Does Long Copy Really Work Better?

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Since time immemorial, or at least for the quarter-century I've been in direct marketing, people have vigorously debated the merits of long versus short copy.

"If you are selling something worth more than $20, I'll put my money on longer copy every time," said copywriter Jim Murphy, "because it gives me a chance to provide more facts, benefits and credible copy. And I'll put my money on a DM kit over a self-mailer. Because with a kit, I have a chance to get your order with the letter, brochure or order form."

I don't pretend that I can settle the debate once and for all. But I've developed a tool I call the Copy Length Grid that at least can let us determine copy length in a somewhat more scientific and semi-quantitative fashion. (For chart, click )

The Copy Length Grid says that two major factors determine whether long or short copy will work best for your promotion: emotion and involvement.

Emotion refers to the degree to which the purchase is emotional. A diamond engagement ring is a highly emotional purchase while you are moved very little emotionally when deciding on a brand of paper clips.

Involvement refers to how much time, effort and thought go into the purchase. As with most large purchases, much consideration goes into the selection and purchase of a diamond engagement ring. But most of us grab the first box of paper clips on the shelf of the stationery store without a second thought.

To use this system for determining copy length, rate these two criteria -- emotion and involvement -- as high or low. This dictates what quadrant of the grid you end up in, giving you a rough guideline for copy length. Buying a diamond engagement ring is highly emotional and also a "considered purchase" - something you give a lot of thought to, so it rates high in involvement. As you see in the chart, this puts us firmly in the upper-left quadrant of the grid, indicating that long copy is appropriate for this offer.

Meanwhile, paper clips are more of an impulse purchase. There's no emotion and very little thought. This puts us in the lower-right quadrant, indicating that writing long, passionate copy about paper clips probably won't sell more of them.

Of course, the grid is a rough guide, not a precise analyzer. Other factors also must be considered when determining copy length, including:

· Price. The more expensive a product is, the more copy you generally need to sell it. Lots of copy is needed to build the case for value before asking for the order, so that when the price is finally given, it seems like a drop in the bucket for what the buyer gets in return.

· Purpose. Copy that sells the product directly off the printed page or screen (known as "one-step" or "mail-order" copy) usually has to be long because it must present all product information and overcome all objections. Copy designed to generate a lead ("two-step copy") can be short since a catalog, brochure or salesperson will get to present product details and overcome objections later.

· Audience. People pressed for time, such as executives and professionals, often respond better to short copy. Prospects with more time, such as retirees and those with a keen interest in your offer (such as hobbyists), are more likely to read long copy.

· Importance. Products that people need (such as a refrigerator or fax machine) can be sold with short copy because, well, the prospect has to buy them. Products that people want but don't have to buy (such as exercise videos or financial newsletters) must be "sold" and require long copy.

· Familiarity. Short copy works well with products the prospect is familiar with and understands. This is why vouchers and double postcards are used so frequently to sell subscriptions to popular magazines like Newsweek and BusinessWeek.

Based on the Copy Length Grid and these other factors, long copy clearly is not always better, and there are instances when short or almost no copy works well. This is the case with items that "sell themselves," such as staplers or garden hoses.

But for items that have to be "sold" -- life insurance policies, luxury autos, IT systems, collectibles, high-end jewelry, career training -- long copy is often required because of the degree of emotion and involvement.


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