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When It Comes to Long-Form Content, It’s Not Just About Word Count

By Dan StasiewskiJun 10, 2015

long-form-content-word-count

You’ve followed all the expert advice and industry secrets you can think of to boost your blog’s performance. Your posts are engaging, they meet the traditional length standard, they don’t over sell…you’re posting enough to appease your audience, you’ve got share buttons integrated and, yeah, you even pull expertise from outside sources to help boost your reputation. But your return/direct traffic is pitiful, brand searches are minuscule, and Google still isn’t ranking your page as high as you hoped. What’s going on?

It could be that your blog posts just aren’t connecting. Long-form content is actually more effective in many instances than medium- or short-form blog posts, and trends show substantially informative articles are perceived more favorably. Why? Some readers actually prefer meatier articles that provide an in-depth look at the topic in which they’re interested. Individuals in a technical field like engineering, medical or executive-level business may simply view short form as less valuable. 

It’s that last sentence that matters most, though. Perceived value of content is a defining brand characteristic these days. Google, social and even individual writers and researchers—they aren’t just looking for any information; they’re looking to utilize the best information for their audiences. Your content may be good “quality,” but it needs to reflect what the audience demands, both yours and the audience of others who benefit from your content. 

There’s a lot that goes into content strategy, but let’s start with length. 

How long are we talking?

The vast majority of experts place the long-form length standard around 1,200-2,000 words, but the truth is — there is no answer for this question. It may be more beneficial to look at the length you don’t want.

Kevin Delaney, editor in chief of the news site Quartz refuses to publish articles that fall in the 500- to 800-word range because, according to his research, they don’t perform well via social media. He created what is known as the Quartz Curve to demonstrate social media success versus length. The Quartz Curve illustrates that either long analysis pieces averaging 1,200 words or short, snappy, topical pieces less than 500 words perform best. What about that sweet spot between 500 and 800 words? It’s a dead zone. 

quartz-curve

And Now, Some Research & Results

Naturally, talk of long form spurred much discussion among SEOs and content marketing thought leaders. Back in 2012, Quick Sprout experimented with content length and social media, based on Moz.com’s own research suggesting longer content got more link backs. On average, they found that longer posts (greater than 1,500 words) received more Facebook likes and Tweets

That same year, SERPIQ reviewed the top 10 search results for more than 20,000 keywords. Once again, the length of content directly influenced placement on search engine rankings, and top performers clocked in at more than 2,300 words!

But that was three years ago? What does that have to do with today’s content performance?

Well, audiences have since doubled-down on the idea, especially as they are looking for content they can read on mobile devices. SnapAgency points to the success of Medium.com as a guide for content length. Medium’s UX, combined with thoughtful articles has made it a popular search and social destination, breaking the top 1000 global sites on Alexa this year. (It’s 690 today.)

Medium’s content expert suggested that a “7-minute” read, or approximately 1,700 words, is the right way to attract readers today. For content marketers, it’s a rule that can act as a guide for producing content that generates the demand you need to be successful in marketing today. But I’d go even further, saying it’s more like a “7-minute” experience these days. You’ll see why next.

7-minute-blog

Why does long-form content work?

I’m a writer. I’ve always been a writer. Length comes easy to me, especially when I’m passionate about something. It’s my authentic brand, and the brand we’ve cultivated at Kuno Creative where it’s combined with amazing design work. But there’s more to long-form content than just a lot of words.

Long-form should cater to what audiences really want, which is valuable, thorough information. Publishing companies have always been great at this, as dtelepathy.com points out here. The New York Times and the Washington Post have utilized research, data and UX design to create substantial long-form content that constructs a narrative around topics that require guidance to digest. They are able to walk audiences through information that would otherwise be indigestible in a standard article format.

Long-form content for brands can provide this same deep, more emotionally charged experience for readers, which is hugely powerful when trying to develop brand loyalty. 

As WordStream pointed out, IBM used long-form content to transform a case study into a human interest piece about how their predictive analysis technology helped the Memphis Police Department better allocate limited resources. The piece worked because readers were connected to a real-life struggle that impacted their community and (by association) their own safety. The article also demonstrated what the technology did, instead of how it worked. That’s an approach to writing about technical topics that’s far more effectual, especially when describing technology to less-than technical buyers. And if you set up your marketing department more like a media company, then these results become easier to achieve.

Highly effective long-form content also gives away secrets or provides actionable tips as a way of upping value. Moz’s free Beginner’s Guide to SEO has more than 1 million visits and more than 36,000 link-backs. It became a foundational piece of information from which readers could build their SEO strategy—an authoritative article at its finest.  

What all this really means…

The point of all this long-form content talk over the years isn’t just about search or social. It’s about presenting your authentic brand to the world through multiple-channels. And long-form might not mean just the number of words on a page anymore. It’s experiential to an extent, and focusing on depth of engagement in time can provide greater insight into how your content represents your brand.

There is room for both deep engagement and quick info-snacks in content marketing. The key is knowing when to use which. Here's a brief guide to help you decide:

Deep may be best for:

  • Brands with sophisticated or highly technical audience members
  • Data-driven stories and analytical topics
  • Readers accessing content with a tablet or desktop computer
  • Educational or informational storytelling
  • Providing an abundance of information at once

Quick may be best for: 

  • Audiences that require quick answers to specific problems
  • Content focusing on large, more general audiences
  • Fun and light storytelling

Whichever you choose, make sure your audience wants it and you aren’t forcing yourself to be something you’re not. (Audiences will see through that in a minute and bounce.)

The long and short of it

Google isn’t judging content based on length alone, and neither are your potential buyers. Longer articles are only an indication of quality if there’s an audience for it. It won’t matter how many words your post does or doesn't have if there’s no demand for it. Inadequately designed content that lacks compelling information is just not going to get action from your audiences or Google.

Is long form going to take more time? Yep. Will it be harder to produce? Probably. But in the right situation, it’s exactly what a business needs to get the results it has been chasing. If your content hasn’t been performing according to your expectations — you might not be giving your readers enough meat!

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The Author

Dan Stasiewski

When he's not talking about marketing data and trends, he's probably in a movie theater... or randomly breaking into song.
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