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This column is successful because of you: You ask questions; you answer questions. Without you, the column would only provide the perspective of two minds. We've learned a lot from your input.

If we didn't hear from any of you regarding the topics in this column, we would probably change our approach. What about for your email newsletter, blog or other marketing devices—what would you do in this situation?

As you build relationships with customers and potential customers, how do you keep your readers engaged and encourage them to interact? What should publishers do when there is little or no involvement from readers?

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This Week's Dilemma

What if no one responds?

We have published an email newsletter for over a year, and we do our best to keep customers in mind by ensuring we're providing them with information that is useful to them. We have a column similar to yours where readers are invited to ask and answer questions. We make sure such questions are of interest to our target audience. Yet, there are times when no one writes with questions or responds to the question of the issue. What do we do in such situations when we're left empty-handed? What do we publish in the next issue, or how do we handle these types of situations without input from our target audience?

—Bonny, Marketing Manager

Previous Dilemma

What makes long, long Web copy effective?

I am finding more and more of those long letters on Web sites. To me, they come across as scams or an exaggeration of the product. Yet, many marketing experts say long copy is successful in getting big sales. After all, we would not see so many of these letters online or in the mailbox if they didn't work. What makes those long letters so successful?

—Maria, copywriter

Summary of Advice Received

Maria, one reader agrees with you that long online letters come across as scams. They are full of unsubstantiated claims and not enough hard facts. The reader says, "But the reason they work is that they have an almost hypnotic effect. They force you into believing them. While this approach may work for getting initial sales, I doubt it does any good in the long-term for building relationships, especially if the product isn't good. You may fool people once, but not twice."

Long copy can have a spellbinding way of grabbing and holding your attention. But why do some prospects read an on-screen page that scrolls on and on?

Most of our readers believe long copy can be effective, but some do not. Here are four reasons why long copy works and one reason why it doesn't. If you're a believer in long copy, use the first four techniques to keep your readers engaged; if not, read on to hear arguments for why short and sweet is preferred:

  1. Answer all of your prospects' questions.
  2. Keep your readers interested.
  3. Test your copy for effectiveness.
  4. Write copy to fit the situation.
  5. Don't use long copy.

1. Answer all of your prospects' questions

The number-one argument for the success of long copy is that it answers every question the reader has. Such letters often convince those who are on the fence to make the buy.

Lisa Norton, public relations at Angela Hospice, encourages having bullet points and headlines to satisfy busy or impatient readers:

You need to have the details there to back it up, once you've reeled them in. Long copy can lend legitimacy to your appeal—your customers will feel you are being honest and upfront with them, and that you are trying to better serve them by giving them all the information they need. If you leave them with unanswered questions, they may distrust or become uninterested in your message.

Bill Doerr, partner with SellMore Marketing, LLC, states that readers simply want information:

Assuming the copy "connects" with your readers' interest, as long as the connection is maintained, the copy—even long copy—will work. It's not the length of the copy as much as its RELEVANCE... as your readers define it. If you've ever had a book that you "can't put down," then you know exactly why relevance will overcome length every time.

Eric Uecker, marketing manager with Radiant Electric Heat, Inc., says some situations require providing details so customers understand a subject and its value to them:

If the information presented requires substantial length for detailed clarity, it requires long copy; and if the information has actual value, the volume of detail offered is rewarded in sales results. Not every subject or product a prospective buyer has interest in can be boiled down to four convenient PowerPoint bullets for a full understanding of the subject. People with a five-second attention span get five-second results, while those with an understanding of a more considered point of view often find worth in the effort of their pursuit.

Brandon Cornett, copywriter with Cornett Copywriting, says this falls on the fundamentals of good copywriting, rather than length or medium:

Short copy can be compelling, online and off. Long copy can be compelling, online and off. Sales letters, print ads, press releases... they can all be compelling if the right fundamentals are applied (relevance, specificity, clarity, creativity, etc.). I've seen many of those long, online letters you mentioned. Some (okay, most) make me want to gag because they're overblown and full of hype. But others have nearly persuaded me to order the product in question, despite the fact I was hip to the writer's tactics. The difference was one of quality and technique.

AJ Smith, marketing guy at Niche Retail, has seen that long copy is much more effective than short copy on more than a dozen sites:

As long as the copy is relevant and not redundant, it can provide a significant frequency of keywords as well as a multitude of useful information to the end user. Well-written copy can embed four to seven keywords in a paragraph without any contextual awkwardness, and will have the benefit of being more relevant to search spiders than text with fewer keywords. Well-written, longer copy equals better organic rankings!

Tim Newton, account director at JDA, says copy is as long as it needs to be—it depends on what you have to say.

2. Keep your readers interested

In addition to answering your readers' questions, you must keep them interested to keep them reading. Alex Bryant, account manager with BlueTone Media, likens effective long copy to entertainment:

Long copy is used by many, and effectively. It works similar to a book that you would read for entertainment, or the way networks use commercials right when a climactic scene is about to happen. Have you ever read a book, and the first few chapters are really boring, and you think over and over that you are going to put it down? But then you also think to yourself "Did I spend $20 on this book?" After you get through the first few chapters, the book takes off, and it is a best seller in your eyes. This is how long copy works.

When you use copy, you try to grab the attention of the masses. If Bob Smith doesn't think a knife that can cut through a shoe is impressive, when he reads a little further and finds out the knife NEVER has to be sharpened, he's sold.

Grocery stores are set up in a certain order, usually with frozen foods on one end and the bread aisle on the other. Why is that? Because most people prefer to get their canned goods first, and get their bread and frozen foods last, so they do not get smashed or melt. With that little piece of consumer behavior in place, doesn't it make sense that they would be separated? The longer you stay in the store, the more you will buy. Grocery store chains have complex algorithms to figure this out. So if you are in a store X amount of time, you will spend Y amount of money (on average). The same is true with TV shows. They want you to watch their shows, view the ads sponsored for their slots and help keep ratings up. If they don't break right before a major scene, you might change the station.

Robert Bolson, director of corporate marketing with Blood-Horse Publications, says people absolutely read long copy—when it is good: "The first rule for any writer to follow should be: Never give the reader a reason to stop holding hands with you."

David Duplisea, president of nuvisionbiz.com, Limited, also agrees it's the quality of the copy:

Copy should always engage the reader, have a clear message as to what it is you are trying to say and have a concise closing. The copy should be sufficient to get the message across, but not so long as to oversell or insult the reader's intelligence by repeating and overusing points. If the copy becomes long, then there are tricks to keep the user engaged, such as [write] shorter paragraphs, bold the font in opening sentences, or indent quotes and examples—just to name a few.

Marcus Barber, strategic foresight analyst with SUT, says that long Web copy is compelling because it relies on what some people know as the Mercedes Benz copy rule, which works something like this: The more important a product or service is, the more you can write about it. In long:

This creates a psychological loop, because, for the readers, the more they read, the more important they think it is. ALL copy needs to be compelling. That means you have to write copy that entices and lures your customers by using language that appeals to them. Whether Web-based, radio scripting, direct mail or newsprint, a critical factor for success is that whatever you write compels the reader to take action in your favor.

  • Tip 1: Web-based copywriting is much more of a full sales presentation, and this is arguably the single biggest difference between normal copy and Web-based copy. So, to create a compelling letter, think of it as if you were presenting face-to-face in a sales call and need to run through a full presentation with your client. What would you say, how would you make your product sound attractive and engaging? Write it that way.

  • Tip 2: "Layer" your copy. If you want to use a long copy letter on the Web, ensure that you write your copy in layers so that each layer appeals to a different reason for purchase. Then, "finish" each layer with a call to action that enables a "click-here-to-buy" type option. And continue on with your offer. Of course, few are going to read pages and pages on mops. Don't make the mistake of simply repeating the same information. Each layer needs to be another supporting point.

  • Tip 3: Readers will happily scroll down, but they WILL NOT scroll across. If you try to get them to scroll left and right you'll lose them very quickly.

So the three tips are—Treat the copy as a full sales presentation; layer each selling point and finish it with a call to action; ensure that the copy only requires the reader to scroll down.

3. Test your copy for effectiveness

Several readers wrote in indicating that testing can prove long copy is successful. Emily Breeze, communications coordinator for Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, says, "I do not know why it works, but I can confirm that in my organization's e-mail testing efforts, long emails had a higher click-through rate than short emails."

Paul Kemper, marketing operations director with Novell, says that once the content is in front of the recipient, then the content will be read, whether it is by direct mail or online:

I did a test with a small, two-paragraph letter as a thank you after people visited our booth. We followed up with telemarketing. The outcome: of the 119 people who received the letter, none could recall it.

I did a similar thank-you letter to 325 people who visited our booth at another event. It was two pages long. Responses from 35 percent of the people said it was an excellent letter. The secret to it can be found on this site. As for Web pages, since the same rules apply, the secrets to them apply as well. So if a Web page is nothing more than an electronic brochure, you are not going to attract attention. If it faces the issues people experience head on, you will have a captive audience. But it takes quite a bit of text to do this.

4. Write copy to fit the situation

Like all marketing efforts, long copy depends on the situation and target market. Yvonne Miller, marketing consultant, says it depends on the style of writing and how well you know the target audience:

I have seen promotions that read like carnival barker-speak—all hype and no substance. These make me cringe and embarrassed for the writer and the company. I usually employ the KISS method, but if I use long copy, I employ the "tell, not sell" method. I've had very good results with both types of copy. The trick is to know which to use to grab your audience.

Arthur Black, president of Trans/Action Marketing, says long copy versus short copy, like everything in life, depends on the situation:

As a veteran copywriter working in both direct marketing and general advertising—and now online—I have found that if you can tell your story in 100 words, use 100 words. If you need more words, use more. The real trick: don't fall in love with your own copy. Edit. Cut. Cut. Edit. Start by getting rid of passive verbs, and always keep the needs and interests of your reader foremost in mind. Long copy or short, clear, involving, readable copy always works best.

Erica Stritch, associate with Wellesley Hills Group, says long copy helps to build trust and credibility:

There are so many scams in the mail and on the Internet that people, rightly so, have become skeptical buyers. Including longer copy has a psychological effect on buyers that helps to build trust. This is not to say you should speak simply to hear your own voice and that they will listen. Longer copy should be used to enhance desire, describe benefits, create rationale and include a compelling offer for the buyer. This is not easy to do in a few short bullets. In the end it all comes down to building trust.

5. Don't use long copy

Even though many readers provided insight on why long copy works, it helps to know why some believe it doesn't work. Their experiences can help us know when not to use long copy and how to avoid bad reactions when we choose to use it.

Michael Holdcroft, CEO of SELLERS Technologies, doesn't read long copy:

I skim through the page to get to the bottom line where the "bottom line" is. After that, I usually leave. Sure the argument is to completely answer all the questions a reader might have. But, I believe I am on the side of the majority when I say that it doesn't work with me. I have even read Advertising Secrets of the Written Word by Joseph Sugarman, who is well known for long copy in his paper ads. I just do not see how it can be successfully implemented online. We use shorter texts and offer long copy as a link or an Adobe Acrobat pdf file. That works just fine. Especially since pdfs have a lasting effect.

John Carney, principal with J. Carney Business Communications, believes that if a long letter sells it must contain a slew of promises and pleadings:

You have to do a lot of convincing to sell someone a bridge. Generally, for getting a point across I think shorter is better. This is especially true for the Web, as reading a screen tires the eyes. If you have to explain a lot, break it into chunks. That's why online news gives a summary paragraph and you drill down to the whole story. Those who want it all will probably print it out.

A reader who is a Web copywriter says that 200 words looks too long:

It would have to be some fantastically compelling copy with short paragraphs and bullet points to past muster with me. I could keep reading customer testimonials, anything truly clever—OR detailed features and benefits I have specifically sought. But those kinds of details would have to be one click down. Give me succinct at a top level.

S. L. Hansen, writer/producer with Swanson Russell Associates, doesn't think long Web copy is effective:

For one thing, it's harder on the eye to study a box that emits light (which is what a computer monitor is) than it is to read printed material. It's the difference between having light shine directly into your eyes versus having light reflected off a page into your eyes. The former is fatiguing.

For another reason, people are click-happy on the Web. The Web is an interactive medium so they want to interact! Shorter blocks of copy in a "clickable series" can work in some applications, where long copy is necessary to sell the product or service. The change of page should be designed to refresh the eye.

Bryan Turriff, marketing manager at IBM, offers this:

There may be some value in being able to provide a lot of information, but I've found that you need to do this in bite-sized pieces, so the first email may be one or two paragraphs that clearly state the value proposition and define why the reader should care. Then you can send them to an online landing page that further demonstrates the value of your offering or allows links to more information. I see loads of long emails all the time, but I rarely read them and almost never respond.

Long copy works when it's compelling and fits the situation. The more questions you can answer, the more your company is trusted.

MarketingProfs readers rule! They're always ready and willing to help. We're lucky that many of you respond to each week's challenge. Thank you.

Continue reading "SWOT Team: Calling All Readers!" ... Read the full article

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.