It stands to reason that the questions over content length would ignite a heated debate amongst content creators. After all, our predecessors operated almost exclusively within the confines of column inches, page margins and radio and TV time slots measured to the second.
Of course, the internet and social media provided our generation with a far more diverse set of platforms to tell our stories. But with greater freedom comes the inevitable challenge of knowing how to make the most of it. Of course, you can write a 20-character tweet, a 200-word listicle, a 2,000-word article, a 20-minute keynote speech or a 200,000-word ebook on the same topic. But which one is best to communicate what you’re trying to say?
In his 2011 book Look, I Made a Hat, composer Stephen Sondheim revealed the golden principles that helped him write some of the greatest musicals of all time.
He says: “Content dictates form, less is more and God is in the details.”
While each of these are truisms for any writer to live by, it’s the first that holds particular importance to us as content marketers in our long vs short debate.
In laymen’s terms (that is, not the words of one of the greatest lyricists of the 20th century), the concept of content dictating form makes the case that knowing what you want to say should tell you how to say it.
For instance, rather than setting yourself the task of writing an 800-word article and finding a story (form dictates content), Sondheim argues that you should start with the story and find the best way to tell it.
As creatives, we have plenty of stories to tell, but it’s easy to revert back to the way we’ve always told them: a quarterly magazine, a 500-word blog post, a weekly quota of Instagram stories.
At Hardie Grant Media, one of our strategic goals is to be Best in Class, which often means veering beyond our usual remit and finding new ways to tell stories for our clients. In aid of always making sure our “content dictates form” (and potentially writing the next West Side Story) let’s start by looking at the difference between long and short-form content.
What is long-form content vs short-form content?
There is no universally agreed upon word length for a short or long-form piece of content, but HubSpot puts the threshold somewhere around the 1,000-word mark.
SEMRush says anything under 1,200 words is considered short-form content, while the Content Marketing Institute categorises long-form content as anything between 2,000 and 3,000 words.
Rather than quibble over a couple of extra paragraphs, it might be more helpful to identify the types of content that generally fall within the short-form and long-form categories.
Long-form content, she says, gives content marketers and brands the opportunity to showcase their expertise, display thought leadership and offer value to readers.
Examples of long-form content might be an in-depth article on modern slavery in the supply chain and the risks to businesses for ANZIIF’s Journal or HCF’s Navigating Parenthood podcast series.
Other benefits include:
Long-form content is better for SEO: Google’s algorithm puts long-form, high-quality content at the top of its search rankings. According to SEMrush, articles that are more than 7,000 words drive almost four times more traffic than articles of average length (900 to 1,200 words).
Long-form content stands out: The vast majority of content on the internet is considered short-form so there isn’t as much competition.
Positions your brand as a voice of authority: Long-form gives you the space to showcase your expertise and insights.
Space to include more long-tail keywords: These are longer, descriptive, often question-based keywords that are more specific to what the audience wants and tend to lead to higher conversion rates.
Opportunities to embed different content formats: Infographics, charts, images and video will help you engage your audience and a long-form piece gives you the real estate to include them naturally.
An opportunity to connect with your audience on a deeper level: The more information you’re able to include, the better chance you have of connecting with a person that is looking for it.
But long-form content certainly isn’t right for all situations and subject matters. One of the major drawbacks is that it requires significant resources for content creators to implement and a lot of time for audiences to engage with it. With all that effort comes the nagging question, was it worth my while?
Kathryn Strachan points out that these arguments often fail to take into account the way that we consume content in 2021.
“Most people don’t read the full article when they come to your website,” she says. “Instead they skim or skip sections to find content that is most relevant to them.”
This is why structuring long-form content with headings, subheadings, bullet points and lists is so important to help readers navigate to the information they’re looking for. If well-planned and executed, a long-form piece can actually prove more cost-effective as it can be repurposed into additional shorter articles on more specific sub topics to give you more bang for your buck.
The benefits of short-form content
The argument for short-form content has always been rooted in the idea that our digital attention spans are waning. Audiences are time-poor and want answers quickly, and short-form content enables you to do this. This type of content is typically easy to digest and covers a specific topic without going into too much detail.
Some examples of short-form content from our own archives include this two-minute video feature with New Zealand rugby legend and Mercedes-Benz ambassador Sean Fitzpatrick and this teaser clip creating some hype for Sydney Mardi Gras for The Star.
The benefits of short-form content include:
Short-form content doesn’t demand as much time or attention: Audiences want their answers quickly and short-form content is a great way to get a message across clearly and succinctly.
Short-form content is optimised for mobile: Most people consume content via mobile, so short-form pieces are likely to get more eyeballs.
Short-form content is quicker to produce: Long-form content is often quite resource-intensive to create, whereas short-form content is quicker to turnaround and usually more affordable.
An opportunity to engage with audiences in a light-hearted way: A short, pitchy article can be a way to engage with readers and make them laugh in a way that’s difficult to achieve with long-form content.
When to use long-form content and when to use short-form?
The long and the short of it is that any good content strategy should incorporate both long-form content to improve your search ranking and brand credibility and short-form content to ensure you’re delivering consistency and a mobile-optimised reader experience.
But because this answer is about as helpful as “how long is a piece of string?”, here are three questions you can ask yourself to help decide whether to tell a story in a long or short form:
1. What is my goal with this piece of content?
Be clear on what you’re trying to achieve by telling this story. If your goal is to build positive sentiment by positioning your brand as a source of authority on a subject, a long-form thought-leadership piece might be the way to go. If your goal is to raise awareness of a specific product launch, a snappy social post or a succinct EDM might be the better approach.
2. What are my competitors doing?
Check out the competition to see what topics they’re covering, which keywords are driving traffic to their sites and if there are any gaps that you could attempt to target. When creating content to rank for a specific keyword, take a look at the top results in Google and try to determine where you can do better.
3. What does my audience need?
It’s also really important to understand your audience’s intent. What do they want to get out of this piece of content? What questions do they need answers to? If they are looking to learn about a particular subject matter, it might be an opportunity for a long-form guide. If they’re already engaged and informed on the subject, you might consider an email or blog post to keep them engaged and up to date.
The long and the short of it (sorry, again) is that while size does matter in the world of content marketing, it’s not for the reasons we might think.
While it’s easy to get caught up in word counts and character limits, the most important thing is that you’re delivering value for your audience. That’s what will keep them coming back.
Jo Davy is managing editor, Hardie Grant Media.
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