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In Praise of Long Copy

This summary is pointless and no one will read it, either

It is fashionable, of late, to conclude that brief, punchy copy is best suited towards capturing the attention of people online, because as everyone knows, nobody reads anything online, ever.

This strikes me a conflation of a well observed and well documented browsing habit among most people, who tend to scan rather than read. And particularly in terms of lists of items (products, news headlines, categories, etc.), scanning is even more punctuated, limited to the first two words or so of each item.

Is it a contradiction, then, that some eyetracking studies have shown that the Ogilvy Layout still works? Or would it simply be a mistake to conclude that offline and offline behavior are so different that conclusions drawn from one medium simply couldn’t apply to another?

Now, in magazines, which are mostly read as a diversion, the first thing to get scanned are pictures.  We are visual creatures and pictures typically convey a lot of information (and emotion) fast, so a strong visual is almost always going to be the first thing the eye fixes on when the reader is engaging in general browsing for interest.  Please note, though, that this scanning order changes for task oriented individuals interacting with a website.  People scanning a web page redefine “worthwhile” by relevance to their task, and therefore focus on the headlines first.  - Jeff Sexton, Tests Indicate Ogilvy’s Old School Layout Still a Winner

Behavior changes with context, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the context of an online experience is different enough that the “old school” rules don’t apply – users don’t read, they scan, for instance. How is it that scanning – apparently superficially – conveys enough information that users can choose intelligently among the maelstrom of options available to them? Are they so focused on their task that all distractions are ruthlessly cast aside in single minded pursuit of their goal?

This post started as the result of an item in my Twitter feed, led through three other related, linked articles (all quoted here) and will probably terminate in a half-finished thought. All the while, I should have been assembling an analytics dashboard for a client. Using oneself as a proxy for examining the behaviors of others is never a good idea, but I doubt that my experience in the last 30 minutes is drastically outside the mainstream.

We humans have remarkable brains, capable of processing scads of data coming from multiple inputs. But we are hard-wired to attend to novelty, and generally not quite so good at efficiently filtering out distractions. Why do 30-50% of DVR owners not skip the ads? Is it because so much of the advertising out there is so good, we just can’t bear to miss it? Or is it because the change of scenery is, itself, interesting?

I’m inclined to think – though I can’t yet prove it – that the tendency towards brevity, pithiness and punchy copy has not been successful in the aggregate. There may be specific advertisers who’ve benefited, but if the whole of the marketing universe has simply been sub-divided into smaller pieces and split between more voices, the overall quantity of message hasn’t improved (and I’m of the belief that more voices in a conversation tend to degrade its overall quality.)

Can a truly persuasive, high-quality argument (in the sense of a position one wishes to communicate and convince others of) be encapsulated in a 10-word snippet? In 155 characters? Can a customer be won for a lifetime of loyalty with a one-liner? A statement so inexplicably powerful that resistance is futile? (Wouldn’t that be quite an effective weapon?)

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