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Long or Short Copy? Part 2

  |  February 12, 2003   |  Comments

Hint: Maybe your visitors should decide.

I closed last month's article on copy length with this observation: "One way or another, your visitors' expectations should be the primary driver behind your decisions on copy length."

There's something obvious about this statement, and, as a result, it's easy to brush it aside while muttering, "Been there. Know that. Tell me something I don't know."

If it is that obvious, why doesn't everyone determine copy length based on the needs and expectations of his site visitors?

Think of the conversations in all those meeting rooms, with people hunched over, figuring out what to put on a particular Web page or group of pages:

"How much do we want to say on this page?" asks one person.

"Are we getting our point across powerfully enough?" asks another.

"If we can cut back the copy a little, we could get more products on the page."

"There's a lot to say about this new service. We're going to have to live with longer text at this point."

"Investor relations have asked that we add a new section here."

Comments like these are made a thousand times a day. There's not a single reference to the readers, no consideration of their needs or expectations. Everything is focused on what "we" want or need to say. The Web page is treated as a medium through which the organization delivers key points and messages.

Wouldn't it be refreshing if we heard observations and recommendations of a very different character:

"How much will our first-time visitors really want to learn on this page?"

"Are we telling them everything they need to know to make a considered decision?"

"Isn't this too much copy for this page? Aren't we losing momentum here, getting visitors bogged down in detail at a time when they are anxious to move forward?"

"Will they know enough to be sure about which link to click next?"

"Isn't the length of that copy getting in the way of what the user is really trying to do?"

These are the kinds of questions we need to ask.

This more visitor-centric approach quickly gives you a real sense of how long or short any particular body of text should be.

Sit back and think about that new visitor. What does she expect to find on that page? What does she want? What does she need to learn before she moves one step closer to achieving her goal? How little is enough for her? How much is simply too much?

If you have no sense of what your visitors' expectations are, there are a couple of things you should do.

First, test copy length. Not just short against long, but every shade of gray in between. Keep testing until you find the copy length and content that achieve the best results.

Second, sit in on a usability test. Nothing brings a creative or company ego down to earth faster than seeing how strangers actually use your site and what they do and don't read.

Beyond testing and usability tests, try always to look at copy length from your visitors' perspective.

It's not about how much we want to say, it's about how much the visitor needs to read.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Usborne

Nick Usborne speaks, writes, and consults on strategic copy issues for business online. For Web sites, e-mails and newsletters, he crafts messages that drive results. He is the author of the critically acclaimed bookNet Words - Creating High-Impact Online Copy.

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