How to Settle the Long v. Short Web Copy Debate

This is a topic that has been around for awhile: long v. short articles as web content strategy.

Yet, yesterday someone new in our web department asked me what I thought about the long v. short copy debate on the web.

Of course as a copywriter who has specialized in the web for the last seven years, I had just a little to say…

…and whether you are a blogger or copywriter churning out ad pieces for your business or any kind of persuader…

You can learn something from copywriting.

Here are my thoughts.

I’m familiar with the top 8 reasons why copywriting is important to real estate, and I do recommend them.

I think what you’ll find as you dig deeper you’ll discover that people will disagree on short v. long copy on the web…but in general compelling long copy will out duel compelling short copy, even on the web.

Here’s what you have to keep in mind, though:

Test Everything

And here’s the thing about long copy: long copy for the sake of long copy is not right.

When a copywriter says long copy works better than short, what he should be saying is “I want to lay out every single benefit I can to a reader…leaving nothing behind because I have only one shot at this. And if it takes 5 pages to do that, why wouldn’t I write five pages?”

A sales man would never go into a presentation and give the ten minute version when it really takes an hour to present.

Neither would you pencil in just five minutes to rehab an alcoholic.

But if the writer can layout a compelling argument in half a page, he should do so. Most of the time the length of the copy is determined by the complexity of the product/service and the offer.

If you are giving away a free book, 3 pages might be excessive.

Where You Spend Most of Your Time…and It’s Not at the Keyboard

But if you are trying to talk people into parting with money, say for contributions or to buy a house or trust you as their agent or buy a book, 3+ pages is probably the minimum you could get away with.

Again, depending on the complexity. And you have to test and see what works.

If the 3 pages doesn’t work, then you are not hitting people’s pleasure/pain buttons. Back to the drawing board.

Which means writing compelling copy is more about research rather than writing. You can really never prepare enough.

I’ve known successful writer’s to spend weeks researching before touching the keyboard. They don’t until they have that ‘ah ha’ moment.

And usually when they have that moment, the piece writes itself. This is pretty much my process, too.

The Mindset You Must Have

Picture yourself trying to lead someone from an addiction to alcohol.

It could take fifteen minutes, half hour or hour. A day. Weeks. Probably, though, months. Even years.

But you always give them what they want when they ask for it. And you always try to figure out what will resonate with them.

The thing with print/web copy is you have to think ahead and answer all the questions you think they might be asking, most important, “What’s in it for me?”

Then in the copy you have to answer those questions with enticing benefits…because this might be your only shot at having their attention.

It might take you ten questions. 20. 30. Or even 50.

You don’t know what they are going to ask for sure. So you ask them all (maybe).

You have to have available that one question that might make them go, “That’s it.”

Why People Stop Reading Your Blog or Sales Letter

It’s likely though that most people will not read every word. Especially on the web. People scan.

That is why potent headlines and sub headlines are important. To draw in those scanners.

As far as clicks, etc. what you have to keep in mind on the web here is there has to be a marriage between reader friendly web design and persuasive copy.

Think about online newspapers.

Most articles are broken into pages. They are never a single page. (Unless the article ends above the fold.) And because readership is very important to newspapers, they probably found breaking pages up improves important metrics of readership.

Furthermore, print sales letters are broken up into pages. As are books. (Doesn’t there seem to be an argument for everything?)

But here’s the point I wanted to get to: the reason people stop reading a sales letter, article or book is not because they have to turn the page or click to the next…we lose people because the copy isn’t compelling.

You are right when you say that “the user feels more ‘accomplished’ by browsing / clicking-thru” and good web design tries to accommodate this.

See, the marriage comes when the copy is persuasive. When the monkey with the red fez can EASILY follow the banana.

Personally I find one long page of copy exhausting and intimidating. And I’m not alone, as copy blogger Brian Clark explains in his post The Death of the Long Copy Sales Letter.

But here’s the thing: I’ve clicked through 8 pages of news articles I found fascinating. I’ve scrolled through very persuasive sales letters online that when printed equal 16-21 pages.

Thing is, I’m sure these people have tested the layout, one single page v. 4 web pages…and found where they get there better response.

They tested to see what works.

To Drive My Point Home

The reason I ever bought a product online or read an entire article is not because it was long or on one page.

I bought because I got an emotional charge out of it…found it compelling…convinced I couldn’t live without it.

A great writer constantly struggles with this thought: is this the least bit compelling, passionate?

It gnaws at him.

That’s why human psychology and emotion are so important to copy.

We have to know what plucks people’s heart strings. Constantly.

That’s why, if you are going to write a five page article or letter, every sentence counts.

Here’s the thing: we are missing opportunities when we make categorical statements like long copy on one page is better than short without explaining why…and without ever testing the boundaries.

In summary, the first order of business, is to make sure the piece is compelling and passionate.

Then we can talk about layout, length or page breaks.

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