What works best in b-to-b direct mail: short copy or long?


By Robert W. Bly




           “What’s the most effective length for a business-to-business sales letter?” a reader asked me the other day.

            Let me see if I can give some sensible guidelines to answer this common question.

            To begin with, most of my colleagues in direct marketing agree that the trend in copy length is this: consumer mailings are getting longer, while business-to-business mailings are getting shorter.

            Consumer mailings are getting longer because prospects are more skeptical than ever, hence they need more sales arguments to convince them to buy.

            Business mailings are getting shorter because business prospects are increasingly pressed for time. Some consumers are too, but not all.

            We can divide business-to-business letters into two categories: lead-generating letters (designed to generate an inquiry) and mail-order letters (designed to generate an order).

            As a rule of thumb, lead-generating business-to-business letters are either one or two pages in length, while mail-order business-to-business letters are typically two to four pages in length.

            Lead-generating b-to-b letters can be short because they do not have to - as mail-order copy must - do the whole selling job.

            In a lead-generating letter, you only have to “whet the prospect’s appetite” – that is, get him to take the next step in the buying process.

           Typically, that step is either requesting more information - a sales brochure or catalog - or meeting with a sales representative.

            Whether the letter is one or two pages is very important. A one-page letter works best with extremely busy readers – such as business executives and doctors – who don’t have the time or inclination to read long copy. When they open the envelope and see that the letter is only one page, they relax enough to quickly scan it and learn whether they want to reply or not.

            To this group, a multi-page letter gives a visual clue that the package is a lot to read, which is an immediate turn-off and a signal to trash it or put it aside.

            You can comfortably go to two pages when writing to audiences who are either (a) readers, (b) possibly not quite as busy and pressed for time as executives and doctors, e.g., middle managers, entrepreneurs, farmers, engineers, and IT professionals, or (c) have a strong personal interest in the proposition of the letter (e.g., selling a small business owner software to run his company).

            A two-page letter gives you a bit more room to include points that can help convince the reader to respond, e.g., testimonials, product features, and other details. There is also more room to appeal to a breadth of emotions, feelings, beliefs, or copy points.

            For a non-personalized letter, the two-page letter can be printed on the front and back of a single sheet of 8 ½ by 11-inch paper. If the letter is personalized, use two separate sheets of paper.

           But what if two pages isn’t enough room to fit in all your sales arguments? One solution is to include a slim-jim brochure in the mailing.

            A slim-jim is a letter-size or legal-size piece of paper folded two or three times vertically to form a brochure that fits into a #10 envelope.

            The old saying in direct mail is “the letter sells, the brochure tells.” The letter presents the main selling arguments; the brochure contains supporting evidence including product photos, diagrams, graphs, specifications, features, background on the company, testimonials, a customer list, and so on.

            Instead of a slim-jim brochure, I sometimes prefer to enclose with my letter a reprint of an article about the company or the product. Reason: the article looks more like useful information vs. a brochure which looks like advertising matter. If no articles written about or by your company exist, you can design an insert to look like one.

            Now let's leave lead-generating letters and discuss mail-order letters - letters designed to bring back an order.

            In mail-order selling, there is no brochure the reader can send for to get the detailed product specs and features, and no sales rep to answer questions. The mail-order letter must do the whole selling job alone, and for this reason, longer copy is needed.

            Consumer mail-order sales letters are often 4 to 8 pages or longer. The business-to-business mail-order letter can range from one to 8 pages in length, but most often, they are either 2 or 4 pages.

             You should never mail a 3-page letter; a blank page is a waste of space. If the letter layout comes to 3 pages, either condense it to 2 pages using a tighter layout and smaller type, or expand it to 4 pages using a looser layout and larger type. I prefer the latter; large type and “roomy” layouts are more inviting and easier to read.

            In all cases, the letter should be only as long as it needs to be to get the selling job done and maximize the response. Therefore a letter for a complex product with many features and benefits, such as software, will typically be longer than a letter for a simple product or service, such as a janitorial or office cleaning service.

            The prospect's level of interest and involvement with the product is another key factor determining letter length.

            An IT Manager will be highly interested and involved with the selection of a major new software system, and after all, technology is his main interest. So he will read a relatively large amount of copy about the product.

            But he probably will read long copy about "how to build a million dollar dental practice" … because it is so much more interesting and relevant to his goals, dreams, and desires.

 About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 50 books including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha). His e-mail address is rwbly@bly.com and his Web site address is www.bly.com.