The case for long vs short direct mail copy

I recently did some digging to help make a case to a client that the direct mail effort we were discussing should be a letter and not a postcard. It was an interesting exercise, because I’ve been having this conversation with clients for more than 20 years. Then and now, they distrust long copy. “I wouldn’t read something that long,” is a frequent refrain.

Little has changed since the last time I needed to gather evidence for the letter format, back when we all got a lot more direct mail. The reasons for this format’s success can be boiled down to:

Credibility: A letter, because of its “gravity,” stops people. They pay attention. Especially if it’s signed by someone they know, or by an authority figure they think they should respect.

Novelty: Then and now, a truly well written direct marketing letter is novel. People give it a chance.

Laziness: This one you need to think about for a moment. If you have a letter that is properly constructed, it is scannable. You don’t have to read every word. Usually, short copy is harder to scan, and easier to dismiss. Paradoxically, good letters can actually encourage the sort of grazing that we all do with our print media.

Drama: Nothing sells like telling a story. And you can’t do that with short copy.

Of course, if you’re selling something that isn’t truly a considered purchase, go with the postcard. Or if the offer is clear enough to spell out in a paragraph, do it. But even then, you may want to test a long-format package to run against it.

Because, believe me, the long-format letters have been tested against shorter packages again and again. It’s sheer economics. And yes, sometimes they lose. But it’s surprising how often they out-pull the postcard mailing by a mile!