Twitter is challenging Facebook. And early in 2012, text messaging went ahead of phone calls to become the most popular method of keeping in touch. It seems we prefer communicating in as few words as possible. So, is there still a place for long copy in these 140-character times?
We’ve just wrapped a 49 page Corporate Responsibility report for commercial property giants, Land Security. And, although it contains its fair share of diagrams and characterful shots of buildings and people, there’s still an awful lot of copy.
Which got me thinking. When is it a good idea to have long copy? Because most people assume the shorter the better.
Here are three reasons why going long was appropriate for Land Securities’ CR report:
1. Having a lot of content is a message in itself. It shows Land Securities actually have something to say on the topic and take it seriously.
2. Long copy allows them to satisfy the needs of lots of different audiences. Everyone from the skim-reading employee who wants to check if she works for the good guys to the conscientious investment analyst boning up on a potential investment. There’s a summary spread. But, if you want it, there’s lots of detail.
3. You can approach your subject from multiple angles – making the most of case studies, discursive sections and employee contributions while still including the usual CEO letter and comment from stakeholders. This gives the piece a rich perspective.
So, with all this going for it, why shouldn’t we always have long copy?
It won’t fit through the letterbox
Direct marketers have long loved the loquacious. These long copy masters argue that if someone’s not in the market for a product, they won’t read an ad about it anyway. But if they are, they’ll be hungry for information. So feed them.
This way of thinking dominated the direct marketing industry throughout the 70s and 80s and had an impact on advertising too. Agency gurus like David Ogilvy and Drayton Bird swore blind that long copy pulled better than short. Why? Because it allows you to present all of the benefits while anticipating and addressing all the objections.
The perfect length?
So where does long copy sit in the digital age? There’s general agreement that web pages mustn’t stray over 200 words. Why? Because you don’t want the viewer to have to scroll. If you’ve got more to say, provide a ‘read more’ link.
Actually, according to this research, people don't mind scrolling. More people will read on if you let copy run down the page than if you put the copy on another page and link to it.
Emails shouldn’t take up too much of the reader’s time. The perfect email should let the recipient know what it's about in the subject header using 60 to 70 characters. The body copy gives enough information to for them know what to do next. Attachments and links are there for more info. Then again, if you believe the research, you risk losing their attention if you invite them to click through. Far better to convey the relevant messages concisely in one email.
Is that last paragraph too long? Google and Amazon use lots of white space. They must know. So yes, it probably was. Online, paragraphs should be kept down to four lines or so.
And sentences? How long should they be? The people who research these things say that sentences of over 15 words are too complex to be read easily.
The theory goes that we’re all so overloaded with information these days (live news, social media, virals of cats playing keyboards) that we don’t have the attention spans we used to. We need to be engaged quickly – or we won’t be engaged at all.
Maybe. But keeping it relevant doesn't have to mean keeping it short. A 50 word email can take ages to read if the writer is vague. A 300,000 word novel can leave you wanting even more, if it’s good.
So if the medium allows it, and your audience is likely to be interested in it; include it. Just check the content’s going to help influence them in the way you want. And find a way of making it interesting.
Length requires narrative
People talk about the narrative or story - even in a factual piece. They usually mean the main thread or message that everything supports. A sense of a clear narrative comes from having content that is both, 1) relevant to the main message and, 2) presented to the reader in the most compelling order.
There are story telling techniques used in dramatic writing, such as stimulating active questions in the audience’s mind that engage their curiosity – but that’s for another blog.
Length requires variety and surprise
If you go long, you have to vary the sentence length and complexity to add interest. Sounding fresh through the choice of unexpected words and adopting a distinctive tone helps too.
So, to go long or to go short?
Inevitably, it’s driven by the medium and the message. Some forms of writing will always be short – names, straplines and tweets, obviously - but also emails and home pages. But then again, there are always those who break the rules and win out by standing out. ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ is a sentence that became a great name.
And, if you’ve got a lot to say and the medium doesn’t allow it, you can link to one that does. How many tweets link to websites? And although web pages are only 200 words or so, those words link. Aren’t websites really one piece chopped up into many different sections, each answering different questions that might be asked?
In many ways, long copy has never been more in fashion.