Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say the average person was presented with two different articles to read. The first article is a 500-word blog post covering the exciting history of corporate finance law in the United States. The second is a 5,000-word in-depth biography of Warren Buffett that details his rise to fame and offers tips from the man himself on personal wealth management. Which one do you think is most likely to be read and shared?
It’s easy to see why some might choose the former. After all, both articles deal with the same subject – the fascinating world of finance – and the blog post is one-tenth as long as the biographical piece. No matter how entertaining and relevant the latter article is, no one’s going to read something that long, right?
Here’s why you shouldn’t count long-form content out when it comes to your online content marketing strategy.
What is Long-Form Content?
This can be a bit tricky to pin down, as it all depends on your perspective. If you’re used to churning out social-ready blogs of 500-800 words, anything over that upper limit seems “long.” Other outlets might consider long-form content to be at least three times that amount.
While these ranges may vary, the spirit of long-form content should remain mostly consistent – these articles are longer, more detailed and more thorough than what you typically find in your Facebook news feed. Think whitepapers, ebooks, industry reports, in-depth guides, and extended research topics. They could also include detailed interviews and profiles like the example mentioned earlier.
Why You Should Consider Long-Form Content
In this era of Twitter, Snapchat, and Michael Bay movies, the idea that people are interested in reading online articles the length of your average college term paper sounds preposterous. Our attention spans are supposedly getting shorter! (Not true.) So why invest time and money into creating long-form content no one will read?
Here’s the thing: They will read it. And share it with friends. And drive user engagement for your website like you’ve never seen before. You just need to be willing to take the leap.
Unpacking the Myths About Long-Form Content
“If long-form content is so great,” you must be asking yourself, “why isn’t everyone doing it?” One of the biggest challenges this type of content faces is not declining attention spans, but the herd mentality. It seems every company under the sun nowadays has a “culture of innovation” and a staff of “out-of-the-box-thinkers,” yet their blogs are filled with the same set of listicles and social-ready content as everyone else.
The gurus at Buzzsumo, a content marketing platform that tracks what’s trending online, analyzed the top 10 percent of shared articles (from a dataset of over 100 million) to decipher a pattern for success. Within that sample size, they found that content with less than 1,000 words was 16 times more common than content with 2,000 words or more. That’s a lot of noise.
The crazy thing is, that long-form content was shared almost five times more than the short stuff.
The data above may prove shocking to most content strategists. But it really shouldn’t. As more of our lives revolve around the internet – socializing, news-gathering, romancing (for good or ill) – our unconscious desire to consume new content has made content marketing the next big thing in the online marketplace.
And when you think about it, that consumption shares a lot in common with our normal eating habits.
Imagine the internet as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Social posts are like potato chips – light, flavorful, but essentially nutritionless (and if you’re like me, you can go through a whole bag in one sitting). Short-form content is the appetizer that’s meant to be shared, but you’re not likely to be satisfied after a little chips and queso.
Long-form content, then, is a hearty entrée – you’re not going to wolf it down like you did those chips. You’re going to chew on it a while. Really savor it. And then turn to your friends and say, “Hey, you guys really need to try this.”
More Content, More Engagement
Certainly the loudest long-form content skeptics out there are involved heavily with SEO (you know who you are). From a labor cost perspective, why go the extra mile for long-form content when a short blog post packed full of keyword optimization will do?
Let’s take a closer look at your current blogging strategy. Your search traffic is through the roof, but return traffic and brand search numbers still aren’t where they need to be, to say nothing of your abysmal user engagement metrics. The words “bounce rate” send a cold chill down your spine.
What if you decided to switch things up and give long-form content a chance? For one, you’ll notice your average-time-on-site metrics slowly begin to creep upward. Even if users are just skimming, more words means more time needed to read them. And more words also means more opportunities for inserting backlinks. More backlinks leads to higher SERP rankings – you see where I’m going here.
A few years ago, SEO software company serpIQ conducted a study surveying over 20,000 search keywords. They found the average content length for each of the top 10 results was more than 2,000 words. Specifically, the number one spot averaged 2,416 words, and the 10 spot had 2,032 words. When you break it down, churning out short-form content only muddies the water more for your content strategy, and puts you at a severe disadvantage.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Long-Form Content
By this point, I’m hoping you skeptics have emerged from your dream pods, coughing, sputtering, squinting against the bright light of reality outside The Matrix. Your quest for truth has led you here, to ask me what it takes to bend the rules of Content to your will. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one who must walk through it.
Learn to Love Chunking
The key to writing engaging long-form content is to not give the reader any excuses to turn away. Sure, the “humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish” thing is a myth, but that doesn’t mean they’ll put up with you wasting their time. Your topics should be interesting, sure, but you can also change the format of your content to make it more visually appealing.
One such process is called “chunking.” And it’s something I’ve been doing this whole time without you noticing.
Chunking comes from the field of cognitive psychology, but it’s easy to grasp in practice: Instead of packing your words together into block-like paragraphs (or the dreaded “Wall of Text”), take advantage of the unlimited scroll-space a website provides and break your content into smaller, easily-digestible segments. Not only does this improve readability and scanability, it also makes certain statements really pop.
Like this one.
By chunking, you’re also making your content easier to remember. For example, think of how phone numbers are structured in the U.S. – two sets of three numbers, and one set of four. Or how most credit cards are four sets of four numbers each. It’s much easier to remember content when it’s presented in small batches instead of one big lump. Imagine how difficult it would be to memorize phone numbers as one long string of 10 numbers, or 16 for credit cards.
A few other methods of chunking to keep in mind:
- Use clear headings and subheadings to space out your content and make it easier to scan or skim
- Use numbered or bulleted lists (like this one!) to deliver small bits of important information in quick succession
- Provide a short summary at the very beginning of the article to let your readers know what they’re in for
Embrace Story Time
Who doesn’t love a good story? Humans have used stories for millennia as a method of passing on information in an interesting and memorable way. The myths and legends of the past crafted larger-than-life characters as stand-ins for virtues and morals the authors wanted to pass on to future generations. The documentaries of today employ a similar tactic by putting a human face on globe-spanning issues like poverty, racial inequality, and warfare. We’re drawn into the story through the telling, and we leave knowing more than we did before.
Good content should always show, not tell. You can use this tip to your brand’s advantage.
Back in 2010, IBM rolled out a new predictive analytics software. Normally, this would’ve called for a standard press release full of technical jargon and corporate buzzwords that would’ve bored people to tears. Instead, they explained how this new software worked by telling the true story of how they partnered with the Director of Police Services for the Memphis Police Department to enhance their crime-fighting capabilities.
With the software’s ability to quickly compile massive volumes of crime records and detect patterns based on data like location and time of day, they identified “hot spots” of criminal activity and reduced serious crime by over 30 percent.
Through this case study, IBM showed how its new technology had a direct impact on the lives of Memphis citizens instead of just telling us what it does. This made their content more interesting and memorable for their readers and potential customers.
To Gate or Not to Gate
The old mantra in sales is that scarcity drives demand. The harder it is to get something, the more valuable it appears. Just look at the lines that form every time a new iPhone is released. But simply hiding your whitepaper or ebook behind a form won’t necessarily increase readership (or conversions).
Long-form content that can only be acquired after filling out a web form or subscribing to a website is called gated content. On the flipside, content that is freely available is considered non-gated content.
Gated content typically takes the form of proprietary case studies, white papers, ebooks and webinars. The obvious downside here is the inevitable drop-off of readers who balk at the idea of forking over their personal information or payment info. The New York Times has caught flak in the past for keeping its full articles behind a paywall, requiring readers to subscribe before they can read the whole thing. This can lead to a drop in social shares and a narrower reach online.
However, if your business model places a high priority on acquiring leads, gated content is a fantastic way to do it. You can also drive conversions by using reader information to instantly put them in the sales funnel, understand who exactly is viewing your website, and opt people into marketing newsletters and emails. You just need to do a good job of making that content seem worth it.
This is not to say that non-gated content is worse at driving conversions. By including strong calls-to-action, you can keep your readers moving down the funnel without them even realizing it, and without risking alienation by asking for their information upfront.
Not All Long-Form Content is Quality Content
If your long-form content is struggling, don’t point the finger at the specter of shortening attention spans. The real problem is that your content isn’t engaging enough to capture an audience. That’s like a video store that only rents Adam Sandler movies on VHS blaming Netflix for their failing business.
If someone’s going to invest several minutes of their time (an eternity in internet years) on your content, they expect a certain standard for quality. In this case, “quality” means more than free of spelling and grammar mistakes – it’s putting what your readers want or need to see in front of them at precisely the right time.
Exceeding your readers’ expectations should be your number-one priority for long-form content. As always, there are a few rules to keep in mind:
- Don’t cut corners. If you’re going to get serious about creating long-form content, unless you’re supremely confident in your skills, hire a professional.
- Challenge your readers. Provide new information they haven’t considered before, or that contradicts their existing knowledge and beliefs.
- Always provide proof. Don’t make wild claims unless you can back them up. Present only as many facts as necessary – too many and you’ll clutter the page, too few and it all feels shallow.
- The topic should fit the format. Not every subject is worthy of a 3,000-word treatise. Don’t waste time padding your word count when a simple infographic could convey the information more succinctly.
- Include a visual component. According to BuzzSumo, articles with at least one image were shared on social media twice as much as those without. Infographics are a great way to call out important info and improve the scannability of your long-form content.
- Be consistent. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your content empire (let’s call it “Contentinople”). Commit to producing a consistent level of quality long-form content, promote it well, and watch as your readership and user engagement numbers swell.
A Call to Arms (and Action)
This final tip gets its own section – it’s that important. You can write the most incredible, enticing, thought-provoking content in the world, but without a proper call-to-action (CTA) it’s worth less to your brand than the paper it’s not printed on.
Quite possibly the most vital aspect of the sales funnel, a good CTA is employed throughout your content (but especially at the end) to help guide your readers to perform a desired action. It can be as basic as “Buy Now!” and “Register Today!” or urge them to “Sign up for [your] newsletter and like us on Facebook!” Sign-up and social sharing buttons are a particularly eye-catching and popular version of this tactic.
It might seem obtuse, but without a CTA most readers will simply digest your content and disappear. You need to give them a little nudge over the edge of the funnel.
Go Local Can Help You Develop Your Content Strategy
Long-form content is more than just cranking out 2,000+ words a week. It’s a commitment to engaging with your readers and providing them in-depth stories, advice, or guides that will enrich their lives. And much like the newest prescription drug, it may not be right for you. That’s why you should speak with a content marketing professional who knows your brand and sees its potential.
At Go Local, our Content Marketing experts have experience with developing tailor-made content strategies for a variety of clients in a variety of industries. We take a tactical approach to content creation that supports your brand’s goals while speaking directly to your market – as well as discovering new markets you should be courting.
To us, Content Marketing means “Content with a Purpose,” and that purpose is to connect you with your clients in a way that resonates. Contact us today to discover how we can make content work for you.