Size does matter (in blogging at least)

200 words is too short, 5000 words too long - this much we know. But how long is long enough? (Or is it just what you do with it?)

Culture critic Jonathan Dean recently bemoaned the ever-burgeoning screen time of today’s films and TV. He quoted Ethan Hawke’s decision to stay away from modern television who, like most of us, appreciates stories with a beginning, middle and end. “The trouble with most shows,” says the Boyhood star, “…is that they feel like they’re wandering to entertain you.”

And it’s not just on screen. Literary critic Andrew Holgate railed against the ‘giganticism’ taking hold of publishing. Holgate has stopped reviewing works of more than 900 pages – books that are “too heavy, frankly, to hold in one hand.”

The same thing might just be happening in blogging. Orbit Media, who has been surveying the world’s leading online writers since 2014, recently showed that word count has increased from 808 to 1142 per article. That’s a 41% increase in four years.

Half as many bloggers are writing ‘shorties’ (<500 word posts) while six times as many of us are writing long articles (2000+ words) .

This chimes with anecdotal evidence from the likes of Joe Pulizzi. “So much for the short attention span of audiences today,” says the CMI founder. “When we started the CMI blog back in 2007, we rarely had a post over 1000 words. Today, our posts are getting increasingly longer, some nearing 3000 words.

Should we be worried? Are audiences going to stop reading our longer blog posts in the same way many are switching off their TVs? (meandering hit Westworld has lost 680,000 viewers in the last 18 months, to say nothing of the countless turkeys cluttering your Netflix feed).

The simple answer is apparently not.

The same report revealed that bloggers who double down on post length are twice as likely to report strong results. To be fair, the authors urge caution on reading too much into this (they don’t ask respondents to define or quantify the term “strong results” for a start). But the world’s leading bloggers do see an uptick in ROI when they let the words flow..

In other words, the more you put into a blog post the more you get out of it.

That’s having an effect on post frequency. Most bloggers say they now publish ‘several times a month’ whereas in 2014 the most popular response was ‘2-6 times per week’. That kind of frequency has dropped dramatically in just a few years.

Content marketers are clearly focussing on fewer and most substantive posts. And audiences seem to be responding.

However, we should be careful not to confuse ‘frequency’ with ‘consistency’. 85% of the world’s top bloggers say they blog ‘regularly’. They get that it’s still important to meet your audience’s expectations of when and how often they’re likely to hear from you.

Posting three times in a week then not again for a month is hardly a recipe for success.

What does this mean for content marketers and copywriters? A few suggestions from me…feel free to shoot them down or add your own. Let me know what you think!

It's okay to mix it up

The consensus seems to be that 1500 words is the ideal length for a post. Long enough to add real substance but not too long that the reader needs to clear their morning to get through it.

That feels right to me too. But it’s really important not to slavishly target a set word count when you start writing. Some posts are meant to be 500 words, others 3000. It’s not hugely helpful for anyone just setting out, but a blog post should be as long as it needs to be.

Substance matters

When I worked at Ofcom, legendary comms director and former BBC hack Matt Peacock would come down on anyone with a ton of bricks anytime they failed to meet his extraordinarily high standards.

Among his many pet hates were embellishments, shortcuts, ‘purple prose’ and generalisations. What he liked was logically-watertight arguments, backed by hard facts and research.

And the bugger was right.

But punchy, concise writing is even more important.

I don’t care how ‘substantial’ you are, there’s no excuse for a turgid sprawl of crap. Good writers turn cold, rational argument into a page-turner to rival any airport novel.

It doesn’t matter how well researched you are, if your audience is wading through your blog like treacle then you’ve failed.

Manage, then meet, expectations on frequency

You don’t have to post every day (haven’t you got work to do?). But posting once every blue moon when the muse appears unto you, then disappearing into your literary cave for a few weeks or months is no good either.

Figure out how much time you can dedicate to blogging then put it in your calendar. Make a commitment to yourself that you’ll blog once a week, twice a month, once a quarter – whatever – then stick to it.

If you write well – providing valuable insights in an entertaining read – then you’ll build an audience. They’ll start to anticipate your next article, maybe even build their commute around it. They won’t mind how regularly you post, only that you post when they expect you to. Don’t disappoint them.

Ask your audience what works for them

Once you’ve built a following (of five or five million, it doesn’t matter), find out what they want. What time of day / night do they read your articles…? Are they too long or are they pining for more…? How often do they want to hear from you?

First rule of film, TV – and blogging – is to give the people what they want. You can’t do that if you don’t know.

Different content lengths (and types) for different channels

Blogging is not one-size-fits all. Platforms such as Medium reward longer, more in-depth articles whereas LinkedIn will help promote your ‘hot-take’ if you can squeeze it into a 1200 character status update.

All top content marketers know that the key to success is repurposing. This means writing a long form article stuffed with data and insights and then creating a bunch of content pieces from it. This might include:

  • An infographic
  • Video for social
  • Animation for Youtube
  • Slideshare presentation
  • Bullet point summary for status feeds.

That’s it – I’ll let you get on. Was this article too long, too short or just right? Would love to know.

These are just a handful of suggestions to improve the way you communicate with the people that matter. For a more detailed conversation about your internal and external communications needs, get in touch!

Who wrote this

Simon is the chief content person of Touchpaper. He thinks B2B comms should never be boring and is sad when it is.