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Is Long Copy Dead?

January 15th, 2008 by Bob Bly

An article in BtoB (1/14/08, p. 43) notes:

“Today, long-copy ads are relatively rare. In an Internet-driven age, people are conditioned to absorbing only flashes of information. There’s much less tolerance for a well-told tale or an ad that builds its arguments with words, not images.”

Do you agree with the article’s argument that our attention spans are so limited, prospects only respond to short copy — and long copy is obsolete and just doesn’t work anymore?

Or do you disagree –and believe that informative, well-written copy can still engage readers from start to finish, regardless of its length?

What say you?


This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 15th, 2008 at 3:46 pm and is filed under General. 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.

47 responses about “Is Long Copy Dead?”

  1. Joel Heffner said:

    On the Web some folks will read long blocks of text. At home some folks will read long sales letters that they get in the mail. Other folks won’t. Perhaps the best way to go is to with the numbers and use short stuff online and longer stuff on paper because that’s the way we perceive readers to be.

  2. Trisha said:

    I think it depends on what you’re trying to sell. If it’s a product that is rather complicated or has a lot of competition, then it may be better relatively long.

  3. Gloria Hildebrandt said:

    I admire short copy that makes the point and then stops.

  4. Michael said:

    I’ve made this point before, but I think the Internet–with it’s instant gratification oriented structure (click here, go there, etc.)–primes people to not be satisfied with any information presented in anything other than short snippets.

    As for myself, I tend not to read long copy. If I get long copy direct mail or happen to be reading a Web page with long copy (AWAI’s course or product promotion copy, for example), I read the first paragraph or two, then scroll right to the end or immediately click on the order now link and read the offer. I want to know the price to see if it’s worth my reading time. I don’t want to read lots of copy, get to the offer, and then find out it’s out of my price range.

    That’s why I don’t read long copy.

  5. Bob Bly said:

    Michael: If you are interested, and it IS within your price range, do you order based on having read just the first two paragraphs and the offer? Or do you go back to learn more?

  6. Michael said:


    Well, it may seem strange, but I don’t make my purchase decision based on going back to read the rest of the long copy.

    If it’s something I’m intersted in, I read a couple paragraphs, then the offer, and then if I like the price, I may go back and read a bit more, but seldom the entire piece. What I’m looking for when I go back for more information is just something quick to spur my decision. That might be something as simple as reading a single glowing testimonial from someone I trust.

    For example—and this isn’t to butter you up—if I go back to read more and I see a quote from you that gives the product a thumbs up, that itself will decide for me. My thinking is, “Ah, Bob Bly approves of it…good enough for me!” And I’ll make my purchase decision without reading anything else.

    Or, I may skim a bullet or two that deals precisely with something I want the product to do for me without reading anything else.

    I guess that would be my “plan” after reading a paragraph or two and then the offer with price. 1) Go back and see if anyone I trust approves of it, and 2) skim bullets for anyting that jumps out at me.

    If nothing jumps out at me either in a testomonial or bullets, by that time I’ve decided the product probably isn’t something I’m looking for. Thus, I don’t end up reading the long copy. My thinking is that “if they couldn’t build credability in the testimonials or bullets, they probably won’t be able to in the long copy, so why bother reading?”

    But, this is just me. Others’ mileage may vary.

  7. John Dumbrille said:

    The attention span of a TV couch potato is probably shorter. People are better able to escape from directly promotional copy now.

  8. Dianna Huff said:

    I read long copy ads, but only because I’ve been trained to by Tom Collins. 🙂

    I’ll read long copy on the Web, too, if it’s well-written. However, most of the gobbledygook you find is not.

    The other problem with long copy on the Web is that many Website are designed with mouse-sized text. When I’m presented with grey mouse type that’s practically invisible, I just click back out.

  9. Maggie said:

    Michael did a terrific job of writing exactly the way I read long sales letters – I don’t – snail mail, e-mail – it doesn’t matter how it arrives. I scan for points that interest me and jump or scroll to the bottom to check the price. If I am interested in the product, I don’t go back and read the whole letter. For me, it isn’t a matter of attention span, it’s time. Tell me what it is, tell me why it’s a great product and how much, because everyday I run out of time to get everything done that needs my attention.

  10. Jim Furr said:


    Some readers are of the “Engineer” type –

    They need Every Detail and More
    before making a purchase.

    However, I feel the majority of
    readers/purchasers do Not read long copy.

    So, let’s make the Bullet Points,
    Testimonials and Subheadings
    tell the story 🙂


  11. Craig Hysell said:

    If the Michael in the comments thread is Michael Masterson I think we can truly say long-running copy is deceased.

    I am currently enrolled in AWAI’s Six-Figure Copywriting program (it’s fantastic; long-copy debate or not) named after Michael Masterson. The models of success for the program are direct mail pieces that are at least two full pages and often much more. Material the man who the program is named after doesn’t even have time to read anymore.

    For me the AWAI examples are a treat to read. Not so much because I’m interested in the product but because I enjoy studying the finer points of copywriting; to see what I agree with and what I would have tried differently.

    As an Internet consumer however, I cannot stand bad writing or too much “mystery” in the copy as it pertains to websites . It steals credibility from the message.

    The websites I buy from tell me what they’ve got, tell me why I need it and convince me that it’s worth it quickly. There are a lot of competitors only a click away. The Internet is faceless so I don’t feel I owe them anything for showing up and trying to answer my questions. (Who do we become when nobody is watching us? The lack of intelligence and nastiness prevading “Web 2.0” comments on AOL alone is staggering.) One screw up and I’m outta here…

    It goes back to our old argument, is print dead? Maybe it depends on the prospect.

  12. sooboth said:

  13. Michael said:

    To set your mind at ease, Craig, I’m not THAT Michael, although I have taken AWAI’s Six-Figure Copywriting, too (I likewise found it fantastic).

    To clarify a bit more on the long copy thread, although I don’t think long copy is dead, I, personally, don’t bother to read long copy. I just don’t have time nor the inclination to do so. I get ants in my pants if I have to wade through long copy–regardless of whether or not the copy relates to a product I am interested in. My attention span is short.

  14. Joe said:

    Let’s face the music, Bob. No one wants to read long copy. People might want to read a lengthy newspaper article or something like that. But when you’re trying to sell something, just get to the point.

    Direct mail is annoying and most people throw it in the trash. Thirty years from now my “internet generation” will have absolutely no tolerance for long copy and direct mail-type pieces. Because of length, obviously, but also because this generation is cynical and has no time for unbelievable-sounding cheap tricks. DM is usually cheesy and laughable. It is also made up of lies and false propaganda. We know this and we will fight it in the future. Thankfully, direct mail and long copy are going the way of the dinosaur.

  15. Dianna Huff said:

    Joe — Not all DM is annoying, full of lies or cheap tricks. I save the better DM pieces that come in the mail. Why? Because the copy is a pleasure to read, it gets me to go online, and often times gets me to buy something.

    By the way, I read every single letter that comes from my local animal rescue. I love those letters — they are so well written! They bring tears to my eyes and more important, get me to pull out my checkbook. For this org, an email or web copy doesn’t cut it.

  16. Craig Hysell said:

    Ha. Thanks Michael.

    And although I don’t agree with everything Joe says in his comments (my “internet generation” is cynical- 24 hour news sites and stations without any substance other than fear, speculation and death can ruin anybody’s day; I don’t think DM, from a quality copywriter anyway, is made up of “lies and false propaganda”) he may have a point about DM’s arrival on the endangered species list.

    On they have a growing list of states doing their best to ban direct mail.

  17. Brian said:

    To draw me into long copy an ad needs to start with a short, prominent headline and / or graphic that hits something in which I am VERY interested. Even if I’m mildly interested, once I see the long copy I’ll be tempted to retreat.

    Now, I’m not so sure that the audience’s attitude toward advertising has changed as much as the tools available to them to act on that attitude. The internet in particular seems to be ideal for “drive-by” consumption. There is a lot of noise out there, in both content and advertising. We’ve pretty much been forced to develop practices that allow us to quickly cut through the noise and find whatever signal we are looking for and then get in and get out.

    I agree that attention spans are shorter and still shrinking, but I don’t think that that is what is at play here. After a while we just realize that we don’t have time for it all.

  18. Ritz said:

    I don’t for a second think long copy is dead or even getting read less. I think it’s a lot people making biased decisions off irrelevant statistics.

    The internet has made it easy for untrained and/or unskilled writers to publish whatever they want. People go write 10 long copy pieces and nobody reads it – then write 10 short copy pieces and get a few reads. Then conclude it must be because people like short copy.

    Most of the time it’s because the copy sucks and people can put up with it for short amounts of time a lot better.

    I wish I could conclusively prove this… But it’s just my little opinion.

  19. Daniel Mcgonagle said:

    Thanks for the heads up! Really great post. That’s a must-read I must
    say. 🙂

  20. Bill Hilton said:

    I’ve just been working with a client who offers business services. He launched a new website six months ago, using long copy written by a sales letter specialist.

    Although he got tons of traffic, there were very few conversions. A little bit of research suggested that the busy people he was targetting simply didn’t have time to read all his copy.

    I hacked it down to about a fifth of the original length, retaining the basic structure, headlines, statements of benefits and so on. Bingo: virtually overnight he started generating more leads.

    So it’s a case of writing the copy that suits the product and the target market.

  21. Peter George said:

    I believe that most people do not read sales letters or web pages that contain long copy. And that is precisely why I believe long copy still works.

    In the responses above, several people indicated that, if a strong headline and possibly a few beneficial bullet points pull them into the copy, they are likely to skim through it. At this time, they decide whether they want to make a purchase, not make a purchase, or delve even deeper into the copy for additional information. This is not possible with short copy.

    While short copy can entice you and you may decide to investigate further, our lives are very busy. How many times have you said to yourself that you were going to look into something and then forgotten about it?

    Long copy also has a greater opportunity of satisfying either side of the brain. For the “just the facts” people, bullet points, pull-outs, and highlights quickly deliver the message. For those who like to spend some time with additional information, it’s there for them as well.

    No matter which we think works better, one thing is always constant. The copy has to be effective and move its intended targets.

  22. Richard Armstrong said:

    When I started in this business in 1976, we always tried to keep our letters to one page (“Because, after all, this is 1976! People nowadays simply don’t have time to read more than one page of copy!”) But every now and then, some copywriter would slip up and go to two pages. When the results came in, we found that two pages worked better than one. Then we found that three pages worked better than two. Four worked better three. Five worked better than four. And so on. Nowadays, I write magalogs that come out of my printer at fifty or sixty pages of manuscript. The internet is training customers to respond to short copy??? Balderdash! The great thing about the internet is that it allows us to write even MORE copy. Anyone who thinks the internet is a “short copy” medium has obviously never written a website. In manuscript pages, a typical website probably comes out to 100-to-200 typewritten pages. Does the customer read the whole thing word for word? Of course not! But here’s a newsflash. They didn’t read those one-page letters in 1976 word-for-word either. In fact, if you go back to read “Printer’s Ink” from 1922 or so, you see people writing letters to the editor saying the same darn thing about long copy, “This is 1922 for heaven’s sake! People nowadays simply don’t have time to read long copy!” In other words, this argument has been going for 100 years and the short-copy advocates are as wrong today as they were back then! By the way, if you want to find out WHY long copy works better than short, go to my website and download the free report on the subject. Sure, you have to buy my novel first, but it’s a small price to pay for such wisdom!!!

  23. Ted Grigg said:

    Why speculate about this question? It is easily resolved. Test it. I have many times in every available media channel.

    In DRTV, 2 minute spots outpull 90’s, and 90’s get better costs per lead than 60’s or 30?s. In direct mail, longer letters usually outpull short ones and so forth.

    Experienced direct marketers do not shy away from long copy that SELLS.

    But again, don’t guess, test it rather than trying to figure out how people will behave when confronted with long copy. We’re usually wrong in our assumptions.

  24. Richard Armstrong said:

    Kind of a hard thing to test, though, Ted. Because a short letter is not only going to be shorter than the long one, it’s also going to be substantively different. If you’ve written an eight-page letter for a client, for example, and he says “Keep it exactly the same, but cut seven pages out of it” — yes, clients do say such things — you know the revised letter is going to be quite different from the original. Everything should be tested, of course, but over 100 years we’ve learned that certain rules are generally true … and one of them is that long copy usually works better than short.

  25. Rob said:

    The problem is choice. When I open up my email inbox, I oftentimes have emails from 2-8 different marketers that want me to read their email and perhaps click on a link.

    As it is, I don’t have the time or the patience to read another one of their emails. So, anyone with a crappy subject line gets the cut. Then whoever is left I read their email. If it’s long and boring, which most of them are cause they all sound the same, I delete it. If one sounds interesting then i’ll open it up, click on the link, and get taken to what is most likely a sales letter.

    I then have to decide if I want to get back to my day and doing work, check my facebook, watch videos on youtube, check the news, check my rss feeds, see what’s happening in sports, play a game, or read a 10-50 page sales letter that some Ogilvy quoting, egotistical copywriter thought would be effective on me because if some long copy is good, more MUST be better.

    The odds are against your copy, unless you stop thinking that you can cut corners and just swipe everything. The fact is, is that most long copy is LAZY. Alot of copywriters do it just because it gives the client the impression that they did alot of work.

    The work part comes in when you re-write the lead paragraph thirty different ways because you know if the slightest sentence bores you’re customer, they’re off to watch people fooling around with mentos and pepsi on YouTube.

  26. Cymantia Tomlinson-Bey said:

    My rule of thumb is put the WIFM’s(what’s in it for me)right up front in the leading paragraph. After that’s accomplished, include all the supporting details. So, reel em in but if they want to stay awhile, let em.

    Maybe I’m strange, crazy, or a bit frugal but I don’t usually act right away after reading anything. I take my time and can be somewhat of an information hog. I think people appreciate having the information rather than shorter content. I don’t think it hurts to give those that skim and those that read what they need. Finding the balance can be tricky but if done well,it will pay off.

    To answer your question, long copy is not dead. In fact, clients will sometimes feel cheated if you don’t make the effort.

  27. Fred Acker said:

    This may sound a litte weak but why not just make the sales letter long enough to make the sale and flush the fluff?

    If the “what’s in it for me” needs to be lengthy ok. But why on Gods green earth do so many marketers waste space and time using fillers such as…

    “Amazing New Phenominal Out Of This World Product Makes Your Already Mentally Disturbed Useless Life 100% More Useless By Reading ALL Those Dam Adjectives And Pronouns” :0)

    Why not just use “Product WILL Disturb Your Day”?

    I don’t think it’s the long or short of it thats controversial (forgive if spelled wrong). Is the content relative to whats important? If so add it. If not trash it.

    Just an opinion :0)

  28. Sharon Lee said:

    This is one of those hotly debated topics… 😉

    James Brausch has done some major testing on this, and insists that short copy outperforms long copy almost every time:


  29. Tom said:

    From someone who has sold a few mil in physical products online in the past few years, here is my take.

    1.) Your demographic will have an impact. Older folks are used to reading, as they grew up with newspapers and so forth (in time this audience will diminish naturally). If this is your demographic, don’t be afraid of longer copy, if it is solid and meaningful.

    2.) People who are in a mode of buying excitement–and are enthusiastic about your offering–will read longer copy. Of course, if you throw long copy out there, it may turn off OTHERS who have yet to get to that level of buying excitement. Which leads me to…

    3.) In general, start off with the readers digest version, with supporting links and callouts that address questions they might have along the way. Thus, casual readers aren’t overwhelmed, but those who are interested and need reinforcement can find what they need.

    And to those who think long, cumbersome one page sale letter sites are the way to go…I can’t tell you how many of them have frustrated me by making me scroll forever to find a buy link…past tons of needless copy I never read.

    If your copy is just restating…that is, if each element doesn’t introduce something new and compelling, chop it.

    We are certainly becoming a low attention span society. Keep that in mind.

  30. Bob Bly said:

    Tom: we use the long-copy sales letter site format all the time. There is no problem with scrolling to find a buy link: we place a buy link at the top right of the first screen, at the end, and about once in every section — so a buy link is almost always in front of you.

  31. Freelance Copywriter Leeds said:

    I think these days shorter copy is needed because people have less time to read long material

  32. Scott Wolf said:

    We’ve tested this pretty extensively in our email business. More often than not, we find that shorter copy in the email works better, with the longer sales-driven copy better on the landing page.

    Perhaps it’s analogous to consider the email as a post card rather than a sales letter. The intent of the email is to involve the recipient in the process. Ideally a successful outcome is to click through to the landing page where they can place the order with a proper level of expectation.

    One big reason is that it’s more difficult to read the sales message in some email clients than on a web page with the same copy. And as mentioned above, they can’t enter their credit card in the email, so they have to get to the web page anyway. As a result, you want as many people still reading at the point where they can enter the desired outcome (credit card number, email address, etc.)

    This isn’t 100% of course, but we find it is a useful concept to bear in mind, at the minimum.

  33. Les Leslie said:

    I have read reports from a rather large number of Internet Marketers that their testing has shown Long Copy to produce better returns/sales for them. There are also those who claim the Short Copy does this for them.

    In writing in general, we are taught that brevity makes for better copy. Don’t use more wrods than you need!

    Here’s the whole issue in a nutshell. If the subject requires Long Copy and the writer can hold his audience, use Long Copy. Otherwise, shorter is probably better.

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