The most effective content marketing slows down – and goes long

It’s increasingly clear that the most effective content is long-form content

June 15, 2017

the most effective content is long-form content

There’s never been a clearer divide between content’s haves and have-nots, between content that’s got what it takes to deliver engagement and influence – and content that doesn’t. When audiences have a finite amount of attention and there’s an increasing amount of content competing for it, there are inevitably winners and losers. The more data on content marketing effectiveness that we have available, the easier it becomes to tell which category a piece of content will fall into.

Plenty of marketing pundits have jumped on the bandwagon of claiming that declining average effectiveness for content means that content marketing as a strategy is inherently flawed. As I argued in a post last year, this is fundamentally wrong. The more data we have available that distinguishes successful content from unsuccessful content, the more opportunity we have to develop a content strategy that consistently delivers ROI. There’s actually never been a better time to work in B2B content marketing – provided you are genuinely interested, committed and hungry about creating content that works. It’s not necessarily a problem for content marketers that 5% of content drives 90% of engagement – if you know what it takes to be in that 5%.

The more you study the data around content effectiveness, the clearer it becomes that most successful content has two characteristics that most unsuccessful content doesn’t. It’s long – at least over 1,000 words long and often over 2,000 words long. And those closest to it are actively engaged in amplifying it. If you find your content struggling to deliver the impact, engagement and influence that you need, then you will often find that it fails at least one of these two tests.

The most effective content is long-form content
Far too many content marketing strategies are rooted in the idea that audiences have tiny attention spans and aren’t interested in reading and engaging with anything more than 750 words long. To drive engagement and shares, the logic goes, your content has to be snackable.

This point of view is perfectly captured by the goldfish attention span myth that marketers gobbled up when mainstream media like The Telegraph and TIME mistakenly reported that the human attention span is less than that of a goldfish. That myth is completely unfounded – and so is the idea that shorter content is more effective. There’s never been a study showing that the attention span of humans is less than 8 seconds – and for that matter, nobody really knows how long goldfish can concentrate for either. If anything, our brains are getting more effective at processing large amounts of information efficiently – and data on content marketing effectiveness shows how this is playing into the hands of long-form content.

However you define success for content, whether you’re looking to drive immediate impact and engagement or build long-term authority, the data consistently shows that longer content is more effective. It’s engaged with and shared far more often – and it’s far more likely to rank on the first page of search engine results.

Analysis by the SEO company Backlinko last year found that first-page Google search results are 1,890 words long on average. Research from Buzzsumo the year before found that the average number of shares for content with more than 2,000 words is over twice as many as the average number of shares for content with less than 1,000 words. Statistically, nothing correlates with content effectiveness quite so much as how long that content is. And yet, according to Buzzsumo, 85% of the content that’s published is less than 1,000 words long.

Why is longer content more effective? It’s a result of the way that human attention is evolving in order to process content more efficiently – and the way that search engine algorithms are adapting in order to help. The chemical dopamine plays a big role in this. It floods the brain with its feelgood effects every time we encounter something interesting and rewarding – and trains it to look out for similar content in the future. The more depth content has, the more dopamine hits it’s capable of providing.

At the same time long-form content plays into the heuristics that the brain uses to make swift judgments about which content has value and which doesn’t. We’ve learned that, if something claims to provide a definitive take on a subject in fewer than 500 words, then it’s probably lying. The brain knows that longer copy is more likely to contain the information it’s actually seeking – and it therefore pays more attention.

If your post has fewer than 1,000 words, ask yourself why it’s so short. Is it because it genuinely delivers more value to your audience at that length (perhaps it’s introducing a great Infographic or video)? Or is it because your content schedule didn’t allow you to invest in producing something more in-depth? Did you not do the research and thinking that enabled you to have more to say? If this is the case, then your content is likely to be found out – and it will struggle to stand out amongst all the other lightweight content out there. As a rule of thumb, if you’re seeking engagement and authority for your content, you need to invest in creating something substantial. It’s best to go long.

The most effective content has authors who are passionate about amplifying it
The most telling statistic in Buzzsumo’s study was that a staggering 50% of posts receive 8 shares or fewer. But that’s just part of the story. Look closely at the data and It becomes clear that a huge number of posts aren’t shared at all. They aren’t even shared by the people who wrote them – and the businesses that invested in them!

This is criminal in content marketing terms – because even the best content requires an amplification strategy if it’s to fulfill its potential. In most cases that will involve a balance of paid, earned and owned media. However, even if you’re not investing in paid distribution for your content, you should certainly be using your own employee networks to amplify it. At LinkedIn, we quantified the impact of employee sharing on our own content effectiveness – and found that it massively multiplied engagement and reach. In fact, 4,000 employee shares over the course of a year delivered 10 million in extra reach.

What does it say, then, when even the author of a piece of content doesn't see fit to share it? When even the core marketing team isn’t distributing that content to their networks? It suggests to me that the people closest to that content don’t themselves see any value in it. That surely calls into question why you’re producing that content – and how you’re balancing frequency and quality in your content marketing. If you don’t value and engage with your content yourself, how can you expect anybody else to?

It’s time for a change of pace in content marketing
Most content that fails these two tests does so because of the rhythm of the content marketing strategy behind it. As content marketers we’ve been drawn into rushing out content-by-numbers to fit a frantic frequency. We’ve convinced ourselves that lightweight content is all we need to drive engagement partly because that’s all we’re giving ourselves time and resources to produce. By the time we’ve posted one item of content, we’re already racing onto stitching together the next piece. I suspect that lots of us don’t even have time to go back and read our content once we’ve posted it – rather like those hectic Hollywood actors who never actually sit and watch their own films.

A post a day seems to have become the received wisdom for how often you need to be creating content – but if that pace is preventing you from truly engaging with the content you’re producing, then it’s vital to slow down. Take your foot off the accelerator and make sure you’re taking the time to embed value in that content – and communicate that value to others. An increasingly competitive content landscape demands it.

This argument isn’t just based on data – it’s also based on personal experience. At LinkedIn, we’ve consciously slowed down the rate at which we publish content from a post a day or more to around three posts a week. We’ve used the extra time and space this creates to dive deeper into subjects and ensure that the content we’re putting out there has real relevance and real value to add. And we’ve challenged ourselves to present and amplify content in the way it deserves. We’re still maintaining a content mix and we still put out shorter posts when we’re promoting videos and infographics – or when what we have to say works better as a concise, punchy post. But we’ve made a conscious effort to create more in-depth content as well.

The results have been really impressive. The posts on our Marketing Solutions blog were already driving engagement – but that engagement has gone up to the next level. More people are engaging with our posts, more people are sharing them and more people are finding them – because they are consistently ranking on Page 1 of search results.

We’re also investing in understanding more about what distinguishes the most successful content marketing from the rest. We’ve recently completed a new study in partnership with Buzzsumo that looks in detail at the characteristics of the content that’s shared most often across social media platforms. We’ll be looking in detail at how content length drives effectiveness, but also at the impact of different content formats, different styles of headlines and the types of topic that resonate most strongly for different sectors. And we’ll be releasing the results on our blog a few weeks from now.

Content marketing is a genuine craft – a skilled profession that fuses art and science. Like all crafts it demands time and respect from those participating in it: from the planning phase through the process of researching, writing and creating, and a commitment to communicating value. A growing weight of evidence demonstrates the importance of taking that time. Doing so can’t absolutely guarantee that content will succeed – but not doing so pretty much guarantees that it won’t.