4 Reasons You Need Long-form Content in a Short-Attention-Span World

September 17, 2014 by

A new client hired me recently to write some web pages for him. He wanted them all short.

Very short.

Now, if you've been a Technical Response subscriber for long, you may have guessed that "very short" is not my usual thing. It's pretty obvious I lean more toward "in-depth."

Not that there's anything wrong with short-form content. My new client finds his market responds better to short web pages and minimalist website design. Short content works for him, as it does for many B2B marketers.

Attention Deficit Marketing

After all, it's a short-attention-span world. Like the rest of us, today's business decision makers tend to be scanners first, readers only when necessary, especially online. Thus, the current trend in marketing is toward brief, easily digested content: short blog posts, tweets, online videos and infographics.

So why am I not on the bandwagon?

Well, like I said, I have nothing against short-form content. I simply think companies benefit from a mixture of long and short. Many marketing managers I talk with, though – like my new client – want only short content.

That's why I wanted to write to you today on the merits of long-form content. I'm going to give you four important reasons why you should include longer pieces in your marketing mix.
But first, we need to define our terms.

Defining long-form and short-form

What's the dividing line between long-form and short-form content? Opinions vary widely. I've seen the cut-off pegged anywhere from 700 to 1800 words.

Personally, I like the guidelines proposed by Kevin Delaney, a former managing editor of WSJ.com, who's now editor-in-chief of the "digitally-native" business news site Quartz. Delaney breaks content into three categories: short (less than 500 words), medium (500-800 words) and long (over 800 words).

At Quartz, Delaney refuses to publish content in the medium range – those 500- to 800-word articles traditionally favored by news and trade editors – because he feels too much content adheres to that format. He's even developed a model, called the "Quartz Curve" (Fig.1), which defines his editorial approach.

"People read short, fast content on the web, and also long-form, analytic pieces," says Delaney. He feels articles between 500 and 800 words are "too long to be sharable, and too short to be in-depth." {1}
Now that we've identified some boundaries for "short-form" and "long-form," we're ready to move on to the four reasons you need long-form content.

Reason #1: Longer content ranks higher.

Most SEO experts subscribe to the adage "length is strength." Heather Lloyd-Martin, head of the SEO copywriting agency SuccessWorks, for example, says you need at least 750 words on a page to optimize it for keywords.{2} Brian Dean of Backlinko recommends a minimum of 1500 words. {3}

These recommendations make sense, because you need to include a sufficient number of instances of your targeted keywords on your page so that Google will know what your page is about, but not pack them so densely that you get penalized for keyword stuffing.

Search engine results page (SERP) data supports the adage, as well.

Kevin Espiritu of the keyword research company SerpIQ pulled data on all the SERPs his company has analyzed, and found a heavy correlation between SERP ranking and the amount of content on a page. While all the top-ten ranked pages averaged over 2000 words, the top-ranked pages averaged over 400 words more than the tenth-ranked pages (Fig. 2). {4}

Fig. 2: Avg. Content Length of Top-Ranked Pages in SERPs. Source: SerpIQ.com

Fig. 2: Avg. Content Length of Top-Ranked Pages in SERPs.
Source: SerpIQ.com

Reason #2: Longer content increases customer engagement.

Dan Shewan, a web content specialist at WordStream, says his firm used to be skeptical about the value of long-form content, until they began toying with their content strategy.
For a long time, most of the content they published came in at under 1000 words. They concentrated heavily on SEO, including keyword optimization, but what they found in their web analytics troubled them. While they were getting plenty of search traffic, they weren't getting much return traffic. And their user engagement metrics – like time on site and bounce rate – were very low.

So WordStream rethought their tactics. They began adding more long-form content into their mix. "The goal was to increase user engagement – and it worked extraordinarily well," says Shewan. "Creating longer, more in-depth content that provides tons of value to our audience has been a very successful part of our content strategy; one that resulted in tripling our average time on site from 1:33 to 4:35." {5}

Reason #3: Longer content gets more links

The longer your content, the more links you'll likely get from other websites.

That's the conclusion John Doherty reached when he analyzed data from The Moz Blog at Moz.com. Doherty, an online marketing manager at HotPads.com and a contributor to The Moz Blog, selected 500 posts at random and compared the word count with the number of linking root domains (LRD). Doherty used LRDs instead of total link counts, he says, because "it gives us a better picture of how wide content spreads, since we are eliminating the fact that one site could have the link on 1000 pages." {6}

The following graph (Fig. 3) visualizes the 500 posts based on word count, ordered from longest to shortest:

Fig. 3: Word count of 500 randomly selected blog posts. Source:The Moz Blog, moz.com

Fig. 3: Word count of 500 randomly selected blog posts.
Source:The Moz Blog, moz.com

Overlaying this graph with the number of links each blog post gained (Fig.4) seems to indicate a correlation between longer content and more links:

Fig. 4: Inbound links to 500 randomly selected blog posts. Source:The Moz Blog, moz.com

Fig. 4: Inbound links to 500 randomly selected blog posts.
Source:The Moz Blog, moz.com

Links aren't just important for SEO. As Doherty points out, links widen the influence of your content. The more websites that link to it, the more places your prospects can find it.

Reason #4: Business buyers need in-depth information.

Talking with clients and prospects, I hear many of them say, "Nobody has time to read, anymore!"

I say, hold on!

While it's true that nobody has time to read everything, business buyers will read material relevant to their needs. Especially in-depth content.

Business buyers need to read to be sure they're buying or recommending the right solution for their company. They need to feel confident they aren't risking their reputations or careers. They want thorough, in-depth information on the products and services their considering. Short-form content doesn't give them that.

Short-form content may get your prospects' attention or keep a conversation going, but only long-form content is going to give business buyers the in-depth information they crave when they need to make a purchasing decision.

A "hidden" benefit of long-form content

Besides the four "needs" just discussed, there's also an extra, serendipitous benefit of creating long-form content.

Since it goes into greater depth, long-form form content requires more research. In doing that research, you'll often turn up interesting facts and statistics that you can use as the basis of new short-form pieces. Or, you can simply re-use parts of your long-form pieces to create additional short-form content.

Take-Away Points

In today's marketing world dominated by short, snappy blog posts, tweets and status updates, long-form content offers a number of benefits, online as well as offline.

In short, long-form content (on average)…

1. Ranks higher in organic search
2. Increases customer engagement
3. Garners more inbound links
4. Provides the in-depth information prospects seek when making purchasing decisions
5. Can be re-used in snippets to create additional short-from content

Next Steps...

Need some outside help creating a some new long-form (or short-form) content for your website? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at info@copyengineer.com.

References

{1} Marshall, Sarah, Why Quartz does not publish 500 to 800 word articles, Journalism.co.uk, October 2013.
{2} Lloyd-Martin, Heather, SEO Copywriting Success: How to Profit From Writing for Search Engines, American Writers & Artists, Inc., May 2009.
{3} Dean, Brian, On-Page SEO: Anatomy of a Perfectly Optimized Page, Backlinko, July 2014.
{4} Espiritu, Kevin, How Important is Content Length? Why Data-Driven SEO Trumps Guru Opinions, SerpIQ, April 2012.
{5} Shewan, Dan, What is long-form content, and why does it work?, WordStream, May 2014.
{6} Doherty, John, What Kind of Content Gets Links in 2012?, Moz.com, October 2012.

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