The debate between long copy and short copy has been going on for years. Last week, my colleague Paul Austin-Menear waded into it, proclaiming “The Death of Long Copy.”  But instead of favouring short copy, as many have done before him, he writes that writing in general, and especially long copy, is quickly becoming an obsolete medium for persuading consumers to buy your product or service. This he attributes to the affordability of producing and distributing audio-visual material and the attractiveness of digital media to younger generations.

It’s pretty obvious that I’m going to disagree with him. Not because I’m a luddite, or because I think digital media isn’t a Big Deal (It is). I’m a huge fan of digital and constantly advocate to anyone who will listen for greater integration of technology into our daily lives. My disagreement with Paul is not about technology; it’s that I think comparing copy to digital is similar to comparing personal computers to smartphones; both are better at different things.

Text Is More Efficient Than Video For Sharing Information

Contrary to what some might think, text is a far more efficient medium than video for getting information across quickly. While people process A/V material at a rate of approximately 150 words-per-minute, the average reader can process text at a rate of 300 words-per-minute.

Part of the reason for this, is that people scan words and skip parts of text, filling in the blanks in their mind. According to Jakob Nielson’s Eye-Tracking study, people read in “F” patterns; they read the headline, the sub-head, and then scan downwards for anything else that may interest them. This makes headlines vitally important to your copy writing strategy.

Headlines Are a Big Deal

According to many copywriters, you should spend half of the time it takes writing your ad, working on your headline. This is mostly because 8 out of 10 people will not read anything more than the headline. Professionals call this the 80/20 rule for headlines.

So if 4 out of 5 people will not even read what you write, why not stick to short copy? The quick answer to this is that study after study has proven that long copy consistently sells better than short copy…especially under certain circumstances.

When you Should Use Long Copy

Daniel Burnstein of recently conducted a study that convincingly argues long copy is better suited to rational, analytical, and “need oriented” buying impulses. In contrast, short copy–and by extension, video–is better suited to emotional, impulse, and “want oriented” purchasing motivations.

If you’re selling a product or service that has a lot of features and benefits–such as a car, a computer, legal services– longer copy is likely to be more persuasive. Long copy allows you to add more detail about your product or service, lets you add testimonials, and lets you tell a story that overcomes objections to buying. Brian Clark of lists a number of situations where you should use long copy:

  • Products with a lot of features and benefits;
  • Information-hungry target market;
  • Complicated Sales (Bob Bly);
  • New or unusual items (Joseph Sugarman);
  • Low-demand goods (Michel Fortin).

Meanwhile, short copy and video are better suited to low-price items, products and services where buyers can enter the sales pipeline at different stages, and image-dependent products.

How Long the Copy Should Be

Studies show that readership drops off significantly at approximately 300 words. That said, it doesn’t noticeably drop off again until 3,000 words. A lot of people stopped reading this article about 100 words back. If you’re still reading this, thank you. Those who stopped did so for one of two reasons:

  1. I’m not interesting;
  2. They’re not interested.

Most accomplished copywriters recommend that text be long enough to provide relevant information and not a word longer. While longer copy helps qualify interested customers, it’s not an excuse to prop up your advertising with meaningless redundancies and generalities. Be concise, but be interesting.

Different Problems Require Different Approaches

As Paul rightly argued in his post, audio-visual media is more appropriate for communicating audio-visual information. If you’re going to sell a picture, don’t talk about it, show it. Communicating audio-visual information through text requires the reader to create abstract images in their mind that do not necessarily match what the writer had in their own mind.

That said, text communicates abstract ideas–brand benefits, features, concepts–more effectively through text-based tools such as rhetorical language, lists, logical argument structure, and so on. Meanwhile, audio-visual media require the viewer to create abstractions of these ideas from subtext in a scene, pauses in dialogue, soundtracks and other cues.

Both media serve different purposes. They help with different stages of the buying process and with selling different products.

Copy Is Not Obsolete

I can think of no better product to illustrate the synergy of text and digital than the video game. New game launches are well known for putting together stunning video trailers that draw viewers in and hook them on the hours of potential fun to be had from playing the game.

But with hundreds of thousands of different video games out there, how does the gamer decide which game to spend his $60 on? How does a parent decide whether a game is appropriate for their family? They read about the game online, on review sites, or on whatever site comes up first in a Google search. The same could be said for many other products. Savvy marketers know this and integrate copy based campaigns alongside digital ones, targeting buyers at different stages of the buying cycle, informing customers on the value a product before they ask for the information, and attracting new business through tactics that are as seductive as they are educational.