Why some articles on the web are just too long

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The debate surrounding the length of content online will likely rage on. Shorter, no longer, wait – medium-sized.

Stop ✋ Please. Create useful content and it won’t make a difference how long your content is. But, Google in late 2017 declared web content under 300 words to be thin. So maybe above 300-word blog posts. ?

I read all kinds of content online. I’m not more likely to read it because it’s longer. Or shorter. I read it because it’s interesting and relevant.

Here’s what I found specifically:

The length of news content

In 2017, I subscribed to the digital content of the Washington Post and New York Times.

Generally speaking, if I click into a story I often read the whole thing. Word for word. Yes, I’m a skimmer and scanner and often in a rush. I prefer content snacks over content meals. But I read those.

Here’s why: They are written in a way that keeps me engaged. They tell a story. And of course after a year now they have a reputation that many articles are worth reading.

The length of content marketing content

Remember, I’m a journalistically trained content marketer, but I have to say that a lot of content marketing content out there sets us up to skim only.

With endless listicles, subheads and breakouts, it’s easy and encouraged to skip around. That’s fine but don’t tell me that content needs to be longer because people read more. Maybe it needs to be longer to give us more to skip around in. In fact, the different pieces – which can be read on their own – aren’t all that much longer than content used to be.

There certainly is a place for scannable content but there also is for longer (and shorter) storytelling-type content.

How to think about content length

The length of something – like a speech, a presentation, a movie, a book, a blog post etc. – doesn’t necessarily determine its quality.

But sometimes we default to thinking that it does.

I remember being invited to speak at a global conference in a 15-minute time slot.

I mentioned this to one person and she said: “Only 15 minutes? Is that worth it?”

I suppose it depends on our definition of “worth it” but a good, compelling and relevant story can be shared in 15 minutes. Absolutely.

TED and TEDx Talks – those inspiring videos recorded at conferences around the globe – are often under 15 minutes. And many of them rock.

But the discussion of time is common for conference planners and speakers. For example, I often get asked if 90 minutes will be enough to tell my story. Or 120 minutes. Or if we shouldn’t just rather make it a three-hour workshop.

The reality of things is that it’s not about the time necessarily but it’s about the goals, audience and substance.

A 15-minute keynote can certainly inspire people to take action. It also can keep them on the edges of their seats. It’s only 15 minutes so to speak. An engaging speaker can keep that going for 15 or 30 minutes but the pace would change if it would become a multi-hour talk. [Tweet “”Time isn’t always a good business measurement.” – @ctrappe”]

Some people share great stories in Tweets at 140 characters or less.

Some people’s Tweets are useless marketing dribble.

Some people write longer and compelling books.

Some books can’t be finished by the reader.

Instead of focusing on an artificial length, give a story the amount of time or length it actually needs.

[Tweet “Instead of focusing on an artificial length, give a story the amount of time or length it needs.”]

That takes discipline, the willingness to cut less important facts and the ability to keep refining.

No matter the medium where a story is shared, cut words like you are running out of them. If a word or fact doesn’t add anything, cut it.

Be deliberate with your communication and storytelling. Share what needs to be shared to get your point across. Sometimes, that’s a Tweet and sometimes it might be a 1,000-word article.

But, Christoph, isn’t there research that long articles perform better in search, etc.? Yep, totally.

But there’s also a fine line of over-writing it versus being relevant in the right amount of words. For example, sometimes I read articles online and they are lengthy. Let’s say 6,000 words. But they also keep me interested. They’re not always just instructional but also educational. They use storytelling techniques to surprise me and keep me reading because the topic causes some kind of emotional reaction.

For truly educational articles it can be hard to cause emotional reactions. Here are the facts. Ugh. Am I back in school?

Here is a list of 99 steps of winning in social media. Just seeing that I have to look at 99 steps turns me away. Imagine having to read every single one of them.

Now don’t get me wrong there is a place for long articles but we have to think about if that’s really the length that’s needed. And then sometimes some writers really just fluff it up. So longer doesn’t necessarily mean more useful content. It might just mean more content.

And while longer content might help you rank higher, you also have to keep readers engaged longer while they’re on the page. For example, a 5,000-word article that’s fluffed up won’t help you rank higher long-term than a 500-word article that doesn’t waste words.

Personally, I do like to set word goals because they are an easy target. So for example, every blog post on here I try to get over 500 words. And then I just keep voice dictating until I have nothing else to say about the topic.

Sometimes I repurpose older posts. For example, the base of this article was published in 2014 and was only about 200 words long. So instead of me writing a completely new article about a very similar topic I took that content and used it as the base for this article which is now about five times as long. But hopefully it’s not unnecessarily long.

When I’m talking to clients, it’s probably the most asked question I get: how long should content be?

What if instead we ask: how long should content be to tell the story in a way that helps the audience reaches its goals and us help reach ours.

Related: How to find your organization’s zone of mutual relevance While length of content-whether measured in minutes or words-is easy it’s not always the best measurement of quality. But it is a good way to set a goal for us to human content creators. So keep those metrics in mind but don’t overthink them.

Here’s an example: I once was talking to a writer who had a really good story that came in at around 600 words. At the time people said that blog posts should be 300 words. Given that guidance he actually was looking to cut half of the article. I of course advised against that because the story was great at the longer word count.

So my overall recommendation: don’t overthink it. Give the story the length that it needs. Keep in mind that going for a longer story can help you flush it out with more details. But don’t artificially go for that. Do it when it counts and when it makes sense. A mature content marketing strategy most likely has a good mix of different lengths of content. Some are shorter, some are medium and some are longer.

To book me to get your content marketing strategy off on the right foot or to update it contact me here.

Parts of this were written in 2014 and then updated in 2017.

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