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A significant reason behind most floundering websites is the lack of a response-driven message — an effective one that gets people to do something, even if it’s to keep reading.

A direct response message is not just about response. It’s comprised of three elements: it must be 1) captivating (it captures the reader’s attention), 2) riveting (it pulls her into reading further) and 3) engaging (it calls her to act).

(These are the “three steps” I talk about in my course.)

How can you incorporate those three vital elements?

If I were to answer that question adequately it would likely take me an entire book the size of an encyclopedia! But for now, let me give you a succinct explanation…

First, write to be scanned.

On the Internet, people are fast-paced, click-happy (with an attention span the size of a DNA molecule) and easily bored. The burden of getting visitors to stop what they’re doing and start reading rests entirely upon the headline, the headers and any grabbers — things that help grab people’s attention (e.g., boxes, borders, graphics, etc).

But once you captured their attention, next is to keep them — and keep them reading.

If you know the AIDA formula, this is where you need to generate interest. But I go a step further by saying that your job is even more important here, since you must not only generate interest but also maintain it. And that is a much harder task, especially online.

It’s also the crux of a long copy salesletter’s success.

The debate about long copy versus short copy can be wearisome for most copywriters, since they must constantly explain the benefits of using long copy.

Even though long copy is statistically proven to outperform short copy, many clients still offer the typical litany — that longer copy will never be read, and that on the Internet things are short and fast. And then they ask me to trim my drafts down.

(I often fervently protest when this happens, and you’ll soon find out why.)

Sure, I completely agree that things are short and fast online. But there is a difference between grabbing people’s attention and holding on to it.

Keeping readers riveted, hanging on to each and every word with an intense desire to know what’s next, is the goal of any direct response copy. Remember this…

There’s a difference between long copy and long-winded copy.

(It sounds the same as reading a story, right? Well, it is. Like a book that’s called a “page turner,” copy that keeps people glued to each and every paragraph is one that is intensely interesting, curiously inviting, and uncomfortably compelling.)

As an aside, why do you think we now include “stickiness” and “bounce rates” as a measuring stick in web analytics? Granted, some of it is based on a site’s entertainment value, like multimedia and interactivity. But nine times out of 10, it’s based on the copy.

Here’s a known fact: prospects who are qualified for and genuinely interested in the product or service being offered will always want more information about it, not less.

If they are not qualified or interested, from the outset, then no matter how long or short the copy is, they will simply not buy. They won’t read 15 words, much less 1,500 words.

If the copy is too short, it can lead to three potential outcomes:

1) A lower response due to the lack of information;

2) An incessant need for more data, leading to a barrage of information requests or questions (that is, provided that the prospect is sufficiently interested to dig further);

3) Or, if they do buy, a higher number of cancellations and refund requests, since the product or service turned out to be different than what was initially expected.

Bottom line, if long copy leads to poor results, then it has less to do with the length itself and more to do with the copy. Specifically, with the quality of the copy, not the quantity.

It’s simply too boring.

It didn’t elevate the reader’s level of interest and failed to keep her reading. Admittedly, it’s a challenge and the reason why most online businesses usually opt for short copy, since writing long copy that engages, entices, and entertains is very difficult.

Yes, I did say “entertain.” It really is about storytelling. Or what I call storyselling.

You see, long copy is like telling a good story — and copywriters are indeed storytellers. If your copy tells a compelling story, people will read it. All of it. When it is written well, long copy can lead to a much greater level of response.

So forget “long.” Think “good.” Good copy is where the reader hangs onto every word, and becomes more and more excited the further she reads it. Look at it this way…

You visit a bookstore and notice a book that seems to entice you. The cover, the title, and the cover copy, such as the synopsis, editorial raves, or the author’s bio, pull you into the book. Even the opening chapter is delectable. So, you buy the book.

The book is inviting, exciting, and entertaining. The story is deliciously compelling. It pulls you in and compels you to read every single page, no matter how big the book is.

Take Stephen King, for example. If you’re a Stephen King fanatic, that means: 1) you’re in his target market, and 2) you’re interested in everything King writes.

Now, let’s say King publishes a massive, 800-page tome. A massive book, no doubt. Let me ask you, are you not going to read it simply because “it’s too long?” Of course not.

In fact, the book is so good that you either wish it was longer or, once done, are prepared to read it over once more. You just can’t put the book down, even if time is limited, and you’re busy or preoccupied with other things.

Here’s a flipside.

Let’s say the opposite happens. As you read it further, the story makes no more sense. You become confused, perhaps a little frustrated, and you slowly begin to lose interest.

The plot no longer invites you to keep reading. You drift away and find it harder to continue. Ultimately, the storyline fails to keep you excited about the book. So, you stop, close the book, and then shelve it. Now, it gathers dust in your library.

The excuse? It’s TOO long!

Let me ask you, how many books are lingering in your library because you failed to finish reading (or even start reading, for that matter)? Perhaps some. Perhaps many. But nevertheless, the same thing holds true with direct response copy.

Long copy works better than short copy. But it only works if it’s interesting, captivating, and riveting. Call it “edutainment.” Copy must be educational and entertaining.

However, in a handful of cases shorter copy is warranted. (There is such a thing as “overselling” in copy.) But the only real way to know for sure is to test, test and test. Claude Hopkins, author of “Scientific Advertising,” wrote an important axiom:

“Almost any question can be answered cheaply, quickly and finally, by a test campaign. This is the only way to answer them, not by arguments around a table. Go to the court of last resort, the buyers of your product.”

As my mentor, copywriting genius Dan Kennedy, once said in a recent interview:

“Now, the person who says ‘But I would never read all that copy’ makes the mistake of thinking they are their customer … And they are not. We are never our own customers. (…) There is a thing in copywriting I teach called ‘message-to-market match’. It is this: when your message is matched to a target market that has a high level of interest in it, not only does the level of responsiveness go up but readership goes up, too…

“… The whole issue of interest goes up.”

The next step is to engage the reader.

Again, you’re like an author telling a good story, and your copy must read like one. But like all good stories, the reader must become intimately involved in the plot. They see themselves in the shoes of the characters living out the story.

And to do this, you need what I often call “UPWORDS.” It’s an acronym that means: “Universal picture words or relatable, descriptive sentences.”

First, “universal picture words” means mental imagery that help to paint vivid pictures in the mind. Lace your copy with words that engage as many of the senses as possible, and cause your prospects to easily visualize already enjoying the benefits of your offer.

As for “universal,” it means to use words that appeal to, and can be easily interpreted by, the vast majority of readers. In other words, use words to “encode” your message so that, when they are read, can be decoded in the same way by most of your readers.

Your job is to get the reader to not only to read your copy but also understand it, internalize it, and appreciate it. To help you, remember this simple yet important rule:

“Different words mean different things to different people.”

Some words can be interpreted in one way by one reader and in a different way by another. Your job, therefore, is to choose words that cater and universally appeal to the bulk of your readers in order for them to fully appreciate what you’re conveying.

For example, in my early career I specialized in copywriting for cosmetic surgeons. A challenge among doctors is the fact that prospective patients will call for an estimate over the phone when obviously the doctor needs to see her beforehand.

(An initial, in-person assessment is always required, even by law in some locations, to see if that patient is a surgical candidate. Giving out an estimate on the phone implies that the patient is indeed a good candidate for the surgery when it may not be the case.)

Here’s the crux of the problem: most patients don’t understand the significance of seeing the doctor in person. Some may feel intimidated by doctors or by surgery, while others may simply be in a rush and just want to “shop around.”

While they may know the reason, they may not necessarily appreciate the importance of seeing a doctor, because cosmetic surgery is an uncommon process.

So, doctors will refer to a more common approach, such as cosmetic dentistry. Because, unlike surgery, most people have had their teeth done at some point in their lives. They already know it. They already have a “reference point” in their minds they can relate to.

Therefore, doctors will use analogy, such as:

“Like a dentist, I can not give you an estimate over the phone without any x-rays of your teeth let alone the knowledge of how many cavities you actually have.”

Using this scenario, people now understand not only the reason but also the importance of seeing the doctor in person in order to obtain an accurate estimate.

This applies to every business.

Business owners often become so intimately involved with their product or business, they tend to forget to look at them from their prospect’s perspective. They tend to use a language that only they or the people in their industry can fully appreciate.

But that approach can backfire… And often does.

Therefore, your job is to use analogies, metaphors and comparisons, and most importantly stories, all in a language to which the prospect can relate.

That’s what “relatable, descriptive sentences” mean. Words are not messages in themselves. They are merely symbols. Your choice of words can actually alter the understanding, and particularly the emotional impact, of your message.

Finally, use action words that not only compel your readers but also “propel” them into action. Tell them what they must do and take them “by the hand,” in other words.

Don’t stick with mere verbs. Use action words that paint vivid pictures in the mind, too. And the more vivid the picture is, the more compelling the request will be.

For example, you’re a financial consultant. Rather than saying something like, “Poor fiscal management may lead to financial problems,” say, “Stop mediocre money management from sucking your hard-earned cash straight out of your wallet!”

People can visualize the action of “sucking” better than they can “leading.”

If you think that sounds a little over the top, you can still use picture words in more subdued ways. For instance, instead of, “Let me help you maintain your balance sheet,” say, “Borrow my eyes to help you keep a steady finger on your financial pulse.”

Ultimately, if you think long copy is a deterrent, you won’t know it until you actually test it yourself. But don’t test long versus short just for the sake of testing length. Because, in many cases, size really does matter when you know how to use it well.

Michel Fortin

Chief Experience Officer at Workaholics4Hire.com, Inc.
A copywriter and consultant for close to 30 years, Michel was instrumental in selling millions worth of products and services. His most notable success is a salesletter that sold over a million dollars online on launch day. Today, Michel is a best-selling author, in-demand public speaker, and highly sought-after marketing consultant. Get his free report, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," at Workaholics4Hire.com.

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