The Endless Debate: Will Your Audience Read Long Content?

Will readers read long copy or short copy?

John Caples famous ad

They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!

This is no doubt one of the most famous advertising headlines in history, written by the direct marketing expert John Caples in 1926.

The long-copy ad was designed and written to solicit correspondence course students for the U. S. School of Music.

The full-page ad was dense with content – several hundred words filling the entire page. Then, as now, the debate raged about whether people will read long content.

Fast forward to today: should blogs and other social media content be short or long?

Ads starting, “They laughed when….” are still being written. A few examples: ““They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian…They’re not laughing now.”  “They Laughed When He Ran Away From the Basket…Until He Sank the Three Pointer!” and “They Laughed When I Said There Was a Secret to Writing Good Headlines.”

Why was the Caples ad so successful and compelling and still being imitated? For starters, it uses one of the oldest techniques in the books – it teases you in. You want to learn what happened when he started to play. Did they stop laughing? Did people listen?

It also fed the desire of most people who wished they could play the piano like Chopin or Rachmaninov. Caples reeled them by describing how they could learn how to play right in their own homes.

We still need the answer to the question: when people today are collapsing under information overload, will they read long content? Or is it necessary to feed readers with bite-size chunks of copy? Here is my answer: it depends.

I know, that sounds like fence sitting.

Whatever Works

What do your readers want to learn about the subject? Is it complex? Does it need more explanation than short copy allows? The answer to the question is to write as long as it takes to make your case. Quick Sprout in its course by Neil Patel and Joseph Putnam The Definitive Guide to Copywriting put it succinctly: Write only as much as you need to write and no more.

I was reminded of that when I was in the market for a digital camera. All of a sudden I started noticing ads for digital cameras. They were always there, but I wasn’t in the market.

When I decided I needed a new digital camera I read everything I could, even long content, or especially long content, because I wanted as much information as I could find before I made a decision to buy.

We do need to remember this:  the difference in social media content is that it’s being read on a computer, most likely a laptop and more often on a smart phone. So the key points need to be “above the fold” to capture the reader’s attention. That’s the reason Twitter limited messages to 140 characters because that’s about how many fit on the screen of a cell phone.

Well, I’ve written a lot make a point: use short copy when that’s all you need to make the sale. Use long copy when that’s what you need to make the sale. End of debate.

This is an updated version of a previous post.

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Comments

  1. I like the example you used regarding a digital camera. However, as a consumer, more important to me than the length of the text is the legitimacy of the author. I like to read product reviews from actual customers before I even begin to look at any copy from the manufacturer.

  2. This was a delightful piece. My latest blog piece is entitled, “Penultimate Bottom 5 List” It has been only up for a few minutes. I am curious how many people will check it out, as the title doesn’t really give ANY information about what they will be getting. I did this intentionally, as I have a pretty steady reader base, who don’t care what my title is, and for the others who get sucked in, they just might like my inane drivel.

    The bottom line is, I mostly write for myself, and if it makes me laugh, then I have succeeded. It is the act of setting the bar low, that makes me such a success at achieving mediocrity.

    • Brian — Here is your comment from when I first wrote this post. Glad we’ve reconnected. You make me laugh, too, and you’re certainly not mediocre.

  3. Agree with you that it depends and like you agree with Direct Creative Blog that “You should be interested in that part of the market who are interested in your products. These are the people seeking information and who will read your copy, even very long copy.”

  4. I laughed when i read you say “It depends”, Jeannette – this is my answer to a lot of questions so often. I hate it when people perceive it as “sitting on the fence” as you put it. But truth is, whether to write long-form content or not is NOT a yes or no question. Not sure why people fail to understand that…

    I loved how you put it – write as much as you need, not a word more.

    As a reader, I rarely read long form content – only if it’s by a blogger whom i am particularly fond of. 😀

    Thanks for a great post, Jeannette!

    • Diana — you raise a good point. We’re more willing to read long content from a writer we know and like. It would be interesting to conduct some research among our subscribers for their point of view of long vs. short content.

  5. Using just enough words is an art form. If I do a tutorial post, I know it will be long but also full of step-by-step detail that will be of great use. I have discovered that I have next to no patience for reading fiction that appears on blogs, but am okay with reading creative nonfiction online. I get really impatient with any form of writing that meanders without purpose.

    • Jeri — agree with your last comment. I’m reading a novel and it keeps jumping back and forth between the present and the past in each chapter. You know it’s all going to come together at the end, but I’m putting it down. Too confusing.

  6. Two things I’ll take away Jeannette: 1) we need to remember what device people might be reading our content on. We can find some info about our own blog on Google analytics but if our content is going to be elsewhere, I’m going to my other take away, 2) “Write only as much as you need to write and no more.” Sage advice – thanks.

    • Pat — I find that my traffic from mobile phones keeps increasing, so I need to follow my own advice. I also need to figure out how to get my mobile view to load faster. Always something to do!

  7. It depends is probably the only answer…today:) But it all could change tomorrow depending on the advances in tech and the next best thing…we don’t even know that blogs, in the form we are accustomed to right now, will exist in a few years. But for now, you’ve provided some great insight… above the fold and a hook that makes them want to scroll down. Because of a topic you posted not long ago, I’ve been increasing the length of my blogs. I haven’t noticed an increase in subscribers, and once in a while a slight decrease in comments. But it’s too soon to know if that metric is due to content or length. Thanks for a great and insightful post

    • Jacquie — thanks for letting me know you’re writing longer posts. The experts — especially Neil Patel — have studied short vs long posts and long posts generate more traffic. But their version of long runs to well over 1,000 words. And you’re right. We don’t know what the next thing is — maybe blogs will go away. I hope not.

  8. I agree with you that copy length does depend on what the purpose of the information is for. When I’m researching something, whether it be for a purchase or healthcare related, etc. I’m like you, I want to read as much as I can get my hands on. But for other things, I think in general our attention span has become very short, so it is best to keep it simple and write only as much as is needed to get the information across.

    • Susan — two great minds, and all that! You can’t read everything and when it’s not that important I tend to scan the headline and subheads.

  9. Hi Jeannette,
    I think the answer to the question of long content lies in a couple of dynamics. The first is that the length of the content is very subjective. If the subject matter is quality content and the reader has a high level of interest in the subject, they will read as much as is provided. The second is the degree of credibility and/or probability. If the information can be relied upon or is more likely than not, it will hold the reader’s attention. It may come down to a third consideration, that being one’s lifestyle. If they are ultra-busy, they won’t have time to read a lengthy article unless they schedule their time.

    I vary the length of my posts. Sometimes they’re in the 750 range and others in the 1500 range, I have had good traction with both, and in between. I ghost write for others and the expected word count is 750.

    Enjoy your week!
    Bill

    • Bill – I always read your long-copy posts. As you rightly point out, once you build credibility, a reader is likely to stay to the end of what you write — sometimes even if it’s a subject that is not of particular interest because he or she enjoys your style of writing or would like to learn something new.

  10. Hello Jeannette,
    Long or Short- I have been going through this dilemma since the very first day I started blogging. Some advised long, while others advised short. But as you said we should keep the length up to whatever is required to address the topic, I think the best thing to do will be to write as per the requirements of the topic.

    • Tuhin — I don’t think we should start writing with a particular length in mind. Write just as much as you need to make your points and then be done with it1

  11. Congratulations on a very thought-provoking article, Jeanette. I totally get your final line – use what you need to make the sale. But your article did make me wonder if you have thoughts on whether long or short copy is more appropriate depending on where you are in the process with your prospects. By that I mean if you are at the first invitation to connect or engage versus talking with prospects who already know like and trust you.

    • Sue — I don’t have a ready answer. It depends on the medium. Are you referring to a first invitation to connect on a social network? If that’s the case, I would say to keep it short but absolutely give them a reason why it would be beneficial to them to connect. In other words, what’s in it for them? Here is the link I wrote about how to write a LinkedIn invitation. http://bit.ly/1o60vFv

  12. Lisa — true, we’ve all become accustomed to being spoon fed. But I still believe that people will read long copy if they have a deep interest in the topic.

  13. It definitely does depend. On the reader, the topic, the presentation, and the quality of writing. Our attention spans are shorter online. Finding what is the right amount of words is the challenge. I lose patience with articles that ramble, include irrelevant information, or are badly written,

    • Donna — I think the operative words in your comment are “badly written.” Then it doesn’t matter if it’s long or short copy — you’re gone in a flash!

  14. I also agree, just like everyone else. When I first started my blog I got all wrapped up in this debate expecting a definitive answer. As you say, it depends. As time went along I realized some stories required many more words than others and to accept that. No need to ramble but some topics just take longer to describe than others.

    • Tim — your posts are usually long but your images draw you in to reading until the end. Also your stories are so interesting I never find them too long!

  15. I have to agree with your post write as much as you need, not a word more. With mobile usage on the rise anything that is long will be wasted as most people scan an article. Maybe if it truly interests them they may read everything. I hear so many people say blogging is overwhelming. To me what is overwhelming is reading each blog so that I give my fellow bloggers the same respect that they give me. The longer the blog the time I have to spend. There are only so many hours in a day.

    • Arleen — I’m sure you’re like me. You subscribe to too many newsletters and blogs trying to keep up. But I’m glad I’ve been introduced to bloggers like you who have something interesting to say and offer. So I’ll read your content — long or short!

  16. Was it not Dr. Seuss who said, “say what you mean and mean what you say?” In mind succinct, to the point and forget the flowery approach. I like to tell a true story and relate it to my audience. If it takes two paragraphs, so be it. I stopped counting words long ago. I enjoyed this – sharing.

    • Laurie — I don’t count words in my post, either. I know Neil Patel has written often about his long-copy and short-copy posts. He claims his 1,500 word posts do best. But I’ll bet he has assistants to help with researching them. So I’ll stick with the number of words it takes to get my points across.

  17. Hi Jeannette so use the tools required by the job? I routinely write long posts but am getting better at breaking up the information. I also do this with videos. I post the link to the whole file but also give them the option of watching just the ride in operation. Thinking of recording a series of short videos based on my recent guest post. Thanks for clearing this up for us. Take care, max

    • Max — nothing wrong with writing long posts and I always find yours interesting. Giving people the option to watch just part of a video is a wise choice. Thanks for the idea.

  18. For me, I don’t try to go over 1000 words when posting but when I do, I make sure there is NO way I can cut down anymore without taking away from content. This post is interesting, because I think we’re all trying to aim for concise over content sometimes. Thanks for bringing this up.

    • Carl — it’s not unusual for the well-known bloggers to go over 1,000 words. As you say, you shouldn’t sacrifice quality in the interests of brevity.

  19. Well said. Communications is always about the audience and the objective. There are no magic limits on the length of content. If you need to say more than 140 characters, then Twitter is not the right medium. 🙂

    • Debra — spot on. Twitter is definitely not the place for long copy. However, it is a good place to tease the reader into reading your post if your tweet is so compelling they can’t resist clicking.

  20. Hi Jeannette: I think that as you say, some topics warrant longer and more in-depth posts, but for the most part, I appreciate blog posts that are kept to less than 500 words. Longer posts should be broken into chunks. I really dislike long, text-heavy posts. Cheers!

    • Doreen — I agree, it is very difficult to read long patches of dense content. Certainly break into chunks but also use images and videos. Also, I do appreciate a type face I can read!

  21. I try to approach my blog writing the way I like to read other blogs…enough to tell me an engaging story but not so long that you lose me. Since most of my posts are food or recipe related, it’s almost easier for me to keep things to a minimum. If you click on my steamed asparagus link, you expect to learn how to steam asparagus. Artfully crafted words around the recipe explain the story of how I came to learn of the technique, which is, hopefully, entertaining to those reading. I have written articles for newspapers and magazines with definitive word counts I had to reach or stay below. But that was before the social media boom and times have changed. I think that the statement about writing as much as you need and nothing more is pretty fabulous advice! I’ll surely be thinking about this more as I write more posts!

    • Pamela — well, you always know how many words you’ll need with a recipe. You surely can’t cut out an ingredient to make the post shorter! And it you add commentary to make the recipe more interesting, nothing wrong with that.

  22. Hi Jeannette; I was thinking of you while writing my latest post. I tend to write long posts. But when I checked the word count and found it at 3000, even I had thoughts of this is just too big. I read it through again and could find a few words that could be cut, but I couldn’t find any large chunks to cut out. I didn’t have a post the previous week du to being involved in reading and replying to the comments from my guest post on harleena’s site; so I thought that maybe having an extremely long post wouldn’t be so bad. It did take that long to tell the story and make my points. So, I decided to take your advice about writing as much as it takes to cover the subject thoroughly. I will still wonder if I should have broken it into two or three posts, but I have hit publish meaning that to me the subject is closed. I hope people like it. thanks for sharing these thoughts. they came in handy. Your friend, Max