Does Long-Form Content Have a Place in Digital Marketing?
Written by Steven Thomas Kent
We all know why marketing content creators like long-form content, right?
It’s because, deep down, we’re a bunch of frustrated artists: We may never finish our Great American Novel, but we can still shoehorn our literary ambitions into the Great American Blog Post.
The most prominent data regarding online reader behavior doesn’t seem to provide much ammunition to counter that charge, either: Certainly we’re not writing long-form content because lots of people finish reading it. For example, a 2008 article by Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group — titled “How Little Do Users Read?”— built on data from an academic study of online readers to conclude that Web users read about 20 percent of the text on an average page they visit.
Others who have tried to study the behavior of Web readers tend to corroborate this dim view of their attention spans. In 2013, Slate partnered with a data scientist from the traffic analysis firm Chartbeat to determine that only 25 percent of readers scrolled past the 1,600th pixel on a typical Slate page.
That’s right: Not 1,600 words. 1,600 pixels. My MacBook Pro has a monitor resolution of about 1,280 by 800 pixels, so that’s about two laptop screens worth of content. On a standard Slate page, the first 1,600 pixels include a big, bold headline, a photo that’s about 400 pixels tall, and only about 180 words of copy.
So Why Even Bother with Long-Form?
Despite these conclusions — which are enough to make a hard-working writer tear their hair out — a number of forward-thinking marketing firms continue to press forward with innovative long-form content, and their efforts have yielded some encouraging results.
In 2014, writer Josh Steimle published an overview of a number of sources, both anecdotal and scientific, that indicate long-form content can actually deliver better results than short pieces, both in terms of SEO rankings and client conversion rates. For example, the keyword research company SerpIQ performed an analysis in 2014 of the top 10 search results for over 20,000 keywords; they found that the average content length of the top 10 results across all keywords fell between 2,000 and 2,500 words.
However, the benefits Steimle outlined for long-form digital marketing content come with a few caveats: Long pieces only succeed under certain conditions, and occasional long pieces perform worse for SEO and visibility purposes than brief posts published at regular intervals — which doesn’t mean that long-form pieces aren’t worth undertaking, only that they can’t be allowed to interrupt a consistent supply of concise, informative content.
At the end of his piece, Steimle boils down the conditions that make for successful long-form content into a number of key points. He instructs content makers to, among other tips:
- Create content we would read.
- Include actionable tips that generate real value. (I see what you did there, Steimle.)
- Make our content 1,200 words or longer.
- Tell a story.
- Don’t sell.
- Tell secrets. (In other words, don’t try to keep professional expertise up our sleeves.)
- Include imagery and great design.
Avoiding the Middle of the Road
So what conclusions can we draw from the consistent data that show shorter is better when it comes to Web content, plus the modicum of evidence that says long-form content has its place too?
The business news site, Quartz, for one, seems to have taken these two trends to their logical endpoint. Editor-in-Chief Kevin Delaney has told multiple outlets that Quartz attempts to publish only articles that are less than 500 words or longer than 800, eschewing anything in the middle. Speaking as a working freelance journalist, that directive would disqualify about 95 percent of the reporting assignments I’ve received from various websites and newspapers over the past seven years or so.
(Also, just for fun, check the references below for the DigiDay page where Delaney gave an interview, then note the URL of that page. Someone at DigiDay has a sly sense of humor that I appreciate very much.)
The potential success of Quartz’s strategy — and as an experienced reporter and content creator, I believe it’s a strong one — lies not so much in the inherent weakness of 700-word articles as it does the online news industry’s pathological over-reliance on them. Even if pieces come along that seem to merit exactly 700 words, Quartz stands to gain more by kicking away a longstanding crutch for online journalism and differentiating themselves from their competitors than they could ever lose by truncating or overextending a few pieces here and there.
Think Before You Go Long
Perhaps the most wrong-headed potential takeaway from all this investigation is that every piece of content needs to be longer in general: the last thing that the internet and Web readers need is reams of poorly-written 2,000-word “think pieces,” instead of piles of badly-composed 500-word blasts.
Garrett Moon, a blogger and designer for the marketing calendar app company CoSchedule, illustrated this point in 2014 when he performed his own investigation of search rankings as they relate to average page length. Moon compiled the top results for a number of “long-tail” keywords — search queries that would require a written article for an answer, as opposed to bullet points or an event listing.
The results demonstrated that there was no particular length that guaranteed a top ranking: the number one result for “how to groom a beard” was 2,941 words, and the top hit for “how to hypnotize someone” clocked in at 3,323. The first page displayed for “how to write a cover letter,” meanwhile, was only 957 words long. Tellingly, though, all but one of the search terms yielded an average post size of more than 1,000 words, and the average length of the top search results overall was 1,700 words.
These results jibe with what we know about SEO and with a writer’s common sense; namely that readers value informative content from authoritative sources. Even if they don’t often read an entire 1,700-word piece, they’ll value the work and expertise that they see going into a long-form piece enough to skim it for the info they want, share it, and link to it. This doesn’t mean that longer is better when it comes to establishing an authoritative voice on a particular topic, only that there’s value in taking an article to its appropriate conclusion — not cutting it off or stretching it to satisfy an arbitrary word count.
At the very least, the evidence on hand provides some evidence that marketing firms should empower content creators to stretch their limits when the topic at hand and their level of interest calls for it. There’s potential for a lot of tangible benefit when a long-form piece goes right — and hey, if we writers and designers get to scratch a little of that artistic itch along the way, then that never hurts anybody, now does it?
Manjoo, F. (2013, June 6). You won’t finish this article. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/06/how_people_read_online_why_you_won_t_finish_this_article.html
Morrissey, B. (2015, May 1). Quartz’s Kevin Delaney: Time to kill the 800-word article. DigiDay. Retrieved from http://digiday.com/publishers/wait-this-is-800-words/
Moon, G. (n.d.). 5 things that will change your mind about long-form content marketing. CoSchedule Blog. Retrieved from http://coschedule.com/blog/long-form-content/
Nielsen, J. (2008, May 6). How little do users read? Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-little-do-users-read/
Steimle, J. (2014, July 15). Why long-form content marketing works and why it doesn’t. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshsteimle/2014/07/15/why-long-form-content-marketing-works-and-why-it-doesnt/ – 6893a5bb28b6
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