Long content: don’t get caught by the volume trap

With the recent rise of content marketing, there’s a lot of pressure to produce. “Your business will succeed if you churn out content,” the advice goes. The more the better. One article I read recently states that longer articles are more likely to go viral. The research just doesn’t support this advice.

In this post, I’ll explain why long content shouldn’t be the end game, and how you can gauge the right length for your content.

Finding the secret(s) of engaging web content

Saying ‘longer articles are better’ is like saying ‘most gold-medal olympic athletes train for eight hours a day.  If you train for eight hours a day, you will win an Olympic gold medal.’ To really find out what makes a gold-medal winner, we need to look more closely.  What are the characteristics of the athlete themselves (swimmer Michael Phelps’ long arms)? What type of training did they do during those eight hours?

Length itself isn’t what people are responding to. What they’re responding to are other factors that often go along with length.  In longer articles, you have more space to:

  • Tell a story
  • Use dialogue to unpack an issue and explore different points of view
  • Give detailed practical advice
  • Establish a unique voice
  • Point readers to useful information.

How would we test this? To really find out, we’d need to do A/B testing: creating articles in the same publication about the same topic and of the same length, but varying the features I’ve just outlined.  Measuring length on its own doesn’t tell us anything useful.

Why long-winded content doesn’t work

Being long isn’t necessarily a problem, but being too long definitely is. When I talk to end users about content, long-windedness is one of their biggest irritations.  Some websites take too long to get to the point.  Other website bury useful information in filler or poor structure. “Do I have to wade through all this?’, one woman said when we showed her a government website.

The research shows that most web content is simply ignored.  Jakob Nielsen estimates that the average user will only read about 20% of the words on a web page.  User-testing by Steve Krug shows that if a user sees a ‘wall’ of dense text, they are likely to give up immediately without even reading it.  The page looks too hard to make sense of.

How long should the article be?

There isn’t a magic formula that will work for all types of content.  The best advice I can give is ‘as long as you need to be to meet your readers needs – and no longer.’ Think about format (a quick update-style blog or a thought-leadership piece), and the context your readers will be encountering the text in (do they want a quicker answer, or do they want to be taken on a journey).

If you are guided by your audience’s needs, issues such as length will naturally fall into place.

Read on…
How little do users read, Jakob Nielsen.  A good launching point for the ‘shorter is better’ web content debate.

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