Short Or Long Copy In Newsletters: What's The Smart Choice?

Recently I read a quote from an email expert who flatly stated, "the purpose of email is to get people to click on links." Really?


This point of view assumes that an email in itself cannot contain any useful information. All it can do is point to information located elsewhere and induce readers to surf there. Also, some experts theorize that short copy with many links is better than long copy because "people don't have time to read emails." But if this is true, why would they assume the same people have time to read a Web site?

Certainly, promotional emails fall into the "drive 'em to the Web site" category because most sales are closed on the Web. But email newsletters can be of more than one kind -- ranging from snippets of copy with links leading back to the Web site right up to full articles in the email itself. So, which should you choose? Here are some guidelines.

Magazine-style newsletters: very short copy. E-newsletters from Martha Stewart Living and The Baby Center are examples of what I call magazine-style emails, as they serve essentially as a table of contents to the latest Web site updates.



The Martha Stewart newsletter presents teasers about a whole lot of topics: food, entertaining, crafts, gardening, decorating, pets, TV, and so on. In signature Martha style, the newsletter, while acting as a wrapper for dozens of links, is as appealing to view as the Web site. It is well organized, using the magazine's color palette, juicy photos and an attractive layout to separate the topical areas. The editors use short motivational copy as a lead-in to each topic, and a careful selection of well-named links ("No-Bake Chocolate and Peanut Butter Bars," "Summer Activities for the Kids") inviting a click for a closer look.

Utilitarian newsletters: combination copy. Newsletters designed to deliver usable information, such as recipes, news, and how-tos, can benefit from including at least one full article within the body of the newsletter and short copy lead-ins to other articles hosted online. The subscriber clearly wants to receive "news he can use," so don't make him take the extra step of clicking to retrieve it. This is especially true if the Web site isn't up to a high standard.

I subscribe to a niche newsletter from Afri Chef called "Taste of Africa." The chef author sends two or three whole recipes of African origin in each email. I get the information I signed up for at a glance, and I can dive into the links to additional content or offers when I have time. Meanwhile, I can print off the entire email and take it to my kitchen to start cooking up wonderful curries and exotic desserts.

Hybrid newsletters: medium copy. Many newsletters contain a combination of helpful information and promotional material from the sender. A good example is ADT's Home Security Services newsletter. Readers get serious home safety tips, heartfelt customer stories, a smattering of offers designed to up-sell customers to new products, plus links to customer service, free safety decals, and so on. To maintain a balance among the different types of content, I recommend writing a meaty one- or two- paragraph lead-in to the primary article(s) with links to the full hosted content. In this way the newsletter is not overwhelmed with copy, but the gist of it is there for readers to scan.

Single topic newsletters: long copy. It is perfectly acceptable for an e-newsletter to deliver a singular message in its entirety in the body of the email. This is done superbly by Christopher Kimball in his "Letter from Vermont"; by Alan Fox, the CEO of Vacations to Go, when he writes a personal letter about his own vacation experiences; and by President Obama.

Have you signed up for White House emails yet? The email uses a template that replicates White House stationery with the presidential seal. You'll receive a direct message from the president, without the distractions of sidebars, teasers, promotional tiles and a multitude of links. It's clean and classy. I wish more emails were like it.

There is a season and a reason for every approach to copywriting for e-newsletters. Strive to give the reader what he or she really wants from you, and let go of the notion that clicks are the only measure of success. Loyalty, deep engagement with the brand, well-informed customers, and sales both online and off can be your reward for getting it right.

6 comments about "Short Or Long Copy In Newsletters: What's The Smart Choice? ".
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  1. Bill Chambers from Bright Chapel Financial Services, August 10, 2009 at 10:59 a.m.

    It is always good to stay connected with the basics of effective communication. That's where sales come from.

  2. Dave Fiore from davemail, August 10, 2009 at 11:05 a.m.

    Great article. Most of my clients use the hybrid model, which allows us to provide lots of useful info without requiring too much scrolling. Thanks for the good post.

  3. Cynthia Edwards from Razorfish, August 10, 2009 at 11:30 a.m.

    Thanks for everyone's comments. To Stevie's point, when I look at eye tracking studies and so on, there is never any distinction made between whether the content used in the study was interesting or not. I suspect good and bad get lumped in together in the impirical studies. :-)

    I totally agree that providing a content structure and good writing for clients is key to success.

  4. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, August 10, 2009 at 5:47 p.m.

    Cynthia, I think your post is insightful yet it doesn't mention the strategy or the reason behind the email in the first place.
    Let me address whether an email should be short or long copy. The point here is can be either as long as it is not BORING. Readers will continue to read long copy if it is congruent to them.

    As for getting people to click on links or have your email contain many topics like in an email newsletter well, the answer it DEPENDS. It depends on what strategy you are employing and whom your email goes to.

    Both short emails; trying to get someone to click on a link; OR long emails; sending out meaningful and topical newsletters with many articles; are both legitimate email marketing strategies.

    Each will have their own effectiveness depending on the recipient.

    The 3 main parts to remember about email marketing is
    1. Your List
    2. Your relationship with your list
    3. The offer you are making to them.

    Get this right and it won't matter what strategy you employ.

    Cheers and Great Selling - Kurt Johansen - Australia's Email Marketing Guru -

  5. Kelly Lorenz, August 10, 2009 at 8:22 p.m.

    I appreciate your analysis on newsletter copy, Cynthia. I think the key takeaway as others have said is it really comes down to your audience and your content. As an adviser, I tend to fall on the side of shorter copy, more links for my clients (where applicable) as I've found that web content and blogs are far more sticky than inboxes. What I mean by that is, subscribers seem to be far more likely to bookmark a website with interesting content to read when they have time rather than leave a newsletter, interesting content or no, in their cluttered inbox.

    With all that said, I think your proposal for content is great, and ultimately it comes down to testing to see what works for you. And perhaps there's also the segment who place the email in a folder in their email client for later reading as well.

    -Kelly Lorenz

  6. Mark McClure, August 15, 2009 at 10:26 a.m.


    re: "This point of view assumes that an email in itself cannot contain any useful information. All it can do is point to information located elsewhere and induce readers to surf there."

    Er, kind of :-)
    My experience is that the online direct response marketers know how immunized prospects in certain markets (Biz Ops, MMO, Weight loss are 3 of them) are to being sold on anything in an email these days.

    The autoresponder copy they request is indeed designed to "get the click" because they have a campaign with an offer to promote.

    Most sequences I'm familiar with have been between 7 -10 emails.

    And they're designed to build interest and curiosity to know more. The actual sales copy is waiting at the end of the click through.
    This can be a very effective and profitable model when executed well.

    I agree with you that there's more to email than just promotion emails.

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