Short Copy vs. Long in BTB Direct Mail

“What’s the most effective length for a business-to-business sales letter?” a reader asked me the other day. Let me try to give some sensible guidelines to answer this common question.

Most of my colleagues in direct marketing agree that the trend in copy length is this: Consumer mailings are getting longer, while BTB mailings are getting shorter.

Consumer mailings are getting longer because prospects are more skeptical than ever, hence they need more sales arguments to persuade them to buy. Business mailings are getting shorter because business prospects are increasingly pressed for time. Some consumers are, too, but not all.

We can divide BTB letters into two categories: lead-generating letters (designed to generate an inquiry) and mail-order letters (designed to generate an order). As a rule of thumb, lead-generating BTB letters are one or two pages in length while mail-order BTB letters are two to four.

Lead-generating letters can be short because they do not have to do the whole selling job, as mail-order copy must. A lead-generating letter only has to whet the prospect’s appetite – that is, get him to take the next step in the buying process.

Typically, that step is either requesting more information (a sales brochure or catalog) or meeting with a sales representative. The sales rep, brochures and catalogs give the product details. All the letter needs to do is persuade the prospect to “raise his hand” and express interest in learning more about the product or service.

Whether the letter is one or two pages is very important. A one-page letter works best with extremely busy readers, such as business executives and doctors, who lack the time or inclination to read long copy. When they open the envelope and see that the letter is only one page, they relax enough to scan it and learn whether they want to reply.

To this group, a multi-page letter gives a visual clue that the package is a lot to read, which is an immediate turnoff and a signal to trash it or put it aside.

You can comfortably go to two pages when writing to audiences who are: readers; possibly not quite as pressed for time as executives and doctors (e.g., middle managers, entrepreneurs, farmers, engineers and IT professionals); or have a strong personal interest in the letter’s proposition (e.g., selling a small-business owner software to run his company).

A two-page letter gives you a bit more room to include points that can help persuade the reader to respond, such as testimonials and product features. There is more room to appeal to a breadth of emotions, beliefs or copy points.

For a non-personalized letter, the two-page letter can be printed on the front and back of a single 8-by-11-inch sheet. If the letter is personalized, use two separate sheets of paper.

What if two pages isn’t enough to fit in all of your sales arguments? One solution is to include a slim-jim brochure in the mailing. A slim-jim is a letter-size or legal-size piece of paper folded two or three times vertically to form a brochure that fits into a No. 10 envelope.

The old saying in direct mail is “the letter sells, the brochure tells.” The letter presents the main selling arguments. The brochure contains supporting evidence including product photos, diagrams, graphs, specifications, features, background on the company and so on.

I prefer to make the enclosure a reprint of an article about the company and the product instead of a traditional sales brochure. The article looks more like useful information while a brochure looks like advertising matter. If no articles about or by your company exist, you can design an insert to look like one.

Now let’s discuss mail-order letters – ones designed to bring back an order. In mail-order selling, there is no brochure the reader can send for to get the detailed product specs and features, and no sales rep to answer questions. The mail-order letter does the selling job alone, and so longer copy is needed.

Consumer mail-order sales letters often are four to eight pages or longer. BTB mail-order letters range from one to eight pages, but are most often two or four.

Never mail a three-page letter. A blank page is a waste of space. If the letter layout comes to three pages, condense it to two using a tighter layout and smaller type or expand it to four using a looser layout and larger type. I prefer the latter. Large type and “roomy” layouts are more inviting and easier to read.

In all cases, the letter should be only as long as it needs to be to do the selling job and maximize response. A letter for a complex product with many features and benefits, such as software, typically will be longer than a letter for a simple product or service, such as a janitorial or office-cleaning service.

The prospect’s interest and involvement with the product is another factor determining letter length. Going back to our previous examples, the IT manager will be highly interested and involved with the selection of a major new software system. After all, technology is his main interest. So he will read a relatively large amount of copy about the product.

On the other hand, a dentist hiring an office-cleaning service only cares that his office is cleaned reliably and at a reasonable price. He isn’t as interested in the details of office cleaning as he would be in the details of a new teeth-whitening system. He will not have great interest in reading about the cleaning service and its methods in detail.

But he probably will read long copy about “how to build a million-dollar dental practice” … because it is much more interesting and relevant to his goals, dreams and desires.

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