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FutureNow Article
Monday, Apr. 13, 2009

How to Think About Long vs. Short Copy

By Jeff Sexton
April 13th, 2009

Long and short are linear terms (they refer to length, right?).  So they work fine to categorize or describe copy found in a sales letters or print advertisements.

But (most) websites aren’t linear because hyperlinks break linearity (aka subvert hierarchy).

People don’t read (most) Websites one full page at a time in a numbered order; they read/scan/move from one link that interests them to the next link that interests them, often entering or starting on something other than page #1 (what bad web designers notionally understand as the home page).

This means “Long copy” and “short copy” only apply to Websites metaphorically at best, roughly translating to “content rich & substantiated” and “minimalist / pared down,” respectively.

The upside is that hyperlinks make it possible to get the best of both (offline) worlds. Visitors who want more substantiation and richer content can drill down on the links that interest them, and visitors who only want a quick, bottom-line summary and an express path to converting can get that too – all on the same site.

That said, long copy equivalents still tend to out-convert “short copy” alternatives.  Here’s why.

The crucial element: Are you answering their questions & concerns?

Two recent studies, one involving complex B2B sales/Websites and one on e-commerce sites, show that well over 50% of potential leads/customers fail to convert because the Websites studied failed to answer prospects’ questions and provide needed information.

I’ve experienced it myself: if I need to know a wireless card or piece of software will work on my Mac, I’m simply not buying until I get that answered. Similar dynamics exists with concerns rather than absolute requirements, and, yes, this is especially critical for services, complex sales, and lead generation.

Content rich sites typically out-convert minimalist designs because they more completely answer the prospects’ questions.

And as I’ve previously written, question-answering content isn’t just copy. High quality pictures answer questions and concerns. User reviews answer questions and concerns. So do videos, blogs, forums, etc. And, of course, there’s persuasive copy.

Modeling Customer Psychology and Persuasive Online Copywriting

Suppose you’re genuinely interested in buying something, talking to a salesman about it, and in the process of asking how much it costs. How many times can that sales guy dodge or ignore your question before he destroys your trust?

Once? Twice, maybe.

With online copy, visitors ask questions by scanning the page and clicking on links. If your web copy doesn’t facilitate scanning and skimming, and if you don’t provide hyperlinks and content to answer visitors’ questions, your Website will become that used car salesman who won’t give a straight answer to a direct question.

At Future Now, we’re big on Personas simply because we’re big on making sure Websites answer the questions and concerns of their visitors.  We find it essential to model and facilitate the flow of visitor-website sales conversations in order to avoid the “used car salesman” syndrome.

So rather than having any old interaction or conversation with visitors, personas allow one to reverse engineer conversations that lead to conversions. To do this, simply:

  • Take a persona’s emotional state, concerns, and informational needs upon entering a Website
  • Compare that starting point with what the visitor will have to feel, know, and believe in order to confidently take the action you want them to convert
  • And then plan out the conversation your site will need to have with that persona in order to make that persuasive journey from starting point to sale.

Going through this process allows Website designers and copywriters to persona-lize the Website. They can plan messaging and links custom tailored for each buying behavior/motivation.  The visitor can then self-determine just how many rabbit-holes of information/assurance/question-answering she needs to in order to feel comfortable buying, thereby getting the exact “length” of copy that’s right for her.

Fast decision makers and late stage buyers that just need a quick and easy way to buy, get it. And those visitors needing a lot of information, insight, and assurance can get that too.

Think of it as an adult and sales-oriented choose-your-own-adventure novel. Or just think of it as a really sincere sales conversation performed by your best salesman who just happens to be available to talk to (and convert) customers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What more could you ask from either long or short copy?

P.S. For a different (but congruent) take on the advantages of Long Copy (and it’s online equivalents), check out Sonia Simone’s excellent article over at CopyBlogger.

Add Your Comments

Comments (99)

  1. I do try to answer a lot of the person’s questions online BUT many people do not read ALL the copy you have on the site. So you many have the answer but people still do not read the copy…….

  2. Audio Bible,

    The point is that you have to present the “answers” within the flow of a conversation. If you find prospective customers are contacting you with questions that’s a goldmine of opportunity for you. Make sure you get not just the question but the context of the question – why it’s important to this person, how it came up in their mind, what issues it may be related to, etc. Then figure out how to fit the answer into the flow of a sales conversation.

    The problem with most sites that “have the answers” is that the answers are provided outside of the context in which visitors are looking for them. A classic example is finding the answer on a FAQ page or the last page of the checkout counter rather than on the product page.

    - Jeff

  3. Regarding long or short copy…

    If you have a point, it can often be made quickly.

  4. I’ve written a lot of real estate copy. We always get more leads and more conversions when we provide all the relevant facts and quality photos. We put lengthy summaries about properties on our website and then even greater detail in our free data sheets. It’s been an effective strategy for us.

    Most of our competitors use flowery language and stock lifestyle photos. We stand out by being the industry’s best information source and helping the consumer to make a knowledgeable decision.

  5. SFGreg,

    Making a point and making the sale are often two different things. While stating your essential offer/UVP can be done quickly, substantiating your claims and closing the loopholes takes far more content. So does addressing concerns, making a compelling emotional case, expanding on benefits, answering the what ifs, letting people see for themselves, etc.

    This is why better photos, videos, reviews, product description, etc almost always produce conversion lifts.

    Short copy may make the point, but long copy tends to make the sale.

    - Jeff

  6. Excellent post, Jeff!
    However, I personally do not agree with those long copy websites with more than 30 pages (if you print them with a small font size). I understand people don`t read completely the entire copy (they just scan). However, I believe it`s too much information in pages like these that in many cases are prmoting not so good products or services.

  7. It’s not an issue of long or short, it’s an issue of sufficient – sufficient for all buyer temperaments, offering types, price, perceived risk, committment and anxiety levels. Then it’s about content presentation – scannability and inverted pyramid formatting, simple ways of respecting the visitor’s time as they search and seek answers to questions and concerns to the degree of detail that eventually motivates action.

  8. It’s nice to see someone else expounding on the benefits of long copy. Here’s my take, Do Online Shoppers Scan or Read. When used correctly it’s very effective.

  9. This is a very good point. I constantly battle with fellow employees about this.

    It’s such a frustrating conversation. GRRRR

  10. Good post,and does a good job refuting Polonius’ claim the “brevity is the soul of wit” (or conversion).

    That said, there’s a lot more to it than long vs short. The key question is this: does the content answer whatever question serves as a barrier to a sale? One way to fail is to have that answer be excluded because of a ‘short content’ bias. But it’s also possible to fail by having the content poorly organized so that the prospect never finds the information they need to become a customer.

  11. I’m an apparel e-commerce copywriter. The website I work on sells athletic apparel, which is clothing that actually *does* something — wicks moisture, controls bounce, blocks UV rays, etc. So, it’s crucial to give the prospect sufficient information, answer her questions, and apprise her of the key benefits.

    Frankly, as an apparel *customer,* I get frustrated by the lack of info on all those bare-bones e-commerce sites. The fancy-pants sites are the worst offenders: Their implication seems to be, “If you want to know all the details about this $600 skirt before you buy it, then you’re not our target customer anyway.” LOL!

    That’s why I love sites like Lands’ End and L.L. Bean, which do me the courtesy of actually telling me all about their products, the benefits, the craftsmanship, etc. It may be just a $20 shirt, but, in these rocky economic times, we all need to be reassured that we’ll get our money’s worth.

  12. Nice article, James. I especially liked your old Creative Directors response to your question.

    Russ,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I frequently run across websites that have crucial persuasive information/copy buried in a FAQ. Brining that material out of the FAQ and into the main sales pages (or at least linking to it from the main sales pages) almost always produces a conversion lift.

    It’s not enough that the information is on your site – it has to be presented to visitors within the context of a sales conversation.

    - Jeff

  13. Amen, Diane. It’s no accident that Lands’ End and LL Bean routinely post conversion rates between 19-25% and get included in Nielsen’s list of the Top 10 Converting Websites.

    Makes you wonder what those “high fashion” websites post for conversion rates, doesn’t it?

    - Jeff

  14. Makes you wonder what those “high fashion” websites post for conversion rates, doesn’t it?

    Sure does! I wonder even more when I have to wade through a big, inflated, pretentious flash intro before I even get to the product info. LOL!

  15. Those were good reminders, Jeff. I’ve certainly seen plenty of discussion on long vs. short copy, but I find it frustrating when the info you want is not present. The numbers do favor longer copy if done correctly. Diane’s examples and the conversion rates you quoted were great illustrations.

    Thanks for the reminder to use hyperlinks within the copy. That’s one thing I could probably do better. Since my reading style is not to bounce around as much, I need to keep in mind that others do use these links more than I do.

  16. [...] How to Think About Long vs. Short Copy – Jeff Sexton does a great job of demystifying the whole long copy thing, and reveals how to make it context appropriate. [...]

  17. Awesome post, thanks!

    It’s so easy to forget that people are different, and thus will scroll the copy on different ways.

  18. [...] How to Think About Long vs. Short Copy – Jeff Sexton does a great job of demystifying the whole long copy thing, and reveals how to make it context appropriate. [...]

  19. [...] How to Think About Long vs. Short Copy – Jeff Sexton does a great job of demystifying the whole long copy thing, and reveals how to make it context appropriate. [...]

  20. Long copy is fine, as long as it’s not waffle.

    I, like many other web users, navigate away from web pages that have copious amounts of copy on them. Think about that before you even mention conversion rates.

    L

  21. [...] How to Think About Long vs. Short Copy – Jeff Sexton does a great job of demystifying the whole long copy thing, and reveals how to make it context appropriate. [...]

  22. [...] now, figure out your precipitative events and see how many concerns and questions your website leaves unaddressed and unanswered. In B2B, Copywriting, Improving [...]

  23. Jeff, those who say people won’t read long copy are on the right track, but they’re getting off at the wrong station.

    It’s not that people won’t read long copy, it’s that they won’t ready boring copy (whether it’s long or short).

    People will read what interests them. If they’re interested in your product or service, they’ll read about it. In fact, they’ll all the compelling and relevant copy you care to write–as long as you keep them engaged.

    Limiting your copywriter to a set number of words or pages would be just as silly as limiting your best sales person to a set number of words (although I have run in to a few poor salesmen where I wish that had been the case).

  24. Once again it’s often a question best answered by testing. On some types of sites like physical goods the copy just gets in the way sometimes, but for information products the copy is the only thing that’s really selling, so often the more the merrier.

  25. Couldn’t agree more that the most crucial element is whether or not you answering your site visitors questions and concerns.

  26. Marketing 101 tell the buyer what their problem is, and how your product or service will help them solve their problem. It’s that simple.

  27. [...] more about short vs. long in the context of SEO copywriting in this informative article from [...]

  28. There are more scanner there than printers.But that is the way you have to live on web.

  29. Great article!!! Wrote a short piece on it on our blog, SEO-e.com. You pointed out a big challenge to web copywriting – answering their questions and moving them to act

  30. Good Post. I agree with it.
    Two recent studies, one involving complex B2B sales/Websites and one on e-commerce sites, show that well over 50% of potential leads/customers fail to convert because the Websites studied failed to answer prospects’ questions and provide needed information.

  31. Short Copy is better.

  32. You have to write like journalists (and not the scientific way of writing).

    First give a summary – then the whole story.

  33. Jeff, i’ve been reading through your articles and this was a very interesting one. I like your point about people flitting from page to page via the text links that interest them and must admit i do it myself, but only when looking for specific information. When reading an article (like this one) I’m happy to read the whole thing and quite often find the links to be a bit of a nuisance. Still interesting piece – i’m going to run an experiment on 2 of my sites.

  34. sss

  35. The fancy-pants sites are the worst offenders: Their implication seems to be, “If you want to know all the details about this $600 skirt before you buy it, then you’re not our target customer anyway.

  36. Sorry i didn’t get this point “This means “Long copy” and “short copy” only apply to Websites metaphorically at best,”
    What does this mean ?

  37. Long Vs Short copy kinda cool title but not much in content

  38. The fancy-pants sites are the worst offenders

    Oh my gosh, ain’t that the truth!!!!

  39. Interesting article – i do get the point you make, but i think most surfers are happy with the long copy, as long as it’s well written and informative. Clicking all over the place is both tiresome and at times confusing.

  40. Sorry i didn’t get this point “This means “Long copy” and “short copy” only apply to Websites metaphorically at best,”
    What does this mean

  41. thank you verry good site..

  42. Cizgi,

    It means people don’t read websites in an ordered, linear fashion. And that means that you can’t think of their experience of your Web copy or your Website in terms of long or short. They experience in terms of the availability or absence of content / rich content.

    - Jeff

  43. [...] Pathways/links that allow each visitor to choose their own path, to either take the express train to grabbing what they need and converting, or to drill down to richer content on those elements where they need to assure themselves that you are, in fact, selling a real solution to their specific problem. [...]

  44. yeah i scan for interest link

  45. Very interesting post. Online Short copy definately wins – offline it’s another matter

  46. Hallelujah Jeff!

    I hope this article gets circulated widely because it should be studied as gospel by site designers and copywriters. I can not begin to tell you how many sites I have written off as useless because they neglect to provide any sensible answers or pertinent information after leading me through pages and pages of so called “help” or “support” pages. Worse still are sites which want to sell me a product but give as little information as possible about it. I mean, how hard is it to copy and paste the relevant information about a product, especially if it means the difference between making or not making a sale? You’d think this would be common sense by now. The sites that do it well, seem to be quite successful. The sites that don’t do it well? I can’t really say, as I don’t visit them anymore.

  47. Thank for this information.

  48. Thank you Jeff,
    I love short copy than long copy.

  49. Thanks for this great article.

  50. That picture is hilarious.

  51. Very interesting post

  52. Thanks again, Jeff.

  53. good post! thanks.

  54. nice post, just worth the time…

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  56. Yes, really a nice one!!!

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  58. Thanks for this interesting point of view on website design. It surely is something to think about.

  59. yeah i scan for interest link

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  66. this is really good tips for who is copywriters I have been blogging for a long time and I noticed that users dosen’t like long copy and nowadays I write short copy thanks mate

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  70. You’d think this would be common sense by now. The sites that do it well, seem to be quite successful. The sites that don’t do it well? I can’t really say, as I don’t visit them anymore.

  71. what is the acıgöl fm four men acıgöl yes pro main

  72. Awesome post, thanks!

    It’s so easy to forget that people are different, and thus will scroll the copy on different ways.

  73. Obesity is global threat. We must fight with it

  74. i think short copy..

  75. Thanks for this interesting point of view on website design. It surely is something to think about.

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  78. Very good articles!I have to write and re-writ my landing page one tima and another to find the right one…

  79. I could not concur with you more. I regularly operate across internet sites that possess important persuasive information/copy buried in a FAQ section of a webpage. Getting that material out of the FAQ and putting it into the primary sales page nearly usually generates a lift in the conversion rate.

  80. göğüs büyütücüler göğüs büyütücü hap

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  82. This is amazing especially the picture that you have up there.

  83. Thanks for this great article.

  84. The point is that you have to present the “answers” within the flow of a conversation. If you find prospective customers are contacting you with questions that’s a goldmine of opportunity for you. Make sure you get not just the question but the context of the question – why it’s important to this person, how it came up in their mind, what issues it may be related to, etc. Then figure out how to fit the answer into the flow of a sales conversation.

  85. Expression does not fit very good, but no picture.

  86. Expression does not fit very good, but no picture.
    Could put a better picture.
    Fortunately, thanks anyway.

  87. Expression does not fit very good, but no picture.

  88. Nice article, personally I prefer shorter, I find when an article is the reader tends to get bored with information overload. Short and sweet is better I say

  89. As a copywriter, it was a pleasure to read this article. Those who insist that no one will take time to read long copy are simply wrong. Of course, not everyone will — but there are certainly those who do. Thanks for sharing!

  90. Alttaki adam doğru diyor:
    Nice article, personally I prefer shorter, I find when an article is the reader tends to get bored with information overload. Short and sweet is better I say

  91. Nice article, personally I prefer shorter, I find when an article is the reader tends to get bored with information overload. Short and sweet is better I say

  92. when an article is the reader tends tends to get bored with information I find to get bored with information.

  93. a good one…..

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  95. “The visitor can then self-determine just how many rabbit-holes of information/assurance/question-answering she needs to in order to feel comfortable buying.”
    This was a great selection of tips. I’ve often found that one of the main probelms I’ve had with retail sites is that they’re difficult to navigate and difficult to find what it is I’m looking for. With the tips and suggestions that you’ve provided hopefully newer marketers will be able to make something better.

  96. The analogy about the adult novelty book where you go where to want to follow the links is amazing. That is by far the best analogy I have ever read about links within your site. I would recommend maybe doing another post with that as the lead because it relates to childhood and something we can all relate to. Perfect.

  97. Very good articles!I have to write and re-writ my landing page one tima and another to find the right one

  98. Nice article, personally I prefer shorter, I find when an article is the reader tends to get bored with information overload. Short and sweet is better I say
    .

  99. The point is that you have to present the “answers” within the flow of a conversation. If you find prospective customers are contacting you with questions that’s a goldmine of opportunity for you.

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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