Long-Form vs. No-Read: Which Holds the Future of Content Marketing?
Let’s Take a Walk
It’s a tale of two cities, 2017-style.
As we stroll through the byways of our first stop, we can barely hear our own conversation over the clacking of keyboards that fills the air. I can just make out the familiar interface of the Scrivener app as we pass desk after cluttered desk. The writers, leaning forward to squint at their screens as they assess the results of their research queries, don’t even seem to notice us. Entire pots of coffee — or are those bottles of Mountain Dew? — sit at their sides to fuel the long trek between the first word and the final proofing. And every once in a while, we can barely make out the sound of a satisfied sigh as another mouse clicks the elusive “Publish” button.
Welcome to LongFormVille.
Just down the road, we encounter a very different scene. The tap-tap-tap of keyboards is supplanted by a concerto of human voices. Instead of laptops and keyboards, a sea of smartphones, tablets, webcams, and, in the fancier setups, video cameras, studio lights, and microphones greets our curious gaze. It’s only in one quiet corner, labeled “Post-Production,” that any typing is taking place at all.
This is NoReadVille.
As the next iteration of Web 2.0 — or whatever the hell version we’re on — begins to take shape, two schools of thought are vying for the loyalty of frustrated marketers struggling to rise above the noise. One side tells us the secret to visibility and relevance is creating long-form content, that publishing anything shorter than 1,200 words amounts to a waste of time and energy. On the other side, we hear that we might as well toss our keyboards in the nearest dumpster, because the future belongs to video.
Which one is right?
The Case for Long-Form Content
Neil Patel doesn’t realize it, but he and I are besties. We sit across a corner table at Starbucks for hours on end, pondering aloud the future of content creation and what it all means for those of us who are trying to make it work in the trenches. Every once in a while, Neil says something funny and I toss a crumpled napkin at him.
Okay, not really.
But I do respect Neil a lot, and whenever he lets loose with a new piece of brilliance, I’m usually among the first in line to consume it. For several years now, Neil has been beating the long-form content drum, exhorting us to ditch the “standard” 500-word post for more in-depth, meatier articles that require 1,200 words or more. As you might imagine, this writing nerd absorbed his words with the enthusiasm of a desert traveler encountering a lush oasis. In fact, this year I’ve rearranged my blogging schedule to allow for longer blog posts like this one. (And yes, I announced my new approach in a podcast. The irony is not lost.)
So, why put the time and effort into long-form content?
Search. Google is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to the most effective approaches for attracting search traffic, and the question of long-form versus short-form content is no exception. That said, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence out there that indicates long-form content performs better. Back in 2012, serpIQ conducted a study tracking the top 10 search results for more than 20,000 keywords. The average number of words in the top spot was 2,416. For the #10 spot, average word count was 2,032:
Scarcity. Most blog posts published today are 500 words or shorter. By putting in the extra effort to create a long-form post, you set yourself apart from the competition. If you’ve read Robert Cialdini’s classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, you’ll recall that scarcity is one of the key principles in building influence. Why? Because the more scarce something is, Cialdini tells us, the more people want it.
Authority. Yes, we know that a longer post doesn’t always equal good content. In fact, I’ve read more than my share of downright lousy 2,000-word blog posts. But when people visit your post and see a hefty word count, they perceive it as having higher value than a 500-worder. Because, after all, experts don’t become experts by writing tweets. They become experts by diving deep into topics, doing their research, and crafting well-thought-out resources. To do that, you need words. Lots of ‘em.
Social Shares. If people perceive greater value in your posts, they’ll be more likely to share them. In Patel’s own study, posts longer than 1,500 words received 68 percent more tweets and 22 percent more Facebook likes than the articles with fewer than 1,500 words.
The Case for No-Read Content
Back when I worked for a large Houston advertising agency, those of us on the copywriting team had a standard response when a colleague would start stressing over a sticky writing assignment: “NRTSA” (if memory serves, we pronounced it “nert-sah”).
NRTSA stands for “Nobody Reads This [Stuff] Anyway.”
And if you look at the habits of content consumers in 2017, the NRTSA assertion may be gaining validity.
As Jay Baer recently commented in an excellent post on how video is the new blogging, “As an author, it breaks my heart, but we are entering the ‘no-read’ area.”
While video was once a side dish for savvy content marketers — a Robin to the Batman that was their tried-and-true written content — Jay goes on to assert that video content has graduated to main-course status. “For many companies,” he writes, “video is the new blogging.”
Check out these key takeaways from Vidyard’s “2017 Video in Business Benchmark Report“:
- Businesses are creating an average of 18 new videos per month. Their blogs could only keep up with that pace if they published every weekday.
- The average business is now doubling the size of its video library within 16 months.
- 85% of businesses now have internal staff and resources producing videos in-house.
Sure, businesses are churning out tons of video, but are consumers biting? Apparently so.
- 100 million hours of video per day are watched on Facebook. (source)
- Marketers who use video grow revenue 49 percent faster than non-video users. (source)
- Social video generates 1200% more shares than text and images combined. (source)
And it’s not just video that’s getting all the glory in the no-read camp — podcasting is also on the rise. Edison Research reports that 21 percent of Americans age 12 and up have listened to a podcast in the past month, and monthly podcast listenership has increased 75 percent since 2013.
Now, as producer of both a weekly video and a weekly podcast, I would be loath to downplay the importance of either audio or video. But has their popularity escalated to point where nobody reads anymore? Are we really, as Jay Baer asserts, entering the “no read” zone?
Mapping the Future
What’s a marketer to do? One camp is telling us to write more words, and the other seems to advocate ditching the writing thing altogether and go all-in on video. As we look to the future of our own content marketing practices, which camp holds the greatest potential for success?
Oh, how I wish it were that simple. If it were, we’d all be gurus.
Back in the early days of content marketing, we got used to being told “do A” … “no, wait, forget A, do B” … “oh, hang on, user habits have changed again — now we all need to do C …” But our craft has evolved, and the long-form-versus-no-read thing is the latest testimony to its current level of maturity.
Is the written word valuable? Until Google figures out a way to analyze audio and video content, yes … and even then, the written word will still — and always — have its place. I haven’t seen any head-to-head studies pitting long-form blog posts against video content in Google search results, but I’d be willing to bet that text could hold its own in that smackdown. Text-based content offers the opportunity to dive deep into meaty topics and share real knowledge — something you just can’t do with a 90-second clip. To chuck it all in the name of chasing some holy grail of video-fueled domination would be insanity.
Does video deserve our attention? Yes, absolutely. People want a more personal experience and, to paraphrase the old Bell Telephone ads, video is the next best thing to being there. Smartphones have made video more accessible than ever before, and platforms like Snapchat, Instagram Stories, and Facebook give us more opportunities to get our video messages in front of more people than ever before.
As marketers, we can ill afford to ignore either one of these approaches. We need the search mojo and the thought-leadership growth potential that long-form posts offer, and we need to tap into our audiences’ growing appetite for video and audio content. So where’s the sweet spot? You’re gonna want to smack me when you hear this, but here goes: it depends. It depends on our brands, on our cultures, on the bandwidth of our marketing teams (always an important consideration), and most importantly, on our audiences.
First, we need to do our homework. We need to ask our audiences what they want and to analyze the results coming in from what we’re doing right now.
Then we need to jump in and experiment. Try stuff out and see what happens. I’ve got my own experiment going in which I reduced my blog frequency to twice a month so that I have the space to create longer posts. Will it give me better results than what I’ve been doing? Hell if I know. But you can be certain I’ll be keeping close tabs on the results.
How is your company leveraging the trends around long-form and “no-read” content? Have you found a formula that works, or are you still experimenting? Tell us about it in the comments!
Find out why New York Times-bestselling author Jay Baer had this to say about The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN:
“Practical, accurate content marketing advice from a real pro, plus a football theme? I love this book!”
About the Author
A self-described geek who can recite entire episodes of South Park by heart, Rachel Parker has had a passion for content ever since she was old enough to hold a crayon (purple, please).
As Founder and CEO of Resonance, Rachel helps businesses publish content that connects with their audience … and converts those followers into customers. She’s also the host of the Content Marketing Podcast and author of the book The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN!
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