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Long or Short Copy? Part 1

  |  January 15, 2003   |  Comments

It's the eternal question -- how long should online copy be? Nick offers some answers.

In the course of writing for ClickZ, I've alternatively praised both long and short copy.

In some columns, I have extolled the personal touch you can achieve through longer, more conversational text. In others I have pointed out that short, active text is your best bet for directing readers and maximizing conversion rates.

There's no real contradiction here. Sometimes long copy will do the best job for you; other times you'll be better off using short copy.

In this, the first of two articles on this subject, I want to look at one simple influence on copy length that is often overlooked -- the size and character of your company.

Let me start with an offline analogy.

Imagine both a local store within your own community and a superstore like Wal-Mart.

If you go to Wal-Mart, you have certain expectations. You expect a huge selection and great prices. You don't expect, in spite of the company's best efforts, a warm, personal experience. The sales staff won't know your name and ask how your kids are doing at school. The atmosphere is not cozy, warm, local, or personal. And that's OK. You go there for the selection and prices. You also expect to be able to find what you want quickly, and you keep your fingers crossed that the checkout line won't be too long.

However, when you go to that small store in your neighborhood, you hope for something quite different. It has a smaller selection and the prices are higher, but you do enjoy the feeling of being recognized, of being known. You enjoy the less tangible, but still important, benefits of a much more personal, human experience.

I think you can make the same distinctions online.

If you run a large store online, with hundreds or even thousands of product choices, your visitors want great prices -- and want to be able to quickly find what they are looking for and complete their purchase with a minimum of fuss. They are looking for a result, not an "experience."

The best way to help visitors achieve these goals is to write short, directed, active copy. Help them find what they want and get out.

But if you run more of a corner store -- a specialty store, a community site -- your visitors' expectations will be different. They'll want to stay a little longer, feel there is someone behind the counter, read a little more, and browse a little longer. They're after that corner-store experience -- that sense they are known.

This is where longer copy comes in, and it's important your tone is more personal and conversational.

All this applies to not only Web sites but also emails and newsletters. Are your readers looking for an experience; do they want to feel they "belong"? Or are they driven by a simple task with the intention of finding what they want and leaving as quickly as possible?

Although I believe this distinction is valid, there will, of course, be instances when short, directed copy will serve a small site well. And there will be times when longer copy will have a place on a larger site.

What it comes down to is the visitor's expectation. Is he looking to complete a simple task and run? Or is he hoping to stay a little longer, learn a little more, then leave with the sense he has found a place that feels welcoming?

One way or another, your visitors' expectations should be the primary driver behind your decisions on copy length.

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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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