‘What everybody ought to know about this writing business’: when longer copy works

The throwaway ‘tl;dr’ acroynm – ‘too long, didn’t read’ – encapsulates common wisdom about the value of longer passages of text.

In a networked world overbrimming with information, the narrative goes, people don’t want, and shouldn’t be expected, to read long copy.

Indeed, so it is said, we are gradually losing the ability to do so. Our capacity to focus is being eroded by the quicksilver pace of Twitter and other platforms, the distraction of abundant choice, and the ease with which information can be communicated through media other than words. There’s no need to make the reader commit to uninviting pages of text when content can be presented more efficiently and entertainly through infographics, videos and audio.

There’s truth in all that. Our world is awash with content. The web has opened new communications channels. And long copy is often poorly presented, and dull. But if it is useful, people will give it their time, just as they always have.

Offline, book sales have been increasing. There are more magazines than ever before, full of long articles.

Online, our abiding appetite for good writing is shown by the facility with which many newspapers and magazines have successfully made the switch to subscription models, after years of agonising whether they had to persist with advertising based models. Despite the disruption of social media, blogging survives, though much of it has moved to platforms like Medium.

It’s true that people more video online than ever, as bandwidth has increased. But they are not just watching YouTube clips. Audiences are prepared to spend evening after evening absorbing complex content, following the slow burning plots of the latest HBO or Netflix series.

It might be argued that this kind of content has intrinsic value to the reader. What if its purpose is functional, like copy with a commercial purpose, designed to persuade the reader to act, to sign-up to a mailing list or place an order? Surely in these cases people just want the essential information they need to make a decision: a short, sharp summary of what’s on offer, which they can quickly assess to make a decision.

‘The more you told, the more you sold’

It’s true that readers don’t want to be needlessly detained. But that doesn’t mean that short copy is always the most appropriate tool for the job. In fact, the history of marketing shows that longer copy tends to generate more enquiries, and more sales, than shorter.

In his Write to Sell, a book as admirably direct as its title, the copywriter Andy Maslen writes that: ‘I’ve worked with clients who have tested copy rigorously: two-page letters against four-pagers, 100-word emails against 2,500-word emails, one-screen web page against ten-screen pages. And in almost every case, the long copy works harder.’

Maslen honed his skills when direct mailing was one of the marketing industry’s most important tools. And those ugly letters, with their monospace typefaces, yellow highlighting, and seemingly crass call-to-actions set in blazing red, were effective.

It was a brutal format that evolved through long observation of what actually worked. The unadorned design pared the transaction between writer and reader to its essence, making clear the seller’s no-nonsense intention to make their case, and close the deal. There was something elemental about it: a pure test of the copywriter’s craft to hold the reader’s attention, and lead the eye down to the call-to-action. This affectionate parody website only slightly exaggerates.

The tricks of the trade are documented on sites archiving the techniques used by old school direct mail copywriters like Gary Bencivenga. Bencivenga followed the mantra ‘the more you told, the more you sold’, pushing the method to extremes by writing direct mailshots called ‘magalogs’, small books packed with information about a product’s features and benefits, on the assumption that the interested reader will want to know more, not less, before parting with their money.

As Maslen puts it, ‘if you had the chance to visit your reader in their home or office, would you rather they gave you five minutes to make your pitch or an hour?’

Many of most famous and successful advertising campaigns ever, some of which are still going, demonstrate how effective good long copy can be.

6,450 words of unbroken text

The classic 1948 Merrill Lynch ad

The rise of the investment management firm Merrill Lynch was propelled by a full page ad placed in the New York Times on 19 October 1948. It comprised 6,450 words of unbroken text, set in small type in seven columns, with the matter-of-fact title ‘What Everybody Ought to Know About This Stock and Bond Business’.

There was no indication of the sponsor or call-to-action until the reader reached the panel at bottom-right corner, simply inviting them to write to Merrill Lynch for a free booklet essentially re-iterating the content of the ad. It was an expensive gamble, costing the company a then prohibitive $5,000. But it worked: Merrill Lynch was inundated over the next few days with 10,000 requests, and subsequent versions drew more than three million responses.

A few years later another classic long copy campaign was launched. The first ‘Postcard from Lynchburg’ from advertising Jack Daniel’s whisky appeared in the October 1954 edition of Time magazine. In stark contrast to traditional ads for spirits, which then, as now, tend to highlight sumtuous images of the drink itself, wreathing ice and glass, the Lynchburg ads used gritty black-and-white photography evoking the homespun charm of the company’s Tennessee distillery.

Below the images long passages of unbroken text, sometimes organised into three columns, told a wry but affectionate story about life at the distillery. As any user of the London Underground knows, the ‘Postcards from Lynchburg’ campaign is still running today, the tube tunnel ads telling stories just long enough to hold the reader’s attention for the couple of minutes before their train arrives.

An ad in the Jack Daniel’s ‘Postcards from Lynchburg’ series

The ads made a huge impression on the ‘Father of Advertising’, David Ogilvy. In his classic manifesto, Ogilvy on Advertising, he wrote: ‘I have always been hypnotised by Jack Daniel’s. The label and the advertising convey an image of homespun honesty, and the high price makes me assume that Jack Daniel’s must be superior.’

Ogilvy argued that although body copy is seldom read by more than 10 percent of readers, those 10 percent are good prospects. Copy should be just as long as needs to be. No longer – but no shorter. The same applies to headlines. Those ‘with more than ten words get less readership than short headlines. On the other hand, a study of retail advertisements found that headlines of ten words sell more merchandise than short headlines. Conclusion: if you need a long headline, go ahead and write one, and if you want a short headline, that’s all right too.’

His agency Ogilvy & Mather put the principle into action with the ‘How to Create Advertising that Sells’ ad run in the 1960s and 70s. Presented as a stark bullet list of principles for good marketing, bullet 32 observed that: ‘Yes, people read long copy. Readership falls off rapidly up to fifty words, but drops very little between fifty and five hundred words.’

Long copy works because it immerses the reader in the features and benefits on offer, and assumes their interest. Why wouldn’t they want to know more, rather than less?

 Funnels that work

The online equivalent is the long scrolling page, the ‘funnel’, patiently outlining a product’s benefits. There are no distractions like sidebars, or links to other content: just text, illustrated where necessary, with a laser focus on leading the reader to the call-to-action. Here is a splendid example I read, to the end, just the other day.

Sonia Simone captures the dynamic with an apt metaphor in a Copyblogger post: ‘A well-written traditional sales page acts like a harpoon. When a likely prospect swims along, if the writer’s aim is good and she gets enough power behind that harpoon, she can make the sale.’

But she notes there is another form of long form copy. Rather than trying ‘to harpoon customers with single-shot sales letters, snare them in a net of useful, relevant content.’ In other words, what we understand as ‘content’, blog posts, video, free books, tips and tricks, designed to be useful to the reader, is a contemporary expression of the long copy concept. Rather than being speared the user is drawn in gently by the delivery of consistently useful content. Simone writes: ‘Each bite builds a little more trust … a well-crafted content net not only snags your prospect for this sale, it keeps him fat and happy for the next one.’

All of which leads to another question. How should long copy be written and presented to retain interest? Here’s a post dealing with the presentational part of the question.