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Anatomy of long sales letter (visualwebsiteoptimizer.com)
75 points by paraschopra on March 1, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments

It's interesting how people divide themselves into two separate camps when it comes to landing page/direct marketing (which are brothers of the same mother). The fact is, both longform and shortform work. But why they work and which context depends on the type of product you are offering and your sales model.

Long form works best for:

* Simple to understand products which have difficult to achieve benefits (weight loss pills, real estate riches courses). The idea is that once you find an interested party, it is just a matter of convincing him that YOUR SOLUTION is THE SOLUTION.

* The purchase process is single stepped with low time and mental effort involved on the part of the purchaser. (e-download, shipped product).

* It is really hard to sell services with the long form, although its been done. I'd still like to see a good example of a successful longform that sells a service, and analyse it to death.

Short form works best for:

* Complex sales where a conversion means pre-qualification, a phone call, question answering, a customized result (think general contractor), identity check or some other gate to completing the sale. The idea is just to give them just enough benefits that they feel both enticed and think it is low risk to give you their contact information. Almost all B2B sales fit in this category.

* Monthly services with a freemium model, and any other low risk opportunity to kick the tires.

* Items with a low purchase point and low effort checkout (App Store game).

That said, there are always exceptions to the rule, and you should test both forms of communication if you are unsure.

FANTASTIC comment! :)

Believe it or not, I DON'T only do long-form salesletters so I don't divide myself into a "long-form-only" camp.

Typically what I do is figure out what the client needs... assess the market/product,etc... and do 1 or the other to START.

However, if I'm not absolutely positive that whatever form I'm using will work - I always recommend that the client test a longer copy page versus a shorter copy page.

All in all... it's not "long form vs. short form".

The bottom line is... you put out all your selling points, and defuse all the objectives. At that point it can be either long or short.

And you end it right there without any "extra" words :)

That could be 300 words... or 10,000 words. Like you said - it depends on a TON of variables!

When I read those "long form" salesletters, I can tell they are just stories written to divide a fool and his money.

Your comment is written in the same exact way. It isn't formal language (substituting 1 for one, for example), so I assume you write that way to seem "authentic" and "trustworthy", like you aren't trying to take advantage of someone. You throw superfluous, vague praises at every chance, hoping to ingratiate yourself with the "customer". Another annoying thing is how long it takes to express a short, simple idea -- the opposite of good communication. Unfortunately, your kind will continue to exist, as PT Barnum was right about suckers.

Your comment could have been written much more clearly:

I don't only do long-form salesletters so I don't divide myself into a "long-form-only" camp. Typically I assess the market/product, etc and start with one form or the other. However, if I'm not absolutely positive that whatever form I'm using will work - I always recommend that the client test a longer copy page versus a shorter copy page. You need to put out all your selling points, and defuse all the objectives. And you end it right there without any "extra" words. That could be 300 words or 10,000 words. Like you said - it depends on a TON of variables!

If you had written that, I would not have felt my intelligence insulted.

Here's an idea.

Work on getting a more positive outlook on life in general. It'll get you very far :)

Written by a direct response copywriter, so it's going to be a bit biased.

I've tested short and long form, and while long form tends to do better for information products, if you are actually providing something of value, then usually a short form can work just as well.

Essentially - to sell shit, you need to spend a long time persuading someone to buy it. To sell gold, you just need a buy now button.

I don't think it's biased at all.

I do agree that long form tends to do better for information products.

However, it also does better in 90% of cases, as well. As I mentioned in the post... it does NOT do better in EVERY single case.

You're "essentially" comment is absolutely wrong... and TOTALLY biased after you just said my post was biased.

It depends on the market maturity, the branding of the company, and MANY other factors.

All in all - all I'm saying is this.

Long copy works in 80-90% of cases... TYPICALLY. It depends on a lot of factors, and the only way to really know... is to test it with a GOOD copywriter.

After all... long copy that sucks will always do worse than short copy which is brilliant :)


That comment is from my own experience. I've sold a bit of both in my day, and while I don't hate long form copy, I hate pages that look like crap, such as some of those examples.

Again, I'm not hating on you, or your piece, but the fact that often times long form copy is associated with horrid design. That's the trend I want to see disappear.

No offense taken. I'm actually personally re-doing the order form on the 1 example so it looks more "clean".

The design doesn't matter though.

"Pretty" doesn't sell.

Trust me on that one.

What sells is understanding your customer, having a product which gives them exactly what they need at a fair price, and showing that customer how different that product is from other similar products.

I guess it depends on your customer.


I think it is wrong to say that long copy writing is a substitute of inferior offer. As Jeremy (in interview) himself emphasizes: long copy cannot sell a poor product.

Though I agree best idea is to A/B test long v/s sales copy to see which one clicks with your target customers.

This is what terrifies me so much about being a [mostly] sole-founder.

If I saw something like this in my mail, I would immediately throw it away and probably have a few thoughts about how out of touch the person who commissioned it was.

But if it really does "convert like crazy", it means that any wisdom I have about marketing (and most of the wisdom given out by fellow geeks, designers, and most marketers) is almost entirely wrong.

But if you were to receive a personalized, sixteen page sales letter signed by Paul Graham, you'd probably read it multiple times.

"The astonishing startup secrets of Ycombinator's founder


below I'll reveal an amazing startup plan specifically designed for sole founders.

It has a proven 73% success rate.

If you're interested in running a SaaS company and you're willing to relocate to the Bay Area, then this letter might be the most important you'll ever read.

WARNING: You are not allowed to share the information contained in this letter with anyone else. It's for your eyes only.

What you'll read below will at first seem contradictory. It'll fly in the face of everything you currently know about starting and running a business. It'll blow away your current beliefs about product development and customer acquisition. So make sure you sit down, because what I'm about to tell you will possibly change your life forever..."

The key word there is personalized.

If a key member of the silicon valley venture capital community sent me a personalized letter about anything, especially to do with startups, or funding, of course I would listen.

If Stephen Hawking sent me a personalized letter, I would read it.

If Darren Aronofsky sent me a personalized letter, I would read it.

If Warren Buffet sent me a personalized letter, I would read it.

If Steve Jobs sent me a personalized letter, I would read it.

If Barack Obama sent me a personalized letter, I would read it.

If George Bush sent me a personalized letter, I would read it.

It's also about the context. I'll read mass-produced essays in Foreign Affairs all day long, because they're written by [mostly] authority figures, not copywriters who are trying to make money off of me.

[report spam] click

This does remind me of the story about a week ago where a "females only" founders Q&A conference run my Ycombinator which turned out to have no female founders at it at all. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2229494

Usually when something makes broad claims, for me, it needs to back it up ASAP. Most long form letters over exaggerate, repeat a lot of vague information & then throw in a bunch of unverifiable testimonials(e.g "Bob in Austin, TX writes"). A large portion of copywriters are people who don't use the product, never plan to use the product and are essentially lying about the product. Blah.

You seem to read a lot of BAD salesletters written by lousy copywriters.

And THAT is where the difference is.

In my letters, my claims are backed up with proof. The testimonials are of people you can call on the phone. And I personally use the product before I even START writing.

Bad copy written by an unethical copywriter sucks.

Good copy written by a great copywriter will keep your eyes glued on the page as long as they want you reading :)

Well, it's very easy to manipulate people in need. A lot of these scam sites go after people with medical conditions.

Example: "Forbidden Neck Pain Relief", should stay forbidden because it's a lame scam. http://www.sitejabber.com/reviews/www.losethebackpain.com

They've also clogged up google for the keywords "Jesse Cannone scam" with fake reviews/testimonials. They're selling snake oil.

It's typical scam behavior, make outlandish claims, sell cheaply made product at high price, give kick back to affiliate. It doesn't matter if your product sucks, just market the shit out of it & make returning it hard to do or not worth the hassle. It might be worthwhile to sneak in a recurring charge while you're at it.

I am pretty sure the overpriced inversion table is similar. Also just because a saw cuts through a car on TV doesn't mean it does it in real life. Using an infomercial as an example of good marketing just shows the quality level that's being aimed at here.

There are too many worthless business ventures out there & too many stupid people falling for them. Some of these people though have serious medical problems & are desperate for a cure. Preying on these peoples condition isn't a trait I'd tout.

You may be good at writing convertible copy, but just because you've conned yourself into thinking what you write is true, doesn't actually make it so.

I hate to tell you, but it DOES make it true.

Because I personally deal with back and neck pain (fell out of a 25 ft. tree)... have personally used his products... and they personally gave ME relief.

I don't promote crappy products. I personally test EVERY single product I promote to make sure it's going to help people.

This is exactly right. It all depends on identifying the right audience. Longer copy is great for people who are prospects for the product; for people who aren't it just looks like a messy sales page.

If PG sent a letter like that, I'd lose a ton of respect for him because he would've jumped the shark.

I think the long form marketing works on the lower half of the intelligence bell curve. This probably excludes much of a programmer's social circle.

I think its probably more effective on the "lower half", but I think the reason why most programmer's are less affected is familiarity. We've seen them a million times and know that the pattern of long form is usually spam.

But think back to the first time you saw something like the four page ad in Byte magazine as a kid. There's a decent chance that you went to your dad and said, "Dad, this is cool. Can we get this computer kit? I can learn how to build and program computers for only $899!"

I don't think people on the lower part of the intelligence are necessarily big readers.

With most psychological effects, there's the tendency to say "sure, that works on other people, but not me." The long form sales letter is really a way to put all of the positive attributes and angles for a product in front of a consumer. If you are selling snow to eskimos, I doubt it works. But for people who are on the fence, what is so wrong with laying out the case for a product fully? I think you could argue that someone who needs to see compelling supporting arguments in favor of a product, and who carefully considers a product before purchasing is more likely to be intelligent.

If anything, the long sales letter is less threatening to the notion of the intelligent consumer than the sad realization that changing the hue of a button increased your sales.

Yep, if your target customer base includes people who religiously consider such letters as scammy (and I agree most programmers would do so) then it is probably a bad idea to use long sales copy.

Perfectly said Paras.

It's all about knowing your market, giving them something they're familiar with, and then BEING INTERESTING :)

Actually... it's the EXACT opposite of that.

Think about it.

Who is going to read a 10... 20... 30 page letter.

Someone one the lower half of the bell curve who can hardly string a sentence together, or someone who likes to read and is therefore (usually) more intelligent?

I personally use long copy to get clients who own MULTI-million dollar businesses.

Do you think they're on the lower half of the bell curve?

Nope :)

If I didn't use long copy to them... how could I show them how different I was? How could I display my USP? How could I talk about my guarantee? How could I get in touch with them emotionally so they pick up the phone and call?

Short answer - I wouldn't be able to.

That article reminded me of Giles Bowkett’s blog postings advertising his video- and ebook-based classes, e.g.:


I have no idea if the courses are any good, but he does market them to programmers, and since he has put up more than one blog posting of this nature, I assume he must be getting sales.

I only think those work because they are dripping in irony. Would his target market respond to those postings if they were sincere long form marketing.

I think that's looking at it in entirely the wrong way. It's naive to assume that long form marketing works like that and that those on the lower half are more receptive to the style.

I see two steps to understanding why long forms works and why people like us have an aversion to the method:

* Seeing the same things in different ways

* Assumptions about our place on the Internet

Seeing the same things in different ways

Take as an example the face mask adverts halfway down this A List Apart article on Whitespace in design: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/whitespace

Looking at the direct mail version of the face mask advert we primarily see a bad design with no budget invested in it. We may assume that the face mask is likely to be of poor quality.

Others (e.g. those not versed in design theory/used to seeing nice designs… i.e. those who are not able to readily grasp why something just looks badly designed) may well see a small, honest, single-person company that didn't waste money on graphic design. He invested in the product, not the design.

The two designs are designed with intent; positioned differently for a different clientele. One no-less intelligent than the other, just less educated in marketing tactics and design.

We see the same thing in vastly different ways, drawing different conclusions about different aspects of the same offer.

Assumptions about our place on the Internet

It doesn't surprise me that long form works so well on the Internet.

Because we surround ourselves with people in our own social circle -- be it on Twitter, here on HN, etc. -- we forget that we are only a tiny subset of the Internet population: the subset of people who enjoy testing, reading about and discussing marketing, design, entrepreneurship, sales, psychology, etc.

Most purchasing and browsing on the Internet is done by those not as well-versed in these areas as us: we're out numbered by the people who know less about these topics by a huge factor.

They come across a long form marketing piece and good copy will snag them and bring them in, selling it to them slowly but surely.

When we see it: bad design!, scam!, psychological tricks!, close! The copy doesn't get to us. It doesn't sell us. It isn't positioned toward us.

Combine this difference of opinion and our temporary delusion that everyone should be like us and you have your reason why we find it hard to comprehend why long form works so damn well.

- OK, my apologies for the length of this reply. Rant over. Hope it makes sense.

Well it's great that you admit you might be wrong. 99% of people are so limited in their thinking that the thought of being wrong wouldn't even cross their minds :)

That being said, always understand that in marketing - it's not about YOU.

It's about the prospect.

Like I said... test something fancy against something longer (but written by a great copywriter... just because it's long doesn't mean it's good).

Let the test dictate who your market is :)

If you were in the market for a, lets say, refrigerator, and you were sent a detailed letter explaining why Brand X Refrigerators keep food fresh longer and save you money on electricity - would you really throw it away?

If it looked like this, yes; I would assume it was lying to me, and I would throw it away.

Jeremy - great point.

MOST people wouldn't throw it away if it was a good letter, and you would make a lot more sales.

The only people who would throw it away are those with very limited minds... who I wouldn't want as my customer anyway! ;)

We laugh at people "on the lower half of the bell curve" who use the "length equals strength" heuristic to evaluate long-form letters, but the same thing happens in these comments all the time.

FWIW, I A/B tested a "long" sales letter with a cleaner, shorter and nicer looking one (imo) for my info product targeted at programmers.

Long: http://createyourproglang.com/index2.html Short: http://createyourproglang.com/

I've let the experiment run for a few months and the results were never concluding, ~50% each the whole time.

My guess is that most of my buyers are pre-sold by affiliates, or via word of mouth, and don't read anything. Any other interpretation greatly appreciated.

1 thing I noticed is that the longer version is REALLY cramped and a lot harder to read than the short version.

I'd suggest making a lot more white space in the longer version for easier reading.

The shorter version also has a headline, the longer kind of does but it's not noticeable.

Keep running tests - you'll find a winner! :)

Nice article on an unattractive but effective technique. I like how it almost takes the form of a long sales letter itself!

My concern with the long sales letter approach is how relevant it is to web apps. Mail order books, courses I can see the benefit, but with a web app, why write lots of spiel about a product someone can start using straight away with a trial account. I am at constant battle with my business partner over this as personally I don't believe it is the right way to create a conversion with web apps (How many successful webapps can you name that take the long sales letter approach?), where as he takes a more traditional info-marketing approach based around selling courses/books/seminars and wants to apply those techniques to our startup.

How does a long sales letter form compare to an approach of "Get the user using the product as quickly as possible", with a few bold benefits outlined, a huge "Try Now" button and not commitment to buy. Of course this is something that I should A/B test myself to really find the answer.

Long copy v/s short "Try Now" approach for webapps would certainly be a an interesting A/B test.

(PS: we have been trying to do such a split test for Visual Website Optimizer homepage. Will post results once we do it)

Even with a free trial, the purpose of a long sales form is to explain why APPNAME.LY is superior to all the other competing products and get you to try it out.

Look at Basecamp (http://basecamphq.com/). They have a tremendously successful webapp, and their landing page is long enough to clearly explain the benefits and uses many of the features commonly found in direct mail/mail order advertising.

The thing is they have professional graphics, high profile clients, high quality video testimonials & upfront pricing. The website is actually pretty free of gimmickry. While it is long the actual text is only about 3 paragraphs. Also you're on their homepage, which is more trustworthy than your e-mail inbox.

There's a pretty big difference from Basecamp's website vs someone trying to get you to buy "Forbidden neck pain reliever that the pharmaceutical companies don't want you to know about!!" or a cheap saw made in china that will probably break after a month and cost too much to send back for the Money Back Guarantee*.


The argument isn't really about "long copy".

What you need to do is display all the benefits your product offers, show how YOUR web apps are different, exploit your USP and tell the world about it... and debunk all objections.

That could take 500 words... it could take 2,000 words... or it could take 10,000 words.

It all depends. Long copy isn't long because people "want" it to be long. It's long because it takes that long to tell people how awesome the product is, as well as get in touch with them emotionally.


I suspect that a "try now" button would be the death of most products traditionally advertised by a long sales letter.

Yes, the much more deceptive "Money Back Guarantee*" is what is usually plugged in instead of "Try Now".

And it works because people are very reluctant to give up things they own, even if they don't find them useful.

Well in many cases the actual cost of the product was covered in the "Shipping & Processing Fee". To return the product the customer would have to pay the shipping back as well. Sometimes they say they'll pay shipping back, but they've probably accounted for this by making a higher initial shipping cost or making a it a pain in the butt to return or just by conveniently "going out of business" after a month or two.

> The best thing a person can do is turn skimmers, into jumpers… and jumpers… into book worms. That’s why it’s important to have fun, exciting, engaging copy.

As a book worm, I can't stand long sales letters. Bold, flashy highlights and random formatting all over the place interrupts the flow of the text and is hard to read. The copy would have to be pretty darn engaging to make me put up with that.

It seems the long sales letter is slowly being replaced by video sales letters.

Personally I think video sales letters would be more effective but they also have the inherent problem that people viewing the page at work (or other similar situation) won't be able to see the video (unless they bookmark it and view it later which is unlikely).

I think combining a mixture of the short sales letter, video sales letter and long sales letter would be a good catch all. Show a clear call to action Buy Now button above the fold with a few simple bullet-point benefits and a sales video. Then below that you can continue on with the long sales letter for those who still have pre-sales questions.

They're not being "replaced"... but video letters typically do help conversions.

And yes, great ideas about mixing it up.

That's the KEY to all of this. You don't know exactly what will work best - the answer lies in testing it out! :)

Related to this is the "Underachiever Method" and the previously discussed thread on the "400k/yr Parrot eBook guy" http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=516215

The long form is particular popular with this market targeting method because "ugliness" doesn't matter especially if you position the product as a ultra-niche subject matter authority.

I'm surprised to see that the article doesn't mention that the long form also benefits from SEO juice (more word, better chance of google rewarding keyword context relevance).

The long sales letter is the Internet beachhead of the pitch man. Maybe these kinds of sales letters work for some products. But Jeremy knows that he's signaling on Billy Mays (he says so himself), and that people who wouldn't ever buy from an infomercial wouldn't buy from a page like this. I cannot fathom the unhappy circumstances that would have me check "YES! I'd love to work with a copywriter who can make my life EASY and profitable instead of stressful and broke!" box.

The copy he writes wouldn't work on you but that's the #1 rule of marketing: don't project yourself on target customer. If you don't like long copy, it doesn't mean your customers won't like it. That's why stress is on A/B testing.

I've often tried to figure out how to write good descriptions for iPhone apps, and I've never really found any good resources. App descriptions seem to be all over the place, but some of the elements in long sales letters seem to make their way in (the most visible being social proof in the form of listing good app store rankings or review quotes).

Does anyone have insight into this? How well does the long sales letter format translate to the app store?

Long-form copy is really slanted towards selling high-cost products, especially intangibles to less-informed markets. You start with a vision, expect skepticism, bring the viewer round to your idea and then hit them with a pricepoint that by this time is hopefully lower than they've been led to expect. They can then buy with confidence that their money is being well spent.

With impulse buys, which is what many apps are, you really don't need the middle level of countering skepticism. You are looking to encapsulate the vision of the app in a short and compelling pitch. Most apps lack the depth to provide the material for long-form copy and you may well lose target market by giving too much and losing attention of the skimmers. Furthermore, consider the negative associations many have with such type of copy, and the correlation of those people with the tech-enabled app-market.

Regardless of your opinion of Moeed's use of ShowHN for a non-product here http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2275703, his landing page shows about the level of detail I would expect to see in ad-copy for an app. Just try to picture how you would extend that in order to sell the concept further - if you've run out of ideas, you've hit the level you should be at.

Designers are not the only ones who 'hate' these kind of letters; most people I know would hit back immediately without checking out the page when encountering 'the deck'. But they do work though; I've tried them and people (whom I don't know?) seem to click & buy.

Yep, exactly.

It all depends on what gives you the highest conversions. It's really as simple as that.

The article seems to generalize quite a bit. The effectiveness of a letter like this I imagine would depend quite a bit on who the target is.

Thanks for the comment.

Yea it's hard not to generalize since it's only 1 article, ya know? I tried being as specific as possible without turning it into a 30 page article :)

And yes, you're absolutely right... and hit on something most people don't understand.

It all depends on the target market! ;)

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