From Tweets to LinkedIn posts, Insta to TikTok, snackable, short-form content perfectly aligns with the spirit of the age. One study by Microsoft found that the average digital attention span of GenZers and Millennials now ranges between 8 and 12 seconds. But, if our ability to digest information is devolving into bite-size moments of hyper-attention, is long-form content dead?
What is long form content?
Long-form content typically describes any detailed and authoritative written resource published to explain and assist an audience with an important topic in their world. It can mean printed or digital material - and it encompasses ‘how to’ guides, white papers, long blogs, pamphlets and books intended to provide definitive advice, insight, research or instruction.
What is short form content?
Short-form content refers to social media posts, video clips, and other ‘snackable’ digital offerings. It can be quick to create and quicker to consume. These formats are perfectly optimised for arresting attention with punchy, topical messaging as we scroll or scan socials and websites.
Why marketers and consumers love short form
Short-form can be addictive, which is why marketers love it. As Dr Anne Lembke says in her book ‘Dopmaine Nation’ , short-form content can supply digital consumers with the ultimate chemical ‘hit’. In its purest expression on social media, it can offer quick shots of information, laughter or outrage in rapid succession, instant gratification in return for the minimal effort of clicking, swiping or scrolling.
When short-form trumps long-term
In a world of Insta and TikTok, expending time and energy writing highly crafted old-school content like guides and white papers might seem like a big, old waste of time. Who’s going to read it, anyway? Who has the energy and commitment to digest and share it anymore when there are so many other daily digital distractions in our way?
So, is long-form dead?
And yet… Statistically, words still matter. And length does, too. All the research is indicating that search engines still favour long-form, written content on websites. Not just 700 - 1000 word blog content but meaty, extended ‘introductions’, explainers and ‘how to guides’, too.
Content writers who ‘go big’ win out in the attention economy
Here are a couple of the key stats for you. Statistically, the longer the content, the higher the page ranking. Higher ranking and more organic website traffic result from longer rather than short form content. This finding is being quoted a lot across the industry, including by SEO expert Neil Patel:
Meanwhile, Andy Crestodina’s research found that the quality of customer responses from content improved the longer and more comprehensive it was. Bloggers reported stronger results for long-form pieces in terms of sharing, conversion and sales:
Short-form might shower you with content over time, but a long-form piece can be a more immersive experience. More rewarding, like a long hot soak in a bath, perhaps.
Why does long-form content perform so well?
Technically - long-form wins on search
High-quality, long-form content ranks better and drives more traffic than short-form. But why? Think of the Google search engine as a diligent librarian organising and making information available to those who ask for it. When someone asks a question, Google crawls the web to discover, rank, and serve up the most authoritative, relevant content to help with that specific user’s request.
Relevance, authority and ranking are determined by factors such as
- The popularity of the page
- Length of the article
- Number and quality of links to and from the article
- The appearance and density of particular short and long-tailed keywords
- The use of H1s and H2s throughout the page
- Bounce rate
- Dwell time
The search algorithm is constantly changing and evolving and, of course, takes in other factors like the location of the searcher. But an ‘exhaustive’ article on a particular subject, laid out in a way that helps Google’s web crawlers to understand it, will be ranked higher in the SERPs than less thorough and well-structured articles.
If it’s crafted correctly, the original content within it also has a greater chance of being ‘snippeted’ or appearing in the ‘people also ask’ section of the SERP.
That’s the boring, technical answer, then. Long-form content can simply be structured more effectively to be found and ranked higher by Google in searches.
Long-form can be more useful to your audience
But longer-form content can be more helpful for an audience than a cursory blog.
We know from our client’s experience that some ‘big content pieces’ are highly prized because they cover a lot of ground in an accessible way. They can operate as a comprehensive primer to big technical topics or practical step-by-step guides to achieving a complex objective that customers just can’t get elsewhere.
Because it doesn't matter if you’re a TikToker with a thirst for novelty or a Boomer with a love of reading, there are times when you need expertise and detail to help you solve your problems.
As one of our clients told us:
“We have produced a definitive guide to ‘choosing an outsourcing partner’ that we know prospects are using as a practical crib list for their own internal proposal documents. It’s a much longer written piece than you’d normally see as a single blog post, but the advice is in one place and ready to be downloaded, so it’s popular and helpful”
Long-form can attract more backlinks
And more quality backlinks mean higher quality traffic that is more likely to connect.
We all depend on the people we respect to tell us about stuff we might find helpful, interesting or entertaining. Other bloggers, other companies and our social media contacts all are a network of resources we use continually to educate ourselves and help solve our business problems. How many times have you read a piece of content or even bought something on Amazon based on a recommendation or link from some online contact you value?
Research shows that longer-form content routinely attracts more shares or ‘backlinks’ than less exhaustive content. Putting the effort in, it seems, brings bigger rewards in terms of attention and shareability.
When long form content is ‘deadly’
Still, long-form content can be deadly for your brand. Think of those impenetrable white papers languishing unread and unloved on dark corners of the internet. They might be written with the best intentions to inform and educate, but they are often unread and unreadable.
When it’s unreadable
Densely written, short on imagery and hard to understand. A boring e-book will not do much for your brand. If it’s intended to be instructional, this will restrict its usability.
When it’s just not helpful for your audience
Your long-form content might be a well-written and designed piece, perfectly optimised for search. But if there’s no good reason for your customers to access or download it, it will have failed in its primary marketing purpose of helping your audience and extending your buyer relationships.
When it lacks genuine expertise
If your piece is just a rehash of other peoples’ advice, a compendium of online research, it won't have the impact you need. The chances of being overlooked and ignored are high without a fresh take, unique insight and advice that only you can deliver.
Now, as AI barges its way into the content production arena and we are on the cusp of a content arms race, the risk of this happening has just increased.
When companies can produce content optimised for specific key phrases at the push of a button, originality will be a key differentiator.
Three tips for great long-form content
1. Make sure you’re giving your customers what they want
Long-form content should always answer an identified customer need. You must know why you’re writing it and how it will bring right-fit prospects to your site. This means understanding the questions and issues plaguing your audience that only you can solve. It means understanding your prospects' online behaviour, what information they’re searching for, and in which channels.
You can achieve this through:
Analysing existing in-house data
What content is already doing well on your website and social channels? Where are your prospects joining the sales cycle, and where are existing customers being re-engaged? Could more detailed content be spun from an idea in a social post that has gained traction?
Understand what your competitors are doing in the space. Which of their content does Google favour? What format is it in? What could you add to the content around this topic that will be genuinely illuminating and helpful?
2. Remember - nothing beats your expertise
Where an audience has niche and complex business problems, and you have the expertise, detailed long-form content that provides guidance based on real knowledge and skill has incredible value.
And with generative AI, this is what's going to mark out a company as truly 'customer oriented' - rather than playing the content game as an SEO tactic.
As this research published in Trew Marketing's State of Marketing to Engineers report points out - audiences want 'deep content' that speaks to their specific needs and will be very focused in their search tactics:
“Even in the era of Google’s snippets featured prominently on page one, engineers keep the mouse moving, searching numerous pages deep to find ultra-specific information from trusted sources."
High-quality, narrowly focused electronic guides offer overviews and instruction on specific areas of interest to device and pharmaceutical developers. Their work spiders across the search returns in the medical device development sector.
But their strategy is also characterised by a diversity of approach that reflects the different ways audiences are now consuming content. Podcasts and webinars with expert guests and presenters, supplement targeted guides and a regular blogging routine.
3. Be creative
If it’s going to prosper, long-form content marketing is going to have to mean different things than just a set of guides and white papers.
Think of how a 'print dinosaur’ like the New York Times began reinventing itself as a multi-media publisher in the early 2000s.
The response was a move towards greater creativity. More diversity in their output led them to produce films, infographics and interactive stories to build a pool of committed subscribers with whom a long-term relationship could be built.
There was testing and experimentation with different digital formats. Not all of these experiments were successful, but many led to extraordinary examples of digital storytelling that redefined journalism in the age of the Internet.
And in your own way, B2B can find inspiration from this media world.
Think about how video can be integrated into your long-form pieces to summarise or introduce key passages. Audio clips of interviews sharing insight and expertise can be a cheap and effective way of introducing variety into your work. Infographics are also great ways to distil complex information and make it sing.
Using your imagination and creativity can go a long way in keeping your audience's attention.
Long-form can drive your short-form game
When you've got the right long-form content in place, it can begin to be repurposed - sliced and diced to produce the high-impact snippets that can drive the dopamine-fuelled social scrolling. The better and more original your writing, research and visual content - the more great stuff you'll have to mine for intriguing short-form bursts.
Embrace the challenge
Well written, centred around carefully chosen topics of ‘ever green’ relevance and given a unique twist with your own expertise, a long-form piece of content can become a cornerstone of your digital real estate. It can drive traffic to your site, supporting a virtuous discovery, sharing and conversion circle.
Approach the long-form challenge with care and creativity - and it'll be a resource to snippet and repurpose for a long time. Long-form gives you the meat you'll need to bring more right-fit leads to your site and keep feeding them when they get there.