Why long-form content is worth the effort

Written by Callum Grantham - 30 Nov 2017

Long-form content should be a cornerstone in your content strategy. We know Google loves regular, high quality content – there’s nothing new there. But which type of content is best, long or short-form?  With attention spans fading and infinite content for audiences to consume, is it, in this digital age, even a valid question to be asking?  Well, yes, actually.

On the one hand, short-form is good because it allows you to create a higher frequency of content.  It’s ‘easier’ to produce, requiring less research and ultimately, less time and resource to create.  

But it has its limitations. With a low word count, short-form content only enables you to cover one aspect of a given topic. This contradicts the very idea of semantic search, because you’re ignoring the deeper intent and wider context of what your audience (and Google) are looking for.

Long-form, on the other hand, brings a host of benefits. The extra research time means you can look at the bigger picture – and plot out your customer journey to understand exactly what your audience is interested in, and what they want to see on your site.

You can use search intent and research data to delve into the deeper context of the topic and pinpoint long-term trends.  This means you can craft more relevant, targeted content for your users.  Content they’ll more likely engage with.  Content they’ll want to share and link to.

But before we go any further, what actually constitutes long-form?

Hubspot research suggests that most marketers spend 2-4 hours producing a 500-word blog post, which isn’t enough time to research and produce authoritative original content. Yet research into their own blogs showed longer posts receiving more shares.

And recent BuzzSumo research found the average number one piece of content in terms of shares and views was just over 1,900 words. If that was on Medium, a seven or eight minute read.

For video, Google reckons long-form is anything over 10 minutes , and most podcasts last more than 30 minutes, making ideal listening for the commute or a walk into town.

The correlation between long content and better Google visibility has been the subject of study for years , and there’s increasing evidence that audiences prefer long-form content to short-form content.

So, let’s look at how and why long-form can be beneficial for content producers.

Long form vs. short form.

Let’s just add in a caveat here that this is not all about content length.  Poor content is still bad content, whether that’s 500 or 2,000 words, and going long isn’t a one-stop-solution when it comes to Google visibility, though it might help.

The benefits of long-form are as much about the benefits of embracing long-term content strategy as the content itself.

Long-form content requires additional research and planning time, which gives you time to dive into search intent and customer data. You can assess the context of the topic and pinpoint long-term trends, identifying gaps and opportunities where you can add value for your audience.

This means that your content is better informed and tailored to your audience – with the added bonus of being able to create some great short content off the back of your long-form research.

Beware the content shock.

Content is everywhere. Billions of new blogs, articles and videos are published online every day, all competing for the attention of the 3.8 billion people who use the internet, but we can only take so much, so it’s no surprise that ‘content shock’ - a term coined by Mark Schaefer in 2014 – is a measurable phenomenon, resulting in declining engagement and sore eyes.

Brandwatch has highlighted the correlation between the number of posts about a given topic and the decline of average shares of those articles.

If your article is one of hundreds saying the same thing, your chances of attracting unique attention are limited.

About 85% of new posts are less than 1,000 words long , so it’s fair to say that most new content being created is short-form and high-churn, often around ephemeral events.

Chasing short-form gains has resulted in lots of content creators in any given field creating posts around the same topics, which means a plethora of posts that all say roughly the same thing and provide no additional value.

This is what’s referred to as ‘me too’ content – and, if you work in marketing, you’ll be familiar with it every time Google issues an update, as in the example below.

So is short-form content bad? No, not inherently, but it’s overused.

You can still achieve results with short-form posts and – depending what industry you’re in – being first on the story can really matter. It’s all about whether you’re adding value for your audience. But the truth is that lots of content creators use short-form because they just want to push out new content and it’s quicker to produce a 500-word post or 30-second video than a 2,000-word post or 20-minute video.

One of the limitations of short-form is that it only enables you to cover one area of a topic in any detail, which contradicts the semantic understanding of search – and therefore Google’s RankBrain - and the increased understanding of user search intent.

Users refine their search results to reach more specific content. Typically, they do this because they haven’t been able to locate the detail they want in their initial search: they’re looking for more detail, which short-form content can’t provide.

Does long-form actually work?

Here’s a quick example. The below is a breakdown of the shares by length for articles on the Guardian in the past six months, using BuzzSumo.

It’s clear that the most shared articles are more than 3,000 words. Not only is this supported by many other studies, but various sources looking at data sets across different platforms agree that, generally, posts of at least 1,500 words achieve more shares, likes and better visibility in Google.

For example Backlinko’s research that showed that the average length of a top-ranking post on Google is 1,890 words, and serpIQ conducted research way back in 2012 that concluded that results across all top 10 positions averaged more than 2,000 words in length.

Medium, the popular blogging site, conducted research into the most popular articles which found that the most popular posts took 7.3 minutes to read, with an assumed average speed of 275 words per minute and time added for images. So, the optimum length of a Medium article is around 1,600 words.

BuzzSumo’s LinkedIn research showed that 2,000-3,000-word articles received the highest number of average shares, with articles with less than 1,000 words receiving the fewest shares of any of the four categories.

Reasons to love long-form content ...

So we know it works. And the reasons to love long-form are plentiful – and become easier to grasp when you have visibility of your customer journey.  Let’s break down the reasons to use long-form into two areas: from a technical perspective, and from that of a user.

... from a technical perspective ...

As we can see from the BuzzSumo data and other studies such as Hubspot’s analysis of its blog content , longer content increases average social shares, which may also factor into the correlation between longer content and better performance in Google.

Content itself remains one of the biggest factors in Google’s algorithm, and Google does specifically refer to length in the context of overall quality of content in its search quality guidelines .

Nonetheless there are fundamental aspects of long-form content that could help from a technical standpoint.

Google is now more focused on context than on specific keyword target ing, and the search engine’s Hummingbird algorithm means Google understands the topic of every page, so it knows what you’re writing about and in what detail you’ve covered it (links, length, and yes, keyword density).

It measures quality signals to gauge audience interaction (clicks, dwell time, actions on site, links again), and it’s around these quality signals that long-form content can start to have an effect.

For starters, longer content can increase dwell time, and it also has a greater capacity to decrease bounce rate by giving people more opportunities to interact with your site. Long-form content also generates more links, which could have a long-term impact on domain authority.

... and from a user perspective.

Customer experience is at the core of everything we do at Fresh Egg – and forms the basis of all strategy work that we do for our clients – before any content planning and creation takes place.

Plotting out the different touchpoints and interactions that your audience have with your brand enables you to identify their motivations, behaviours and habits, and understand their intent.

What is it that they’re looking for, and why?

What questions do they need answering, and how can your content answer them?

Once you have visbility of this, you can make sure your content, whether long or short-form, answers this intent directly.

When consuming long-form content, your audience is likely to be in a receptive mindset. They’ll probably have a good base knowledge of your subject area, having already read and digested related short-form content.

They’re looking for more. They want added value. Greater knowledge. Richer and more useful information.

Long-form content is your chance to provide that.

How to structure long-form content.

So we know long-form works, and we understand the benefits. If you’ve mapped out your customer experience journey map , you’ll know what your audience want too.

But to write long-form content well you need to understand how people read on the web.

Write for scanners. Break it up into easily digestible chunks. Don’t overload with unnecessary words.

Longer content does present more of a challenge in retaining people’s attention spans, but there are some basic good-practice techniques that can help.

Long-form copy.

  • Break your content down using sub-headings, quotes and boxed-out content to organise into digestible chunks.
  • Keep paragraphs short, and break up large blocks of text with relevant rich media such as photos and videos – and don’t overuse stock imagery for the sake of it. 
  • Use lists for itemised takeaways.

And it’s the same technique for video.

  • Structure your content into sections with key takeaways.
  • Use a variety of visual and audio techniques to prevent drift.
  • Include markers and links in your YouTube content in the same way you would do on a blog.
  • Give viewers more ways to interact and find supplementary information and links in the video descriptions.

Make promotion a priority.

Promotion is arguably the most important consideration with any piece of content, (otherwise no one will see it), so it’s crucial to plan your promotional strategy before publishing your content.

Another benefit of long-form content is that you can create multiple, shorter versions for distribution and promotion across other channels. With the increased level of detail in your longer piece, you have more opportunities to break it down into topic clusters and target different audience groups.

You can outreach these smaller pieces to other targeted third party sites, work with influencers, and publish abridged versions of your blogs to social platforms such as LinkedIn and Medium for greater reach and linkbuilding.

This also gives greater chance for evergreen content, the importance of which we’ve written about here .

Four key takeaways.

  1. It doesn’t mean short-form content can’t still be part of your strategy – everything has its place.
  2. Instead, look to long-form content as the basis for short-form pieces and further promotion.
  3. Working in this way enables you to create more related content around the central theme, and use topic clusters to create abridged versions and give yourself more opportunities to reach out to wider audience groups.
  4. Use outreach and partner marketing to make use of influencers and tap into pre-existing audiences that may be interested in your content.

Need help with your content strategy? We’re here.  Find out more about how Fresh Egg can help with Customer Experience Journey Mapping .