The Long Copy Versus Short Copy Face-Off

Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero
December 18, 2008 — 1,470 views  
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It wasn't supposed to happen. But it usually does. Regular Joes want to know why copywriters write all that damn copy that "nobody reads."

I just returned from speaking at a record-breaking National Speakers Association chapter in Denver. And somehow we got off on the age-old long copy versus short copy debate. They were incredulous - unable to believe long copy works. I have heard it referred to as "digital vomit." Well, that just makes me mad.

So OK. You asked for it. In this corner we have the reigning champ "long copy." And in this corner we have the apparent crowd favorite "short copy." (Feel free to insert a high-pitched whine as you read each objection.)

Objection Number One: It's Darn TOO Long!

The funny thing is when I got my very FIRST long copywriting assignment, I secretly snickered too. I didn't see any reason for it to go on and on for pages. (Of course I didn't know anything about marketing at the time either - I just knew what I didn't like.) But, hey, if that's what the client wanted, I would deliver. So I had to learn the style and cadence of long copy. I studied it extensively. I read whatever I could get my hands on by the masters. I read other people's long copy. I collected my junk mail.

In the end I turned out a 15-page letter that hit every objection and flowed like the letters I had studied. That letter launched my copywriting career. Even though I was a novice at the time, my letter actually out-pulled every copywriting guru my client had previously hired. If fact, that letter made him A LOT of money ...and allowed me to finally leave my corporate job and work from home where I was able to raise my two young sons!

Objection Number Two: It Won't Keep My Interest!

As Mike Fortin postulates, "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." http://www.successdoctor.com

And Dan Kennedy weighs in, "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." http://www.dankennedy.com

Objection Number Three: It Should Be Broken Up Over Several Pages!

Funny enough, clicking around through several pages is a BIG TURNOFF to Internet users. In fact, a web usability study from User Interface Engineering (http://www.uie.com) noted people prefer longer copy on fewer pages! That's right. Users would prefer to scroll down one long page versus hopping around to find their information. They write:

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."

But most of all I agree with Mike Fortin's assessment of keeping copy together on one page - It's all MENTAL! He writes:

"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 disassociation or distraction, which interrupts the flow, momentum and intensity of the sales pitch."

We have short attention spans. So asking a prospect to take even a split second to click to another page may be all it takes for him/her to shift gears and be gone forever. The goal is to keep your prospect in a sort-of trance of subtle persuasion. Which is why the copy must also be INTERESTING. As the late Gary Halbert says, "Copy can never be too long. Only too boring!" http://www.thegaryhalbertletter.com

Objection Number Four: A Single Column of Long Copy Is So 20th Century!

Why restrict yourself when today's website could actually look like a digital version of a glossy magazine or a newspaper? (In fact, take a gander at many a corporate site and you'll recognize the touch of high-tech graphic artistry with little regard to salesmanship.)

Well, according to the Poytner Institute's Eyetrack Study held each year, http://www.poynterextra.org/eyetrack2004/main.htm, there are a few problems with steering away from the traditional single column.

"Eyetrack III results showed that the standard one-column format performed better in terms of number of eye fixations - in other words, people viewed more. However, bear in mind that habit may have affected this outcome. Since most people are accustomed to one-column Web articles, the surprise of seeing three-column type might have affected their eye behavior.

"What about photos on article pages? It might surprise you that our test subjects typically looked at text elements before their eyes landed on an accompanying photo, just like on homepages. As noted earlier, the reverse behavior (photos first) occurred in previous print eyetracking studies."

Objection Number Five: I NEVER Read Long Copy!

Say what you will, but the outcomes beg to differ. Marketing Experiments has built their business on testing "every conceivable marketing method on the Internet." http://www.marketingexperiments.com Here are the results of a long copy/short copy study:

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.

Here are a few software solutions that will enable you to run A-B split tests:

- http://www.splittestgenerator.com/
- http://splithit.com/
- http://profitinfo.com/catalog/v4/

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.

So there you have the long copy story from independent sources. You can continue to fight it, but the truth is LONG COPY WORKS. If it didn't, it would not be used to the degree it is.

By the way, did you read all of this article? If you did, you proved my case by reading 1,775 words ... or 5 typewritten pages of single-spaced copy.

Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero

Red Hot Copy