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Shorter vs. Longer Content: Which Is Better for Marketing?

Posted August 21, 2017

Shorter vs. Longer Content: Which Is Better for Marketing?

Posted August 21, 2017

As more brands recognize the value of delivering custom content to their audiences, the question: “How long should my content be?” inevitably works its way into most conversations.

Google this question, and you’ll get more than 500 results; with success stories that can be found across the board. Inbound marketing guru Neil Patel draws more than 100,000 visitors to his blog every month, with posts of 2,500 words or longer, while Seth Godin has risen to the ranks of content superstardom with his daily 150-word gems of wisdom.

So, who’s right? Is shorter or longer content better for driving traffic and building a loyal following? There is an ideal solution (spoiler alert: it has to do with intent monitoring), but first, let’s take a closer look at both sides of the issue, and where things stand today.

Short Attention Spans Demand Shorter Content … Don’t They?

WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg has shared repeatedly that, the average length of a WordPress blog post is 280 words. Considering that the average human attention span is now 8 seconds — shorter than that of a goldfish — this makes perfect sense.

After all, in a world where people get their news from 10-second sound bites, and 140-character tweets, is it pure arrogance to assume they’ll spend more than a minute or two on your custom content?

For years, this was the “conventional wisdom” emerging from the most revered marketing thought leaders. “Nobody’s going to stick around your page for more than a few seconds,” they said. “If they click your link and see a long article, they’re going to bounce. Make a quick point and send them on their way.”

Unfortunately, many marketers took these insights as their marching orders, to “dumb down” their content. As a result, the web became clogged with posts amounting to sloppily assembled strings of keywords …that were about as compelling as a pan of dishwater.

Then, one day, Google decided it had had enough! Enter the Panda update.

This Panda’s Not So Cuddly

The original Panda update to Google’s search ranking algorithm was launched in February 2011. In an effort to connect users with richer, higher-quality search results, Panda took direct aim at “thin” content, penalizing sites for the same super-short blog posts that the experts seemed to be touting.

(Trivia moment: Did you know the nickname “Panda” has nothing to do with the black-and-white bear? According to Wikipedia, the update was named after Navneet Panda, the Google engineer who developed the technology behind it.)

The update sent the online marketing world into a panic. Webmasters were being told, not only to scrap their content strategies and start creating longer, higher-quality posts, but also to remove all pages with fewer than 300 words.

Why did Google choose to focus on word count? Because length offers a clue to quality. Not all longer content is high-quality, but high-quality content does tend to be longer. It is the definition of longer that should be carefully examined as well. Think about the stories you read in The New York Times versus what you might read on the same topic in a local neighborhood paper. Higher quality? Definitely. Longer? Most likely.

The Case for Longer Content

Sure, you might be thinking, Google can make a case for preferring longer content, but what about people? You know, the ones with the teeny-tiny attention spans?

The head of product science at online publishing platform Medium, who knows a thing or two about content, did a scientific study on whether shorter or longer posts perform better in earning time spent on the page — that is, minutes spent actually reading the article. The conclusion? Posts that take seven minutes to read, (about 1,600 words long), capture the most attention. However, as the author admits,

This doesn’t mean we should all start forcing our posts to be 7 minutes! There is enormous variance. Great posts perform well regardless of length, and bad posts certainly don’t get better when you stretch them out.

So, where does that leave us? What is the optimal length for custom content? The bad news is that there’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. The good news is that we don’t need one: our audience gives us clues in the form of intent signals … and now we have the means to monitor them.

Intent Monitoring to the Rescue

(Note: If you’re new to the idea, check out our post “Why Intent Monitoring Should Be Your Next Big Thing” for a quick primer.)

Intent monitoring lets you track the “digital body language” of potential customers from the very first steps in the buying journey. You’ll know which keywords they use in their search, which links they click on, how long they hang around, and where they go next. No longer do marketers have to bet their fortunes on the opinions of “gurus” or on predictive analytics based on what happened in the past. They can track exactly what their specific prospects are doing and tailor their approach to match that journey with pinpoint accuracy.

When it comes to both your blog, as well as your other resources, your intent monitoring insights can show you exactly how your content performs among those who matter most: your target audience. Depending on these insights, you may discover that the “sweet spot” for your content may be longer, shorter, or in-between … or you may discover that a mix of longer and shorter posts is where the magic lies.

Whatever those insights may reveal, it’s important to understand the keys to success, for both longer and shorter content.

Best Practices for Shorter Content

  • Match the topic to the format. Don’t try to cram a huge topic into 400 words; you’ll only frustrate your readers.
  • Don’t equate “shorter” with “dumbed down,” and resist the temptation to slack on quality. Make sure your readers walk away with meaningful insights that answer their questions and address their pain points.
  • Use images strategically. Skip the same old tired stock photos; instead, offer eye-catching visuals that draw readers in.

Best Practices for Longer Content

  • Again, the topic should match the format. Don’t take a limited subject and “fatten it up” to reach a certain word count; you’ll bore your readers and drive them away.
  • Do your research. Longer content offers an ideal opportunity to highlight your expertise, so bolster your arguments with relevant studies from reputable sources.
  • Write compelling titles that pique readers’ curiosity and that convey the value of your piece. If the promise is compelling, readers are more likely to stick around for the payoff.

Longer or Shorter? Intent Signals Hold the Key.

Since the dawn of blogging, the question of longer-or-shorter has plagued the creators of custom content. So-called “conventional wisdom” was no more helpful than tea leaves or crystal balls. For the first time in history, marketers can end the guessing game and base their content decisions on actual, present-day data. With intent monitoring, you can access the actual intent signals being created by precisely the people you want to reach. You’ll have the data-driven insights you need, not only to determine the ideal length of your posts, but to guide your entire content strategy.