How long should it be?

when it's printed

(to decide how long on-screen text should be, click here)

The short version

You've heard, maybe even said, "Keep it short –€“ people are too busy to read." It's a popular opinion, but the evidence – based on comparative testing –€“ is that long copy sells more than short copy.

The key to this is that typically 95% of the people who see your ad or brochure aren't in the market to buy your product right now. So they don't read it. "Keep it short" panders to the short attention span of people who aren't going to buy from you (today) no matter how short you make it.

But the 5% or so who do read on are considering a purchase. They are actively gathering information to make a decision.

They are likely to read relevant, factual copy (not fluff). In fact, research proves they will read a lot. And it will affect their purchase decision.

So the more important fact is that buyers do read.

The long version

"People don't read"

Most everyone has an opinion on the subject of how long brochures, ads and sales letters should be and the opinions differ.

If you're like me, you haven't got the time to read five words that aren't relevant to you.

But then, I do read some things, even when they're quite long. And probably so do you.

So what's the answer?

Fortunately, if we want to know the truth (rather than opinions) we can resort to research. This matter has been studied and tested repeatedly and the conclusions are clear.

People who want information about something (for example, a potential purchase) will read long, even very long copy if it is factual and relevant.

(Despite the research evidence, many managers insists on sticking to the short-copy myth rather than accept the facts. It's their money they are wasting and their right to complain later that the advertising/brochure/sales letter didn't work.)

The short and the long of headlines

Let's start with the headline, as most readers do.

Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. A change of headline can affect sales on the same ad by a factor of 15 or more (that's 1,500%).

So obviously the headline is critical. But how long should it be?

Tests show there is no significant difference in readership from a three word head to a 12 word head,€“ but in coupon response tests the longer headlines pull more responses. So, same readership –“ more sales.

One of the biggest-earning headlines of all time was 18 words:

At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.

The body copy

Readership falls off rapidly after 50 words of copy but after that is stable up to 500 words, sometimes to 1,000 and beyond.

The people who stopped reading early have heard your message and rejected it. Perhaps they are not in the market for your product, perhaps they've already read enough to know yours is not the product for them.

The people who keep reading are gathering information they are interested in. They haven't yet rejected or accepted your offer. Whileever they keep reading you are in play for them to make a positive purchase decision. But if you stop the flow of information before they reach their decision point, they –€“ like you – may call it quits right there.

So readership drop off distills the total readership down to people with an interest in the product. They are the 5% who read long copy. The buyers.

People with no interest in your product or service won't read your long brochure. Giving them a short grab of text might improve their readership, but it won't turn them into buyers.

What it may do is make you miss the buyers who would have read more and needed that extra information to help them decide to buy.

Let the story dictate the length

When it comes to information, the more you tell, the more you sell.

But when it comes to words, less is more.

This is not a contradiction. People will read very long copy, providing each word is directly relevant and interesting to them.

As soon as the copy becomes padded or turns into information-free "sales" prattle, they will stop.

How long then should your copy be?

As long as it takes to tell your story and not a word longer.

Use the absolutely minimum number of words possible to do the telling and keep it packed with information the reader wants to know. If you're not finished until word 1402, that's exactly how long your copy should be.

If your readers need that information to make a fully informed decision, short changing them will only increase the rate of decision not to buy.

And remember, one of the great benefits of reading is that people can control the experience. If they are convinced at word 306 they don't have to keep on to the end; they can stop reading and buy.

Going to extremes

Generally there are physical parameters which set an absolute limit on how many words you can offer your target. You've got an ad size of so big, or a newsletter of so many pages.

What happens if there is no limit? The situation is which there is almost no practical limit is direct mail. If you wanted to, you could mail a book. And some organisations do! There is a large business in South Australia specialises in producing family histories to order. If you write to them asking form details of their service, they send you a 32 page booklet. They've been producing family histories and growing steadily for half a century.

When I was producing a family history, I read the 32 pages. Twice.

Think about the last piece of direct mail you got. How many pages in total? Very commonly four. Some great direct mail letters have run to eight pages.

The findings of direct mail promoters are a rare goldmine of facts, because they regularly conduct split mailing, comparative tests – something that almost never happens with press or TV advertising.

Research suggests that increasing the length of a direct mail letter continues to grow the response rate up to 12 pages or even more.

In fact, one seemingly ridiculous Australian test compared direct mail letters up to 16 pages and found the response rate was still going up the longer the letter got. Of course, very few people got to page 16. Most made their decision earlier and went straight to the coupon or gave up the idea. The people who kept reading were those who weren't sure, who were finally convinced on page 16 and only then added themselves to the response rate.

It was true, very few people read such long copy –€“ but those who did were buyers.

Most ad copywriters reject this information. They just know people don't read. The research – the facts –€“ is no more than an inconvenient truth.

Enough is enough

One of the most successful print ads of all time was for Joy perfume. The copy said,

The Most Expensive Perfume In The World.

Seven words. The original ads were run in media read by men, especially high income men of course, as well as in women's magazines. The deal was clear: Men, if you want to impress and you don't trust your taste or you don't know theirs, buy Joy. And the message to women: If he gives you this, you know he's serious and financially capable.

Was the seven word copy long enough? Exactly.

The criteria for choosing the length of your copy has to be, what do you need to tell, to make and validate your claims?

In the case of Joy, the claim to be the most expensive was factually credible, so nothing more had to be said.

But if I'm trying to convince you that my software will enable you to make better financial predictions more easily than whatever method you use now, then I better come up with some facts.

What the customer will buy is benefits, and the headline and the copy must promise benefits, but the copy must also convince that those benefits are real.

If convincing means facts, then the rule is the more you tell, the more you sell. Heap on the information. Forget the superlatives, trim down the adjectives even, and concentrate on fact after fact until the accumulated weight of those facts overwhelms all doubt.

Sometimes words are the wrong tool

There is another case in which the body copy should be short and even meaningless.

It's where the promise is not supported by facts, either because the promise is the product or because the promise is not true.

Fashion is an example of the promise being the product.

A hairstyle, a designer garment, a magazine full of avant garde opinions and lifestyle options: the promise is that this product is stylish, has cache, and will be recognised as such by the people who matter to you.

The promise is only true if people agree that it is true. By agreeing, they make it true. There is no role for fact or argument.

Emotion rules and it's inarticulate.

Lifestyle associations are an example of the promise not being true.

Smoke Marlboro and you'll be a real man. Drink Coke and you'll have fun with beautiful friends. There is no logic in this. It's a type of advertising that relies on an association of products with other values. It works best when it's done by visual means, without meaningful words, which is why the growth of mass market lifestyle products had to wait until television.

For most of the rest of us

For most of us mere mortals of advertising and promotion; the rules of copywriting that have been proven by repeated research are:

    Short copy has better readership than long copy.
    Long copy outsells short copy.
    Buyers read.
    Information sells.
    Pack your copy with facts the reader wants; cut the sales puff.
    Make your copy as long as it needs to be to tell your story and
    validate your claims – not one word more.

Follow the rules and you'll maximise sales response.

If people may look bewildered and tell you it's too long, ask if they are considering buying your product today. If they aren't, then it doesn't matter to you what they read or don't read, or what their opinion is.

Surely though on line it should be shorter? Click to read the facts.