Five Reasons Why Long-Form Content Kicks Shorty’s Butt

by | Jul 12, 2017 | Content Marketing Theory, Education, Writing

Despite shrivelling attention spans, long-form content is a great way to build relationships with your audience.

If you write in a web-friendly way and prioritise quality, you will get rewarded with SEO mojo and authority in the minds of your customers.

In the beginning, there was the exploding Chicken Kiev.

My lack of familiarity with this butter-bloated, crumb-covered Russian ball of fowl made me confuse it with a standard dumpling. Vigorously, I dug into my avian orb as if nothing but fluffy uniformity awaited at its core.

The result was a violently bespattered tablecloth to my left, the buttery droplets radiating like a Wifi symbol, greasy witnesses to the powers populating my planet of poultry. They missed my neighbour’s nicely ironed chinos by the width of a feather.

</chicken puns>

Chicken Supernova

Chicken Supernova

So my neighbour (a fine chap I just met), the lady to his left (who I knew a bit) and I had a good laugh and tacitly decided that, after surviving this trauma together, our relationship had instantly graduated to a level where British politeness shares a seat with a healthy helping of candour.

Because when we moved on to discussing our jobs and the topic came to my work in Content Marketing, they showed how sceptical they were about the value of long-form content. You know, blog posts of 1,500 words and more, white papers and eBooks.

“I start reading and when I see that it goes on and on, I don’t continue”, our female companion said.

This statement reminds me of people who are surprised at Google’s business model: “Really? Those little text ads make all the money? I NEVER click on those!” Well, I also barely click on ads. But in 2016, people somewhere in the world clicked around 50 billion times on them humble snippets.

Similarly, there must be SOME people in the world who read all this slew of long blog posts and white papers that companies are churning out. Would they be doing it otherwise?

In fact, there’s several good reasons why long-form content is great, and every company doing Content Marketing should consider having it in their arsenal.

1. Google LOVES long form content

Google’s algorithms are a mystery, but among SEO experts there is practical unanimity that, things being equal, long form content kicks its short siblings’ butt all over the place.

The average article length on organic search result in the #1 slot is 1,890 words.

Recently, I did my own little study for a client. As they are in the HR space, I googled four reasonably broad HR topics to see how long the #1 organic search results would be.

Besides the evidence, it also makes sense conceptually. In the last few years, Google has become better at recognising quality. Annoying gimmicks like keyword stuffing have lost their impact as the benevolent Eye of Google is able to find the best content, even if it’s hiding under piles of keyword-optimised, but poor and unoriginal rubble.

Just imagine primary colours around the eye.

Does this mean that Google equates long content with quality? Of course not! But Google’s predilection for the long form is a clear sign that other things being equal, a long article will give you more value than a short one, especially if it is well written – which brings us to the next point.

2. People read differently on the Web – length doesn’t hurt

People read at an average speed of 200 words per minute. So an article of 2,000 words will take 10 minutes to read, right?

Wrong.

People read differently on the web than they read a book. They skim and skip and jump and scroll and saunter from paragraph to paragraph, they start with the conclusion, and end with the introduction.

But they also read deeply if the quality is good.

For example, one of my clients has recently asked me to speak to some of his customers, so I decided to brush up on my interviewing skills. I googled “how to interview like a journalist” and found this 3,700 word monster.

Of course I didn’t spend 18.5 minutes reading the damn thing. Instead, I skimmed the headings and focused on the 7-8 items that caught my attention. I don’t think I ever reached the end of the article.

When people argue against long-form content, they say that users don’t finish reading long articles.

I say this doesn’t matter.

The way sites like Medium measure the “read ratio” as a proxy of people finishing an article, is

I did an experiment once where I published a post on Medium, immediately looked it up in another browser (= I was the first reader) and race-scrolled to the bottom of it. Medium counted me as a reader and my article’s read ratio was 100%. This makes no sense. But it’s easy to measure.

What matters much more is if the reader got value out of a blog post. And for that, they don’t have to finish reading.

The flipside for writers is: You can lose your audience any second. So learn to write in a way that keeps them engaged. Prioritise quality, include summaries, images, sub-headings, bullet points, smooth transitions between sections, and so on. It’s a skill that can be learned like any other. Online content is a new genre and there’s good and bad craftsmen and artists in it.

When the form is poor, the substance will get lost. So learn to master the medium and length won’t be an issue.

3. Some topics simply require long form

Seriously, what kind of actionable, helpful advice will you be able to give if you cover a question like “How to grow your Twitter follower base” in 400-500 words? You’ll get a few commonplace wisdoms, empty word shells like “engage in a conversation” and examples of Twitter superstars. It’ll be just an illusion of having taught something.

Returning to my example on learning journalist interviewing skills and the 3,700 word article: I found this bit very insightful:

I often struggle with this question of whether to force a narrative on a story or just let it develop. The section above drove the point home to me: If you need to knock out something quickly, have a plan. If you can go in depth and are willing to gamble a bit, let go of preconceptions.

This message would be difficult to convey in all its nuance in less than the 202 words used above, especially if you want to insert expert quotes like the author does. Sure, you could just use the italicised sentence above. But as with any brief advice, there’s a much bigger risk of it going in in one ear and out the other. Elaborating, examples and quotes fill an abstract rule with life and make it more memorable.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
(Saint-Exupéry)

By all means, trim the fat and drop the baggage. But don’t lose your substance because you think you need to cater to everyone with ADD.

4. Long-form content builds relationships

The goal of Content Marketing is to build a relationship with the prospective or existing customer. If you are extremely terse and to the point every time you publish something, you might miss out on forming a genuine connection with your reader.

For example, in this article, I could have plunged straight into my argument. Instead, I gave you the Chicken Kiev story. I think it is entertaining (at least I had fun writing it), and it helps you, the reader, get to know me a little bit and get a feel for my sense of humour. When it comes to building relationships, this is valuable – to open up a bit, to tell a story.

Storytelling time in the land of badly drawn bulbous creatures

Also, long-form content allows you to showcase your expertise in complex topics, which is another way of relationship building.

Yes, I am fully conscious that by telling a a story or going deep into a topic, I might lose some of my potential readers (“Give me facts & information immediately or I’m out”). But then, I don’t want everyone anyway. I want people who enjoy a good (I hope…) read. They will become my customers.

I’d rather have my content polarise and qualify my audience than please everyone.

It’s simple – part of your Content Marketing Strategy is to get to know your audience and find out what kind of content they will enjoy. If they are open to the long form and you are good at writing it – there’s your answer.

Just don’t say that long-form content per se doesn’t work.

(on the topic of Strategy – I wrote a 33-page (i.e. long-form) eBook on the topic of Content Marketing Strategy where I cover customer content research, check it out)

5. Despite all the gadgets and the ADD – people do read

You’d expect that in an era where technology has turned us into Pavlov’s dogs, books, the epitome of long-form-content, would be a folly of forest-dwelling hippies.

Quality time in the family

Well, 2016 was the year with the highest level of book sales ever in the UK. Add on top of this blog readership, then total hours spent reading have skyrocketed.

Sure, some US statistics suggest that people read fewer books than their forebears did 40 years ago. But this doesn’t seem to translate to the UK – readership figures suggest that all is well in that regard. And that is remarkable: In the age of constant attention-fracking technology, people still read books – what a resilient medium it is!

And what’s more, the largest segment of consumers and workers, Millennials, are out-reading older generations across most genres, only bested by the 65+ group in the area of fiction.

Sure, the vast majority of people hunched over their phones on your morning commute are on their socials or watching youtube or fighting with their spouse over Whatsapp.

But many of them are reading on their kindle app or skim through blog posts in their browser.

All that said…

Long-form content is not a goal in itself.

You don’t set out thinking to yourself “Ah what a fine day it is today! I shall knock out a 1,500 word blog post. Hmmm, what will I write about?”

No, you think “Today, I shall write about how to cook exploding food, let’s see where it takes me”.

SEO and content marketing guru Rand Fishkin rightly points out that great content ≠ long-form content and offers various examples of successful short form content.

But that does not contradict my point in this article: The goal is to inform readers as well as possible about a topic they are interested in. Length is not the objective. Value is. Great value can be delivered in 112 words.

My whole point is: In a world where ink and paper are not an issue, we can give each topic the space it deserves without having to artificially constrain ourselves to a predetermined length.

Bad writers deem this a free pass at writing rambling, unedited, stream-of-consciousness-style content. But I’m confident that Google will punish the wafflers in the end and that amazing, massive, high quality articles like these will prevail.

Unlike my sceptical dinner companions and victims to my chicken supernova, I am convinced that long-form content is as dead as books are – not at all.

But does it sell?

Oh, well that is an entirely different question and one that we will explore in a later blog post. Of course it does sell, but don’t take our word for it.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the blog post as soon as it’s out.

By the way, this post is 2,019 words long. 🙂

 

Image credits: Adobe Stock, Giphy, Peacock PanachePinterest

Despite shrivelling attention spans, long-form content is a great way to build relationships with your audience.

If you write in a web-friendly way and prioritise quality, you will get rewarded with SEO mojo and authority in the minds of your customers.

In the beginning, there was the exploding Chicken Kiev.

My lack of familiarity with this butter-bloated, crumb-covered Russian ball of fowl made me confuse it with a standard dumpling. Vigorously, I dug into my avian orb as if nothing but fluffy uniformity awaited at its core.

The result was a violently bespattered tablecloth to my left, the buttery droplets radiating like a Wifi symbol, greasy witnesses to the powers populating my planet of poultry. They missed my neighbour’s nicely ironed chinos by the width of a feather. </chicken puns>

Chicken Supernova

Chicken Supernova

So my neighbour (a fine chap I just met), the lady to his left (who I knew a bit) and I had a good laugh and tacitly decided that, after surviving this trauma together, our relationship had instantly graduated to a level where British politeness shares a seat with a healthy helping of candour.

Because when we moved on to discussing our jobs and the topic came to my work in Content Marketing, they showed how sceptical they were about the value of long-form content. You know, blog posts of 1,500 words and more, white papers and eBooks.

“I start reading and when I see that it goes on and on, I don’t continue”, our female companion said.

This statement reminds me of people who are surprised at Google’s business model: “Really? Those little text ads make all the money? I NEVER click on those!” Well, I also barely click on ads. But in 2016, people somewhere in the world clicked around 50 billion times on them humble snippets.

Similarly, there must be SOME people in the world who read all this slew of long blog posts and white papers that companies are churning out. Would they be doing it otherwise?

In fact, there’s several good reasons why long-form content is great, and every company doing Content Marketing should consider having it in their arsenal.

1. Google LOVES long form content

Google’s algorithms are a mystery, but among SEO experts there is practical unanimity that, things being equal, long form content kicks its short siblings’ butt all over the place.

The average article length on organic search result in the #1 slot is 1,890 words.

Recently, I did my own little study for a client. As they are in the HR space, I googled four reasonably broad HR topics to see how long the #1 organic search results would be.

“Take Employee pulse” → #1 result 2,722 words

“How to deal with Millennials” –> #1 result 1070 words

“How to motivate top performers” –> #1 result 1,590 words

“Improve my presentations skills” –> #1 result, 1,950 words

Besides the evidence, it also makes sense conceptually. In the last few years, Google has become better at recognising quality. Annoying gimmicks like keyword stuffing have lost their impact as the benevolent Eye of Google is able to find the best content, even if it’s hiding under piles of keyword-optimised, but poor and unoriginal rubble.

Just imagine primary colours around the eye.

Does this mean that Google equates long content with quality? Of course not! But Google’s predilection for the long form is a clear sign that other things being equal, a long article will give you more value than a short one, especially if it is well written – which brings us to the next point.

2. People read differently on the Web – length doesn’t hurt

People read at an average speed of 200 words per minute. So an article of 2,000 words will take 10 minutes to read, right?

Wrong.

People read differently on the web than they’d read a book. They skim and skip and jump and scroll and saunter from paragraph to paragraph, they start with the conclusion, and end with the introduction.

But they also read deeply if the quality is good.

For example, one of my clients has recently asked me to speak to some of his customers, so I decided to brush up on my interviewing skills. I googled “how to interview like a journalist” and found this 3,700 word monster. Of course I didn’t spend 18.5 minutes reading the damn thing. Instead, I skimmed the headings and focused on the 7-8 items that caught my attention. I don’t think I ever reached the end of the article. When people argue against long-form content, they say that users don’t finish reading long articles. I say this doesn’t matter. The way sites like Medium measure the “read ratio” as a proxy of people finishing an article, is

I did an experiment once where I published a post on Medium, immediately looked it up in another browser (= I was the first reader) and race-scrolled to the bottom of it. Medium counted me as a reader and my article’s read ratio was 100%. This makes no sense. But it’s easy to measure.

What matters much more is if the reader got value out of a blog post. And for that, they don’t have to finish reading.

The flipside for writers is: You can lose your audience any second. So learn to write in a way that keeps them engaged. Prioritise quality, include summaries, images, sub-headings, bullet points, smooth transitions between sections, and so on. It’s a skill that can be learned like any other. Online content is a new genre and there’s good and bad craftsmen and artists in it.

When the form is poor, the substance will get lost. So learn to master the medium and length won’t be an issue.

3. Some topics simply require long form

Seriously, what kind of actionable, helpful advice will you be able to give if you cover a question like “How to grow your Twitter follower base” in 400-500 words? You’ll get a few commonplace wisdoms, empty word shells like “engage in a conversation” and examples of Twitter superstars. It’ll be just an illusion of having taught something.

Returning to my example on learning journalist interviewing skills and the 3,700 word article: I found this bit very insightful:

I often struggle with this question of whether to force a narrative on a story or just let it develop. The section above drove the point home to me: If you need to knock out something quickly, have a plan. If you can go in depth and are willing to gamble a bit, let go of preconceptions.

This message would be difficult to convey in all its nuance in less than the 202 words used above, especially if you want to insert expert quotes like the author does. Sure, you could just use the italicised sentence above. But as with any brief advice, there’s a much bigger risk of it going in in one ear and out the other. Elaborating, examples and quotes fill an abstract rule with life and make it more memorable.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
(Saint-Exupéry)

By all means, trim the fat and drop the baggage. But don’t lose your substance because you think you need to cater to everyone with ADD.

4. Long-form content is great for building relationships

The goal of Content Marketing is to build a relationship with the prospective or existing customer. If you are extremely terse and to the point every time you publish something, you might miss out on forming a genuine connection with your reader. For example, in this article, I could have plunged straight into my argument. Instead, I gave you the Chicken Kiev story. I think it is entertaining (at least I had fun writing it), and it helps you, the reader, get to know me a little bit and get a feel for my sense of humour. When it comes to building relationships, this is valuable – to open up a bit, to tell a story.

Storytelling time in the land of badly drawn bulbous creatures

Also, long-form content allows you to showcase your expertise in complex topics, which is another way of relationship building.

Yes, I am fully conscious that by telling a a story or going deep into a topic, I might lose some of my potential readers (“Give me facts & information immediately or I’m out”). But then, I don’t want everyone anyway. I want people who enjoy a good (I hope…) read. They will become my customers.

I’d rather have my content polarise and qualify my audience than please everyone.

It’s simple – part of your Content Marketing Strategy is to get to know your audience and find out what kind of content they will enjoy. If they are open to the long form and you are good at writing it – there’s your answer.

Just don’t say that long-form content per se doesn’t work.

(on the topic of Strategy – I wrote a 33-page (i.e. long-form) eBook on the topic of Content Marketing Strategy where I cover customer content research, check it out)

5. Despite all the gadgets and the ADD – people do read

You’d expect that in an era where technology has turned us into Pavlov’s dogs, books, the epitome of long-form-content, would be a folly of forest-dwelling hippies.

Quality time in the family

Well, 2016 was the year with the highest level of book sales ever in the UK. Add on top of this blog readership, then total hours spent reading have skyrocketed.

Sure, some US statistics suggest that people read fewer books than their forebears did 40 years ago. But this doesn’t seem to translate to the UK – readership figures suggest that all is well in that regard. And that is remarkable: In the age of constant attention-fracking technology, people still read books – what a resilient medium it is!

And what’s more, the largest segment of consumers and workers, Millennials, are out-reading older generations across most genres, only bested by the 65+ group in the area of fiction.

Sure, the vast majority of people hunched over their phones on your morning commute are on their socials or watching youtube or fighting with their spouse over Whatsapp.

But many of them are reading on their kindle app or skim through blog posts in their browser.

All that said…

Long-form content is not a goal in itself.

You don’t set out thinking to yourself “Ah what a fine day it is today! I shall knock out a 1,500 word blog post. Hmmm, what will I write about?”

No, you think “Today, I shall write about how to cook exploding food, let’s see where it takes me”.

SEO and content marketing guru Rand Fishkin rightly points out that great content ≠ long-form content and offers various examples of successful short form content.

But that does not contradict my point in this article: The goal is to inform readers as well as possible about a topic they are interested in. Length is not the objective. Value is. Great value can be delivered in 112 words.

My whole point is: In a world where ink and paper are not an issue, we can give each topic the space it deserves without having to artificially constrain ourselves to a predetermined length.

Bad writers deem this a free pass at writing rambling, unedited, stream-of-consciousness-style content. But I’m confident that Google will punish the wafflers in the end and that amazing, massive, high quality articles like these will prevail.

Unlike my sceptical dinner companions and victims to my chicken supernova, I am convinced that long-form content is as dead as books are – not at all.

But does it sell?

Oh, well that is an entirely different question and one that we will explore in a later blog post. Of course it does sell, but don’t take our word for it.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the blog post as soon as it’s out.

By the way, this post is 2,022 words long. 🙂

 

Image credits: Adobe Stock, Giphy, Peacock PanachePinterest

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