Long content vs short content, that is the question. I’m constantly asked about what kind of content is best when blogging. Some will say that long content is best; others say that short content is better because the Internet trains people to read short content.
The arguments abound on both sides, but I recently read a post that made me rethink how I think about content. It’s well known that I am a big fan of big and epic content, especially long-form content, as I enjoy the written word and think that it is an incredible medium through which to express thoughts. While the Internet also exposes us to other mediums, such as video that can also be used to communicate ideas, the written word has existed for hundreds of years and has always held great power (why else is there a history of book burnings going back even as far as the 7th century BC?). The written word is powerful.
The article I recently read is called The Long Thought, which I highly recommend reading. I was intrigued by the following quote, which I found via 99U Workbook:
When I observe how I consume information, I’ve become increasingly aware of how little actual deep information I’m consuming. Each morning, I launch a series of tab groups (News, Nerds, Apple, Games, Hockey) in my browser, and as I read each of the front pages in these groups, I’m basically reading tweets — the short headlines that describe what occurred. Sometimes I’ll drill down on an article, but again, if I carefully consider my reading of them, my eyes dart from headline to headline without truly consuming and digesting the words. I am learning something. The article I’m lightly consuming has become bookmarked in my head, and if it comes up in casual conversation later in the day, I can vigorously nod and say, “Yes, yes, I read that”. But I haven’t really. I noted the shortest version of it; I can quote the simplest version of it. I have a facade of the story and the illusion of knowledge. I miss long thoughts. Source
This resonates with me as a writer, a thinker, and a content creator because of the power of the written word. We’re not engaging, and so our points of view can be blown around from place to place as we take on bits and pieces of ideologies or thoughts where we do not have the full context.
I want to challenge us to do better. We must rethink Internet publishing, must create content ourselves that is worthy of being consumed (yes, and linked to), and must make a point to share high quality and useful information with our peers – information that we have fully read.
Rethinking Internet Publishing
According to WordPress stats, WordPress.com users produce about 39.3 million new posts and 41.4 million new comments each month. This is a lot of content, and most of these blogs wither away in squalor and are abandoned within 3 months. In fact, according to the New York Times:
According to a 2008 survey by Technorati, which runs a search engine for blogs, only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days. That translates to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.
I think we are seeing the end of websites as content homes, and the future is platforms. We have so many devices on which we can consume content:
In the past we’ve consumed content in fairly static ways, such as RSS feeds and forums. In recent years, we’ve tapped into content aggregators like Alltop, HackerNews, and Techmeme to find new content (at least in the tech industry). In even more recent years, we use social networks, especially Twitter, to keep up with our content. While websites will never go away, and the prevalence of direct traffic to large websites is evidence that many people still use trusted websites as the beginning point for their content consumption. However, the way we consume content has changed. Previously, the content consumption flow was thus:
But now, it’s thus:
With Google Reader
dying dead, I hope that we are finally going to see content in new ways. Aside from new services that I am sure will come up (after all, what’s next after RSS?), I think we are starting to see the beginning of “people as brands”, meaning consumers follow people not necessarily websites anymore.
As far as websites are concerned, every publisher should:
- Allow readers to subscribe to individual authors
- Make it easy for readers to follow individual authors on social media
- Invest in your writers so that they write better content (pay them well, give them perks)
All of these are valid places for content as well, and any one could become a place to curate as your content home:
The Internet is Noisy, So Stand Out
As Rands says in his post:
Our current communication constructs make us intellectually lazy. It’s too easy to blurt out what you’re thinking on Twitter and Facebook and then forget you said anything at all.
Because anyone is able to publish anything (almost) anywhere they want on the Internet, bad writing and miscommunication abound. Most of the content found on most blogs, for example, is not worth reading, but is rather safe, 500-700 word posts about nothing in particular. Rarely do people put in the work to create a truly compelling, thought-evoking, high-quality piece of content. This is probably why people like Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin, both great bloggers/writers, are so venerated – they have taken the time to become experts at what they do, that being content creation.
If you look at my What Kind of Content Gets Links in 2012 post from last October, you will see a common theme – the content that gets links, and also strong social activity, is content that has gone above and beyond. It is usually:
- Longer than average
- Contains video and/or images
Here are the word count to links graphs:
Use Intrigue to Drive Pageviews
I was asked at a meetup a while ago about Startup Content Marketing, where I was asked this question about writing and how longform content can work online.
My answer at the time was intrigue. Basically, good writers use intrigue to keep the reader interested and wanting to dig deeper into whatever they are reading. Think about a novel or long piece of content that you read in the past that kept you up until 4am because the story was so good. You didn’t want to put it down, right? Just me? I didn’t think so.
Books have chapters. Blog posts and articles have headings.
Books have chapters to divide up the content and to keep you going deeper. Part of a well-edited book is that the chapters end at a climax, and they keep you reading on. “I have to finish this chapter”, you say to yourself.
Blog posts or articles are no different, except that our “chapters” are headings (often an H2 or H3). SEOs get sidelined with the “Does an H2 matter more than an H3 for ranking?” I say we need to quit thinking about that and instead give the consumer what they need – good engaging content that they will reference again and again.
If you’re still not convinced about this, reference the perfectly optimized page (source) and do that. Then write content people care about.
Marketing Isn’t About New. Marketing Is About Better
I’m tired of short content from 8 different sources that all give the same information, but is simply written for pageviews. While this can be useful for strong links from many sources if your company or content is featured, the content provides little to nothing in the way of information other than a quick “heads up”. Here’s 300 words on Google Keep. Here’s another 300 from another source. Get my point?
This isn’t content. As a growth marketer that I respect said recently, everyone in content is treating it as a commodity to monetize but their content only reaches a small niche and no one outside of that niche cares. The growth comes when you reach the larger audience and let them apply it to their lives.
The Verge is one site that goes above and beyond the call of duty with their tech writing. Their recent piece on Blue Products, a cell phone company seeking to take on Samsung, gained incredible social traction:
CNET’s article on Google Keep didn’t get even close to that:
Here’s the comparison in a graph:
This tweet sums up my point nicely:
Imagine JK Rowling published “Harry Potter”, then 5 ppl rewrote it w/ no difference but tone. Is that added value? We do it with blog posts. — Joel K (@cstechjoel) March 13, 2013
I’ve crammed a lot into this post, so here is your tl;DR:
- Websites are no longer content homes. Content is becoming independent
- The noisy blogosphere requires going above and beyond. TheVerge is a great example
- Intrigue drives pageviews and time on site. Oh, and links
- Marketing is about better, not necessarily new. Cue Ross Hudgens.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
John Doherty is the head of and consultant in the Distilled New York City office. His work time is filled with data consumption and strategic awesomeness, while his free time consists of extreme sports, travel, and bicycle riding in Brooklyn.