What Works Best: Long Copy or Short?

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Gary Slack argued in "Key Questions for E-Mail Marketing" recently in DM News that e-mail messages should be as short as possible. Here, Robert W. Bly takes a different approach.


"What works best in e-mail marketing?" I was asked for the umpteenth time the other day. "Long copy or short copy?"


It's a quandary for direct marketers much more so than general marketers. Here's why:


There's a widely held view that on the Internet, the less copy, the better. Web marketing experts tell us that the Internet is faster-paced than the snail mail world, that attention spans are shorter and long messages get zapped into oblivion with the click of the mouse. "Keep it short!" they extol in countless advisory e-zines.


General advertisers, for the most part, also think that with copy, the shorter the better. Often their print ads have large pictures and only a few words. They have no trouble embracing the people-don't-read mentality the Web marketing gurus say works best.


But traditional direct marketers whose products are typically sold with long-copy direct mail packages and self-mailers have a problem. It goes something like this:


"In print, I have to use long copy to make the sale or I just don't get the order. We've tested short copy many times. Who doesn't want a cheaper mailing piece with less ink and paper? But it has never worked for our product. Now my Web marketing consultant says the e-mail should be just a few paragraphs. If a few paragraphs won't convince people to buy offline, why should things be any different online?"


And they are right: Just because a person buys online doesn't change the persuasion process. If he needs the facts to decide, he needs them regardless of whether he is ordering from a paper mailing or a Web site.


Yet we also have a sense that the Web marketing gurus have at least a clue as to what they are talking about. We sense that our four-page sales letter, if sent word for word as an e-mail, wouldn't work. People would click away long before reaching the end.


I think I have some sensible guidelines to answer this puzzle.


First, we need to quantify what we mean by short vs. long. When a Web marketing guru talks about short e-mail, he probably means three or four paragraphs. When he says long copy doesn't work, he is against e-mails of more than a few paragraphs.


If I say, "Long copy does work," I mean long compared with the typical e-mail, not compared with the typical direct mail letter on paper. A long e-mail, which may fill several screens, is closer in length to a two-page letter - short by direct mail standards - than to a four-page letter. And it doesn't even come close to an eight-page letter.


Second, we need to quantify how much shorter online copy is than offline. Should you translate your entire package, word for word? Should you compress it to half its length? Less?


Kathy Henning, who writes about online communication, says, "In general, online text should be half as long as printed text, maybe even shorter." Not a precise formula, but a good starting point for estimation.


Third, and most important, we need to remember that the copy for e-mail marketing campaigns is not wholly contained within the e-mail itself. It is really in two parts.


The first half of the message is in the actual e-mail. The e-mail contains a link to a page on a Web site or server. When you click on that link, you jump to the page, where the rest of the message is presented along with the online order mechanism.


In a traditional direct mail package, the message is unevenly split. Consistently, 98 percent of the copy is in the letter and brochure, with 2 percent on the order form.


In e-mail, the division is less balanced and more varied. There are four options:


1. Short e-mail, landing page. Many marketers with simple lead-generating offers use short e-mails (the traditional three to four paragraphs) with a link to a landing page. A landing page is a short Web-based form, usually with a headline, a few paragraphs explaining the offer and a mechanism for the recipient to fill in his information and submit his response. This format is similar in length and style to the traditional one-page sales letter and business reply card used in lead-generating paper direct mail.


2. Long e-mail, landing page. This is similar to the first except the e-mail, by Internet marketing standards, is long. For convenience, I define a short e-mail as any that, when printed out, takes half a page or less. By comparison, any e-mail that takes more than a page when printed out is long. This format is similar in length and style to a direct mail package with a four-page letter and a simple 4-inch by 9-inch order card.


3. Long e-mail, micro-site. This format has a long e-mail and a long landing page, known as a micro-site. The micro-site is a custom URL designed specifically for the offer. Unlike a landing page, which is usually a single screen, the micro-site's lengthier copy requires many screens. The micro-site can be broken into distinct pages (see www.hypnoticwriting.com) or it can be one continuous document through which the reader must scroll (see www.surefirecustomerservicetechniques.com). This long e-mail/micro-site format allows for maximum copy and is ideal for translating lengthy mailings, such a magalogs, to the Web.


4. Short e-mail, micro-site. This format combines a short e-mail up front with a long-copy micro-site on the back end. It is ideal for offers that require a lot of copy but are being transmitted to prospects who might not read a lengthy e-mail.


E-mail can work without competing with "War and Peace" in word count. By strategically splitting copy between the front-end e-mail and back-end response page, you can get your message across without having time-pressured Web surfers fleeing in terror.


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