What Works Best in E-Mail Marketing:

Long Copy or Short Copy?


By Robert W. Bly




            “What works best in e-mail marketing?” I got asked for the umpteenth time the other day. “Long copy or short copy?”

            It’s a quandary for direct marketers much more so than general marketers. Here’s why:

            There’s a widely held viewpoint that, on the Internet, the less copy the better. Web marketing experts tell us that the Internet is faster-paced than the “snail mail” world, that attention spans are shorter, and long messages get zapped into oblivion with the click of the mouse. “Keep it short!” they extol in countless advisory e-zines.

            General advertisers, for the most part, also believe that when it comes to copy, the shorter the better. Often their print ads have large pictures and only a handful of words. So they have no trouble embracing the “people don’t read” mentality the Web marketing gurus say works best.

            But traditional direct marketers whose products are typically sold with long copy direct mail packages and self-mailers -- newsletter publishers, seminar promoters, magazines, book clubs, insurance, audio cassettes -- have a problem. It goes something like this:

            “In print, I have to use long copy to make the sale ... or I just don’t get the order. We’ve tested short copy many times -- who doesn’t want a cheaper mailing piece with less ink and paper? But it has never worked for our product. Now my Web marketing consultant says the e-mail should be just a few paragraphs. If a few paragraphs won’t convince people to buy offline, why should things be any different online?”

            And they are right: Just because a person buys online doesn’t change the persuasion process. If he needs the facts to make a decision, he needs them regardless of whether he is ordering from a paper mailing or a Web site.

            Yet we also have a sense that the Web marketing gurus have at least a clue as to what they are talking about. We sense that our 4-page sales letter, if sent word for word as a lengthy e-mail, wouldn’t work. People would click away long before they got to the end.

            I think I have some sensible guidelines to answer this puzzle.

            First, we need to quantify what we mean by “short” vs. “long.”

            When a Web marketing guru talks about “short” e-mail, he probably means only three or four paragraphs. So when he says long copy doesn’t work, he is against e-mails of more than a few paragraphs.

            If I say “long copy does work,” I mean long compared to the typical e-mail -- not  compared to the typical direct mail letter on paper. A “long” e-mail, which may fill several screens, is closer in length to a 2-page letter -- short by direct mail standards -- than to a 4-page letter. And it doesn’t even come close to an 8-page letter.

            Second, we need to quantify how much shorter online copy is than offline. Should you translate your entire package, word for word? Should you compress it to half its length? Less?

            Kathy Henning, who writes extensively about online communication, says, “In general, online text should be half as long as printed text, maybe even shorter.” Not a precise formula, but a good starting point for estimation.

            Third, and most important, we need to remember that the copy for e-mail marketing campaigns is not wholly contained within the e-mail itself. It is really in two parts.

            The first half of the message is in the actual e-mail. The e-mail contains a link to a page on a Web site or server. When you click on that link, you jump to the page, where the remainder of the message is presented, along with the online order mechanism.

            In a traditional direct mail package, the message is unevenly split. Consistently, 98 percent of the copy is in the letter and brochure, with the remaining 2 percent on the order form.

            In e-mail marketing campaigns, the division is less balanced and more varied.

            Fig. 1 shows the various ways the total copy can be divided between the e-mail and the response page.

            There are four options as shown in the box at the center of the diagram:

A.   Short e-mail, landing page (left upper quadrant) -- Many marketers with simple lead-generating offers use short e-mails (the traditional 3 to 4 paragraphs) with a link to a “landing page.” A landing page is a short Web-based form, usually with a headline, a couple of paragraphs explaining the offer, and a mechanism for the recipient to fill in his information and submit his response. This format is similar in length and style to the traditional one-page sales letter and business reply card used in lead-generating paper direct mail.

B.   Long e-mail, landing page (lower left quadrant) -- This is similar to B except the e-mail, by Internet marketing standards, is “long.” For convenience, I define a short e-mail as any e-mail that, when printed out, takes half a page or less. By comparison, any e-mail that takes more than a page when printed out is “long.” This format is similar in length and style to a direct mail package with a 4-page letter and a simple 4 X 9-inch order card.

C.   Long e-mail, micro site (lower right quadrant) -- This format has a long e-mail and a long landing page, known as a “micro site.” The micro site is a custom URL designed specifically for the offer. Unlike a landing page, which is usually a single screen, the micro site’s lengthier copy requires many screens. The micro site can be broken into distinct pages (see www.hypnoticwriting.com) or it can be one continuous document through which the reader must scroll (see www.surefirecustomerservicetechniques.com). This long e-mail/micro site format allows for maximum copy, and is ideal for translating lengthy mailings, such a magalogs, to the Web.

D.   Short e-mail, micro site (upper right quadrant) -- This format combines a short e-mail up front with a long-copy micro site on the back end. It is ideal for offers that require a lot of copy but are being transmitted to prospects who might not read a lengthy e-mail.

Notice in Fig. 1 that your lists can come from one of three sources:

1.   House files. As with traditional direct mail, e-mail marketing works best when sent to your house list of customers and prospects. If your house files don’t have e-mail addresses, there are several ways to obtain them. You can run your file through an e-mail address appending service, and expect to find e-mail addresses for between 10 percent and 30 percent of the records. You can also make e-mail address collection part of your ongoing marketing and customer service records. For instance, one of my vendors that awards gifts based on bonus points offered to add 300 bonus points to my account in exchange for my e-mail address.

2.      E-zine subscribers. Theoretically you will get high response rates mailing to people who have signed up for your free e-zine. However, these folks are often freebie seekers, and may not be qualified prospects. Therefore, results vary. Some e-zine lists are pure gold. Others generate less sterling results.

3.      Rented opt-in e-lists. You can rent e-lists for e-mail marketing campaigns at costs ranging from $100 to $300 per thousand. As with traditional direct mail, test lists in small quantities before rolling out to any.

Another option, also shown in Fig. 1, is to run classified ads in other people’s e-zines with a link to your landing page or micro site. This lets you get your message to people at a far lower cost per thousand than solo e-mails. However, the circulations of many e-zines are unqualified and unaudited; therefore the quality of the audience you reach can be questionable. Again, you have to test.

The bottom line: E-mail marketing can work without having e-mails competing with War and Peace in word count. By strategically splitting your copy between the front-end e-mail and back-end response page, you can get your message across without having time-pressured Web surfers fleeing in terror.

About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter specializing in traditional and Internet direct mail. He can be reached at rwbly@bly.com.


Fig. 1. E-mail Marketing Model