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Post Length and Engagement: The Content Marketer’s Dilemma

Everyone’s talking about content at the moment: from those using content marketing to sell business-to-business, to pro niche bloggers, and of course, us here at problogger.net.

Phones

Image courtesy stock.xchng user lusi

It was also a topic that we dealt with on Monday’s #blogchat session on Twitter.

Among the topics that have come up in these discussions is one of length. Longread content is becoming more popular on social media and the web in general, and publishers are finding that while it costs to create longform content, it pays.

Yet research has shown that many social shares aren’t read before they’re shared (and as for afterwards, who knows?). And the average solo blogger probably doesn’t have time to create longform content for every post (or even every so often!).

So what’s better? Is longform content the way to go? Are the days of Seth Godin-style short, punchy posts numbered?

The stats

This post by Neil Patel analyses backlinks, shares, and conversions based on word count, and he’s found that longer content beats shorter posts in all areas.

It’s easy to glance through that post, be wowed by the graphs, and start planning your longread content strategy. But in the conclusion, Neil makes some interesting points, including this:

“Writing lengthy content won’t get you a ton of tweets and likes if you haven’t built up your social media accounts first.”—Neil Patel

While the figures are appealing, longform content shouldn’t be seen as the silver bullet to a blog’s traffic and reader retention problems.

Longer posts don’t necessarily drive greater engagement.

The medium

A Pew Internet study of young Americans’ (under-30s) reading habits from 2012 showed that “47% of younger Americans read long-form e-content such as books, magazines or newspapers.” But interestingly, “60% of Americans under age 30 used the library in the past year.” Those library users were borrowing print books as well as ebooks and audio books, along with magazines, newspapers, and journals.

So not only can we safely say that readers are still reading; we can also say that they’re not reading exclusively online.

Which bring us back to Seth Godin’s blog. I don’t know about you, but I can’t really imagine him publishing a 35,000-word mega-post (like the SEOmoz post mentioned in Neil’s article) on his blog. Seth seems to keep his longform content to books. And perhaps there’s a good reason for making that differentiation.

I mentioned on #blogchat this week that I think different types of content achieve different kinds of engagement, and as bloggers, we can use that to engage with different audience segments more meaningfully. Maybe that’s Seth’s approach: if you’re an “advanced” user of his ideas and work, you buy the book. If you’re at the “beginner” level, you stick with the blog.

But I think this raises an interesting question for those considering embracing longform content because it’s popular right now.

Would the information in your longform post be better communicated:

  • in a book or ebook
  • as a course or email series
  • through a webinar, forum, or discussion
  • some other way?

The answers depend on your readers, and the message you’re trying to communicate. But as bloggers, we can’t assume that a longform post will go viral any more than any other kind of post will go viral. It may not even have a better chance of ranking well in search.

Why not?

Getting it right

Writing longform content takes different skills than writing shorter content. The way I see it, longform content multiplies the challenges bloggers face writing short content—and adds some new ones, like structure, pace, keeping interest, and so on, into the mix. The kind of longform content that really does get read, as well as shared and ranked, isn’t just a matter of more words. It’s a matter of delivering more value—much more value.

If you have trouble getting traffic to your posts now, or your readers don’t seem engaged, you may need to work on your writing technique more before attempting a longform post.

In any case, a longform post you’re using as part of a content marketing strategy isn’t likely to massively grow your readership on its own. Like any kind of promotion, it’ll do best when it’s supported by already-strong reader engagement, a solid social network, excellent quality control, and so on.

Longform content isn’t just about adding words. It’s about adding value. If you don’t yet believe you have the value to justify a longform post, it might be best to stick with shorter content until you do.

I’d be interested to hear if you’re embracing the longform trend, or keeping with shorter posts for the time being. Let us know how you see this dilemma in the comments.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. I think there’s value to both – if everything had to be long to be successful, Twitter wouldn’t exist :)

    I like Seth Godin’s short posts because they give me something that I can read quickly and think on throughout the day without much initial effort on my part. On the other hand, if I want to really get into a subject, I’ll seek out longform posts that provide greater depth of details. Certainly, both options have their place – as long as they’re deliberately chosen by webmasters to suit the intention of the ideas they want to share. A short idea shouldn’t be made into a long post, just because research shows there’s an advantage to that style.

    That said, most of my blog posts tend to be longform – in part because the ideas that I tackle on my site are often more complex than can be covered in a few short paragraphs. I prefer to publish less frequently in order to cover more in-depth topics (though I often regret that decision based on the work that goes into each post!).

    • Taline says:

      I completely agree with you about the in depth posts and less posts…I notice too many try to pump out too many short posts that lack valuable content simply for the sake of getting more posts out. I would rather add something of value that I spent well thought out time writing.

      I find my readers appreciate it :)

      • Rightly said Tailine! I also try to keep up the value of my post rather that trying to increase the number of articles. Doing so lets you connect with the readers and if they like your work they start following you!

      • Emily Capito says:

        I would third this idea. I have favorite blog feeds that deliver quick, to-the-point ideas that make me think and I also seek out longer content posts when I need all the details on a complex or interesting topic. However, I don’t subscribe to blogs with consistently long (600+ word) posts. I don’t have time to get that information without having requested it. Similar to how Tim Ferriss recommends a “low-information diet,” I only read long posts that I seek out in order to accomplish a task or complete research.

  2. Thanks for raising these points for us Darren. We’re keeping our posts shorter for now, as are many others we speak to. Even though I’m a copywriter and would love it if this long-form trend took off, I completely agree with you on this one – it’s not about adding length, it’s about adding value.

  3. Julia says:

    This post gives me much to think about. I’m a blogging newbie, and I’m still finding my way. I’m also a writer, so I’ve been resisting the urge to craft long posts; my readership is small. I’ll continue to keep most of my posts short until my readership grows but, thanks to this post, I feel much more justified in doing so. I can look forward to a time when I can write ebooks and create more intricate content, but for now I’m sort of relieved that I don’t need to focus on all that just yet. Baby steps. Thanks for a great post.

  4. Bill says:

    Posting quality long content is truly a heavy budden to marketers especially to ”Not-Dedicated Bloggers”. But funny enough how comes when a newbie creates a quality content with good social media accounts they cant get enough search traffic? or this depends with the approach on how we write content? Whats your take Darren?

  5. Brett Beck says:

    I have to say that sometimes I’m guilty of sharing without fully reading. Most of the time I skim articles and then retweet. There’s just so much good content out there these days!

  6. Claudia says:

    So far I’ve kept away from the really long posts – I think I have just one with over 1000 words. On the other hand, I only did one or two with less than 600. Over 1000 usually means I’m really dealing with multiple, interrelated topics. Under 600 is fine for a ‘personal’ post where I don’t need to translate business talk into something people can relate to.

  7. Rahul says:

    nice post and nice saying..the all links are good..i like to read it…
    thanks for sharing the post…

  8. Roman Soluk says:

    I think not every long post can be successful. Sometimes it’s very boring and tiring to read those huge posts talking about nothing. But there are also not so long and still informative posts on the web.

    Thanks for the info Darren!

  9. Hi Darren.

    This is a thought provoking post I have to admit. I read Neil’s post the other day and it is pretty much inline with my blogging strategy right now – so I suppose I am hopping on the bandwagon.

    Points to note though, are that I have recently relaunched my website, gotten rid of a few old blog posts and re-worked a few to bring the quality level up a bit.

    When I start a long form post I start with a topic (eg, my most recent post was about developing an internet marketing strategy) I know a lot about, do a bit of research (to see what is already ranking) and then brainstorm subtopics that are worth talking about.

    Finally, I jig everything around and come up with a list of headings and subheadings.

    I try not to aim for any particular word count, I just write enough for each heading and subheading to cover that area in the amount of detail appropriate for that post (and add links for anyone who wants more detail on any specific area).

    Hopefully in doing so I am avoiding the trap of writing long content for the sakes of it and instead developing a really worthwhile post. This is a new-ish strategy for me though, so only time will tell!

  10. Sherilin says:

    Great tips and ideas. I am new to blogging and this helps.

  11. David says:

    Hmm… I try and balance it at around 500-750 words but any of my own posts that seem to do well are closer to around 1500 words but really I don’t keep that close of an eye on it. I know breaking up the post with diagrams, videos and bullet points can lift the engagement (based on rough tracking of affiliate clicks) but also makes it much more digestible for readers even if it’s long.

    There are people that always write epic posts and manage to engage you all the way through and there are people that post items that are 200-300 words and just skim the topic leaving you wanting more…

  12. Joe says:

    I often write posts 2000-3000 words in length and I do think it helps me regardless of how many tweets I get. A lot of people find me via organic searches.

  13. One way to transition a good short content writer to a longform poster is by highlighting one of the key challenges of longform content: organization. If you are an engaging writer you can turn out some engaging content that can jump around a fair amount, but your reader will generally stick with you. Longform content involves building a structure (that is logical) and building out from that skeleton in order to keep your readers from falling off along the read when they get lost.

    I loved the post! Really engaging and extremely topical. I especially enjoyed the use of the Pew study to provide some balance and remind us that there is value in communications and writing in the real world!

  14. Rob says:

    As a general rule of thumb I write what the subject demands, I have never started out with a length in mind just a desire to do a great job.

    I am aware there is much discussion around short and long posts, some of it is bordering on obsessive.

    I freed myself from these shackles, I write for my audience first, second and third. I want to do a great job regardless of how many words that takes me.

  15. Ferb says:

    Love this, a lot of people say that lengthy post won’t work unless it’s helpful to readers. But list posts can really give you a chance to extend the length of post by just grab up a little bit of piece of each tips and build up together. It’ll give you a long post.

    I really think that lengthy post might not help as well if we use the list posts strategy to extend the length of post, it means that we’re giving readers too many choices to pick and the chances are they will pick nothing to use.

  16. I’ve started many a blog post only to stop when it’s evident that it’s going to run too long. Not long like 1,000 or 2,000 words…I’m currently working on a mini e-book that started as a blog post. The subject just kept unraveling until I recognized the problem…and opportunity.

    BUT…how long is longform? SEOMoz posts tend to go long when the subject is technical in nature. 500 words don’t cut it when you need to state a problem, propose hypothetical solutions, justify your point of view with data (and this is critical, since there’s a million SEOs polishing their pistols beneath the table anytime someone steps up with an opinion), and summarize.

    I strive very hard to keep my posts as brief as possible, and edit ruthlessly to do so. But, when I go long it’s not because of a trend. I do so precisely for the reason you state in your 787-word post (nicely done) — because to provide value on the subject of the past, going long is what it takes.

    That said, since I tend to go longer with my blog posts, I also consciously try to mix in shorter posts. I do want bite-sized (but valuable) bits of information that are easy to digest, and hopefully that can serve as doorways to the bigger posts. My blog is still pretty new, so we’ll see how it goes.

  17. Joe says:

    I think the topic of discussion needs to be a factor of article length. 700 words may be considered “long” for some topics but in others, its just the opposite. Then, we also have to consider that our readers may be best served with a longer post that addresses their particular needs and questions and “speak their language”. In this way, longer posts would be better.

    “in short” I think the post shroud be as long as it has to be to help people.

  18. Richard Ng says:

    I personally like to write shorter post as long as I bring across the points/content that I would to share. My rationale is that we are so information overloaded nowadays, just hope my reader can read my stuff and get the point with minimum time possible.

    That’s the reason why I like to use photo and/or infographic to further enhance my point.

    Cheers!

  19. Delia says:

    I am definitely sticking with short(er) posts for the moment. A post that is very long better have some super engaging content to make me read it.

    On the other hand, give me a great long post in ebook format and I’ll take the time to read it it it’s useful.

  20. Jason says:

    Great post.

    Joe I read your comment and had a look at your supplement geelk.com web site by clicking on your name. Your posts are great. I have started to very long posts and changed the way it is engaging on my new blog. Recently Ive been lucky in getting a few more pages viewed. Its still a big learning curve and theres plenty more testing to do with blogging.

  21. mohit says:

    Great tips for a newbie blogger just like me.I have just read the post by Neil sir also,that was also a awesome one.Will be looking for such more posts and hoping to learn a lot from you :) :) :)

  22. Shaleen Shah says:

    I don’t mind reading long form content if it’s worth reading… I guess, you’re right about quality after all. While you can’t predict the virality of such posts, I wonder.. do you think that having killer headlines can boost the chance of your content getting viral? Out of curiosity, what’s the shortest blog ever been published online? Thanks!

  23. Brad says:

    As Sarah Russell mentioned, I think both long form and short form articles are valid and have their place. In my experience, instead of a true long form post, I’ll break the subject down it to different articles.
    For example, how to build a blog, I’ll look at Keyword research as one article, article format as a another article and brainstorming ideas as another, all under a topic such as “Build a Blog”. This helps get content on my blog while giving my readers something to look forward to.
    Truthfully I’ve never thought about writing an article more than 2500 words.
    A great article! Thanks for giving me something to consider.

  24. I try to stay away from blog posts that are too long simply because I wouldn’t read it if I came across it unless it was fascinating information that I needed in that moment.

    I break up all of my articles with subtitles and I draft, rewrite and rewrite again. I need to make sure I’m providing good, quality, and accurate information, in my voice, and following the SEO rules. Whew! It’s a lot of work.

    I’m looking forward to being able to do this on the fly whether my post is short, long, medium or an eBook.

  25. Len Bowcott says:

    I had always written long blog posts and website articles, but then thought I should shorten them a few years ago when readership tipped to be mostly via mobile devices. Page views increased, but of course Google PR and SERP decreased.

    I tried different formats, one of which was to employ excepts linking to full articles. PR did not improve, and I noticed Google Adsense banners were far less relevant on the home page to the niche of the blog or website. Naturally I consider anything that could potentially cost me money to be a bad thing.

    Next I tried breaking longer articles into smaller, bite sized chunks, virtually turning every few paragraphs into a follow up post. This worked well to enhance PR, but was not appreciated by readers obviously because unique daily visits remained the same, but overall page views declined.

    After reading Darren’s excellent article I have a couple of new ideas to work with now. Thanks!

  26. Brian Cotsen says:

    As an SEO consultant I am often working with clients who are time poor. I suggest part of their link building strategy is to both write and read/comment on relevant quality blogs. Some of these clients write blogs and some read them. The problem that I face is clients, and this goes for other blog readers in general, being prepared to ‘invest’ their valuable time in reading the blog. I always suggest that using the age old PR strategy of ‘strong headline to tell the story’ then ‘tight first paragraph that clearly covers the idea and grabs attention to compel the reader to want to read on’

    This is certainly not easy and a skill that takes time to perfect … but keeping this goal in mind can lead to a strong following because your readers anxiety of … ‘What will I learn/ is this worth spending time on’ can be allayed.

  27. Matt Brennan says:

    I was part of that blogchat session too, and content length is a tricky subject. On one hand, I think Seth Godin gets it right. Even though his posts are typically maybe 150 words at the most, he packs a strong punch. There’s usually a solid takeaway in the short amount of time it takes to read.

    On the other hand, I’ve read some long blogs that still seem to miss the mark. If you’re going to write long, it better be engaging, and informative. It better be friendly to the reader. If you miss on some of this stuff it’s going to be hard to get the reader through to the end.

  28. Sarah Bauer says:

    Thinking about whether my long form blog content would be better presented in an ebook format makes me consider the offer from the user’s perspective. Does the user want to commit to the download, or just pick up bites from headlines and certain paragraphs from their desktop view? What does these different formats mean to the user? It’s an interesting conversation, and one we’ll be having more if long form continues to take favour for search rankings.

  29. Longform content can be challenging because of online readers’ short attention span. Moreover, it requires bloggers to actually have something to talk about that they can’t already sum up in a shorter post.

  30. dee4dit says:

    Thanks for your post, Darren. I post for Christian Author D.I. (David) Telbat. When we first started blogging a couple of years ago, the recommendation was to post 500 words or less, because of attention spans, etc. But it didn’t take us long to learn that his readers wanted much more of what we were posting—fiction short stories and serialized novel chapters. We had to adjust our thinking and posting, and now try to make the fiction posts 1500+ words. So, you are right that “different types of content achieve different kinds of engagement.” For his other types of posts—author reflections or thought provoking challenges—it seems that shorter is better. Type of content appears to be the key to length. Dee

  31. Andria R says:

    I think that defining what a long post is is as important as deciding whether or not they’re good for one’s blog.

    Because of the type of blog I run, long posts are only an option once every 2 weeks. I did write an 800 word post a week ago. I was a little scared to publish it, but I don’t think I could shorten it without sacrificing my point.

  32. David Shaw says:

    I agree with MicroSourcing, longform content can sometimes be a bore to read. I tend to sometimes get lost in lengthy blogs. Sometimes I prefer it to be short and sweet, right to the point.

  33. It’s simple in my opinion – if you can’t express your message in 500 words than you’re better off creating a short report. Anything over 1000 words is more than a post. Post is something people are willing to read while on the bus or taking a break from work tasks and not have to allocate time for ‘study’.

  34. Thanks Darren,

    How long a post should be is a constant bug for me because I often end up writing 700+ words on my posts and regularly think I should perhaps break it into 2 posts. This is often because many of the topics I write on tend to need a bit of explaining at times.

    However, I think this post has eased my mind a little on that and I’ll continue to write as do.

    Thanks,
    Karl

  35. sheshnath says:

    Is the length of post really matters than content?? I don’t give importance to the length of post for me what matters is the content which I am giving to my reader , sort and simple :) .

  36. Dominique says:

    It definitely takes a lot of skill to write a long blog post. There’s skill involved that some people just haven’t developed yet. You also have to make sure you have a topic that calls for that type of post.

  37. olu says:

    Thought provoking post!
    As a newbie blogger, I’ll stick to short posts for now. I try not to go above the 500 words limit I set for myself and the feedback I’m getting is that the post length is just okay.
    I totally agree with Dario and also feel your niche, style of writing and readers should be the determining factor.

  38. Donald Ash says:

    I am notorious for writing longer posts. Long form writing can be wonderful when you TRULY have something to say. However, being verbose just for the sake of making longer posts doesn’t really add any “oomph” to the post you’re writing or to your blog.

    I find that there are clever ways to say more by writing less, but it takes a bit of thought (for me anyway). On today’s web it can sometimes be difficult to grab a reader’s attention with so many things going on, so shorter posts and shorter text blocks have their place, too.

    I’m an advocate of both the longer and shorter styles of post-writing.

    Admittedly, I’m still learning how and when to use each one.

    I think I’m starting to understand what brings people to a blog, but I am struggling to understand what makes a person buy from one. I suppose, that discussion beyond the scope of just post length alone. I’ll keep at it.

    Problogger Fan,
    Donald “The Japan Guy” Ash

  39. Praverb says:

    Great post once again. I believe that post length is based on your audience.

    I am a hip-hop music blogger. I always thought that quantity trumped quality. So I spent a lot of time uploading like 5-10 posts a day (usually videos, singles, etc). I knew nothing about blogging yet I called myself a blogger.

    Fast forward to 2012. I visited this blog and Copyblogger and learned how to blog. I slowly decreased my output and started to actually write, with topics in mind.

    Now I am not afraid to compile a longer post. Thank you for this post and Problogger in general.

  40. Great Post! Its good to see that others think the same way we do. Quality of the post should be the first and foremost item to consider. Length does have importance but so does the Quality. I agree with Mr. Patel its one thing to write a great article but you have to get the eye balls on the article for it to do any good.

  41. Praveen Soni says:

    Hello Darren,
    i am agree with all your points. so i would like to say something about the post i.e. we must write in the short paragraphs for example 4-5 lines. A 2000 words article is useless if it doesn’t have useful or correct content.
    so i can say that write 600 words article , but write intresting and quality content.
    thanks for sharing :)

  42. sadek says:

    I usually write posts 400 to 500 words long, which are average in length. but here main question is there is a SERP factor associated with post length, that’s why I sometimes hesitate to publish short posts below 300 words.

  43. Ray says:

    When the creative mood strikes me, I don’t even consider how long a post is. I assume, if it’s good, people will read it no matter how long or short it is. It’s my opinion that you should use as many words as needed to make whatever your blogging about clear to the reader and not one word more. Sometimes you need more words and other times you can say more with just a few.

    I also like the concept of “leave them wanting more.” I often break a subject up into parts and blog about them one at a time over several days or even weeks.

    But, I’m really very new to all this and don’t know anything about blogging. I know the subject of my blog.

  44. Jeff says:

    We have thousands of blog posts across different niches of both long-form and some 2-3 liners, what I have found is that when I post specifically to illicit a reaction/participation that shorter-form seems to work better.

    For example, a short, controversial statement can result in hundreds of comments versus a longer-style article that may get 10′s of comments.

    Or lately I have been posting more video-blog entries where I will simply include a few lines of text above the video and a question or comment underneath…those also tend to do well, especially where the video is short and hits the mark.

    Jeff

  45. Jason Bennet says:

    Hi Darren,

    Thank you for sharing this content.

    I personally there is pro and cons for using short article and long article. Instead of worry about the length of the content, I will stay focus on the quality of the content. There are some blogs which I have been to which contain many short articles but I still visit them because it contains useful information.

    I personally prefer to have articles around 500 to 800 words as it is short enough and I will be able to understand what the author is trying to explain in less then 5 minutes.

  46. A good blog should have a balance of long and short articles depending on the subject matter. Sometimes you struggle to write more than a few hundred words and on other topics you can write a small novel. I think search engines will start to penalise blogs where every post is 500 words and contains 1 link! Diversity in post length is good!

    I like Ray’s concept of leaving them wanting more and breaking up some subjects into parts – I will try and do this more.

  47. Penny Sadler says:

    Thank you for the article. I read a tweet recently that said, anything over 250 words is too long. Then I read that for the search engines to index, it should be a minimum of 500 words. I write mostly short posts, nothing more than 700 words usually. My content is also photograph heavy. Do people read the content or just look at the images? I’ve tried a few posts that are mostly just content without a lot of image support and I notice that they aren’t as popular. I don’t know but at the end of the day I agree with Taline. I’d rather produce something I’m proud of than just content for the sake of content. Great article.

  48. Hi Darren

    I am moving more and more to short articles as opposed to longer ones.

    After 4+ years of blogging I have realised that is what my readers want more of.

    As an example, measuring the ‘Likes’ per thousand visits on my articles, the ones with less than 400 words perform significantly better than the ones with more than 700 words.

    I can therefore write two short articles that are appreciated more in the same time that I can write a long one.

    I think we as readers are more and more moving away from newspaper style reading to twitter-style reading and there is no way back…..

  49. David Shaw says:

    Thanks for posting, great information, I’m definately sticking with short posts for now.

  50. Priya says:

    I do agree with you about the length of the content posted. If the articles posted with too much less content then it loses its value and attention. It is better to add content having good value that is really useful as you mentioned. Appreciable article.