Does Size Matter?

tl:dr Absolutely it does, longer is generally better, but it all depends on how you use it and what you want to achieve!

This can be quite a controversial subject.

What is the best length?

Should it be short and easy or longer and more engaging?

There seems to be quite a wide range of views and opinions, eventually, with the usual caveat of; ‘well it depends on what you want to achieve?’

I am of course, talking about content marketing and how long your content should be, particularly Videos and Blog articles.

Whenever I discuss Social Media and Marketing, which has it its heart, good Content Marketing, the topic of length frequently arises and often spawns quite a debate. (I discuss these subjects frequently, and have done for many years now.)

My view is for content to be really engaging and add meaningful value, then it needs to be substantive and that typically means long-form.

However, I thought it might be interesting to explore the subject a bit further. It’s not the first time this has been written about, and it certainly won’t be the last. I’ll draw upon other articles that have been written, and you can then draw your own conclusions.

It may change your point of view, it may not, but at least it will provide you with more information and evidence.

Less is more! Right?

Generally speaking, the ‘received wisdom’ and repeated recommendation, is you should keep your content short and snappy; quick, easy to read and digest as the viewer scrolls through seeking relief for their persistent underlying boredom, which after all, is the primary driver behind Social Media use! – When we are busy doing other stuff we don’t have time for Social Media, do we?

In my view, the first consideration must be:

Why are you doing it? What effect are you looking to achieve?

The answers to this create the context and framing for the rest of the argument. Yet, whenever I see the subject presented, talked or written about, it is almost always done so without this frame. The advice tends to be absolute, i.e. for X type of content it should be Y long … regardless of purpose. It’s only when pushed or challenged that ‘Purpose’ is accepted as a variable, but even then, it is often viewed as having only a minor impact on recommended length.

However, I consider that purpose or ‘Desired Outcome or Effect’ as critical.

As a prelude to my argument; I’d like to just draw attention to a great quote from Tim O’Reilly, I don’t know when he first coined it, it was certainly more than 10 years ago, and he has frequently re-asserted it. I believe it should lie at the heart of any ‘set of values’

The short form is “Always seek to create more value than you extract.”

You should watch this highly engaging and educational talk from Tim in 2013, and read his 2017 interview in the Guardian, where he rewords the idea as:

Getting back to ‘Content’…

Let’s look at Video; a content format that is rapidly growing to be one the most important ways to communicate online, even though audience response and engagement is still mostly in textual format. [I wonder when we will see a platform that allows you to make ‘video comments’ to a ‘video post’?]

The findings, from a wide range of analytics, show that the ‘ideal length’ of video for audience engagement is approx. 2 minutes, depending on platform, some are shorter and some slightly longer.

However, Ad spots on TV are typically 30-60secs and on YouTube, savvy content producers now ensure their message is delivered in the first 5 secs before you can ‘Skip Ad’.

That said, the content that delivers the most ‘value’ is normally much longer, at least 5 mins, often 10-20mins.

Think ‘How To’ guides; ‘In conversation with’; TED and TEDx talks …

It is these pieces of content that have intrinsic and lasting value. Value that is delivered not only to the viewer but also to the content publisher. They (usually) clearly demonstrate Knowledge, Skills and Experience in whatever subject matter is being covered.  The viewer will associate this with the creator, and a series of content of this ilk will build reputation and ultimately drive engagement and action from the audience.

So, why are shorter pieces, statistically more effective at driving traffic?

Well, one reason is volume. There are lots of shorter videos, and they are more readily digestible, meaning the analytics will show greater ‘engagement’. However, this engagement will be shallow and fleeting; the lasting effect will be minimal. Thus the content producer will need to keep producing content to maintain ‘Brand Awareness’ – and there it is – the purpose; short content is excellent for generating ‘Brand’ presence and awareness, and of course, the more entertaining the content is then the more brand impact and reach it will have.

So if your purpose is to create ‘awareness’, generate Interest, and deliver relatively short messaging then, absolutely, keep the content short but have a plan and capacity to deliver your messaging fairly frequently.

However, if you want to deliver a lasting effect and generate meaningful Influence, then the content should be longer, and have intrinsic value.

What about Blogs?

Well, pretty much the same arguments are true.

There was a great article written by Jason Miller, Head of Content and Social Media Marketing, LinkedIn Sales & Marketing Solutions EMEA and Brand Marketing Lead at Microsoft.

Published in June 2017, titled ‘The most effective content marketing slows down – and goes long’, it was based on a period of data driven research into Content Effectiveness.

A key paragraph states:

“The more you study the data around content effectiveness, the clearer it becomes that most successful content has two characteristics that most unsuccessful content doesn’t. It’s long – at least over 1,000 words long and often over 2,000 words long.”

Moreover, the concluding paragraph is one that resonates with me massively:

“Content marketing is a genuine craft – a skilled profession that fuses art and science. Like all crafts it demands time and respect from those participating in it: from the planning phase through the process of researching, writing and creating, and a commitment to communicating value. A growing weight of evidence demonstrates the importance of taking that time. Doing so can’t absolutely guarantee that content will succeed – but not doing so pretty much guarantees that it won’t”

In a linked article, written nearly a year earlier, Jason also highlighted the flawed thinking around ‘the short attention spans’ of today’s internet user – well worth reading – ‘The great goldfish attention span myth – and why it’s killing content marketing.’ – In the article, he concludes by saying:

“The human brain doesn’t care how much content it has to consume – it can do that more efficiently than ever. It cares about whether that content is worth consuming or not.”

There are many examples of excellent bloggers who instinctively write really interesting and valuable content, without consideration of length; it just so happens that nearly everything they write turns out to be long-form content.

In the commercial domain, there are many sources and you will all have your own favourite reference points – however, I am willing to bet that nearly all of your favourites will feature Long-Form content.

Here are a few of mine:

  • Jeremy.Live by Jeremy Waite – not only a fabulous presenter, author and podcaster (Ten Words) – he is also one of the most authentic, personable and engaging people I have ever met.
  • Ann Handley – a great marketing writer who also extols the virtue of longer content and good story telling.
  • The Content Marketing Institute – a fantastic repository, clearly with a commercial intent- but generous with it, a great email newlsetter also.
  • Buffer and Hootsuite – both clearly looking to market their Social Media solutions but both blogs are great examples of ‘Give to Get’.

In the military and defence domain:

That is but a small sample and by no means definitive, but it all are certainly indicative of why longer content works.

OK… So is there a role for short content?

Yes, absolutely, but again it depends on purpose and platform and the desired effect.

Short form content, posted frequently is the best way to drive brand awareness and generate traffic.  However, you need to have a ‘content funnel’ or engagement process.

A great example of this is Seth Godin’s blog and email ‘newsletter’. He rarely writes more than three paragraphs, yet it is always right on point and draws you into his longer content (books) and services (i.e. Speaking and the altMBA course).

If all you are looking to do is drive traffic to an eCommerce landing page and let the website will do the rest, then short content is perfect; supported of course by paid media. The days of the free lunch from great content alone are numbered, if not already long gone. You either need a well-established amplification network or you need to pay to boost your content reach; Facebook is where this is most necessary now.

The best way to use posts, updates and short-form content, is as part of an integrated marketing campaign. I’m not going to go into that now, but I often use the metaphor of Game Fishing to explain my point – you can read my short blog on it here; but essentially it goes;

“Twitter is Chum… its purpose is to attract a target audience!

 

However, if all you do is throw chum in the water, then you’re not going to catch any fish!

 

You need to have the rest in place; you need bait, hook, a rod and line that’s fit for purpose and the skills to use them effectively; you’ll also need a ‘big enough boat’ and once you’ve caught your fish, you need to get it ashore and to market to sell to realise a return on investment.”

I am not alone!

I said at the outset, that this topic had been written about before, so here are a few links on the same topic:

From The NextWeb by Brandon Geary, July 2018  ‘Data shows people want serious long-form content — and brands need to take note.’

Another article, from online advertising consultancy WordStream and originally written in 2014 but last updated in December 2017, provides examples and analysis on why Long-Form content works best: What Is Long-Form Content and Why Does It Work?

Finally; For a plethora of different Data Sets on optimal content length; then you should read this article from torque.io: What is the Optimal Content Length? – Here’s What the Science Says or for a great infographic and a comprehensive accompanying blog – have a look at Buffer’s The Optimal Length for Every Social Media Update and More.

In short; A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 1000 words and ideally closer to 2000 words; with longer, well researched and well-written content of 3000 words plus performing exceptionally well in terms of sharing, engagement and longevity.

In conclusion, a good engagement and communications plan will clearly have a strategy that blends different content lengths and formats in a cohesive and accretive manner.

However, the really important part is how the content is constructed!

That is the art of ‘Story Crafting’, and I’ve written about the importance of Story before.

If you’d like to talk to us about improving your engagement and communications we’d love to hear from you…

But in the meantime, please let us know your thoughts in the comments below, as I said in my opening paragraphs the subject is quite divisive…

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