The Long and Short of It

Readers often ask, “Should I use short or long copy in my email messages?”

My response: In general, try to keep copy short. But copy should be as long as it needs to be to get your message across. Not a word less. Not a word more.

In my direct mail days, copy length was a constant debate, even though controlled testing almost always proved long copy worked better than short. Ultimately, direct marketers always came back to the same simple rule:

If copy is interesting, compelling, and meaningful, people will read it no matter how long it is.

Conversely, if it’s not interesting, compelling, and meaningful, people won’t read it no matter how short it is.

It would be easy to say the same principle exists in email and be done with it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The application of the rule has to do more with the medium than anything else.

In a direct mail piece, the letter, written and designed by experts, uses numerous techniques to hold the recipient’s interest, such as:

  • Handwritten notes in the margins

  • Lift notes (extra enclosures placed in direct mail envelopes)
  • Headlines and subheadlines
  • Boldfaced type, bullets, and other “eye friendly” characters

The recipient can read the letter all at once, read part of it right away and finish it later, or not read it at all. Rarely is the recipient pressured to read the entire letter immediately or get rid of it.

The email world is clearly different.

First, people get dozens if not hundreds of email messages a day versus only a handful of postal mail pieces. As a result, email recipients are typically in a hurry to wade through email and determine what to delete and what to save.

Second, email is very easy to delete. Just a simple click. Direct mail, on the other hand, requires walking to a garbage can and tossing it in. Not a big difference in time, but a pretty big difference in mindset.

It’s safe to assume, then, there’s less pressure to process postal mail than email.

As a result, email’s objective is much different from direct mail’s. The return address, subject line, and message area must get the recipient to open the email, scan the message, and click through to the landing page.

E-mail marketers try to make that happen by keeping their messages as brief as possible. Consider: In a recent review of 100 randomly selected email messages received over the course of a week, 87 percent had very short messages. Many were so short the entire message fit in the preview window.

But even though a lot of people espouse and follow this logic, it’s not always prudent to do so. In many cases long email copy has outperformed short in terms of both CTRs and Web-based conversions.

When to Use Short Copy?

The answer is really a function of the offer, target audience, and prose (“prose” because writing shouldn’t be rambling or boring and should be to the point). Copy is most effective when it’s informative, compelling, persuasive, and personal — when it paints a picture in an emotionally engaging way. Short copy doesn’t give you the opportunity to achieve these goals. Don’t sacrifice crafting the right message for the sake of brevity alone.

Brevity can reduce your ultimate conversion rate. Short copy is preferable to long, but not as an absolute requirement. Never craft an email that can’t work because you’ve sacrificed key elements for the sake of brevity.

And don’t forget what good copywriters have always known: If you can tease a reader into an ad, she’ll finish reading it even if it’s several pages long.

When writing an ad, always keep the target audience in mind. If you’re targeting accountants, know they’re detail oriented and analytical thinkers. They call for a didactic writing style with plenty of facts. However, if you’re targeting consumers, they’ll be more receptive to longer copy. Answer enough of their questions to let them make an informed decision on whether to click through.

Some additional suggestions for writing email ads:

  • Avoid using long words, such as “information.” Opt for short words, such as “facts.”

  • Avoid being cryptic. Write value propositions in a straightforward way.
  • Strive to write short, punchy sentences, not long-winded run-on diatribes.
  • State the facts, benefits, and features in full. Never compromise this goal or risk letting short copy reduce the effectiveness of what you’re trying to say.
  • Write in a style the target audience will best understand.
  • Always write in first person singular.
  • Agonize over the headline or lead. The stronger the headline, the longer the body copy can be. Like fishing, once they’re on the hook, you can reel them in.

You don’t need much copy to describe and educate a person about basic and familiar products, such as music CDs, nontechnical books, and clothing. For less-familiar or more-complicated products and services, such as cars, telephone calling plans, continuity clubs, and software, plenty of copy is needed to convey all the benefits and features. Explain any technical aspects consumers need to understand as part of their decision-making process.

In terms of price, people can make a decision to buy a $9.99 or $19.95 product without much detail. A $99.95 product or a $500-per-month service is a whole different ball game. Two issues surface with higher-priced items:

  • Justification. People need information to justify costly expenditures, whether to themselves or someone else.

  • Affordability. Someone looking at a $500-a-month expense needs to make sure it fits in his long-term budget.

Craft your email to the proper length to increase its odds of getting opened and quickly piquing the recipient’s interest. It’ll lead to a click through to your landing page.

Keep reading.

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