Long-Form Content vs. Short-Form: Which Gets the Results You Want?

A 2015 Microsoft study reported the average person’s attention span had shrunk to eight seconds – “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” trumpeted Time. Some marketers responded by thinking, “the attention span of readers is shrinking – therefore, so should the length of our content.”

Yet recent findings show that not only do people read long-form blog posts, they also actually prefer them. But this type of content is time-consuming and costly to produce, so is it really worth it?

Long-Form Content … Why It Works

Internet marketing company WordStream made the switch in 2012 to long-form blog posts. After studying the results, the company found the average time spent on the blog tripled from one minute, 33 seconds to four minutes, 35 seconds.

In addition to holding reader attention longer, lengthier posts get higher social engagement. In fact, Moz and BuzzSumo analyzed over one million articles (in 2015) and found that content over 1,000 words consistently receives more shares and links than shorter-form content. Despite this, there is 16 times more blog posts, articles and other content with less than 1,000 words.

Marketers often wonder about the optimal word count when creating long-form posts. How long is long enough? An extensive study conducted by Medium.com found that the optimal length is about 1,600 words, which takes seven minutes to read. After this period of time, attention falls off. In addition, there are several more steps you can take to boost the performance of every piece of content that you write.

High-Performing Long-Form Content

Transforming your content strategy to one that includes long-form content has the potential to seriously impact your ROI. But there’s one caveat: You must do it right to succeed. So where should you start? Here are four examples of success to inspire your efforts.

1. Buffer: Boosts Shares Through Hard Facts and Research

Buffer created a popular blog post called “Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity.” This article argues that creativity isn’t a “born trait” but rather one that anybody can develop. Then it dives into the research and science of creativity (and eventually gets to the question it poses in the headline).

This article performed excellently, capturing 1.6k shares and 80 comments. But why? First, it has a great, relatable question in the headline (scoring a respectable 64 on the CoSchedule headline analyzer). Then it backs up the angle with 1,800 words of research, hard facts, and interesting content.

Key takeaway: Infuse your blog posts with detailed research and hard facts to engender trust, drive engagement, and increase the likelihood of social shares.

2. Smart Blogger: Drive Engagement through Storytelling

Jon Marrow, former Associate Editor of Copyblogger and CEO of Smart Blogger, is a skilled storyteller. This post, which tops 1,800 words, uses storytelling to keep readers engaged until the very last word. He ties the story back to the business, but it’s very subtle. This post performed very well and captured 493 comments.

Key takeaway: Long-form posts can perform well, but engagement is what makes them work. Keep readers engaged through storytelling, because there’s a scientific element to why it works: storytelling engages multiple different parts of the brain, depending on the story. For example, if you include details about food, the sensory cortex of the brain lights up. In any case, it’s a more immersive, engaging experience.

3. TopRank Marketing: Use Lists

Make long copy skimmable by using a list format. With this format, readers know what they’re getting from the start. Lee Odden of TopRank Marketing published a “Master List of Social Media Marketing Management Tools.” This post clocks 1,600-plus words and breaks up those words with graphics for optimal engagement.

Key takeaway: Leverage lists and resource blog posts to provide useful tools to your audience. Graphics move your audience through the post quickly and promote engagement. Keep the content evergreen by updating and rereleasing the post annually.

Intel published a post titled “8 Intel Engineers Breaking the Mold,” which quickly grew to become the most shared piece of content on the company’s website. The blog was tied into the company’s #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign, which was a recruitment effort aimed at breaking industry stereotypes.

The 1,000+ word post features eight Intel engineers who share job titles, traits, and advice for anybody who doesn’t fit the engineering cookie-cutter mold.

Key takeaway: Piggyback on trending issues to create content that drives interest and resonates with your target audience. Caveat: Your connection to the issue must be real and authentic, and you cannot trivialize or disrespect an issue. Examples of what not to do.

More Tips for Maximum Results

  1. Engage readers at every turn. Long-form content is much harder to create than short “goldfish” posts. Ask questions, include cliffhangers, and use storytelling to keep readers engaged throughout the post.
  2. Use graphics generously. Large blocks of content make posts intimidating to read, no matter how well-written. Some experts say paragraphs should be no longer than 5 lines, so break them up and have decent spacing between paragraphs. White space is your friend.

Make posts more approachable by using lots of graphics to support your content. You’ll reap the benefits, with visual content being 40x more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content.

  1. Infuse the post with credibility. Well-researched articles not only keep readers engaged but also increase the likelihood of sharing.
  2. Make it easy to skim. Even if all 1,500+ of your words are excellently crafted, the truth is that 80 percent of your words won’t be read (no matter how great the content). Here are a couple of tips for making your long-form posts more skimmable:
  • Use lists. Not only are lists easy to skim, but blog posts that include lists also perform better. Here are some ideas for creating high- performing list articles (sometimes called “listicles”).
  • Use block quotes. If you quote people in your blog post, pull out these quotes for visual appeal. For example, the Buffer “Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower” article above did so here:

  1. Invest time in your headline. David Ogilvy famously said that “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Lead with a strong benefit and make your audience want to read more. To learn which types of headlines work best with your target audience, do a split test on some posts. (Do use the same URL for both.)

  1. Use high-performing words for maximum results. When writing your headline, use words that are proven to yield excellent performance. For example, headlines that begin with a number (a numeral, actually) perform 45 percent better than those that don’t. Headlines with the word “template” also perform well.
  1. Get the timing right. Once you create excellent long-form blog content, it’s important that it get shares. Here are a few things to consider about timing:
  • The highest percentage of users read blogs in the morning.
  • The average blog post gets the most traffic at 11 a.m., ET.
  • The average blog gets the most inbound links on Monday and Thursday.

Use the above as a general guide, then start testing to see what works best for your specific audience.

Short-form content has its place

Still, you can point to Seth Godin as an example of someone who’s been very successful with short (sometimes very short) content.

He is, however, Seth Godin. He made his name with 18 books and several companies before he became famous (the second or third time around) for writing really short posts.

For you, the two questions that matter are:

  • What does my specific unique audience want? Test a variety of lengths over time. Maybe your company personality is cheeky and you do funny 500-word posts that your subscribers love. Don’t change that just for the sake of making longer content.
  • How many words will do this topic justice? Don’t write long just to write long. If 1,000 words give you a quality post, don’t add 500 filler words. Is there more to say? An opposite viewpoint to explore? (And this is one reason long form content is often harder to do; it usually requires a longer thought process too, and more editing.)

And if you’re uncertain, experiment and test.

Capturing Optimal Results

Even if you’ve been writing long-form posts for a while, you can always tweak your approach for better results. Try different strategies and see which resonate most with your target audience.

But overall, the key to creating long-form posts is to keep your reader engaged and delighted with the content, so not only will they come back to read more, but they will also share it. As a result, you’ll greatly expand your audience and your brand’s reach.

Have you had more success writing long-form or short-form content? Please share your results.

Whether it’s long-form or short-form content, it’s indisputable that content is now a crucial piece of a modern marketer’s digital strategy. So how do you cook up really great marketing content that will get your prospects to love your brand and want your product? Download Act-On’s free eBook, The Perfect Recipe for Creating Killer Marketing Content to learn how.