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Web Copywriting: Ted Nicholas vs. Jacob Nielsen

July 8th, 2009 by Bob Bly

Is copywriting the key to Internet marketing success?

Master copywriter Ted Nicholas seems to think so.

“Mega success on the Internet is all about copy alone,” he writes.

“It’s also helpful to know about other things like search engine optimiziation, squeeze pages, twittering, and teleseminars.

“But without powerful copy to fuel the marketing engine, you will not even be able to make a living online, let alone become wealthy.”

Ted says his online marketing success “is 99.9% due to my copy which drives all the rest of the elements.”

Ted’s viewpoint about the importance of copy in online marketing is diametrically opposed to that of web usability guru Jakob Nielsen.

“We know that users on the web typically don’t read very much,” proclaims Nielsen in his 5/6/08 Alertbox.

He says that high-literacy users scan — and, on average, users typically read only 20% of the text on the page.

What he thinks drives sales online is a mystery to me, but obviously, he doesn’t think it’s the copy that no one reads.

My question to you is: who do you side with?

Do you agree with Nicholas that strong copy is what makes money in Internet marketing?

Or do you, like Nielsen and others in the usability crowd, believe copy is a necessary evil on the web — and the less, the better?

P.S. Let me tip my hand and say that I side with Ted’s view that copy is important, and think Nielsen is a gasbag full ot hot air.

Why? Simple. Ted’s conclusions are based on generating $6.8 billion in sales online and offline with his copy.

Nielsen’s conclusions are all based on statistical analysis of “page views” — people looking at and reading web pages — and not on people RESPONDING TO WEB PAGES BY SPENDING MONEY.

But enough about me.

What do YOU think?


This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 8th, 2009 at 3:03 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.

34 responses about “Web Copywriting: Ted Nicholas vs. Jacob Nielsen”

  1. Mario Vellandi said:

    I believe in the power of copy for attraction, retention, and clickthroughs. There’s a powerful argument for on-page SEO reasons as well.

    But we do have to consider the context of the application. From a psychology, usability, and effective marketing standpoint, we have to consider the noise factor. How many other competing visual elements are there on a page? Especially with multiple columns, text links, graphics, and more. How is negative space treated in the layout? Every single additional element reduces reader focus. This is the danger that Nielsen is referring to. I tend to stay longer and read slower on pages with clean designs.

    I think in the larger sense, we really need to consider holistic communication design. Omit needless words, happy talk, irrelevant copy that doesn’t support a website’s or page thereof, goal. Strongly consider graphic design and layout. And make websites wonderfully easy and useful to navigate. That’s my view of how we can support both sides of the fence 🙂

  2. Jakob Nielsen said:

    Actually, the less people read, the more important it is to write that well. And being brief is certainly the hardest job for a writer.

    I have always emphasized the importance of having a good copywriter on Web teams, because people go to sites for the content. That doesn’t change the fact that all studies show that they don’t want to wade through blocks of text.

    For the latest example, look at how a potential investor looked at an Investor Relations (IR) page:

  3. Bob Bly said:

    Jakob: If people don’t want to read long copy, why, for instance, does this long-copy site generate a 32% conversion rate?

    Is it possible that the short-copy approach you advocate appeals to casual site visitors who are not prospects, while Ted Nicholas’ long copy works because he is writing to serious prospects, not web surfers?

    I am not implying I know the answer; I am just asking you the question.

    Do you have any studies or articles that correlate copy length with CONVERSION RATE and PURCHASE ACTIVITY and not just time spent on the page?

  4. Ken said:

    I would wager that people who actually fork over the credit card number and buy things read more than 20% of the text on a page.

    Of course you need words to sell stuff…how else could you ever sell anything online?

    Smart ones like you give the reader the opportunity to click through to the order page periodically through the copy. That way we can choose if we’ve read enough and are ready to order, or need more info.

    But yes…I definitely believe it’s the words. For those who believe otherwise, put up a site with no words and see how many sales you get.

  5. Bob Bly said:

    Ken: You are correct. I place Order Now buttons throughout the long copy, so the reader can stop reading and click to order at any point. We don’t force them to read long copy, and unlike Nielsen, we don’t measure or really care how much of the copy they do read. All that matters is the conversion rate.

    Long copy is hard to write. If short copy would work, we would use it. But for many direct response offers, it doesn’t.

  6. Bill Rice said:

    I have to say it is an even blend of the two.

    Web users don’t read, as a rule. However, if copy is laid out in an appealing way and stops the scan at the right moment–you will get your shot.

    Then, if the copy is good, you increase your credibility, trust, and opportunity to convert.

    Both usability of the copy and the copy itself need to work together to convert. I hate to be a fence sitter. But Bob, I would say your own examples prove my position.

    Oh, and never underestimate the necessity of copy to suck in the traffic in the first place (Ken’s point emphasized).

  7. Bob Bly said:

    Bill Rice: I disagree with your statement that “Web users don’t read.” Virtually all experts agree that Internet users are looking for relevant content above all else, which explains the great success of Google. Text is the primary method of content dissemination, with video a growing but still distant second.

  8. Bill Rice said:

    I guess they don’t read until something grabs their attention is the distinction. I totally agree that users are searching for good and relevant content, that is a basic assumption.

    My argument is that usability of the content–good titles, use of bullets lists, appropriate use of boldface and italics–is critical to getting the scan stopped, the reading started, and the conversion happening.

    I am a writer. I believe in the power of copy. However, I am getting a better appreciation for the power of design and usability to get conversion on the Web.

  9. Bob Bly said:

    Bill, this I agree with: most writers under-emphasize design, usability, and searchability. They do not use enough images, audio, or video, all of which Internet users love.

  10. Jim Logan said:

    Bob: You mentioned something in comment 5 that caught my attention — placing buy now buttons throughout long copy. I do the same.

    What made me pause is wondering if anyone has test which buttons are clicked most?

    Do you know of any tests of buttons earlier or later in long copy getting a greater response? I believe the last button would win the contest, but haven’t seen any data. It would be interesting to know if there were a place in long copy where a visitor stopped and took action.

  11. Morgan said: would certainly agree with long copy.

  12. Web Copywriting: Ted Nicholas vs. Jacob Nielsen - blog … « Copywriting said:

    […] See the o­­rig­ina­l­ p­o­­st: W­e­b Cop­y­w­ritin­g­: Te­d N­ichol­a­s vs. … […]

  13. Bob Bly said:

    Jim: There have been, but I don’t recall the results. What I DO know is that when I test a landing page with only ONE order button at the end instead of others at the beginning and throughout, conversion declines.

  14. Short copywriting or long copywriting? Which works best? | Copywriters Blog said:

    […] can ditch 80% of the word use and have same success? Of course not. When long form copywriting guru Bob Bly challenges Nielsen and says, ‘Nielsen is a gasbag full of hot air,’ is he suggesting that we only […]

  15. Jim Logan said:

    Bob: Thanks! I’m going to look for a future project and work the location of ‘Buy Now’ buttons into multivariate testing I plan to do. If I learn anything worthy of sharing…I’ll let you and others know.

    Thanks Again!

  16. Ultimate Fighting Championship: Long Copy vs. Usability | Werbeblogger – Weblog über Marketing, Werbung und PR » Blog Archiv » Ultimate Fighting Championship: Long Copy vs. Usability said:

    […] Woche eröffnete Copy Writer Bob Bly im Beitrag “Web Copywriting: Ted Nicholas vs. Jacob Nielsen” auf seinem Blog die Diskussion, wie die Aussagen von Jacob Nielsen und anderen […]

  17. Matthias Genthin said:

    I’m not quite into the whole scenery but in my opinion it’s all about involvement. If you’re planning to buy a car you feel a high subjective purchasing risk. So you’ll read all informations you can get about it (pro Bly). But if it’s is just a convenience good a long copy would be annoying (pro Nielsen).

    Best regards.

  18. Long copy Vs. Usability? What About Relevance and Design? | The Copywriter's Crucible said:

    […] this was the debate on Bob Bly’s blog recently, when he challenged web usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s view that people don’t read much on the […]

  19. Ash Waechter said:

    I think long copy is very effective. I’ve often heard myself saying, “OK,OK,OK. I gotta it. I’m convinced. I’m whipping out my credit card right now. I’m sold. Enough already.”

    Whether long or short copy is your thing, you ultimately have to look at the statistics, which Bob has clearly done. You test, test, and test. If long copy wins out, then you do that. Eye charts and scans don’t mean anything. It’s the conversions and stats that mean everything.

  20. Web Content Copywriting | Boost Your Small Business Website with Sole Control Solutions said:

    […] other day I read this post on Bob Bly’s copywriting blog: Web Copywriting: Ted Nicholas vs Jacob Nielsen.   For anyone who doesn’t know, Jacob Nielsen is probably considered the World’s […]

  21. Colette Mason said:

    I think there is value in both points of view.

    Nielsen is right, users do skim text (online and offline) to see if it’s relevant enough to warrant spending time reading it in more detail.

    He advocates highlighting headings, using bullets etc to make the page friendly for skimming, to help the site owner quickly indicate the relevance (or not).

    When a visitor decides the content is relevant and wants to read on further that’s when Ted’s idea comes to the fore. After all, Ted specialises in sales and marketing, not interaction design or HCI focused cognitive psychology etc.

    Not wanting to put words in their mouths, they both agree reliable, customer-focused up to date, hype-free, honest, clear and concise copy is the copy that sells.

    I’ve seen so many sites fail because they focus too much on sales (not user-centered enough), or too much on usability (avoiding popups that do make money, for example)

    Add both concepts and you get great web copy 🙂

  22. Week 2-Post 1 « Swethi85's Blog said:

    […] article that I came across while browsing for more on Nielsen was this one called ” Web Copywriting: Ted Nicholas vs. Jacob Nielsen by Bob Bly.” Nielsen had said, ” We know that users on the web typically don’t read very […]

  23. Week 2 : post 2 « Swethi85's Blog said:

    […] the inevitable questions that came into my mind as a reader. This in a way supports what copywriter Ted Nicholas says about the role of copy in successful Internet […]

  24. The case for long copy said:

    […] Most usability studies suggest that short copy is best for web writing, due to information overload and the scanning behaviour of users online. However, it’s clear that there are still valid reasons for considering long copy for your marketing messages, and some marketers feel that this approach is best for online marketing success. […]

  25. Short copywriting or long copywriting? Which works best? said:

    […] can ditch 80% of the word use and have same success? Of course not. When long form copywriting guru Bob Bly challenges Nielsen and says, ‘Nielsen is a gasbag full of hot air,’ is he suggesting that we only […]

  26. Short copywriting or long copywriting? Which works best? | Hotel said:

    […] can ditch 80% of the word use and have same success? Of course not. When long form copywriting guru Bob Bly challenges Nielsen and says, ‘Nielsen is a gasbag full of hot air,’ is he suggesting that we only […]

  27. usability bundle said:

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  28. pittsburghshemaleescort said:

    Then, if the copy is good, you increase your credibility, trust, and opportunity to convert.

  29. said:

    Well, it is both. You need the copy (and length) for authenticity. And, they might skim it, but if it is not there then the website will do worse that if it has long copy. This is of course doesn’t mean that the other stuff doesn’t matter. I think copy is number one, and the other stuff is number two. In the case that if you don’t have number one, you are going to have to do more on number two to get it. Pat – Scottsdale Pool Cleaner

  30. Zac said:

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  31. dumpster rental waukesha said:

    You are correct. I place Order Now buttons throughout the long copy, so the reader can stop reading and click to order at any point.

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