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Short Copy is Having a Moment - Here's why

Posted by Brian Jones on June 25, 2021

There is a long-standing debate in direct mail —

Long detailed copy? Or short, quick-hitting copy?

What’s the best? Most effective? Most responsive?

Direct marketers have been trying and testing and measuring copy since moveable type was invented. These days, analysts are telling us that peoples’ attention spans are getting shorter (you’ve heard about the “goldfish” study – apocryphal or not, you get the point).

So, writers started writing shorter copy. The thinking was that it was better because people were just too busy and distracted to read long copy.

Well, let’s look at it from a consumer’s standpoint…

First off, it’s funny that in spite of all of our modern technology and timesaving devices, our lives aren’t any less hectic. On the contrary, it seems like consumers are busier and more rushed than ever. And trying to process all the ads and offers and invitations we see every day just stresses us out even more.

OK, you say, but we use email. Well, with email you can send people messages quickly and fairly cheaply. Surely people will read that, right? Not exactly. The honeymoon was short lived. Because just like the offline world, people got tired of being bombarded with too many messages, all clamoring for their attention. And many found it harder to read something on a computer screen (and even more so on their phones) than it was to read a printed piece of mail.

Well, then drag and drop web site builders came along and suddenly a whole new world wide web of information was just sitting there. Site publishers could say as much as they wanted about their products. Would people start reading longer copy online now? Perhaps… if they could find what they were looking for. The problem was, cyberspace started filling up with ads and pop-ups and screen takeovers and redirects and cookies, lots and lots of cookies.

Alright, what about Twitter? The king of short copy. Could consumers get the information they wanted on a platform limited to 280 characters (not words, characters)? Certainly, that would be a place where marketers could make super short copy work? Now we’re talking: Short copy is going to rule. Right?

Not necessarily. 

And here’s why: Because when it comes to copy (whether it’s an email, digital ad, a Tweet, on your website or in a direct mail letter), it’s not simply a matter of length that makes it effective.

So how do you know when your copy is too long? Or too short for that matter?

The most precise measurement is this: The second your audience loses interest and stops reading, your copy is too long.

You see it really has less to do with how long or short your copy is and everything to do with how interesting and helpful it is to your intended audience. Are you giving them information they want and need to know, about things that will benefit them? That will make them richer, help them do things faster, help them get more done in less time, or show them how to avoid an impending pitfall? Or are you boring the living daylights out of them with meaningless details that don’t matter a wit to them and have ZERO bearing on what’s happening in their world and busy lives right now?

If you’re one of those companies that’s intent on beating your chest and bragging about how great your company or your product is, you can be sure readers will gloss right over that type of self-promotion — if they look at it at all (besides, where are your manners, it’s not polite to talk about yourself). What you have to do is put yourself in THEIR shoes. Right now. At this very minute. What are they struggling with? What’s got them worried? What is changing in their world that they need to prepare for? IF and ONLY IF you’re helping them answer questions like these or solve their immediate problems — will they keep reading.

And this may be the most significant change marketers are facing today: People can STOP reading and INSTANTLY find another source of information if you aren’t helping them. And they will until someone tells them what they want to hear, namely, how to solve their problems… or what they stand to gain or lose if they don’t act right away.

Today, more and sometimes better information is only a click or tap away. If you’re not giving your readers what they want and need, it’s just too easy for them to find it elsewhere.

No matter what you’re writing, if it isn’t interesting and/or helpful people won’t read it.

That said, short copy is great if you can deliver the goods. That is to say, if you can succinctly tell the reader how you can help them, they’ll appreciate you being respectful of their time. As the old saying goes, “once they’re sold, stop selling.”

And that squares with what we’re seeing in direct mail today.

Shorter copy, lower word count and a new “snackable” style.

Some of today’s better direct mail copy is what they call “snackable.” The copy is not written in full, complex sentences. There are fewer words with fewer transitions. It is certainly not Hemingway-like prose. In fact, it reads more like search ad or email copy than traditional letter copy.

The letter in the direct mail package is short and to the point. And many letters will now drive readers to a landing page to “learn more” or to take advantage of the offer.

Curiously, this comes at a time where long scrolling and infinite scrolling web sites are becoming commonplace. What a contrast… direct mail packages are getting shorter while websites get longer.

The same thing is going on with email. They are being used to drive users to a website or landing page. Thus, the website is where most of the storytelling, conversion and responses are taking place.

So yes, the trend in direct mail is toward shorter, quicker-hitting copy (see the charts below) designed to drive readers to the website for the full story.

But regardless of the length, your copy needs to speak to what interests your reader.

At J&C, our expertise lies in our mastery of the art and science of customer engagement. Helping clients improve their response rates and marketing ROI is our specialty. Contact J&C today if you need help getting the right message to the right audience.

Direct mail copy has decreased by 62% over the last 20 yearsLine Graph Shorter Copy

SOURCE: Who's Mailing What

Bar Chart DM Copy Getting ShorterSOURCE: Who's Mailing What

Word count changes in letter packages 
Amazon Letters

SOURCE: Who's Mailing What

J&C helps direct marketing professionals create highly responsive direct mail campaigns that generate improved response rates, more revenue, and better ROI. And it’s all done using our proven philosophy known as the "Inverted Pyramid." Our mission is to shatter response rates for financial, insurance, and any other
companies in the regulated and restricted products market.

Topics: Direct Marketing, Direct Mail, Creative

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