September 1, 2010Does Long Copy Work?

How effective is long copy?

The London Long Copy challenge is underway. For those of you who haven’t seen the ads yet, it’s a competition for copywriters and creatives based in London to design London Underground posters led by copy of between 50-200 words. Which isn’t much for a sales brochure, but it’s a hell of a lot for a great big print ad.

Who reads sales brochures anyway?

There are two schools of thought in copywriting. One: you get a little information in quickly. It’s better than trying to get it all in and not being memorable at all. Two: the more copy you have, the more likely you are to get some or all of your argument across. I don’t need to tell you which style is more in vogue at the minute.

London Long Copy contest or not, the fact is most copy is short. It’s sharp. The only place for 200 words these days is in a blog or SEO led copy. That doesn’t mean sales brochures don’t have their purpose. They’re just usually given out to people who are at least half way sold on your services. A quick fire advertisment gets them to call. Then you send them the long copy brochure.

Long Copy is at the heart of copywriting history

On a quiet afternoon last week I visited the Museum of Brands in London’s Notting Hill and I remembered something I’d forgotten since history textbooks and school. Remember all those old products? The Bryllcream and the bear’s wax and the powdered eggs and all those other funny old brands? Take another look at the packaging. You’ll find more words on the front than tattoos on a hipster’s arm.

Minimalism – It’s just a fashion

As the years go by, copy gets shorter and design, packaging and other forms of marketing become more important. Why? Partly because it’s assumed that attention spans are shorter, partly because it’s assumed that people are idiots (remember keep it simple, stupid? well, now the emphasis is firmly on the stupid). But it’s also because design — and the role of the designer have become more important. Copywriters like me are usually relegated to the role of idea generation, creative direction and branding strategy if we’re smart, and a lifetime of report writing and coaching sales pitches if we’re not. Luckily I’m smart. But for all those copywriters who aren’t, it must look like we’re practically out of a job. And why? All because designers assume people don’t read any more.

Long copy still works.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what some of the pioneers have to say:

“The longer your copy can hold the interest of the greatest number of readers, the likelier you are to induce more of them to act.”
– Victor Schwab

“Remember that long copy works better than short copy. Of all the things people dislike about marketing, “lack of information” comes in second. [“Feeling deceived” is first.]”
– Jay Conrad Levinson

Okay, so you know about ‘keep it simple, stupid’ but what about ‘garbage in, garbage out?’ A three or four word headline can be forgotten as quickly as it’s read. But if you can catch someone’s attention and keep them reading, it’s like reeling in a fish. Instead of four or five trite, pun-laden words and a generic smiling face (or whatever other design cliche you care to mention), you’ve got your audience’s undivided attention for maybe up to 30 seconds. A week may be a long time in politics, but 30 seconds is a lifetime in advertising.

Think how long your average TV advert lasts. How many words it probably contains. Long copy still has the power to reach further and deeper than other short-copy-and-design led ad campaigns.

The law of diminishing returns: in other words, don’t waffle.

Of course, it’s not always true that ‘the longer the copy, the more information you get across.’ The golden rule is this: use only as many words you need to get the message to your reader. If your sales brochure can be spoken in 1000 words, don’t use 4000 just because it fills up the available space. Don’t waffle.

Ironic as it may sound, long copy is at its best when it’s kept short.

Minimalism isn’t the art of using three or four words. It’s simply the art of using the fewest words needed to get the job done – whether that’s ten or ten thousand.

And if you don’t think long copy still has a place, ask yourself this. How many 25 word blog posts have you read lately?

Long copy works.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 1st, 2010 at 10:05 am and is filed under Advertising, Blog, Branding. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Karri Flatla says:

    I agree that you shouldn’t use more words than what is absolutely required to get your point across.

    But the onus is on us, the copywriters, to innovate more efficient – and maybe more enjoyable – ways to get our point across. 140 characters or a couple headlines certainly aren’t enough (on their own).

    However, just because something “works,” doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY thing that will work … and work well.

    We’re seeing more and more web copy now that breaks the rules and converts very well. At least in the online space that I’m familiar with and work in (I realize you may have been speaking more to print in your blog post.)

    And I say this as a “long copy copywriter” too. Oh how I love a juicy narrative! But a lot of folks online — buyers AND sellers — feel fed up with the scrolling sales letters that make you hunt for the price or squint through a bunch of yellow highlighter and bad typography.

    The copy zeitgeist is ripe for change :)

  2. al says:

    “a lot of folks online — buyers AND sellers — feel fed up with the scrolling sales letters that make you hunt for the price or squint through a bunch of yellow highlighter and bad typography.”

    I agree. But that’s a design issue, rather than a copy issue! Important information like price / calls to action shouldn’t be placed in the main body of the text!

    I suppose long copy is very much linked to the Ogilvy school of advertising (good post about that here) about setting out a reasoned argument, rather than an immediate appeal.

    The web’s a funny place — I advise my customers no more than 300 words per page on main sales pages because people have such short attention spans. But cumulatively (ie over a 6 page site), you’re looking at a long copy situation on most every website, ie each website is a structured argument that takes place over a number of pages.

    Perhaps it’s safest to say long copy is best when it’s broken up into digestible parts, either by headers (as this blog entry was), over a number of pages, or just by placing the important information outside the main body of the text.

    But long copy’s definitely not dead yet!

    Thanks for reading :-)

  3. Karri Flatla says:

    Design absolutely matters. Agreed.

    But (and I know I’m going to take heat for this), how we pitch offers to folks online needs to change beyond the design. People hate hype and they seem to be sensitizing — not desensitizing — to it.

    Whatever “template” was used in direct mail marketing (and surely still is), comes off as cocky and disrespectful when translated for the web.

    Too much of the “long copy” I read today doesn’t respect the sensibilities of the reader. I’ve had entrepreneurs tell me they’ve spent THOUSANDS of dollars on copy they cannot bring themselves to publish because their voice and their message feels cheapened by old-school copywriting tactics.

    Moreover, there are lots of sales pages that –while longer than a tweet– are definitely shorter than the scroll-fests we’ve become accustomed to … and they convert like hell.

    Today’s entrepreneur wants real relationships with buyers. Design can support this. But so can copy written with both a lighter touch and deeper respect for the reader.


  4. al says:

    Agreed. However, there’s no real consensus on what ‘long copy’ really is. As I said above I advise my clients ‘no more than 300 words per web page (except your blog)’ but on a 6 page site, that’s potentially 1800 words. That’s long copy. And the London Long Copy challenge mentioned in the blog had a word count of 50-200 words. Which is long for a poster for the London Underground, microscopic for a website. Where do you draw the line?

    I would say most websites need at least 600 words of explanation — 300 on what the product does, another 300 on why you should have it. The ‘about us’ etc isn’t so important. But usually you’re selling a product people are unfamiliar with — you’ve got to explain what it does.

    I was quite amused when I saw that episode of Mad Men where Don Draper confessed to ‘never having wrote anything longer than 250 words in his life’. Obviously, you didn’t start out writing sales brochures, Don. But he’s got a point. Anything longer than 250 words, whether it’s on a page or spread out over six, requires considerable time from the reader. But can everything be sold in 250 words or less? Probably not.

    Thanks for reading!

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