your marketing messages—almost without exception.
Of course, the caveat is, you must use proven persuasion techniques understood by only the most highly-skilled copywriters.
In fact, today’s most successful direct response marketers know that hiring a professional copywriter to write their promotions—long copy or otherwise—will “make” them money rather than “cost” them money.
Proof long copy converts better than short copy
While there is scattered evidence of short copy beating out long copy, high quality long copy will outperform short copy every time.
Let’s take a historical look at some direct response industry tests pitting long copy against short copy.
In 1998, User Interface Engineering discovered in their web usability studies that—despite saying to the contrary—users actually preferred to scroll through more copy on fewer pages than less copy on multiple pages.
This 2001 article by George Demmer makes a compelling case for using long copy in direct response marketing. Including showing where some of the world’s most respected giants in advertising stood on the issue of long copy versus short copy.
In a 2004 series of tests developed by MECLABS, long copy outperformed short copy considerably in every scenario. You can see the results here.
And this 2006 test of a help-wanted ad sheds some interesting light on the subject of whether long copy can be used successfully in a medium historically reserved for short copy.
This 2012 test by Digital Prosperity does a great job explaining how longer email copy works to pre-sell a reader, increasing the likelihood of converting them after clicking over to a landing page.
In early 2012, serpIQ tested content length for web page ranking. Results clearly indicate more content ranks higher.
Later that same year, KISSmetrics’ Neil Patel ran an A/B test on his own homepage. Turns out, his original version with nearly 1,300 words outperformed a newer version containing just under 500 words.
And this 2015 experiment by America’s top copywriter Bob Bly confirms the power of high quality long copy.
What is it about long copy that makes it convert better?
In a recent article detailing 12 key components of a perfect sales letter, I briefly explained why long copy outperforms short copy. It has to do with the #1 rule in selling, which says “Build a relationship with your prospect first, ask for his business second.”
To put it simply, long copy gives you more “real estate” in which to build your likability and credibility, and make the case that your solution is the answer to your reader’s problem.
Plus, long copy offers the following additional advantages:
1. Puts your reader in a buying mood. Long copy answers more of your reader’s questions and diffuses more of their objections so they feel less anxiety about doing business with you.
2. Improves SEO (for online copy). As long as your copy is informative and engaging, Google will help drive more organic traffic to your pages with higher web page rankings.
3. Qualifies prospects. Truth is, not every reader is your ideal customer. If they aren’t sufficiently qualified to buy your product or service, they won’t read the copy—no matter how long or short it is.
4. Reduce customer service incidences. By using long copy to answer your reader’s questions prior to them buying, you’ve reduced the risk of misunderstandings that lead to dissatisfaction and refund requests.
5. Flexibility. Well formatted long copy—with subheads, bullets, and side bars—satisfies both types of readers. Those who prefer to skim to gauge relevancy, and those that want all the specifics.
Yet, don’t be long for the sake of being long. After all, you should only write as much copy as needed to provoke a positive response…and not a sentence more.
In fact, in the cases where long copy doesn’t work, it’s not because it’s too long. It’s because it wasn’t compelling enough to keep the reader captivated. A bored reader will leave every time…regardless of the length of the copy.
Does short copy ever perform better?
Are there examples where short copy outperforms long copy? Of course, as evidenced by this Marketing Experiments test.
So, don’t sweat it if you’re having a tough time making the “switch.” Because we don’t recommend increasing the length of your copy (or content) on every marketing communication without proper scrutiny.
Instead, we simply suggest business owners can benefit by considering the possibilities of long copy in boosting response, both online and off.
That said, short copy will work better when:
• Your reader is already pre-qualified and simply more ready to buy
• Your reader is making a strictly emotional decision to buy
• Your offer is low-risk and low-cost
• Your product or service is well-recognized by your audience
• Your promotion requires shorter copy due to space constraints (think small display ads).
But no matter what copy length you choose, you can check it against a simple matrix that MECLABS developed to help predict its effectiveness in marketing a product or service. It works by comparing the nature of your prospect’s motivation to buy with their level of anxiety about purchasing, including cost of product or service.
Regardless, never assume long copy will always beat out short copy, or vice versa. You should always split test both versions to know which will perform better, and why.
Truth is, the long copy versus short copy battle often misses the most important factor when it comes to direct response promotions. That is, high quality copy will outperform poorly written copy every time. No matter the length.
Long copy vs. short copy recap
1. Use the MECLABS matrix above to predict copy performance.
2. Use only high quality copy written by a professional copywriter.
3. Split-test your copy to know which will perform better, and why.
Again, all things being equal, high quality long copy will almost always outperform high quality short copy.
If you’ve got some copy testing experiences—singing the praises of either long or short—please share them with our readers in the comment section below.
About Jerry Bures
Jerry Bures is a direct-response web copywriter and marketing consultant. Since 2010, he has helped natural health, self-help and business opportunity clients—as well as local small businesses—become more visible, credible and profitable online.