Can Long-form Content Revolutionize Your Content Marketing?

Grease up those typewriters and do some wrist stretches, cause it turns out long content performs dramatically better than short content in a lot of ways when it comes to reaching and connecting with your audience.

The Global State of Content Marketing Report — which analyzed half a million tweets, hundreds of thousands of search queries, and almost a million blog posts — reveals some surprising stats about the relationship between content length and performance. You can check out the entirety of the findings in the report, but I’d like to dive into what’s behind those findings. Also, full disclosure, this post does not adhere to my own recommendations based on the report findings. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

The Findings

When it comes to developing content for your company or your clients, you should likely think through the implications here. Some top-level findings:

  • Long reads of 3000+ words get 3x more traffic, 4x more shares, and 3.5x more backlinks than articles of average length (901-1200 words)
  • Articles with long headlines (14+ words) get 2x more traffic, 2x more shares, and 5x more backlinks than articles with short headlines (7-10 words)
  • Shorter articles (300-900 words) have a 4.5 times greater likelihood to not get any shares at all versus long reads of 3000+ words

Those performance increases are insane. So, if you want to see those kinds of results, then should you create one long-form piece rather than three short ones since you know you can potentially get three times or more the return towards your objective? Maybe. Let’s think it through. What might the drawbacks be? Less things to post on social and in campaigns? More time and effort to create comprehensive articles?

The Implications

On social posts and campaigns: Even with longer pieces, you can still maximize their distribution value by breaking that content out into bite-sized, visually-driven posts for social media and email campaigns. If the potential to serve repeat links to your audience is your concern, then only include the CTA to drive to the article on promoted posts, in key emails, or at strategic campaign conversion points.

On content development: I’ve been in the content development game for a long time both on the editorial/strategic side and on the writing side. And, from my experience, I can say diving a little deeper on a single topic to write a longer piece will save a good amount of time and effort versus concepting and developing multiple short pieces. You achieve efficiencies not just with the writer but also by preempting additional briefs and kickoff meetings. Also, your team will likely spend less time on creative reviews and revisions and less time getting client or legal/compliance approval. The caveat here is longer content needs to be more authoritative and go deeper on a subject, which means more up front research time.

The Benefit

The real benefit is more value per piece – especially long-term value. If you’ve got one long read that’s ranking significantly higher in search engine results and earning backlinks, then that piece is not only immediately more valuable than a number of short pieces, it will also offer sustained value by providing ongoing and consistent traffic to your content. Evergreen content is a cornerstone of a solid content marketing strategy because of its long-term SEO value.

I should note that though this post is largely about content impacts on SEO, I’m choosing to look at practical considerations for long-form content rather than getting into the technical details of SEO. Another post for another time.

The Objections

The most common objection I hear to using remotely long copy anywhere – from ads to articles to webpages to social posts and more – is “no one reads copy anymore.” But no one who’s ever claimed that has actually provided me any solid evidence to support it. I’ve also heard, “No, our audience doesn’t have time to read a long article.” Again, if you have analytics that prove that, then write short articles, or just make a 15 second video for that audience. My position, however, is that if you’re creating engaging and relevant content that delivers clear value (and a good user experience) to your audience, then I bet they’ll make time.

Another myth we need to dispel: People don’t actually have the attention span of a goldfish. Though you can find that study everyone likes to talk about claiming humans now have a seven-second attention span, I think that data point is incredibly contextual. If not, the world as we know it wouldn’t work. While people on social media may scroll at an unfathomable pace, people who are actively researching ways to solve a problem do not. When looking for solutions for a complex problem in their personal lives or for work, people’s attention spans grow exponentially.

And guess what? If you’re creating the right kind of solutions-focused, audience-centric content, those are exactly the people finding it and consuming it. 

Side note: This is the utterly obvious but seemingly little-known (or at least little-practiced) secret to effective content marketing: You don’t need more people reading your content, you need more of the right people reading your content.

So what can long-form content help you do better?

1. Start conversations with your target audience
In B2B marketing, long-form content may start conversations between a manager whose team needs the solution you’re offering and his boss, who likely makes the decision of whether or not to invest in that solution. It also paves the way for conversations between your sales rep and the lead she’s following up with after that lead engaged with your content. In B2C, that might look like a friend sharing an insightful blog post with another friend that popped up in his social feed or in a Google search. The ideal is to make the kind of content that people can’t help but re-share on social or email to their colleagues at work.

2. Become the authority
Comprehensive, valuable content communicates to your audience that you’re a…dare I even use the phrase…thought leader. Really that’s just a jargon-y way to say that your content is helpful, interesting, and adds value for your customers and potential customers in a way that makes them trust you as a resource.

3. Improve quality of website traffic and increase user engagement
Ok, I’ll talk briefly about what’s behind all of this: search engine rankings and organic traffic. If I had kept records of the performance of all the web content I’ve created over my career, there’s one thing that would prove true from that data: Users who arrive through organic search generate significantly higher engagement rates. Time on page, scroll depth, click through rate, pages per session, downloads, form completions – these all typically increase when you look at organic search traffic versus paid, social, or referral. The why behind that trend is obvious: Those are the people who are actively trying to solve a problem or discover new information. Unlike with paid advertising or even social posts, you’re much less likely to get a rando clicking through to your site or the person who immediately bounces because your content wasn’t what they expected.

Should I stop making short-form content?

The short answer? No. A healthy content marketing strategy uses all the tactics at its disposal. Creating long-form content just happens to be one of the tactics that, if done correctly, can yield notable increases in the KPIs that level up to your business objectives. 

The comparison here isn’t necessarily between short and long content, but between strategic content development and a pay-to-play mindset. With enough budget behind any ad campaign, you can seriously drive up impressions and traffic, but that won’t give you the kind or quality of users coming to your site that organic search will. So, for your next campaign, maybe take some of that money you’re going to throw at advertising and invest it wisely in development of valuable, engagement-driving content.

Matthew

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