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Long Copy or Not—That is The Question

Marcus Johnson

It’s debated in boardrooms and break rooms.

The subject of passionate internet screeds.

And the source of endless squabbles in the neighborhood sandbox (at least where I live—sorry, kids).

What am I talking about? Whether long copy or short copy sells better in direct mail.

The semi-controversial answer: Yes.

Start by Asking the Right Question

The usual question is “Should you write long or short copy to sell a product with direct mail?”

One thing is clear from research and reading educated opinions on this evergreen topic: That’s the wrong question.

The more accurate question to ask at the beginning of a project is, “What creative and copy approach do we think will work best to help sell this particular product or service?”

Sometimes the answer is long copy. Sometimes it’s short. But I’ll let no less an authority than Joan Throckmorton, author of Winning Direct Response Advertising sum it up: “How long should a letter be? As long as necessary to get the story across.” (Italics hers.)

Nobody Reads Long Copy

Do not believe this canard.

People in and out of our business have been saying this for years. Perhaps it’s a result of getting too many classic direct mail packages containing a four-page letter and various inserts and thinking, “No one will read this.” (NOTE: They were not the audience for those packages.)

Or maybe direct marketers believe that audiences conditioned for bite-size information on mobile devices won’t read long copy of any kind (see the popular acronym TLDR—too long, didn’t read).

The truth is more complicated and interesting.

Go Short When it’s the Right Thing to Do

As confirmed by a direct mail expert or two (see below), a good rule of thumb for your project is to only write as much copy as you have to. Some products or services naturally call for shorter copy, for example, a known product that has a built-in customer base.

Just remember that your goal is always to be persuading. If you can do that with short copy, go for it. Otherwise, it’s on to the next step.

How Long is Long-Enough?

Long copy direct mail is about telling a compelling story in addition to addressing audience concerns and overcoming their objections. That’s been true since direct response ads and letters first appeared. If you work in direct mail, you’re doing this in some way every day. Your narrative must have drive and a destination or you’ll lose your audience.

Bob Bly says a long copy approach can be informed by three primary considerations, among others:

  1. Product—More features and benefits will typically require more explaining.
  2. Audience—A savvy buyer who’s truly interested in your product wants more information before making a purchase decision.
  3. Purpose—What are you trying to accomplish? If it’s generating leads, a shorter teaser approach may be enough to draw a response. But if you’re trying to close a sale, you have to answer every possible question and anticipate every objection.

Michel Fortin, another direct mail specialist and writer, proposes a sliding scale of product categories that calls for greater explanation at each step:

  • Convenience products: Short copy.
  • Shopping products: Slightly longer copy.
  • Specialty products: Longer copy with more details.
  • Unsought products: Persuading someone they can’t live without your product? You’ve got some explaining to do.

If You Write Long, People Will Read It—Especially if They’re Interested

Back to Ms. Throckmorton:

“The customer or prospect who’s interested needs all the facts … the customer will stay with you happily as long as you’re telling a good story and presenting a case that appeals.”

And, “Follow this (as long as necessary to tell a good story) rule, write a good tight letter, and anyone who says it’s too long is either a Philistine or no prospect for your product, or both.”

How Will You Know if Long Copy Sells? Anyone? Test!

For many products, long copy outsells short copy by a wide margin, and we know this because of testing.

So, for your next project, start with the basics:

  • Audience: Customers or prospects?
  • Product: Familiar, new, simple, complicated?
  • Purpose: Win new customers, upsell current customers?
  • Budget: Price per package impacts format choice
  • Goals: Desired lift in response

Then write your letter(s). Maybe format choice enables you to test a long copy letter and a short copy letter in the same mailing. In any case, test, learn, and repeat, and before you know it, you’ll be winning those sandbox arguments against the neighborhood kids.

Questions? Counterpoints? Let’s continue the conversation. You can take advantage of IWCO Direct’s depth of knowledge and experience to make your direct mail marketing more effective. Just get in touch.


link https://www.iwco.com/blog/2019/10/01/long-copy-or-short-copy-for-direct-mail/
Marcus Johnson


Marcus Johnson

Marcus is a Senior Writer who blends creative writing and idea generation to bring copy to life for leading financial services organizations, professional sports teams, healthcare, and outdoor brands. The question this University of Minnesota graduate and former winner of the Best in Show from the National AgriMarketing Association loves to ask is, “How can I help?” When he’s not pounding out copy, he loves doing yard work, especially leaf blowing. In sports, Marcus cheers for the Humboldt Broncos, the Canadian hockey team that lost 10 players in a 2017 bus crash.

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