Long copy vs. short copy. Who is right?

long copy advertisement

Click to see a larger version of this ad.

The long copy vs. short copy debate has been raging for decades.

And it rages on today.

On one side are the traditional direct marketing people who look at history and at testing to support their notion that long copy is proven to engage readers and sell products.

On the other side are, well, everyone else, who claim that long copy is outdated and that people today are overloaded with information and don’t have the patience to read lots of words.

Who is right?

To answer that, let’s look at a classic print advertisement from Ogilvy & Mather. The ad pictured here is one of many from O&M that ran in The Wall Street Journal back in the 1960s or 1970s.

The ad itself is a clinic in long copy. Targeting industrial advertisers, it provides 13 principles for how to create advertising that sells, backed up by statistical research, examples, and case studies.

Yep, that’s a lot of copy. And the ad writer knew it.

That’s why in the lower left corner, the ad addresses the issue of long vs. short copy, which inspired heated debate even then. Here’s what it says about long copy:

Ogilvy & Mather has prepared many industrial advertisements with very long copy. Yet readership research shows that the vast majority of the readers of any advertisement never get beyond the headline.

Since so few people read the copy at all, why does Ogilvy & Mather recommend long copy so often?

The answer is that those relatively few people who read the copy are prospects for your product or your service.

If you aren’t in the market for a product you are unlikely to read an advertisement for it, no matter how long or short the copy. (Most readers of The Wall Street Journal have little interest in industrial advertising — or Ogilvy & Mather. Chances are they haven’t read this far.)

But real prospects — especially industrial prospects responsible for spending large sums — are hungry for information. Research shows that industrial advertisements with really long copy actually tend to get read more thoroughly than advertisements with shorter copy.

You might be able to sell a candy bar with very short copy. But you could never make a case for buying a Cessna Citation in a handful of words.

So there’s your answer.

While it’s true that most people won’t read long copy, it’s also true that most people won’t read short copy either. That’s because most people aren’t interested in your products, and you shouldn’t be interested in most people.

You should be interested in that part of the market who are interested in your products. These are the people seeking information and who will read your copy, even very long copy.

Just think about this for a moment. When you’re in the market for something, especially something expensive, do you buy with only a little information, or do you inhale all the information you can get?

I’ll bet it’s the latter. Why? Because you want to justify the purchase. You want to make sure you’re making a good decision. You don’t want any surprises. Short copy can’t do that. Long copy can.

So if your competitors share only a little information and you share a lot of information, what choice do you suppose potential buyers will make?

I’m not saying you should use long copy all the time. I’m saying use all the copy you need to make the sale. As the O&M ad says, you might sell a candy bar with short copy, but not a Cessna.

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20 Responses to “Long copy vs. short copy. Who is right?”

  1. Bunny on April 13th, 2010 1:40 pm

    I love this particular topic! Of course it then leads to “what” constitutes a headline worthy of attention. (be still my heart)

    Also, differences in personality – ie Impulsive vs. Analytical – are a factor in terms of what type of copy is more responsive. If we could wave a magic wand and instantly recognize the character traits of a Target Market, our jobs would be too easy.

    Again, thanks for a great post.


    - CB

  2. Dean Turney on April 13th, 2010 1:50 pm

    Dean – I love this topic. Thanks for writing about it.

    But why not write long copy for a candy bar? Actually, Cadburys advertised its Wispa chocolate bar here in the UK with long copy ads. They certainly stood out.

    And why not advertise a Cessna with short copy? Especially nowadays, with websites. You could create desire with a really simple ad: a beautiful shot of the Cessna, minimal copy – maybe just a price? then include a URL for further information.

    Actually, I’d like to write a long copy ad/DM piece for a Cessna. But don’t you think the simpler, short copy/drive-to-website approach could be equally effective?
    .-= Dean Turney’s last blog … How integrated are you? =-.

  3. Dean Rieck on April 13th, 2010 1:51 pm

    Well if someone finds that magic wand, they’ll make a fortune. And we’ll be out of business.

  4. Harl Delos on April 13th, 2010 2:22 pm

    You need to engage your reader right away if you expect him to read much of anything. That starts with “They laughed when I sat down at the piano – but when I began to play” (or some other headline that’s intriguing and relevant).

    The reason O&M got bad results with long copy is that people who weren’t interested stopped reading. If you have short copy, more suspects (as opposed to prospects) will read your ad, but you’ll make fewer sales.

    Then you need to present your unique selling proposition, and ask for the order. A basic rule of thumb says to ask for the sale early and often – and as soon as your customer says yes, you STFU.

    But customers have questions. A question isn’t a barrier to a sale; it’s an opportunity. The customer is only asking questions because he’s interested. Long copy proponents know that if a customer has unanswered questions, he’s not going to buy yet. That’s where the difference between magazine advertising and web sites lies. You don’t need to force someone to read what he doesn’t want to. You put clickable questions on the page, and answers on other pages. Under the “once the customer says yes, stop talking” principle, you need to answer one question per page, not present the customer with a FAQ of 40 questions.

    The alternative to doing that is to offer a phone number the prospect can call for answers to questions, but you really need to man it 24 hours a day. When I did this, I thought the 800-number charges would eat me alive, but it turns out that people are hesitant to call unless they are rather interested.

    On the other hand, I figured I would be the one answering the questions, and it turns out that my wife got upset when I’d take a call at 3 AM. Can you afford a divorce? So that’s why I present the written answers to questions approach.

    The other thing that long copy can do for you is to develop friendships. You have no idea who’s reading your page, but to the reader, you’re their friend in the business. That’s why blogs work. The point of the blog is not to sell your product, but to sell yourself. Think of the Haband direct mail pieces back in the 1960s, when M. H. Habernickel was talking about his useless son Duke, and his secretary, Miss Feeney. It turns out that Duke did exist; he’s running the business now. But the letter made you comfortable with M. H., and the inserts – swatches and leaflets – sold the products.
    .-= Harl Delos’s last blog … “It is not good for the man to be alone" =-.

  5. Dean Rieck on April 13th, 2010 3:01 pm

    You’re talking about lead generation. You won’t sell a plane with short copy, but you could generate a lead with it. Lead generation is well-suited for high-end items, but by the end the sale, I assure you, you’ll have shared a lot of copy.

  6. Dean Rieck on April 13th, 2010 3:04 pm

    I think you meant to say O&M got “good” results with long copy.

  7. Chris Scott on April 13th, 2010 3:11 pm

    Very interesting observations. How did you come across the Ogilvy & Mather ad?

    When I first got into writing sales pages for ClickBank products, I figured that shorter was better — primarily because generations are becoming increasingly less text-oriented. Only through trial and error did I discover what Ogilvy & Mather had some 50 years ago.

    This actually turns out to the advantage of IM salesman who have strong copy writing skills and to the disadvantage of non-English speakers and graphic fiends. I have noticed some few exceptions however.

  8. Dean Rieck on April 13th, 2010 3:30 pm

    You’re right that people are less text oriented than before. Sort of. People are just bombarded more so many messages now that they have less time for any ONE message. So really, it’s not that people read less, it’s just that they have to divide their reading time between more messages now.

    But it’s never been about long vs. short. It’s about writing enough to get the job done. And usually, that’s a little more than most people think. You can always find out through testing.

  9. Chris Scott on April 13th, 2010 3:47 pm


    That might explain it. But what would explain the decline of text in nearly every medium? Could it be the increase of text in new mediums? Like people read less in newspapers because they read more information online? They still read what they are interested in (and the same amount of text) but they have more reading material available to them so they are more selective.

  10. Dean Rieck on April 13th, 2010 3:54 pm

    Information overload from all directions.

  11. Chris G on April 15th, 2010 11:22 am

    You’ve touched on this a bit already, but I’d like to get some additional thoughts on the value of directing someone to long copy online through short(ish) copy in print vs. the value of long copy in print.

    I’m more likely to visit and browse information on a website than I am to work my way through the same amount of copy, or even less, in print. Is this typical? If it is, pointing someone to good copy online could be more beneficial, but it also requires an additional step to make the sale.

    Any thoughts on whether the benefit (if this is a benefit) of reading the information online outweighs, or is outweighed by, the extra step the prospect must take? Do any situations come to mind in which one might be more effective than the other?

  12. Dean Rieck on April 15th, 2010 11:51 am

    I think you’re talking about a couple different things here. First there’s the preference for printed vs. online information. That’s largely a generational thing. Younger people tend to favor online while older people tend to favor print, though I’ve seen statistics that show it’s really more about your interest level. If you’re truly interested in something, you’ll take information from wherever you can get it. And print tends to be a more trusted source of information. Things like direct mail are far more accepted than consumers will admit.

    The other issue here is the sales process. Is it one-step or two-step, meaning are you trying to sell instantly or are you trying to sell in multiple steps? More expensive things can often be sold more easily using multi-step sales. EX: You get a short email leading you to a site with a video that leads you to download a report and sign up for a series of emails that offer a free trial and so on.

    It all depends on what you’re selling, how expensive it is, and how well you can target your solicitation. It’s not about one or another approach being right or wrong universally.

  13. Fox on April 15th, 2010 11:59 am

    Great article. While there are many “rules” in marketing the ultimate answer is test. In most direct mail campaigns we run, I send letters of different lengths to test (longer generally pulled better but I will always test). We can do the same online. And, it’s so much easier and faster.

    I think there’s an argument for short copy because we discard and ignore so much long copy. We remember all the crap we see but forget about the few items we buy from long copy (or hours spent researching to find the right product we want to buy).

    I believe in “the more you tell the more you sell” philosophy. However, I always keep in mind, marketing is two things: Psychology and math (testing). While my math has always demonstrated longer copy is better, I’ll still test.
    .-= Fox’s last blog … Testing Your Marketing: When Is As Important As What =-.

  14. Dean Rieck on April 15th, 2010 12:10 pm

    In my line of work I see more people misusing short copy than long copy. In other words, long copy is less likely to hurt you than short copy. But you’re right about testing. I remember one direct mail package where I used an 8-page letter and it performed well. Then we removed 2 pages from the middle and tested the resulting 6-page letter, discovering that the response was the same.

  15. Fox on April 15th, 2010 12:36 pm

    What do you mean by misusing short copy? Trying to save on postage, ad space, etc. or something else?
    .-= Fox’s last blog … Testing Your Marketing: When Is As Important As What =-.

  16. Dean Rieck on April 15th, 2010 12:50 pm

    I mean too many people make decisions about copy length based on personal preference or assumptions rather than testing. Also, it’s better to start long and test into short than vice versa. People can always skim long copy if they don’t want to read all of it, but if you shortchange people on information, you can lose a sale.

  17. Mark on April 15th, 2010 11:36 pm

    Excellent, great post.

    I run into the short vs long argument all the time in regards to webpage content.

    And I think all the points you make apply just as well to the online world.

    Research continually shows that people use the web to research products and find information. In many cases it is their primary research gathering tool.

    If this is the case then surely it makes sense to give them more info not less.

    As you so rightly point out, it’s about communicating with the people who are interested in your product rather than worrying about the people who aren’t.

  18. Jodi Kaplan on April 16th, 2010 9:47 am

    Copy is like Abraham Lincoln’s legs. When asked how long they were, he said, “Long enough to touch the ground.”

    The copy should be long enough to do its job.
    .-= Jodi Kaplan’s last blog … Get Rid of Bad Powerpoint Once and For All =-.

  19. They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano But When I Started to Play! | Write Speak Sell on June 11th, 2010 10:02 am

    [...] is another recent point of view from Direct Creative Blog.  I liked this a lot:  “You should be interested in that part of the market who are interested [...]

  20. Asian Tv on March 14th, 2011 2:39 am

    It depends on the type of cutomer you are targeting I suppose… book lovers, those interested in reading news may prefer a bit extra informative text. But if you are targeting those interested in nascar racing you may want to keep it brief and fast and to the point.

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