Blog posts. Case studies.
Email drip campaigns.
Is it just me, or is everyone scrambling to add to the deluge of long content in an effort to attract new readers, additional email subscribers, and more leads that can be turned into customers?
Given the still growing popularity of inbound marketing, the flood of content promises to get even bigger.
Of course, there’s a good reason for the deluge: It works.
According to HubSpot’s latest State of Inbound industry report:
“Inbound campaigns achieve higher ROI than outbound. This holds true across different company sizes and budgets… Every company [HubSpot] surveyed—regardless of marketing spend—was three times as likely to see a higher ROI on inbound marketing campaigns than on outbound.”
But HubSpot’s report doesn’t say anything about the type or length of content that successful organizations are running…
What works best? How long should it be?
And what else should you keep in mind while creating content?
Inside This Mega-Post
- Why your content should be short.
- Why your content should be long.
- Forget long vs short. What do people actually read?
- So which is better for you: long or short content?
Why your content should be short.
According to a presentation at Forbes.com with the clunky title: How to Make Your Blog Get Real Attention, aspiring content writers should:
“Write short, pithy posts. After 750 words—or sometimes after only half that—you risk losing your reader’s attention.”
Most content producers appear to take that advice very seriously.
The average post on WordPress is just 280 words long (according to WP CEO, Matt Mullenweg).
Most never get read by more than a handful of people.
But some short content does get shared and seen by hundreds of thousands of readers.
3 sites making a big impact with short content…:
1. SETH GODIN
Pop-marketer Seth Godin made his career out of encouraging readers to do good work and get noticed. Seth is famous for his short, daily blog posts on whatever topic strikes him. Measured by how much his posts are shared and read, Seth’s short content is incredibly successful.
One of Seth’s recent posts measures just 57 words, not including the headline: “But what will I tell the others?” That tiny post got 32 retweets and 50 likes on Twitter. Plus another 199 likes between Google Plus and Facebook, as well as 206 LinkedIn shares. Not a bad result for this very short content.
Thanks in part to Seth’s recognized authority, that post comes up as the #1 search result for the query “but what will I tell the others?” The next five results are all bible verses, which more than a few people also consider an authoritative source.
Short content comes with the temptation to dumb down ideas to the point of ridiculousness. Some would argue Seth does that. True or not, short content works for his audience.
Admittedly, Seth’s case is exceptional. But he’s not the only one engaging an audience with short content. In fact, others are doing it ever better than he is.
2. I F***ING LOVE SCIENCE
Steve Rayson at BuzzSumo recently posted a case study about I F***ing Love Science’s use of short-form content.
IFLS’s top performing content is overwhelmingly under 1,000 words in length. The longer their content, the less social engagement it gets on average.
IFLS recently posted about Dutch police training eagles to take out drones. The article included a photo and just 332 words. In a little more than 24 hours it earned 88,057 likes, 18,445 shares and more than 3,600 comments on Facebook. And even more engagement on IFLS’s website. People love sharing this kind of content.
Those are the kinds of numbers any organization would love to have. In fact, many are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for significantly less engagement.
One more example that demonstrates organizations can succeed with short content…
Disney World Parks has great success with short posts on their blog. Every day Disney employees post several short articles, averaging just over 200 words each. And fans love the steady stream of princesses, fireworks and behind-the-scenes information.
This post shared last week is simply a photo with a 68 word caption. It got 557 likes, 36 shares and 13 comments on Facebook, 97 retweets and 479 favorites on Twitter, as well as several pins on Pinterest. Not the same level of activity that IFL Science gets, but not bad compared to the vast majority of online content.
I did a quick analysis of a week’s worth of Disney’s posts at the end of January 2016 (29 of them) to see if post length affected shares and retweets. According to my very small data set, it does. Posts under 200 words (the shortest was 30 words) averaged 108 shares and retweets. Posts over 250 words (the longest was 548) averaged 97 shares and retweets—10% fewer shares than the shorter posts received.
Seth, Disney and IFLS prove that it is possible to successfully engage your tribe online with short content.
But you are not Seth, Disney or IFL Science.
So if you’re going to build a content strategy that uses short posts to attract attention to your site, you need to make sure you do everything that makes short content successful online.
Want to succeed with short content? Keep it BRIEF.
Sites that do short content well have 5 things in common. To succeed with your own short content, make sure that it includes the following:
B—Big Fan Base. Organizations with successful short content already have a massive audience. IFL Science has an amazing 21 million Facebook fans and 185,000 Twitter followers. Seth Godin has more than 300,000 fans on Facebook and another half million Twitter followers. Disney Parks Blog has 384,00 Facebook fans and 1.1 million Twitter followers. Posting quality content to a massive audience will naturally result in lots of shares.
Note: If you don’t have that many fans, there’s never been a better time than now to start posting great content regularly and building your list.
R—Remarkable Content. Each of these sites shares content that you won’t find anywhere else. Pithy observations. Counter-intuitive ideas. Well-loved characters. Information that awes and inspires. Short posts (especially those under 300 words) face an uphill battle when it comes to SEO. So, if your short content isn’t worth talking about, it will get lost.
I—Images that are Eye-Catching and Compelling. A drawing of a princess. A photo of a black hole. Elton John in concert. You’re competing with a billion other web pages. Without a striking image, short content doesn’t stand a chance.
E—Every Day (Or Close to It). Successful short content is posted consistently. Seth has posted every single day for almost 14 years. Disney and IFLS post several times a day. They don’t miss. Their fans expect it and look forward to it. Posting every day has the advantage of maximizing the opportunities for followers to see new content every time they go online.
F— Focused on a Single Idea. Each post is about one thing and one thing only—a single idea that readers will think is worth sharing. You won’t find link round-ups or meandering copy on the sites mentioned above. Focus is critical for short content.
Getting noticed with short copy is hard. If your content doesn’t have all five characteristics, it will struggle to find an audience and earn shares or links.
What’s worse, short content tends to have a short shelf life. Which means your audience may talk about it today but tomorrow they need new BRIEF content or they’ll disengage. Which leads us to…
Why your content should be long.
It used to be that you could post a short, 500-word article about a something (like say long blog posts) and your content stood a chance of appearing near the top of the search results.
Then came Google’s Panda update that took aim at “thin” content.
Suddenly SEO experts were telling clients not just to create better and longer content, but also to remove all content less than 300 words from their sites.
An easy way to fatten up your thin content is to make it longer. But should you?
Long content keeps interested readers on your site longer. When done well, it helps communicate that you are an expert on the subject. And long content gives you an opportunity to shape the world and educate. Even if your article doesn’t get a lot of immediate attention, it’s out there ready to educate when readers find it.
But long content is much harder to write. Ideas that can be easily expressed in a few hundred words become boring and repetitive when stretched to 2,000 or more. It’s like turning a short story into a movie. (Remember how hard it was to sit through the movie-length How the Grinch Stole Christmas? That was a story that needed 22 minutes, not 90.)
Writing long content requires research. Most organizations don’t have employees with enough bandwidth to spend a day doing research plus another day to create content. Which is why only 15% of all web content is more than 1,000 words long.
2 sites making an even bigger impact with long content…:
For the right audiences, long posts are exactly what it takes.
1. The Pioneer Woman
That’s what Ree Drummond does. She writes at ThePioneerWoman.com. Her blog, started in 2006, is massively popular. She has 11X more followers on Facebook than Seth Godin—3,311,500 of them. Her posts routinely get hundreds of comments, thousands of shares, and tens of thousands of likes.
Every. Single. Post.
The articles on her site are often long, step-by-step directions for making things like a macaroni salad, bruschetta, or a sandwich. 1,337 words and 32 photos on how to make a hummus wrap. 1,407 words and 25 photos about how to make seriously delicious-looking grilled tenderloin. 1,431 words and 43 photos on how to make a cheese sandwich.
You read that right. 1,431 words about a cheese sandwich.
That post about tenderloin? 30,000 likes. 12,000 shares. 670 comments on Facebook and another 476 comments on her site.
And the #2 search result for “grilled tenderloin recipe”.
Since launching her blog, Ree Drummond has published 7 books and a stars in a television series on the Food Network. So long content appears to be working very well for her.
I hear you saying, “Yeah, Rob, but the Pioneer Woman is a real person. Someone people want to connect with. Is this kind of content strategy transferable to startups and other small businesses?”
Absolutely. Which brings me to the second example of killer long content…
You’ve heard of Buffer, right? It’s a social media scheduling app. After Buffer’s founders launched their app, they reached out to TechCrunch, Mashable and other blogs asking them for PR about their app. Nobody would write about them. They had no connections. And no credibility.
So they set up a company blog.
For the first few months, they wrote about social media and how to use Buffer to maximize its effectiveness. But when the content strategy switched from posting about Twitter and Facebook to posting in-depth articles about growing a new business, psychology, technology and user design, it took off. Things completely unrelated to their core product were finding a big audience with potential customers.
Posts like “Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity” and “29 Free Internet Tools to Improve Your Marketing Starting Today” topped 1,800 words—none of which has to do with the Buffer app or social media.
Both were shared thousands of times of Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn and Pinterest.
These long articles not only got lots of readers, shares and links, but also attracted the attention of TechCrunch and Mashable, the sites that refused to write about them when they launched.
Today Buffer runs four blogs, posting long content (and some shorter content) from a variety of writers several times a week. And they’ve raised almost $4 million in venture funding.
That’s the power of long content.
When compared to short content, long web content currently has 2 big advantages. One is the ability to get more social shares. Forget what you read above about short content being shared more often—those are exceptions to the rule.
In 2015, Moz and BuzzSumo teamed up to analyze over one million articles, posts and webpages to determine what factors influence earned shares and backlinks.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of new content doesn’t get shared at all. If people are reading it, they simply don’t think it’s worth sending on to their friends. But the content that did get shared was long, research-backed or opinion journalism.
Analysis showed that while 85% of all web content is less than 1,000 words long, long-form content of more than 1,000 words “consistently gets higher average shares and significantly higher average links” than shorter content. In fact, as copy length increased, both social shares and links from other domains increased.
This confirms a similar study that BuzzSumo conducted a year before: articles between 3,000 and 10,000 words long received nearly twice the shares as content between 0-1,000 words.
Buffer, the guys who love posting long articles, did an audit of all their content and found something similar. Posts on their site that were longer than 2,500 words received more than twice the social shares of posts less than 2,500 words long. Posts under 500 words were barely shared at all.
No wonder Buffer loves long content.
But don’t assume that the large number of shares and links is solely because the content is longer. Long content may just be better at hitting the right emotional note.
According to a fascinating study conducted by researchers at the Wharton School of Business and published in the Journal of Marketing Research, content that arouses certain emotions is more likely to be shared than content that doesn’t arouse emotion. These scientists analyzed every article that appeared in The New York Times for three months and found that the articles that communicated a sense of awe, anxiety or anger were shared significantly more often than others—regardless of how long the content was.
So no matter how long your content is, make sure it’s emotive and interesting so readers “feel” something when they read it.
Don’t be bland.
And don’t be afraid to be controversial.
Longer content ranks higher in search engine results. But this hasn’t always been the case. A few years ago, a short 300-500 word blog post could find it’s way into the top 10 results on Google. Not anymore. While there are exceptions, mostly for authority sites, shorter content doesn’t get it done today.
Last summer, Brian Dean at Backlinko analyzed a million Google search results to identify which factors correlate most with first page search engine results. He was looking at all kinds of factors, not just content length.
Among the most compelling drivers of high-rankings that Brian discovered was longer content. Longer content generally outranks short content. Brian noted:
“the average word count of a Google first page result is 1,890 words.”
Brian’s research supports that done by SerpIQ a few years earlier. This research reported that pages ranked 10th in search results have on average 400 fewer words than pages ranked 1st.
It’s important to note, as with long content and social shares, these data are correlations, which means that longer content is not guaranteed to rank higher.
But it does suggest that something about long content helps drive longer pages higher in Google’s search results.
Forget long vs short. What do people actually read?
The sweet spot for content that ranks well and gets social shares seems to be in the 1,800-2,400 word range.
But it’s one thing to measure content by search rankings, Facebook shares, and retweets. It’s another to say what length is right for readers. What do human beings prefer: long or short content?
To find out, the content-sharing site, Medium, took an in-depth look at the optimal post size for real people. After looking at the data in several ways, they concluded posts that take about 7 minutes to read (roughly 1,600 words) are best for engaging readers. After seven minutes, attention slowly drops off.
So content somewhere between 1,600 words (for readers) and 2,450 words (for search engines) seems to be the sweet spot.
Want to succeed with long content? Use your WORDS.
If long content is so great, why isn’t there more of it?
Because long content is exceptionally hard to do well.
Pioneer woman takes dozens of photos, then painstakingly adds copy and captions for every post. Buffer’s writers spend hours researching their topics. Most of Copy Hackers’s most shared posts took more than 40 hours to research, write and edit. It takes serious effort, extreme discipline and a “long game strategy” to brainstorm new ideas, research to find compelling information, and bring it all together while making it coherent.
Are you ready to create long content for your site? Then make sure to use your WORDS by making sure your articles are:
W—Well Researched. If you’re going to write long, include plenty of examples, case studies, and other information that will interest your readers. Great long content should be based on more than one or two sources. Do lots of research before you sit down to write.
O—Outstanding Content. Short or long, the content you produce won’t stand out from millions of other websites unless it’s truly remarkable. Better still, if your content triggers an emotional response like anger, awe, or anxiety, it’s more likely to earn shares and links from your readers.
R—Regularly Posted. You don’t need to post long content every single day. Or even several times a week. But you do need to post on a regular basis. One or two pieces of long content aren’t going to get the job done. Of course, the more you post, the more likely you are to succeed.
D—Designed to Encourage Reading. Long content without paragraph breaks, illustrations, subheads, call-outs, photos, and other interesting graphics won’t get read or shared. The truth is many readers will scan your long content looking for the part that answers their questions. Make sure the layout is designed to be scanable.
S—Substantive. The idea you write about needs to be a big enough to fill 2,000 words without getting repetitive or boring. But that doesn’t mean you can only write about complex subjects. If Pioneer Woman can write 1,400 words about a cheese sandwich, you can probably find plenty to say about your topic too.
So which is better for you: long or short content?
60% of all organic clicks go to the top three organic results. And 75% of users never scroll past the first page of search results. So if you get the majority of your site visitors from organic search, you’ll want to write long content that gets ranked by the search engines.
But if you’ve got a built-in audience that engages with you in social channels and your content is so interesting that it practically shares itself, short content may be enough to get your prospects interacting with your organization.
If you don’t know what works for you today, you need to test.
Post ten to twelve compelling short articles on your site. Then add another ten to twelve interesting long articles (like cornerstone content or skyscraper posts). And watch to see which does better. Which posts get more traffic? Which get comments or shares? Which keeps customers on your site? Which drives conversions? Ultimately your audience will determine the kind of content you create.