Who Says Long Copy Doesn’t Work Online?

In 1985 I wrote three versions of a customer acquisition mailing for Diners Club International. The first version was two pages long, the second version was four pages long, and the third version was eight pages long.

The longest letter worked the best, the shortest worked the worst, and the one in the middle evoked just a middling response. As the adage goes, “Long copy sells.”

Dozens of experts will now tell you that while long copy may well have sold the best back in the ’80s, that rule doesn’t apply today, particularly not online. One or two of those experts might have a slim clue as to what they’re talking about.

The thing is, the apparent knowledge that short copy works better online has been brought to us not by writers or marketers, but by usability engineers, information architects, and content managers. (A free T-shirt to anyone who can clearly define and separate the roles of those three.)

As for the length of copy you should be using at the “point of sale,” that page on your site at which you are finally trying to get your prospect to say, “Yes!”: I don’t believe that anyone has tested that enough to earn the right to “know.”

But here’s a clue. iQVC can sell just about anything to anyone through TV, particularly in the early hours of the morning. It knows how to sell. Not surprisingly, its site is among the few one can point to that actually turns a profit. Take a look at the style and length of copy it uses at that point of sale. (It’s long.)

If there’s a chance that longer copy might sell better, from where did the knowledge that short copy rules online come from?

Two places. The first reason “sales copy” is short online is that too many usability engineers, information architects, and content managers just don’t like it. They don’t like text that sells. To them, it’s tacky. It’s against the culture of the Web. It’s a breach of etiquette online. Ergo, the less, the better.

The second reason, and the better one, is that text is hard to read on a computer monitor. And it is. No argument there. But just because we find it harder to read text on a screen doesn’t mean that the only solution is to shorten it.

The simplest way to make longer text easy to read is to make sure that it doesn’t appear too “chunky.” That is to say, keep the paragraphs short. It’s not just that long paragraphs really are harder to read, it’s that a long chunk of text telegraphs the fact, visually, that reading it is going to be hard work. And given the choice between the prospect of hard work and the Back button, we know what’s going to happen.

So what happens when the text is so long that it covers more than one screen? Should you expect the reader to scroll down, or should you link to the next screen?

And what’s the argument against short copy anyway? Just because long copy has a pre-Web history of working best, who’s to say that shorter copy isn’t the right approach online?

These questions and more will be answered next week…

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