Which converts better and drives more sales: long-form copy or short-form copy?

It's been debated since the first recorded newspaper advertisement was published in 1704 in the Boston News-Letter:

"At Oyster-bay on Long-Island in the Province of N.York, There is a very good Fulling-Mill, to be Let or Sold, as also a Plantation, having on it a large new Brick house, and another good house by it for a Kitchin & work house, with a Barn, Stable, etc. a young Orchard, and 20 Acres clear Land. The Mill is to be Let with or without the Plantation: Enquire of Mr. William Bradford Printer in N.York, and know further." (My thanks to Derrick Daye for publishing this ad in his blog, Branding Strategy Insider.)

Clearly, the above was a short-form ad. And yet…

"The more you tell, the more you sell," claim the adherents of long copy.

"No one has time to read below the fold," counter short-copy partisans.

Of course, both sides are right... to the degree that each side fully understands its customer's needs and the customer's awareness of how well the product or service in question fulfills those needs.

In other words...

One Size Does Not Fit All

Does Campbell's Soup need an 18-page scrolling online sales letter to sell tomato soup?

Soup is soup, and everyone's heard of Campbell's. An 18-word ad would suffice.

Most people shopping for soup are interested only in the price of their favorite brand, whether Campbell's or another, and whether there's a coupon attached; neither requires a lot of supportive copy.

But if Campbell's brings to market an all-natural, gluten- and fat-free tomato soup that helps you lose weight, sleep better, and score a raise from your boss on Monday morning... it's got a lot of persuading to do.

As does an investment newsletter selling 12-month subscriptions at $2,000 a pop.

A 2 x 2-inch print ad, a one-paragraph email, or a tear-off coupon will not have enough selling power, information, and enticements to lift $2,000 out of an anyone's wallet.

The Reader's Valuable Time Isn't the Issue

Yes, we are a frenetic, multitasking, hyperachieving, constantly-on-the-go society. We prefer pithy sound bites over verbose, grandiloquent, chest-thumping prose.

By the way, nothing decreases readership faster, thereby killing sales, than ads with half-page-long paragraphs in eye-straining 10-point or smaller fonts.

Yet people will attempt to read a 48-page letter, magalog, or bookalog, even poorly formatted and designed ones—if the headline, deck copy, and lead grabs their attention—which it will do only if it's about a topic that deeply interests them on a visceral level.

Whether they will read it through to the end and act on its call to action depends on the copywriter's ability to keep their interest and increase their desire.

It's the same reason no one will put down a good book, even if it's 1,000 pages long. Indeed, who wants a good book to end?

The bottom line: People will read as much as is available about any subject that's important to them emotionally, financially, or intellectually.

Convince people your product can make them richer, prettier, younger, or healthier, among other things—and as long as they've been hungry for those promised results for a long time—they'll find the time to read every word you've got to say.

But, then again, sometimes you just don't need to say a lot.

When Short Copy Is Enough

As a marketer, if you've got a product that is like every other product of its kind, though maybe with a few value-added differences—there's no need to rewrite the entire history of your product's invention in your sales copy.

For example, if you're selling acne cream, all you need say is, "Pimples disappear overnight with Acme Acne Cream."

There's no need to explain to a teenager what pimples are, where they pop up, who gets them—the poor kid just wants to get rid of them, quick.

After all, what teenager doesn't know what acne cream is? And they all know they need it. So just grab them by their oily cheeks, in a very teenager-engaging fashion, and quickly tell them why they should use your acne cream.
And you can easily do it above the fold.

When to Make It a Little Longer

Sixteen-year-old Samantha really doesn't suffer from acne. (The operative word is "suffer.") She gets a pimple or two only when something stressful is approaching—a final exam or a first date, for example.

So, in her case, merely announcing the existence of your acne cream will probably not excite her enough to forgo a shopping spree at the mall and invest in a six-month supply of your super pimple cream instead.

Samantha just doesn't recognize her infrequent flare-ups as a problem requiring her attention.

So the goal of your marketing is to get her attention—and keep it—because selling to her will take longer.

Offering Samantha a coupon or sending her a mobile message will not be enough.

To increase her awareness and engage her desire, you'll need to paint her a picture, tell her a story—many, in fact.

The bottom line: If the sale is worth the effort, your online ad needs to continue below the fold, and your print ad will need a half-page, at least.

In short, you'll need more copy.

When to Fire All Torpedoes

Let's say you've invented the "one-application—never see a pimple return again—pleasantly perfect pimple cream." One small tube, one large price tag, and pimples are gone forever.

Now if you think you can sell that above the fold or just slightly below it—you need to fold your marketing director, stick him or her in an envelope, and let the kid in the shipping department design your marketing campaign.

Understand, if your pleasantly perfect pimple cream costs your target teenager a month's allowance, you've got a lot of serious selling to do.

For one, the teens are probably going to ask their parents to pay for it. So you'll have to convince them, too—sort of like in B2B marketing, where buying decisions are made by a disinterested, financially stressed, pressed-for-time committee.

The bottom line: When you're confronted with a complex sale, brevity is not your ally.

Moreover, you cannot provide all the information—a compelling story, incontrovertible proof, undeniable credibility, risk reversal, and an irresistible offer—all necessary to convince, persuade, and close a difficult sale... in a tweet.

If you're selling a first-to-market product, or a complicated and expensive service, that your target market has little or no awareness of—yes, you'll certainly need to grab their attention above the fold.

But you'll also need to sit down with them as a friend, via the written word, and have a long and serious chat about how you're really here to help them.

And you'll need to continue that same conversation with them—for as long as it takes—until they finally agree to shake your hand.

And to do that, you'll need a lot of copy, pages and pages of it.

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The End of the Long-Copy vs. Short-Copy Debate

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Barry A. Densa is a freelance marketing and sales copywriter at Writing With Personality. For more, visit his blog Marketing Wit & Wisdom.