If you’ve signed up for my newsletter, you know that, in the first email, I ask you to send me your #1 copywriting problem…
The two most common copywriting challenges I hear are:
- “How can I write copy faster?”
- “How long should my copy be?” (Or, should I always use long copy?)
I ignore the first question every time…
(After all, would you rush the only salesperson you’ve got? Would you shortcut learning about your visitors just to give yourself more time to, like, watch cat videos? If so, I don’t think I can help you.)
But the second question – the one about long pages vs short pages – is a fantastic question. It’s one I haven’t directly addressed in any post or ebook, so I’m doing it today. Settle in – this may take a while but, hey, we already established that smart startups don’t rush this stuff…
Inside This Mega-Post
- For Starters, You’re Not “Writing Long Pages” – You’re Shaping an Argument
- You Need to Argue, Not “Explain” – So Here’s How to Argue in Your Web Copy… Even If You Were Kicked Out of Debate Club
- Good News for Non-Debaters: Your Argument Can Tap Into Logical Fallacies
- Write As Much As You Need to Convince… And Then Edit
- Examples of Pages That Are Structured to Convince
- So How Long Should Your Pages Be?
For Starters, You’re Not “Writing Long Pages” –
You’re Shaping an Argument
Copywriting has very little in common with the ways of writing we all learned in school – like writing essays and short stories and stuff…
But, for a second, let’s refer back to our high school English classes. Remember the 4 types of essays we learned? Maybe you don’t, but here they are:
The first 3 are generally the easiest to write. They tend to require little more than sitting down, opening a document and starting to write your thoughts out…
Typically, when writing a page, people defer to the Expository style of writing: we think we should simply explain what our solution is or what we’re offering as opt-in bait on a landing page. We’re like, “Unknown visitor, let me tell you about XYZ Product”. We may sprinkle in a few accepted persuasion tactics – like using testimonials (social proof) to flesh out our story – but largely we’re just doing a lot of showing and telling. There’s safety in merely explaining. You’re not putting yourself out there – and risking rejection – when you simply talk about your offering without trying to convince people of its merit.
When we write to explain, we’re not thinking about the fact that people don’t come to our site simply to learn…
…and even those who do come to learn could learn while being convinced of what you’re saying.
When we write in an expository manner, we’re not thinking about the fact that our business goal is not to get people to ‘learn’. (Or, at least, that’s very rarely the goal.)
Our goal is to get people to do something. And, by and large, that means convincing them that they need to complete X goal. So when we’re writing copy, we’re in fact trying to convince people that:
- We understand their situation, needs and pain
- We have the solution to their pain
- We are better than other would-be solutions to their pain
- They should take the next step toward choosing our solution today
How long your page is depends, in large part, on how much arguing you need to do to win your audience (i.e., the specific traffic to X page) to your side at this exact moment.
How much do you need to say to convince people? Not to explain your solution. But to convince prospects of the need for and ultimate value of your solution.
The answer to that question will factor into how long your page needs to be…
You Need to Argue, Not “Explain” –
So Here’s How to Argue in Your Web Copy…
Even If You Were Kicked Out of Debate Club
Keep in mind that I’m not talking about arguing passionately, the way you may do when you get together for family dinner, open a bottle of wine (or five), and someone brings up Stephen Harper…
I’m talking about arguing a case in such a way that visitors who may not know you are led down a path, sans friction, to the final point of Being Convinced.
You don’t have to be as slick as a southern lawyer at arguing your point. You can start with a good ol’ fashioned ITTT (if this then that) argument:
If you run an agency then you want to grow profits
If you want to grow profits then you take on clients
If you take on clients then you have billable hours & project fees
If you have billable hours & project fees then your team needs to use its time wisely (so you get paid)
If you do not manage your time wisely then you waste time you can’t bill for
If you waste time you can’t bill for then you do not grow profits
All of that leads up to the pitch for time-tracking software or project-management software. Which would then lead up to a pitch for your time-tracking software or project-management software.
Okay, so how do you argue on a standard landing page (i.e., not a long-form sales page)?
And how do you even know where to start an argument? How do you open an argument? And what’s the statement you’re really backing?
To get us closer to answering those questions, we first need to answer this one…:
What Is Your Prospect’s State of Awareness?
Convincing is selling.
A common cliche you hear about selling is, You could sell snow to an Eskimo…
The thing about selling snow to an Eskimo is that – if your Eskimo needed snow (due to, say, global warming) – it would take far less time to convince her to buy snow than it would take to convince, say, a Jamaican. That’s because your Eskimo a) has a problem and b) is hyper-aware of snow and its many benefits. The Jamaican has never even touched snow.
A huge gap separates a Jamaican from snow. Even if a Jamaican wants to get cold fast – a problem snow could solve – you’d have to introduce him to the idea of snow.
Of course, your Eskimo doesn’t need snow. (That’s a problem with product-market fit.)
Let’s pretend an Eskimo is vacationing in Jamaica. The Eskimo wants to get cold fast, and so does the Jamaican dude sitting poolside by her.
You come by with your Fresh Snow Cart.
The varying levels of awareness about snow that the Eskimo and the Jamaican possess will dramatically impact a) the argument you shape and b) the length of that argument.
In Breakthrough Advertising, my favorite copywriter Eugene/Gene Schwartz described the 5 primary stages, or states, or awareness that your visitors or prospects may have. Brian Clark explained those stages nicely here, and I quote:
Most Aware: Your prospect knows your product, and only needs to know “the deal.”
Product-Aware: Your prospect knows what you sell, but isn’t sure it’s right for him.
Solution-Aware: Your prospect knows the result he wants, but not that your product provides it.
Problem-Aware: Your prospect senses he has a problem, but doesn’t know there’s a solution.
Completely Unaware: No knowledge of anything except, perhaps, his own identity or opinion.
The Eskimo is Most Aware…
The Jamaican is Solution Aware…
Your argument when convincing the Eskimo would be nice and short, like so:
If you are hot then you need snow
I have snow, and no one else at the pool does
It is $2 for a handful or $5 for a whole bucket, and there’s no waiting involved – it’s right here in my cart, so close you can feel its icy mist
Your argument when convincing the Jamaican would be longer, like so:
If you are hot then you need to find a way to cool down
If you need a way to cool down then you may be considering shaved ice
If you are considering shaved ice then you should also consider snow
Snow is like shaved ice – but it’s much softer, as it falls gently from the sky. It’s the naturally occurring way to stay cool, and it’s beloved by people in such foreign lands as Norway, Iceland, Finland and Canada. (Did you know that all 4 of those countries are among the top-rated countries in the world for quality of life, education and healthcare?) If you’ve got an eye for design, you shouldn’t even consider shaved ice – just look at these beautiful snowflakes, no two of which are alike. Did I mention that, unlike that bleachy pool over there, snow is completely chemical-free and organic?
I have snow, and no one else at this pool does
It is $2 for a handful or $5 for a whole bucket, and there’s no waiting involved – it’s right here in my cart, so close you can feel its icy mist
My argument there isn’t the point. 🙂 The length of it is…
I talked about the concept of state of awareness recently on Brecht Palombo’s Bootstrapped with Kids. And, in the recently launched second edition of this ebook, I used this basic visual to describe how state of awareness can impact what you write (and how much you write):
(In case it’s not clear: visitors on the Low Awareness end of the spectrum need to be brought up to High Awareness, whether on that page or in a series of pages / emails. So if someone is Problem Aware, you need to reflect their pain early on the page. Then move them along to Solution Aware by telling them a solution exists. Then move them along to Product Aware by telling them your solution is the best for them. Then move them to Most Aware by giving them what they need to act now.)
So it’s not a matter of long copy vs short copy…
There’s no point in saying “long copy always beats short copy”… or “long copy doesn’t work on me”… or “web users will only tolerate short copy”…
Rather, your page needs to be as long as is necessary to make the argument that will address the prospect in their state of awareness. If you don’t know how aware they are, you need to find out in order to shape your argument…
How Can You Find Out What State of
Awareness Visitors to Your Pages Are In?
Keep in mind: your goal is not to speak to all of your visitors. Writing to convert is about writing copy that is likely to convince your ideal market or market segment. If you’ve got multiple landing pages intended for multiple segments, then you’re writing for the best prospects within those segments.
Here’s what I do to find out how aware visitors to X page are:
On landing pages in general
- Use a pop-up survey – like Qualaroo or Disco – to ask a question like:
- How did you hear about us?
- Before today, had you heard of us?
- What 1 question would you like us to answer for you today?
- Refer to your analytics to see what percentage of visitors are returning visitors vs new (with new likely having lower awareness than returning)
- Refer to your chat transcripts for the page to see if the questions visitors are asking suggest they know your brand, know exactly what their problem is, etc
On landing pages for PPC ads
- The keyword phrase can obviously be very indicative of your visitors’ awareness levels, with branded keywords indicating that your visitor is The Most Aware
On landing pages for retargeting ads
- If you’re retargeting, your visitor is likely Product Aware or The Most Aware, both of which may require a shorter argument – with perhaps more incentives – to get them to try your solution
On landing pages for emails
- Rather than learning about who’s going to your page, write a wider array of targeted landing pages based on what you know about your subscribers’ activity (i.e., thanks to your email platform’s reporting)
Like with email landing pages, Facebook ad landing pages are less about learning who your visitors are and more about sending the right visitors to the right landing pages. Because you can control so much about the types of people clicking on your Facebook ad, you can adjust your argument quite easily.
…Back to Your Argument…
This is the basic 3-part structure I follow when writing a page:
- Start with your value proposition in your hero section. This is the statement you will, essentially, be supporting throughout the page.
- Based on the state of awareness of your visitors to the page you’re writing, outline the logical flow to bring them from what they know to what you know to choosing you. (This entire section becomes the bulk of your page.)
- You’ll want to know the pros and cons of using your solution; you should know which cons are most important, which pros counter which cons, and which pros stand alone. If there’s a con you cannot directly address, be prepared to minimize it or distract the prospect from it.
- As this is the core of your argument, you’ll also want to follow the rules of shaping a concise, persuasive argument
- Have strong awareness of who your prospect is, what they want most and what’s going on in their world (and minds) right now
- Offer evidence to support each layer in your argument
- Use powerful language to make your argument more enticing
- Be clear and focused – don’t go off on tangents, and don’t talk about anything your prospect doesn’t care about
Importantly, transition between points in your argument. Your transitions will help people keep up with your argument…
In short copy, transitions are virtually impossible because readers’ eyes are allowed to bounce all over the page. In long pages and hybrid sales pages, transitions often come in the form of crossheads (which are the centered ‘subheads’ that run down the page).
Transitions pull together the narrative flow of your argument. And THAT’S one of the key reasons long-form sales pages – and hybrid sales pages – are so powerful. Check out this transition between sections on the new GetFlow.com one-pager /hybrid sales page I wrote:
What’s happening there? Metalab (makers of Flow) are simply using arrows to connect the sections, and the copy follows the logical flow of the argument we’re trying to make. The word “so” at the beginning of the header “So how exactly does Flow save you hours each month?” is an important cue for readers – like all conjunctions, it signals a connection and transition…
Unfortunately, a transition is one of the powerful elements of long copy that far too many designers inadvertently remove when designing pages. So it’s important to work directly with your UI designer to ensure narrative flow isn’t interrupted – even if you’re not writing a long-form sales page.
Good News for Non-Debaters:
Your Argument Can Tap Into Logical Fallacies
Notice that crazy thing I said to the Jamaican about Finland and Norway? That’s a logical fallacy called False Cause, which wouldn’t fly at your high-school Model UN. I wouldn’t recommend using False Cause in your arguments, but here are some logical fallacies that are oh-so common in marketing arguments:
- Black or White – In marketing, we often set up our solution as the only alternative to the pain our prospects are experiencing, even though there may be dozens of solutions. Our job is not to talk about the dozens of options you have – that’s what blog posts are for. Our job is rather to convince people that our option is the best for solving their pain – even if we have to get all Black or White about it.
- False Cause – OMG, if I had a dollar for every time I saw copy that draws what may be an untested connection between a product and an outcome.
- Bandwagon – We call it “social proof”.
- Appeal to Authority – Cialdini taught us that this is actually quite persuasive.
- Appeal to Nature – Half the health-food and weightloss industry uses this one like a crutch.
- Anecdotal – They’re called testimonials.
- The Texas Sharpshooter – It’s called marketing… 😉
The point here is not to talk about logical fallacies and how fun it is to shape our marketing arguments based on fallacies. It’s just to point out, to you academics, that your argument doesn’t have to win you a Certificate of Merit from your local debate club. In fact, your argument may be heightened, for your visitors, by using those fallacies…
Write As Much As You Need to Convince…
And Then Edit
The rule is that you should write only as much as you need to in order to convince someone…
But if you go into the process of writing your page with the thought “I need to make this as short as I can”, you’re going to do yourself – and your visitors – a huge disservice.
Start by writing with your argument and your visitor’s state of awareness in mind. Start there. Write freely. Write as much as you need to in order to make the case for your solution…
…and then edit it.
It’s when you edit that you can pull out the unnecessary words. The extra lines. The repetition. It’s also during editing that you can refine the structure and layout of your page to better highlight key parts of your argument…
Examples of Pages That Are Structured to Convince
The ITTT structure described above doesn’t actually make it onto the page, in most cases. It’s just a starting point for figuring out what your argument is and how long it may go. Then comes visitor-facing copywriting…
Growing teams manage support better with our simple help desk software because it keeps your whole team on the same page and it’s a more personal experience for your customers…
In fact, they simply break that one statement into 3 statements, turn those into crossheads (in the long-form sales page tradition) and then support each point with great evidence (copy, screenshots, influencer testimonials). Check it out:
Another example is, of course, Flow, which I mentioned above. Here you’ll see how Flow positions the 3 key supporting points for the argument Flow is the best task management software you’ll ever use.
As a bit of background, I knew, going into writing this page, that prospects to the Flow home page are split between Problem Aware and Solution Aware (i.e., they’re using a competing task management solution), with Solution Aware hypothesized as more likely to try and use the software and, thus, a better prospect. So we opened the page with an argument for those who are Solution Aware. And then, for Problem Aware people, we discussed the merits of task management solutions in general before getting into the power of Flow as a product. Here are the sections of interest:
Rather than simply using a traditional 3-column layout for the 3 supporting points under Why is Flow the best, we a) stack them to encourage reading in a narrative style, b) take our time with the copy for each point (as a good argument shouldn’t be too rushed), and c) use large, easy-to-read screenshots as evidence.
Now let’s look at a shorter home page…
You may remember the hybrid-style Crazy Egg home page, which I wrote the copy for and discussed in this post. Well, Mr. Hiten Shah has now updated it like so:
That’s the whole page…
…and it’s a far cry from where they were 4 years ago.
Why might Crazy Egg be super-smart to go from a long-form sales page to a short-copy page with a single headline, a call to action, a statement making them an authority (i.e., “The Original Heatmapping Technology”) and some social proof?
If you said because the awareness of their visitors is higher, I’d agree! Crazy Egg is now the go-to brand for heatmaps – and heatmapping as a research technique is ubiquitous among Crazy Egg’s best prospects – which means that, on the Awareness Spectrum, Crazy Egg’s prospects may be Most Aware. (Perhaps 100% of their visitors are not Most Aware, but their best prospects are likely to be.) How much do you have to say to Most Aware prospects? As Brian Clark taught us, they only need to know “the deal”. So Crazy Egg tells them the deal in its headline: you can get a free heatmap.
If this page doesn’t convert better than the one it’s replaced (or being tested against), it would not mean that short copy doesn’t work…
And if it converts way better than the one it’s replaced, it doesn’t mean that long copy doesn’t work…
So How Long Should Your Pages Be?
Like everything, the length of your page depends on your visitors and prospects. It’s not about picking one length or style of page out of a hat and simply shoving your messages into that. And it’s not about copying Crazy Egg, Flow, Groove, Dropbox, Uber or any other sites out there!
It’s about how much your visitors to the landing page in question know – about their pains, solutions and your solution – and giving them as much as they need (and not a word more) to choose you.
Learn about your visitors. Study them.
The rule remains the same: research, research, research. There is no shortcut.