The Key to Effective Long Copy

Ogilvy & Mather long copy

It’s the debate that never ends…

Do those long copy sales pages actually work?

Do people really read that much these days?

And, more importantly, do they actually buy from them?

The answer:

They not only work, they often work better.

Of course, that’s only if long copy is the right call, and done correctly.

Here’s how to figure out if long copy is right for you, and the secret to doing it right.

When to use long copy

First off, not all situations call for long copy. Here are some that generally do:

  1. Expensive – When your offer carries a high price tag and you want the purchase to happen online (as opposed to another sales channel), you’ll sell more with long copy.
  2. Information – When selling online education or some other form of information product, the more beneficial copy you deliver, the more you sell.
  3. Feature-rich – When what you’re selling has a ton of features, you’ll need a lot of copy to explain them all, plus the express benefit of each feature.
  4. Innovative – If your product does something new, or satisfies a desire in a brand new way, you’ll need to provide people with a lot of benefit-oriented information.
  5. Online – This may seem redundant since we’re talking about selling online in general. But because people can’t physically experience what you’re offering, long copy may be worth testing when selling just about anything online.

How to make your long copy work

So far we’ve focused on using long copy in relation to what you’re selling. But the more important element is to whom you’re selling.

In other words, the secret to giving people all the information they need to buy from you without offending their sensibilities is the same as Megamind‘s distinction between a villain and a super villain:

Presentation!

Here’s what that means:

  • If you’re the “guru” selling an expensive online information product to “business opportunity” types, you use the garish colors, exclamation points, and yellow highlighter, because that’s what got this type of person to buy the last magic-bullet solution that allegedly requires no time, skill, or effort.
  • If you’re Amazon selling the expensive and feature-rich new MacBook Air, you go into much more detail than the “product description” for a paperback book, but all within the familiar and trusted purchasing environment that millions shop in every day.
  • If you’re 37signals selling the innovative and monthly-billed Highrise web service, you test and discover that long copy works a whopping 37.5% better — as long as it’s presented in the beautifully-designed and functional style that 37signals fans have come to expect.

It’s all about context

Long copy works, because people want as much benefit-oriented information as they personally need to make the purchase.

Some won’t read much of it before buying. Others will read every word.

The key is to make the presentation of this information — your copy and the visual elements of the page — context appropriate. It needs to look and feel like your audience expects content from you to look and feel.

If you have an aversion to long copy, take another look at the Amazon and 37signals examples. The tone and design are completely appropriate for each respective audience. That’s why it works.

If you try to throw garish colors, exclamation points, and yellow highlighter at your audience when that’s not what they expect to see, you lose. In more ways than one.

Maintain context, and feel free to tell as much as you need to sell (find out by testing). And also feel free to refresh your tactics and strategies with our Copywriting 101 tutorial.

By the way, if you didn’t get the Megamind reference about “presentation” above (or even if you did), watch the clip from the film. It’s seriously awesome.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Google+.

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  1. I personally have a hard time with long copy and those blatantly “spammy looking” landing pages with the highlighters and stuff. I’m probably the minority, but when I see someone selling a product using that, I immediately leave the page. I’ve wanted to buy WordPress themes and I see that and I’m gone. However, I go to StudioPress’ website–trying not to suck up to you guys–and I want to buy (did already!). I want to purchase because the site isn’t spammy looking.

    So many “gurus” create their highlighter landing pages that I refuse to purchase anything from them. I can’t trust them because it is so spammy looking in my eyes. But, there’s a good chance that the majority of people trust those sites and read it. Just not me.

    • Jacob, that particular form of page only works on certain people, so you’re not alone. That was the point of the post. ;)

      • A good copy writer must be a Profiler and a Pretender. You must understand your target audience and you must be able to speak their language. It’s all about them, not about yourself.

        When you look at a sales letter an say “I would never buy from such a long, spammy looking sales letter such as this”, you are wearing your copywriter’s glasses on your forehead.

        Put on those goggles, and consider – irrespective of copy length:

        1) Does this writing resonate with the target audience?
        2) Is the information presented clearly enough?
        3) Does it draw and funnel the attention of prospects?
        4) Are the action take-out points placed strategically?

        • And I do think that is my problem, Pedro. Because I have sort of stepped away from the copywriter’s world and now do full time SEO, I tend to forget that I still wear the glasses of a copywriter.

          And it’s a relief that I’m not the only one, Brian. I know the point of the article was presentation, but I just think about the big spammy (I’m wearing the glasses again) landing pages and I just don’t enjoy it.

          • The key, though, is you have to know what your buyer wants to see on that page — not what you want to see yourself.

            Sometimes a particular technique (maybe it’s a strong, benefit-rich headline) will feel “spammy” to you but it’s exactly what your customer needs to capture her attention and let her know she’s in the right place. As Brian says, it needs to be context-appropriate. (And of course you need to test, so you know for a fact what works and what doesn’t work with your specific audience.)

    • I’m glad that I’m not alone on this, long copy with yellow highlighter, spammy titles like ‘who else’. I usually don’t care what they’re selling. I hit the X button on the browser, off I’m gone.

      Long copy is something else. Usually, I read the headline, look for the scent in the opening paragraphs. If by any chance they connect, I stick around to read the remaining stuff. If it makes sense and helps in my current project, I usually buy the products.

      Until now, I never fully understood why I hate some long copies and love others. Brain put his finger on them but looks like he forgot something important: RELEVANCE. Personally, when making a decision to buy something: I ASK MYSELF IF WHAT I’M BUYING IS RELEVANT TO ME NOW OR IN THE FUTURE?

      Most of the stuff I’ve bought from CopyBlogger or plan to buy in the future went or will undergo this evaluation before anything else. In all CopyBlogger’s sales copies I’ve discovered strings of relevance to my current project that compels me to buy.

      I guess, they pick carefully their offers. As selling an aircraft on a copy blog may not be such a good idea or use of talent and time.

      A long relevant copy cobbled together with Brain’s five talking points is precisely why I buy stuff. I’m yet to buy Genesis!

    • I agree with you Jacob. Whenever I open a website that’s full of text and highlighted words, I immediately close the page and don’t bother reading any of it! I hate it when I get directed to websites that sell products!

  2. Interesting, Brian. I subscribe to the school of thought that says people don’t read much online anymore, but any time I break my “rule” for blogging by exceeding 1000 words, I get the most response. So I’m learning that there’s still a place for long-form; it just needs to be laid out in a palatable format.

    I haven’t written any sales pages yet, but I’m excited to give this a whirl.

    • When people are a good candidate for what you’re selling, they’ll read as much as they need. You’re not supposed to be selling ice to Eskimos if you’ve got the right offer for the people you’re after.

      Then it’s just a matter of making the “information” as beneficial and engaging as possible. That’s the point of copywriting versus the simple relay of data.

  3. There is a time and place for long content. Not everyone is going to bother to read every word, but the people who do take the time are the ones you want your content to connect with. One thing to keep in mind is that long form content still has to be digestible. Headlines, sub headlines, bullet point lists, graphics and other things that break up the text make long content much less intimidating.

    Love the clip by the way.

  4. @Jacob, I tend to find long-copy sales pages, particularly those aimed at marketers, pretty irritating. But they work.

    You mentioned WordPress themes as an example. If you know what a WP theme is, you probably already know why you want it and how it can help you (easier design, less coding, saves time etc.). You’ve already identified the “problem,” so the copy doesn’t need to identify the problem for you as part of the sales setup. So I’d agree that long copy might not be as beneficial for that.

    If I’m shopping for a WP theme, I want video showing me what it can let me do that I can’t already do with my current theme… or how it can help me accomplish tasks more quickly and efficiently.

    As for other types of products (particularly information), it pains me to create long copy with obnoxious colors and highlighted / bolded / italicized stuff in every paragraph. But as long as it keeps working, I’ll keep doing it.

    @Brian, nice Megamind reference!

    Lee

  5. Tommy Swanson :

    37Signals (Basecamp people) actually did a split test recently regarding long form copy. Interesting results:
    http://37signals.com/svn/posts/2977-behind-the-scenes-highrise-marketing-site-ab-testing-part-1

  6. Let me also chime in here! Long copy really does work! I’ve been a long copy writer for a long time. People it works!!

  7. Dave Navarro teaches a course that includes how to do short sales pages. He says you can go short when people already have a good relationship with you through your blog, newsletter, or previous products. Cold traffic requires a long sales page, because of lack of trust.

    Similarly, Jeff Walker teaches that long copy can be turned “sideways” through a sequence of messages, instead of one long page.

    QUESTION FOR YOU BRIAN:

    Is long copy overkill for converting a lead into an mail subscriber?

    I changed my simple sign up form to a longer one, with more explanation, testimonials, and a free offer, but my conversions dropped over the course of a month. I can’t tell if something in the longer page turned them off, or if it was the wrong strategy, period.

    • Jeff Walker teaches that long copy can be turned “sideways” through a sequence of messages, instead of one long page…

      Yep. Jeff talks about it as a sequence of messages during a launch. But content marketing in general is a sideways sales letter when done correctly.

      As for your opt-in, testing rules. Whatever works better is what you should go with. Just make sure you’re doing true split-testing.

  8. Whoa… Whoa… Whoa… You’re telling me that something that has been TESTED and PROVED for over 100 years ACTUALLY WORKS? Go figure :-D

    • “Some say, “Be very brief. People will read but little.” Would you say that to a salesman? With a prospect standing before him, would you confine him to any certain number of words? That would be an unthinkable handicap.” – Claude Hopkins (Scientific Advertising, 1918).

      Or, more colloquially, yep. :)

  9. Krista Stryker :

    Great topic! It’s a little counterintuitive because people have such short attention spans these days, but long copy does work!

    I’m currently finishing up the AWAI copywriting course and they teach students the same thing – that long copy is more appropriate than short copy for certain types of products.

    • The AWAI course is a great way to get started Krista. Then it just comes down to knowing your intended audience and practice, practice, practice.

  10. Great advice! I agree that there is definitely a time and a place for long copy. You definitely don’t need to write up long copy for everything – that can be a bit much. :]

  11. Well said Brian.

    Longer copy can be a clear point of differentiation, especially when others in the market seem to have little to say. With long copy there’s also an opportunity to go deeper – to engage in an empathetic conversation that shows how much you understand the frustrations and desires of your audience.

    Your Authority Rules program explains it beautifully with your Attract-Engage-Convert formula. So many of us fall short on engaging our audience. No rapport and no connection means no trust and no conversion.

    Joe :D

    • Joe, true. But it’s also about overcoming objections. Every question your prospective buyer has is really a reason to say no, so your copy must anticipate and eliminate them all. That can’t be done in a couple of paragraphs for many offers.

  12. I am in the process of optimizing little non im product and over the past few weeks have been split testing the heck out of it and I have tried everything from video, fancy graphics, web2 and just standard long sales copy… the winner… the standard long sales with no video. So far it is converting around 3.5% and I am not done. I realize one thing… it really does nto matter what anyone says… you need to test it for yourself because what works in one niche certainly does not guarantee anything in another.

    • Absolutely, Jason — there’s no magic substitute for testing. We learn as much as we can about copywriting purely so we can go in with a good guess about what will work, but the market buys or it doesn’t buy — that is the real test.

    • I am with you on this one Jason. It’s all about testing. Long copy may work for a health product but not for an IM product. A video may work for a weight loss product but not for a dating product etc.

  13. Long copy, if written well, can allure and convert. There are some examples from my past that just were too long and too tedious to read. Thus, I lost interest and abandoned the page.

    The trick to online copywriting is to draw the eye to key factors and use the visual “heat map” to have your important content in the areas where the eye follows on a page. Ryan Deiss recently released a video on this topic and had some awesome tips.

    With marketers embracing video as a medium, there are many pages that have no copy to speak of because it is all in the video. I wrote a blog post when this tactic began to be explored entitled “Long Winded Video or Long Winded Sales Letter” … or something to that effect.

    The bottom line, at least for me, is that more is not always better and providing enough on-page content for a visitor to use in making their 30-second decision about whether or not they want to read/listen on is critical to the success of any sales page conversion. And conversions are what we are all looking for, right?

    • Just remember — there is copy, lots of copy, in those videos. Sales videos that work are using time-tested copywriting techniques just like sales letters are.

  14. I’m still a fan of the hybrid approach (Copywriting 101 Series being a perfect example).
    Why bicker over long or short when teaching sells? ;)

  15. Like Derek said, we know long copy works because we test. But that doesn’t mean we stop testing. I’m happy to see you mention three different times to test. But don’t stop there. Re-test over and over again. It’s really about refinement and maximization.

    I like that you wrote about this. [It’s almost like the good old days.] Good work.

  16. In the days of direct mail (you know, the kind that came on paper and landed in your mailbox?), the general rule was that the “letter” should be at least four pages long. It took that much copy (and paper) to seal the deal. But the real trick is the offer – if people are interested in what you’re selling (or writing about), — you grab them –and you keep their attention throughout, they’ll stick with you.

  17. It’s easy to dismiss long-copy if you’re used to it — but most people don’t know the ins and outs of marketing, and go through the sales funnel quite well.

    That said, most people who dislike long copy usually dislike cheesy and cheap sales pages, in my experience. Well-done long-copy almost doesn’t feel like copy.

  18. As a relative newcomer to affiliate marketing your site is a wealth of nuggets and at the top of my list of blogs to follow. This topic is likely to always be a debate that never ends…but I think the key here is “if it works use it” and to fit advertising/promotions to the desired audience. Personally I dislike long copy simply because of the time involved in reading. Thus I would have to be really interested in the subject to bother. That in itself could be the answer to when to use long copy.

    If the only people who take the time to read it thoroughly are already 90% predisposed to the product/service being promoted the promoter has achieved the objective. In offline commission selling I learned the “telling is not selling” theory many years ago and found that engaging prospects to turn them into buyers required effective questioning techniques to allow the prospect to provide their reasons for buying. Online this is perhaps not quite so easy to achieve since we are not face to face with prospects, however, building a series of questions and answers into sale copy or follow up autoresponder sequenced emails could be an effective strategy.

  19. An advertising professor, advocate of long copy, told students more than once, if the copy isn’t there, nobody will be able to read it.

    “Some won’t read much of it before buying. Others will read every word” sums up his teaching.

    Financial newsletter sales piece are miracles of long copy. Sometimes 6-8 pages, but they are selling $5000 newsletters too.

    Q. Why don’t car manufacturers and dealers believe more in print/long copy?
    A. Because it’s hard and expensive to write long effective copy and it’s not very sexy.

    • The financial newsletter direct mail pieces are amazing. They’ve been using content marketing principles for a long time, but the subject matter lends itself to sales persuasion like almost no other topic.

  20. Good post Brian, especially like the movie reference.

    As a newbie, seems to me that most of this boils down to knowing your customer, right? You even say it in your post.

    If you have an innovative, online, expensive product, with an apparently broad market, how do you research and define your customer? It is hard to test when getting started and little traffic.

    Your site is an incredible resource. Maybe there are others addressing this question?

    Thanks again.

    • Russell, I see this question pop up time and again. I need to write about it, because I’m finding the short answer is not all that helpful.

  21. Brian,

    In the spirit of great copy, you nailed it with one word “Presentation!”.

    After the visual (movie clip), I’ll never forget the difference between a villain and a super villain (or sleazy and trustworthy).

    This post teaches several points that a text book takes 400 pages to accomplish.

    You Absolutely Rock!
    Theresa

  22. Good article and I agree it is all about context. From experiences as both a buyer and seller, long copy works when two things happen.

    First the long copy needs to have the right hook, or title, to be attractive to the prospective buyer. Secondly, the prospective needs to be a qualified prospect.

    Of course someone not serious about buying at that very moment will not spend time reading a long sales letter unless he or she is very interested in purchasing. Long copy can steer away the tire-kickers and provide all of the necessary information to those interested. And often, prospects that do buy, don’t read all of the copy anyway, they only read enough to satisfy that you are offering the solution to their problem.

  23. I don’t even like to read long copy let along have to write it. Whenever I receive a long copy sales form or a newsletter that has a long copy sales form in it, I delete it. I would have to hire a copywriter to write long sales copy for me, even though I could probably write it.

  24. Oops! I have a typo. I meant to say, “let alone have to write it.”

  25. Great information per your usual efforts and even better comments. Lots of take-aways! I find it’s less long copy vs. shrt cpy, it’s all about the story (with a special nod to presentation). If you don’t effectively tell the story… no action.

    Working closely with your graphics team to insure key issues are easily visualized; engaging your audience with a mix of benefits, features and experiences; and telling a complete story (beginning, middle and end) sells the most.

    Some things never change: good story tellers have been practicing these things for years.

  26. Brian,

    Great post brother.
    Since your copy has to do the selling for you when you’re not there, you will need to write enough copy to cover all the bases for your prospect.
    In face-to-face selling you have the luxury of being able to ask your prospect questions to diagnose if the things you are good at fixing are issues your prospect is dealing with.
    Since you don’t have that luxury when using sales copy, your sales copy has to do the diagnosing. Depending on your call to action, you may even have to write the prescription for your prospect after your diagnosis.
    If you follow Brian’s suggestions you will be going down a good path to more successful sales copy.
    Be awesome,
    AJ

  27. Writing a powerful sales letter: something everyone should master. By age 25.

  28. Hey Brian, sorry I’m late to this party.

    If you asked me a few years ago about this debate, I would have passionately joined on the side of long copy. Hey, it’s where I made my money.

    But recently, changes on the Internet have begun the slow and painful death of slow copy.

    Let’s start with copywriting sites.

    I believe I was the first copywriter to have a long copy site. It did really well.

    My site was also the first long copy site to be banned by Google.

    The rest have pretty much followed.

    Why?

    Because Google HATES long copy.

    And many many other websites have had their accounts suspended because they used long copy.

    In a conversation with John Carlton, we discussed people reading long copy. I sent him a copy of The Handbook of Direct Mail by Vogle. The eye tracking studies showed that people skimmed rather than read long copy.

    Eye tracking studies and heat maps online show the same thing.

    Now, time on site and bounce rate are part of the online copywriters vocabulary.

    There’s less time for “foreplay” and a greater need to get into the meat of the offer faster.

    Of course, video sales letters now rule the day.

    I haven’t even begun to touch on long sales letters and SEO but Google hates them.

    So does long copy work? Yes.

    But I just did a sales letter for a new product and I kept it to 3 pages.

    The times, they are a changing…

    Harlan Kilstein

  29. I liked this subject

  30. and if it speaks to me

  31. I have to say that presentation is the point that really chimed with me. Something about being confronted with a huge chunk of dense copy makes me feel like I’ve got to work at reading.

    As soon as the author shows they don’t seem to care about design and layout – all the little things that make their copy easier to read – I no longer care about reading what they have to say.