A common question about content marketing is ‘how long should my content be?’. Is it better to write long-form content, or short content?
The answer is: it depends… This might seem like I’m sitting on the fence, but life is rarely black and white. Why should content marketing be any different?
My personal view is that content length is an irrelevant question. Word count is just another vanity metric. A single characteristic like this is not a reliable predictor of success.
If you’re thinking about how to make your content more link- and share-worthy, don’t even consider length.
Why Content Length is Irrelevant
I’ve noticed a few articles recently, advising content marketers to focus on writing long-form content. It gets more links. It gets more shares.
I have two problems with this advice. Firstly, it’s so vague that it’s impractical. What does ‘write long articles’ tell you about writing quality articles?
Secondly, I believe attributing the success of a piece of content to length is wrong. The idea that long content gets more links and shares may be true – but is this really anything to do with length?
I believe it’s next to impossible to do a fair analysis of content based on length for a couple of reasons:
- People who write content because they feel they have to, probably wont write much. They won’t spend much time promoting it either. Low quality + low reach = low performance.
- Marketers focused on writing high-quality content will usually be more comprehensive, and go in-depth. If they’ve spent hours or days creating that content, they want to promote it. High quality + high reach = high performance.
Analyses showing that long-form content is better are flawed. Writing low-quality, short content is easier, so there’s a significantly higher volume of this form of content.
You might look at my second point and think ‘gotcha!’. Comprehensive? In-depth? It’s the same advice, packaged differently.
The implications of articles claiming long content performs better is that you should write more. If you take the ‘write more’ advice to the extreme, you could write 90% crap and get away with it. This doesn’t happen if you do this with my second point.
Articles propagating the myth that long-form content is better don’t completely ignore quality. But the focus is disproportionately on length, rather than how to actually create something which is likely to be shared and linked to. In a recent post on Search Engine Land, The SEO and User Science Behind Long-Form Content, the author mentions ‘long-form’ 51 times. How many times is ‘quality’ mentioned? Three.
Quality isn’t getting completely ignored, but the focus is disproportionately on writing length.
Correlation is not causation. It’s tempting to go for the simplest answer, but the truth is usually more complex. Embrace that complexity.
Forget Bean Counters, What About Word Counters?
Setting a minimum word count is common practice (especially when outsourcing). While I understand the use of this, it can be detrimental. Instead of focusing on creating something which is top quality, the writer is focusing on hitting a word target and what they can write to fill it up.
What usually happens when the target is hit? They stop. It might not matter if 70% is filler, or if there’s a lot more left unsaid.
I’m not sure how the publishing industry works, but I sometimes get the impression that authors have to write a certain number of pages. I sometimes read a 400-500 page book, but leave with a sense that it would have been much better if it had been about two-thirds shorter. Not because I want to read less, but because I find the messages are a lot clearer and powerful.
8 Tips for Practical Content Marketing
Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.
I’m no guru or expert. I have no books to my name. At the time of writing I have about 5 years experience in marketing. There’s a lot I don’t know. Feel free to disagree with what follows, but don’t unthinkingly disregard it.
Unfortunately my advice isn’t an out of the box solution – you need to spend some serious time on an ongoing basis thinking about how to apply it.
- Focus on substance, not the word count. Whether you’re writing a 500 word article or 7,000 word one, what’s important is that it’s all killer and no filler.
- Understand your audience. If you’re an ecommerce retailer, it’s important that you understand the buying process, so you know what kind of content you should be producing.
- If you write long-form, make sure it’s easy to read. This means using headings, and breaking content into different sections for easier reading.
- Focus on writing concisely. This is actually separate to my point on content length – it’s about making your point as powerful as possible by cutting out words that don’t matter. Thomas Jefferson once said that “the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.“
- Plan content ahead. Know what you want to write, before you write it. You should know whether you’ve aiming to create a comprehensive guide which needs to be backed up with research and lots of detail.
- Research your content industry. Look at what related businesses are publishing, and try to understand what content people are most interested in, and how you can make even better content than everyone else.
- Promote! You can create the best blog post in the world, but if nobody sees it, it doesn’t matter. Websites like Mashable and Buzzfeed aren’t successful just because of the content quality. They have a huge following which has grown over time, so they reach hundreds of thousands whenever they publish something.
- Measure content performance. You’ll probably come up with duds along the way, so spend time trying to understand what content works for you and what doesn’t. A lot of it will be trial and error.
I have no problem with long-form content. I just think there are more important questions worthy of your time than how long your next piece of content should be.