The Long and Short of It: What You Really Need to Know About Content Length

May 23, 2018 Kyle Harper

A woman scrolls through content on her laptop while drinking tea

Marketing has developed a massive amount in just the past ten years.

We’ve gone from intuiting audience intentions to pursuing data-driven decision making. We’ve moved from cramming marketing material full of sales propositions to delighting visitors and providing meaningful information and experiences. We’ve grown from distant brands to present partners who are willing to engage prospects and customers alike in conversation.

So why then do we accept best practices on content length from a decade ago?

For most (if not all) of the established history of digital marketing, content teams have primarily focused on bite-size content—thirty-second videos, 500-word blog posts, the occasional infographic. While there is nothing wrong with any of this material in its own right, it begs the question of why we’re still dedicated to creating content in this way. Is it actually best for our brands? How long should content actually be?

The Long and Short of It

There are excellent reasons why, to date, marketers have largely focused on producing shorter content. We know that the first ten to thirty seconds of video content retain the largest audience. We know that readers often scroll through our blog posts first to determine if they want to make a time commitment.

But this approach reduces the purpose of content to getting views. It’s a distinctly advertising-born system of thought that misses out on some of the best advantages that content marketing has to offer. And this over-saturation of snackable content seems to be making our brands and audiences quite sick.

An interesting thing has happened, however. As some brands have begun branching out and taking risks with varying lengths of content, new audience behaviors and interests have started to arise. A handful of brands are embracing short- and long-form content that looks more like entertainment than marketing—and it’s working well enough that branded entertainment is growing twice as fast as advertising spend.

The key shift isn’t whether long or short content is best. It’s understanding that there are different places and purposes where short and long content can serve your brand.

A man filming another person with a cinema camera

Image attribution: Jakob Owens

Cutting to Length

By moving away from the idea that content is simply supposed to drive views and visits, we can open up a huge playing field of content marketing opportunities. The goal is to understand what various segments of your audience want at different times in their lifecycle with your brand—and then to meet that need with the right length of content experience.

Written Content

Blogs, articles, and the like are a great place to start when considering content length optimization, because it’s one of the longest-running and most comfortable formats for marketing teams.

A survey of the written content being published today shows that there isn’t much middle ground; you’ll see either very short (shorter than 500 words, or about a two-minute read) or comparatively long (800 words and up). But each of these styles serves different needs.

When creating a new blog post or article, consider some of these factors to decide what length of content is best suited to your needs:

  • Keyword Intention: Are you targeting a keyword that’s likely to be used in a question where a user would expect a fast response? Go with shorter content. If your search terms are broader, or suggest that your reader might be looking for a more exhaustive source of information, then consider a longer piece of content. In either case, make sure you understand the purpose of your keywords first.
  • Device Usage: In response to the fact that most web users are searching and accessing content from their mobile devices, Google recently rolled out mobile-first indexing that highly prefers mobile-friendly sites. Use your web analytics to understand how this affects your site, and consider what experience or content a mobile user might expect when they land on one of your pages. This doesn’t inherently mean you’ll always use shorter content, but it might inform the pacing and scheduling of when you push out your shorter pieces versus your longer ones.

Video Content

Video is a media space that may require more investment and risk from your brand, but at the same time it offers perhaps the most leeway in terms of experimenting with content length. In fact, at the same time that we’ve been seeing some brands move towards long-form brand entertainment content, we’re seeing the entertainment industry begin to experiment with shorter formats.

As you consider what length you want your video content to be, consider these factors:

  • The Goal of the Video: It is true that people still primarily engage with the first 30 seconds of videos—so use this to your advantage. If your video only has one key piece of information you’re trying to get across to as many people as possible, then short form still makes sense. But if you’re trying to identify and serve segments of highly engaged users on your site, then it might be beneficial to have a large portion of viewers shed off of your video through the runtime so you can narrow your numbers down to the segment you’re actually trying to understand.
  • A/B Testing Video Length: Unsure if you have an audience that would be primed for longer video content? Consider producing a mid-length piece of content and then distributing both the mid-length cut and bite-size edits of your longer piece. The shorter cuts might serve your brand well embedded within content and high-ranking search landing pages, while your longer cut might find a home on your video hosting channel or in your social media conversations. As long as you’re paying close attention to the metrics, your audience will tell you what they want to see and when.

Podcasting

Podcasting continues to grow in prevalence, both as a common form of entertainment media and as a powerful channel for content marketing. But the demands of keeping up show cadence, finding engaging material, and then putting it all together in production can be very daunting.

You don’t have to jump headlong into releasing three-hour episodes twice a week. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind that can help you dial in the right length for your audio content:

  • Context Is King: The topic your podcast covers might give you a strong indication of how and when your users might be listening, and in turn what they’ll expect from a runtime. NPR’s podcast offerings are a great example: News Now is aimed at up-to-the-minute audiences who just want a five-minute current event report on a rapid schedule, while NPR Politics is still timely and relevant but has a longer runtime for people who want an in-depth recap of recent days. Think first about what your listener hopes to get out of your podcast, and match your runtime to that expectation.
  • Seek Out the Data: Building off of context, podcasting perhaps more than any other medium is heavily informed by metrics like runtime retention and time of day. If you see that your audience is listening during work hours and retaining through full runtimes, then your content is meeting a need as a background to your user’s workdays. Conversely, if you see your hour-long episodes are cutting off about thirty minutes in around 6 p.m., then you might be serving a commuting audience. Topical context can be informed by real-life context, and metrics are a key way to keep an eye on your audience’s real attitudes and behaviors.

A man singing into a recording studio mic

Image attribution: William Stitt

The question of how long should content be isn’t ultimately up to us as marketers—it’s a demand that comes from our audiences that we need to be sensitive to. Rather than setting out stylistic dictums that govern all of your material, try to build out systems for consideration and measurement that will support all of your content, regardless of the length that turns out to be the best fit. This is a strategy that will not only better engage your audiences, but will also remain future-proof as norms and expectations shift over time.

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Featured image attribution: Dai KE

The post The Long and Short of It: What You Really Need to Know About Content Length appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.

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