The Story Economy Blog

Four Questions Better Than “How Much Copy?”

too muchI doubt poet William Carlos Williams was thinking about what was the right amount of copy when he wrote: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”

One sentence and done. The Google home page of poetry. A beautiful little pebble of a poem that schoolchildren would study for years to come and grownups would still read with a smile.

But messages are not always so concise. After all, where would we be without Vince Vaughn monologues, Moby Dick and 14-minute Harry Chapin songs?

There is a constant push and pull between the succinct and the long-winded, and anyone with a message has to navigate it. As a person who writes those messages for people, it’s definitely a fine line I walk with my clients, all of whom want to know: “How much copy do we need on our site?”

I do have an answer, which is simply this: However much you need to tell the story.

But Wait, There’s More

However much you need is actually the last part of the answer. It’s the thing you arrive at after you’ve answered some very important other questions.

1. What do your people need?

The amount of copy you have is less about how “big” the idea is, and more about your company’s voice, personality, what you think your people need. For example, if your brand is all about reaching sophisticated, busy people quickly to answer one specific problem you’ve identified (and they are aware they have), then keep your story short and to-the-point—especially on the pages that initially draw them in. Sure, you want to touch on pain points. But melodrama on the home page probably isn’t necessary.

But let’s say your brand needs to encourage people to reflect on something they don’t quite understand. Like a problem they have, but may not have identified. Yes, you know that people are busy and time is short. But your service is aimed at people who can step outside of that for a minute. You need to take them on a journey. They might need to hear some more details of your story. You’re not about providing a fast answer. You’re about the answer they don’t even know yet. And that might take more than 50 words.


2.  Why are people coming to your site?

How and why are people finding you? If you know that the majority of people will find you through searching (and SEO is a big part of your marketing efforts), then brevity may be very important—otherwise they’re on to the next result.

But I find that this isn’t the case for most of my clients. Most of the people who visit their sites are much warmer leads. They’ve met at a networking event and want to check out your site, or they saw you speak and want to find out more about you. They’re coming to your site—and your site specifically. Not as part of a list of search engine results. Rather, they’re coming to hear your story. You don’t want to take that for granted and waste their time, of course. But you also shouldn’t shortchange that. You’ve bought a little more of their time. They’ll read a little more.


3.  What is each page is leading them to do?

This is something I emphasize strongly when I’m working with clients: figuring out the goal of each page. Yes, the goal is always to forge a connection. But I’m talking about the specific goal for the specific page—as in, here I am on this page, what should I do next? Sometimes, the goal of a page is just to move on to the next page. Or to get them to sign up for something free (like your amazing newsletter). Or to contact you to find out about a specific program. Your copy should lead people to whatever that thing is, in a very clear way. It’s less about the length and more about the clarity and really nailing down what action you want people to take when they are finished reading.


4.  And finally, does your storytelling have a flow?

Do you know how in Einstein’s theory of relativity, there is this whole thing about time moving more slowly, depending on how an object is moving? I don’t quite understand it honestly, but I do know that time can definitely move more slowly when you are reading something that has no flow to it. Three short sentences can feel agonizing if they lack rhythm, excitement, and a reason to care. On the other hand, 1,500 words can fly by in no time if you are compelled to keep reading.

I know I often write long, and choose the meandering way around as opposed to the shortcut. But I also know that my writing has a flow, with ideas that link and sentences that keep it all moving forward. My point is this: worry less about the amount and more about the flow and quality.

Short can be terrible. Long can be unbearable. But writing with good flow—in any length—wins every time.

Oh, and by the way, I know this post is all about web copy. But if you are trying to figure out how long your speech should be, or how much copy to put in that new pretty brochure, these questions can help you there, too.


  • Rob Bunting

    Posted by Rob Bunting on 05/23/13 12:18am

    Great advice Judi.

    In the past SEO pros used to obsess over exactly how many words were on the page and what percentage of those words were the keyword being optimized and that concept of 'keyword density" is no longer viewed as important.

    Your third point about each page leading to an action is also right on the mark. So many business websites I go to haves pages of great content, but then no call to action or link to the next appropriate page at the bottom, and then business owners wonder why so many site visitors then leave without taking that next step. Tell a story and lead people in a logical path through your site and you'll get much better results.

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 05/23/13 5:46pm

      Thanks for the comment, Rob! That's good to hear it from the expert that this idea of keyword density isn't what it used to be! Thanks for reiterating my point about having a call to action. It's something I see missing frequently (and was guilt of myself before I started paying attention).
      -- Judi

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