Everywhere I go I still hear squabbles over long or short copy.
I thought the debate was settled, but apparently not. I have to admit some of these discussions are painful. It’s like watching hunters fighting over an anemic squirrel while the big game strolls by.
If you’re still having the long/short copy argument, you’re confusing the vehicle for the message. Make no mistake, you’re falling further behind the times by the minute.
For years, my stock answer about copy length has been that it’s not about length but relevance. I’d explain that it’s the lady’s skirt principle: copy needs to be long enough to cover the essentials and short enough to be interesting.
I’d sum up by encouraging each side to focus more on what was actually said rather than word count. Writing great, relevant copy isn’t easy.
And it isn’t getting any easier.
AdWords, Twitter (microblogging), social media, text messaging, and the continual assault of data on our senses is raising the bar. My brother Jeffrey observes, “The skirt just seems to be getting shorter and shorter.”
Before you label me a short copy advocate, let me say that if it were as easy as just writing short copy, then all the Web’s short copy (including all those short AdWords/AdSense ads) would convert like a winning slot machine.
Until recently, the copy challenge was mostly about providing relevance. Now, it’s about providing the same or more relevance in fewer words. In his book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” Frank Lutz writes:
It is no accident that the most unforgettable catchphrases of the past fifty years contain only a single- or at most two-syllable words. And when they initially haven’t been so simple, someone inevitably has stepped in to shorten them. Just ask the makers of Macintosh (“Mac”) computer. And when was the last time you used the words “International Business Machines” rather than “IBM”? Federal Express is now officially “FedEx,” Kentucky Fried Chicken is now “KFC,” Oil of Olay is just “Olay,” and Dairy Queen now refers to itself as “DQ.”
“Power equals work divided by time. Your copy’s persuasive power equals its emotional credibility divided by the time required to read it,” says our copywriting trainer Jeff Sexton. “The trick isn’t just to say more with less words, it’s to say it more credibly with less words. That’s much harder to do, but anything less usually fails. Unread copy is infinitely unpersuasive.”
To write great copy, you can’t ignore these three principles:
- It must be relevant.
- It must be credible.
- It must be as short as possible (not just short).
Notice how the word “creative” is absent. People don’t have time for you to be cute, play tricks, or gimmick them. They know how to weed out the bull dung. They want the facts, and they want what they’re looking for now. They don’t have the time or patience for anything else.
The following copy meets the third principle but not the first two:
Free Apple iPhone
Be the first to get the iPhone.
Shipping included. Act now!
A better ad would be:
Earn Apple iPhone
No money out of your pocket
Must complete advertiser offers
Take this column’s title as another example. It adheres to all three principles. Look at some less effective options we considered:
- Writing Better Copy for the Web 2.0 Landscape
- How to Write Better Web 2.0 Copy
Newspapers have long employed writers to write nothing but headlines. This skill is desperately needed online. And editors who can slash copy down to its meaty essentials will soon be in greater demand.
Stop haggling over copy length; customers don’t care. All they care about is getting the information they need from your copy — quickly. Make sure you answer their questions and close the loopholes in as few words if possible.
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