Make words count

When deciding on copy length, a direct mail company must guard against overly complicating its message by using too many words, while at the same time ensuring that it gets its message across, says Tracey Middleton

The next time you open a piece of direct mail from your bank that starts: “Wouldn’t you like to know in advance…?” will you continue reading long enough to find out what it is they think you might like to know, or will you simply discard it without reading any further?

A debate has raged about the optimum length for copy in direct marketing communications. This has crystallised into the short versus long debate. Broadly speaking, there are those who believe that we live in a time-poor, post-reading society with consumers who will only read copy that is as short and snappy as a text message. Others suggest that long copy is still needed to both inform readers and persuade consumers to take action.

In reality, however, most industry players agree that the issue is more complex than just simple polarity. While it’s true that some messages require more time to spell out, you can overwhelm your reader with reams of prose which won’t secure more than a cursory glance. Alternatively, copy that is honed to sharp, attention-grabbing bites of text may work in creating an impression, but you run the risk of omitting the information that will tip recipients towards taking action.

The long and short of it

As Simon Kershaw, creative director at independent creative consultancy Keevill Kershaw, points out, both short and long copy can work extremely well. He says: “Look at the huge impact of FCUK, which has to be the shortest piece of copy there is. Then you’ve got the extremely effective M&G Investments long copy posters that break all the rules.”

A look at the Direct Marketing Association’s recent hardback publication 26 Compelling Letters reveals a variety of copy lengths ranging from blank pages to reams of emotive prose. So how important is the word count?

When it comes to choosing short or long copy, it appears that situational factors related to perceived differences in either the product, the problem, the copy itself, or the person reading it apply more than any short-cut golden rules.

Lucian Camp, chairman of through-the-line agency CCHM, states: “Some things take more explaining than others. If I’m in the market for a DVD player, I may well take notice of a picture, a price, and half-a-dozen bullet points. If I’ve decided to take out a pension, it’s going to be tricky to show me a picture, there isn’t really a price and I’m going to want a good deal more than half-a-dozen bullet points to talk me through what I’m signing up for.”

Jo Arscott, a former creative director at integrated agency 141 UK, says: “With Coke or Cif you’d have to be living on another planet not to know what it’s about, so 70,000 words isn’t exactly going to change my point of view. But with new products or charities, sometimes they need more explaining.”

Rory Sutherland, executive creative director of marketing agency OgilvyOne, which has recently launched an award scheme and bursary for young copywriters, suggests that good copy puts the problem central to the construction of text. He states: “Rational engagement and conviction is the precursor to any purchase. Drayton Bird used to talk about adding a “C for conviction” into the AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action) mnemonic. Conviction is crucial. You can have lots of feelings about a brand and still not make a purchase.”

For Sutherland, the function of copy is to shift the consumer from passive engagement to action via conviction, and this is the nature of the problem the copywriter can solve. He asks, “Is the copy providing the conviction? Without copy you can do the attention, interest and desire, but it’s conviction that creates action.”

Reading between the lines

Kershaw also believes that the view of copy being short versus long is nonsensical as it ignores how copy is actually read. He points out that headlines and sub-headings are consumed as short text and longer passages are read as longer narratives according to the interest or needs of the reader. He explains: “We recently completed work for Parcelforce that consisted of very short, attention-grabbing copy that worked like ads alongside a fairly meaty piece of copy which took the story on and explained all of the benefits.” For Kershaw, part of the crafting lies in the interplay between short copy, long copy and the overall design of the communication.

Situational factors aside, it appears that the real debate focuses on the emergence of a time-poor, post-reading consumer who communicates via text and who has eschewed books for short magazine articles, if he or she reads at all.

Terry Trower, head of creative at direct marketing agency Cramm Francis Woolf, says: “What we’ve seen during the past few years is that the way people consume media has changed, particularly among younger generations. They scan rather than read, they demand instant understanding, they prefer to skim multiple media rather than dwell on one.” He adds: “One of the main pieces of information missing from a writer’s creative brief is how time rich or time poor the recipient is.”

Sutherland disagrees with the notion of a populace that can’t or won’t read. He says: “Book sales are increasing and three of the most successful media are what you might call long copy; talk radio, the internet and rap music.” For Sutherland, all require the willingness and ability to follow a complex narrative. Kershaw believes relevance is key. He says: “People read what they’re interested in. They’ll read thousands of words in a magazine article on a subject that’s relevant to them.”

For Jon Derry, director of marketing agency KLM, the significance of length is secondary to the linguistic structures employed in the actual drafting.

KLM has been using language and behavioural profiling to create copy that matches the preferred communication strategies of readers in the production of information for sales teams and call-centre employees in a process called “contextual matching”.

It is an approach that most often appears in face-to-face sales training, although Derry is convinced of the potential of the approach for direct consumer communications. Once you have established the preferred communication style of your target market and segmented them accordingly into groups, Derry suggests that matching patterns will improve response. He says: “If you use the wrong ones your message just won’t register – no matter how often you say it.”

While this approach is considered to be effective in other arenas, a number of potential extraneous variables make testing complex. As it has not been tested or applied to direct consumer communications, its potential remains open to debate.

Stylistic choices provide options for drafting copy that are as broad as other artistic remits, meaning that copy can be written in a “voice” that can be associated with brand values.

As 26 Compelling Letters shows, copywriter Sarah Howarth at Tullo Marshall Warren has created a piece of direct mail for Clearasil that is written in an informal teenage argot that positions the product as a “new potential, gentle and powerful love”, while Karin Weatherup and Simon Robinson at Burnett Associates have produced a long and hard-hitting piece for Amnesty International that explicitly discusses the rape of a child and her mother.

This demands a stylistic versatility on the part of the copywriter that Sutherland reckons is rare. For Sutherland, copy all too often betrays the stylistic preferences or artistic limitations of the writer, rather than working towards the creation of conviction he holds crucial.

Going to great lengths

But who decides what length of copy should be used? Many copywriters appear to feel constrained by their position as only one player in the campaign production chain, second to the art director and at the mercy of the demands of the client.

Camp says: “A combination of lazy writers, rule-driven clients, fanatical compliance police (especially in financial services) and a sort of general belief that the words don’t matter much any more has led to a deeply depressing state of affairs, where the quality of writing has become more formulaic, more mechanical, and frankly more dull than ever before.”

Perhaps copywriters are to marketing what scriptwriters are to Hollywood; artists fated to see the best of their work hit the cutting-room floor or mutilated by directors.

The swiftest way to resolve an argument led by opinion is to test. Kershaw holds that testing different copy lengths within the same campaign is far cheaper than testing other elements such as artwork – and would at least yield measurable results that could bring facts, rather than merely prejudice, into the debate.

The DM Show

The DM Show takes place on October 21 to 23 at Earls Court One, showcasing direct marketing suppliers and the latest products and services.

As well as advice from industry experts, the show’s high-level conference programme includes:

a free data advice centre

an agency showcase

free sessions at the IDM Academy

For more information and complimentary exhibition tickets, visit dmshow.co.uk or call 0870 7444983.

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