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John Carlton Says Long Copy Works Best — Period.

June 20th, 2009 by Bob Bly

In my 6/14/09 post, I invited a debate on which works best — long copy vs. short copy.

But superstar copywriter John Carlton doesn’t thinks there’s much of a debate to be had.

“If I woke up tomorrow and realized the universe had changed in such a way that a decent sales pitch no longer required persuasion, proof, credibility, offers, and all the other classic ingredients, I’d be the first one writing short copy,” writes John in Early to Rise (6/20/09).

John disputes the Web 2.0 evangelists, who claim that you can create sales with just a smidgen of copy here and there, like dabs of gray ink in the colorful wonder of an over-designed web page.

“I don’t write long copy because I like long copy,” asserts John. “I write long copy because that’s what works.”

His formula for writing effective long copy promotions:

1–Start at the beginning of your sales message.
2–Cover the points your prospect needs to hear to make a decision.
3–Urge him toward the right decision — to buy your product.
4–Close with panache.

“When you can do that in a few terse sentences or in a single, brief, whiz-bang video, let me know,” concludes John. “I’m not holding my breath.”

Do you want to let John know that you AGREE with him — and that, online and offline, long copy is still king, even in this era of online video, Twitter, YouTube, sound bytes, Susan Boyle, and child-like attention spans?

Or can you offer arguments and evidence to prove John wrong by showing that short copy sites, videos, and the like can sometimes clobber long copy?

What say you?

Source: Early to Rise, 6/20/09.


This entry was posted on Saturday, June 20th, 2009 at 6:35 am and is filed under Direct Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

100 responses about “John Carlton Says Long Copy Works Best — Period.”

  1. Kyle Tully said:

    Hi Bob

    Coming from a sales background and now a direct response copywriter, I tend to think more like John.

    All things being equal, long copy more often than not beats short copy.

    But all the time?

    That’s hard to say. Most of the “web 2.0” sites using short copy have never tested a long copy approach.

    And the ones making sales with short copy tend to rely on:

    1. Free trial offers (a “try it before you buy it” approach where the product makes the sale.)

    2. Letting the long copy written by reviewers, the media, bloggers etc do the heavy lifting. When a prospect gets to the site they’re already sold, all they need is an order form and a buy now button.

    3. Offer-driven propositions where the prospect knows what they want and are simply shopping on price/shipping terms/recommendation etc.

    And lets not forget, “long” copy is relative. Some things simply don’t need as much salesmanship as others.


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  3. Ben Settle said:

    Nothing a simple A/B test won’t answer, yeah?


  4. Bob Bly said:

    Ben: John is saying that, in his decades of experience, long copy as a rule outpulls short copy — and I am sure he has won many A/B tests.

    Also, in reality, most marketers do NOT do multi-variates or A/B split testing. So the decision whether to go with long or short copy is made up front, without the benefit of testing.

  5. Ben Settle said:

    I hear ya Bob, it was directed towards the the “web 2.0 evangelists” you referred to.


  6. ‘John Carlton Says Long Copy Works Best — Period’ by Bob Bly said:

    […] John Carlton Says Long Copy Works Best — Period… […]

  7. Anne Holland said:

    I’ve seen plenty of a/b tests showing that copy length definitely affects conversions… but the winning lengths have been short and long! No firm rule. Anyone saying there is a firm rule hasn’t seen the data across multiple brands and offers. If you’ve tested this, lemme know at

  8. Kathleen Hanover said:

    All other things being equal (i.e., the list, offer and creative are all spot-on) I think long copy works really well on people who need long copy, and short copy works really well on people who don’t.

    I worked for a B2B direct marketing agency for seven years, and it was rare that we did sales letters longer than 4 pages. Two pages was typical for our client base, and we pretty consistently got response rates in the double digits. However, about half of what we did was B2B lead generation for inside sales teams.

    I personally find long copy exhausting, and it’s rare that I read anything other than the first and last pages of a multi-page sales letter. I’m one of those people who reads the first screen of long Internet landing pages, and then scrolls all the way to the bottom to find out how much they want for whatever it is they’re hawking.

    So, did your long copy work on me? Not exactly. It may have “worked” in that I purchased, but I certainly didn’t read all your copy.

    However, when I’m writing sales letters, I will write until I think I’ve made the sale, and then I’ll stop (unless, of course, the client has told me they want a one-page letter or a four-page letter or whatever.)

    I’d like to see the results of a well-constructed A/B split test, though.

    Kathleen Hanover

  9. Copywriter said:

    Long copy has never worked with me. I just scroll to the bottom of the page to read the key points of the offer and the price. That is, IF I still want to scroll.
    Just tell me the benefits and the price!

  10. bill perry said:

    That’s the I think that the best approach is to use headings and sub-headings in long copy.

    Those who WANT to read it all can, and those who don’t can skip to the parts that close the sale for them

  11. Bob McCarthy said:

    Hi Bob

    I don’t know if John is making a distinction between lead generation and order generation. He should.

    Consider John’s second point: Cover the points your prospect needs to make a decision.

    If you are trying to close a sale, clearly long copy is needed to accomplish that.

    But if you are just trying to generate a lead (by offering a white paper), shorter copy is sufficient because the prospect doesn’t need as much information to make that decision.

    Bob McCarthy

  12. John Carlton said:

    Hi Bob. Thanks for putting my ass on the line here. 🙂

    Let’s liven it up even more.

    As you know, Bob, this isn’t even an issue with hard-core offline direct mail marketers, or the dudes behind infomercials. Madison Avenue can still pretend that short, cute commercials “work” because they aren’t held to account with results.

    Direct marketers are held to account, however. And they pile on as much copy and info as they can. (Please note that when Jack In The Box or Burger King trims their commercials — which I love, btw — to fit tighter time slots, they clip out the fun stuff and leave in the hard sell special offer.)

    Online, this isn’t an issue anymore among the top marketers I know, either. Even the ones relying on video rely on loooooooooong video (and if you count the multiple emails and other material ladled out during launches, it adds up to a lot of copy, too). (Scripts = copy, you know.)

    This Web 2.0 argument goes on because each new generation that enters the business mainstream is overloaded with idealistic Kool Kids who are appalled at the thought of being a salesman.

    And so they create a belief system that fits the way they wish the world operated.

    I saw this back in the 1980s, when designers tried to take over direct mail (talking about “great design, with little floating blocks of copy here and there, if you absolutely must have some copy”)… (that little revolt didn’t last long)…

    … again when I was writing some of the first infomercials (the marketing geniuses in charge of the cable networks GAVE AWAY THE TIME after midnight to us, because they adamantly believed no one watched, and for SURE no one responded to hour-long pitches)…

    … in the early 90s when a fresh crop of freelancers convinced joints like Rodale and Phillips to “try” short direct mail pitches (quickly slaughtered by magalogs using up to a hundred pages of total copy)…

    … in the early days of online marketing (before anyone figured out how to use autoresponders or single-scroll sites or blogs)…

    … and now, with the Web 2.0 die hards.

    My point, again: I don’t use long copy because I like it.

    I use it because it works.

    More to the point: I sell, because it’s freaking hard to get people to part with money (or anything else of value, including their name and email address for lead gen) without using high-quality salesmanship.

    You can talk all you want about how the world has changed, or moved on, or mutated, or whatever. I’m hip to the current technology, and I’m one of the few “old school” dudes respected and referred-to by the younger hotshots tearing it up online.

    Why? Because, to reach the top of their game, they had to learn salesmanship… and most of them learned it from grizzled guys like you and me, Bob.

    They also test the bejesus out of everything they do, and they are not secretive about it. Theory doesn’t interest them. Nor the opinion of anyone who isn’t making it work online.

    Line up the guys online using long copy (or accumulated long copy, through extended email campaigns and video)… and measure their success against anyone else you can find using short copy that avoids selling.

    It won’t even be close.

    You want to succeed in business?

    Stop pretending that humans have magically evolved into salesmanship-resistant superheroes.

    Classic salesmanship still annihilates clever or clipped attempts to get people to part with money.

    If you’re gonna be a capitalist (and I was a hippie who had to see the light myself), you gotta make your peace with how capitalism works.

    Selling is a process, whether you’re selling yourself to a future spouse, or selling your membership site to a skeptical prospect.

    Okay, I’m done.

    Thanks, Bob, for the chance to rant.

  13. Bob Bly said:

    John: Thanks for the great comment — which could easiliy become a classic essay on the long vs. short copy argument. I do feel I am like you: raised on offline long copy, but I have adapted to and learned the Internet — unlike some of our fellow “grizzled” old-timers who really don’t understand how the Internet makes money.

  14. Phil Lambert said:

    I’m a direct response copywriter from New Zealand that sends out a lead generation package for my services that contains nearly 30 pages of copy, asking for an appointment to meet with prospect!

    Excessive maybe?

    But it as heck positions me well – that on a number of occasions the client was pre-sold before I got their ready to sign a cheque.

    I was and still am an unknown copywriter – so I needed enough copy that was going to tip the scales in my favour.

    One client read the whole thing twice!

    When I got him on the phone he was ready.

    One prospect said it was too much to read – But I was positioned well when we met anyway.

    I don’t read long copy online sales letters simply because I have to many distractions on my browser – I flick when I’m in front of the Laptop.

    Give me a hard copy letter and I’ll sit down within a week and read it.


    P.S BTW love your books BOB

    P.P.S Oh and thanks John for creating great headlines.

  15. Prashant Shanbhag said:

    Yes, a long copy does work better than a short copy. But given our shrinking attention spans and the habit of scanning rather than reading, direct marketers need to break down the long copy into smaller, more manageable, chunks. So that it doesn’t appear intimidating for the reader.

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