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Determining the Right Email Copy Length for Hillsdale College

Published by Jeff Giddens

Most non-profits have an appeal letter they send out to their donors each month.

Often, the copy of these letters ends up in an email in some form. But the mechanics of what make a strong direct mail appeal letter don’t always translate to digital. Additionally, people read emails differently than they do a letter — so while the themes can be the same, the way that theme is articulated through the two mediums needs to be different. So Hillsdale developed a test to figure out what would be the right email copy length to motivate donors to act.

First a little background:

Founded in 1844, Hillsdale College is an independent liberal arts college dedicated to teaching students the founding principles of liberty that has made America great.

The question was asked about their monthly fundraising email – what is the right email copy length? Because the goal of the email is to “just get a click” to get readers to the landing page, how much should be communicated within the email to accomplish the goal?

A short and sweet email with a teaser line may get more clicks, but those who click the link are likely to be less motivated to give. The goal is to drive not just clicks – but motivated clicks. So what is the right email copy length to accomplish that?

The Test:

Two emails were sent to Hillsdale’s email file for their monthly appeal. The control email was a shorter email concluding with a teaser to the landing page. The treatment email was a longer email with persuasive copy intended to develop the value and lead motivated people to the landing page.

The test was designed to find out the ideal length of copy that will motivate donors to generate the most revenue.

Email Copy Length Test
Results and Learnings:

The shorter email copy drove twice as much traffic to the landing page, but with little response. The longer email copy produced a 411.5% increase in conversion rate.

These test results revealed a few important points:

  • People make continual decisions as they read. The reader effectively is making a series of decisions called “micro-yeses,” as they read. If they agree with what is being presented, then they are likely to move closer to making a gift.
  • Not all clicks are created equal. Even though the shorter email drove more traffic to the landing page, the longer email converted more donors. The shorter email did not give enough information to persuade the reader, while the longer email unpacked the value proposition enough to motivate more readers to give.
  • Shorter is not always better. There is prevailing thought that people don’t read online, so we must present them with short scannable blurbs of copy. While short copy might convert in certain situations, it’s also been beaten by long copy in other situations. There are no such thing as “best practices”.  That’s why continual testing is so important.

Now, you may ask — does this mean that longer copy is always better? The answer is a resounding no! What this test shows is that you have to test and develop understandings about your donors. What works for Hillsdale has no guarantee to work for your organization. Donors behave very differently from organization to organization, and you must keep testing to find what your donors respond to best.

You can see the actual case study for this test in our research library here »

Published by Jeff Giddens

Jeff was the 1994 Georgia State Spelling Bee champion.