woman leading presentation on social media and content marketing

When writing as much as you need takes a LOT of copy.

There’s a seeming paradox at the core of good copywriting: One rule says that you should only write as much as you need, which seems to imply brevity and getting to the point. But data shows that long-form copy (writing that breaks the 1000-word count) out-performs short form copy in shares, page views, links, and time on page. So what’s going on here?

What’s going on is your visitors are looking for answers. Or entertainment, or education. They’re coming to you with a number of needs to be filled, and the likelihood that your 300-word post will satisfy them is pretty low. Not that your 300-word post is useless, mind, simply that it would be better if it were longer. Let’s look at why.

How much work does your copy need to do?

It can be hard to persuade in a short space. The less familiar your product—or the more outlandish your claim—the harder your copy will have to work to convert your target audience. Long-form content gives you the room you need to address multiple user hesitations and pain points.

For instance, let’s say you’re selling a product. It’s a reasonably expensive product, so it’s not a purchase someone will make lightly. They want to know your product features and benefits, specifications, how it matches up against your competitors or against your other products, what sort of impact it will have on their life.

Think about the last time you purchased a laptop. You went into that buying cycle with certain specific needs, a defined budget, and a list of “nice to haves.” As you compared models, you thought about various trade-offs: faster memory vs. a larger hard drive, a larger screen vs. added weight, etc. In your search, you’ve come across two competing pages. One has a lot of graphics and some bullet-point features. The other has all that, plus detailed descriptions of how the new model compares against the old, several candid user reviews that adequately address your biggest hesitations, and some practical examples demonstrating how this product’s size and battery life is better suited to your highly mobile lifestyle. Which page do you find more convincing?

Obviously the long one. The first was adequate but perfunctory. The second reassures you and convinces you you’re making the right decision. You like the second page, and you’re not alone: the majority of the Internet does, too.

Are you satisfying user interest?

A lot of people opt for short-form content under the belief that readers lack the attention span for long-form content. I argue that if your readers check out early, the blame lies with your content—not with them. After all, no one casually lands on your page: they’ve come to you because:

  • They specifically searched for something and you happened to rank
  • You’re promoting it through an ad campaign
  • They saw your post somewhere on social media or followed a link
  • Someone sent them the link directly

In other words: if they are on your page, it’s because they intend to be there. Somehow, you’ve caught their interest. Now that you have it, what do you do?

You have to retain their interest. And that means providing the thorough, well-considered content they came to you for. Maybe that content comes in the form of detailed research. Maybe it’s a walk-through of a new product feature. Maybe it’s a strong opinion. Whatever it is, don’t cut corners: give your audience what they want.

Let’s take travel blogging for another example. You run a blog sharing your experiences as a Westerner living in Tokyo, Japan. You want to share tips on local hot-spots, the dos and don’ts of Japanese culture, top places to eat, and the best times of year to come visit Japan. Spring approaches, and it’s time to write about the best way to go view the cherry blossoms. Do you give this a brief write-up? Of course not.

Your readers count on you to provide a quality reference point. They may be saving up to make a trip themselves, or they may want to live vicariously through your experience. Either way, you serve your visitors best by providing the most thorough information possible.

Is long-form content always the solution?

Coming back to the stricture that you should only write as much as necessary, we can see that this rule doesn’t mean you should avoid long-form content. Instead, it means that the quality of content you provide should justify its length. If creating long-form content means you’re ballooning what should be a short post to 4 times its original length just to fill a word count, you’re doing it wrong.

Sometimes, a short post is sufficient. It may not end up being the most popular thing you write, but it does its job. (And maybe, it does its job so well that it does become popular, in spite of its length!) Short-form content can be a good option for you if you’re dealing with limited space, or if your audience is already large enough to accommodate a strategy of frequent, pithy posts. A good example of this is Humans of New York, which thrives on a series of short stories, usually several a day. It doesn’t matter that each post is closer to the 100-word range: the stories are compelling enough to generate an incredible amount of social media momentum. And the frequency with which HONY updates adds up to a lot of content, even if it is mostly short.

Summing up the long vs. short-form debate

Put differently it is almost always the case that:

Quality long-form copy > Quality short-form copy

BUT

Quality short-form copy > Poor long-form copy

AND

Short-form copy > no copy at all

You should never sacrifice the quality of your work just to make it longer. But you should look for topics that are worth exploring at length. Don’t arbitrarily break up blog posts to form a series when together they could make an excellent long-form post. But do create a series if each post is worth exploring in depth. Above all, don’t underestimate the attention span of your reader: if your content is worth reading, they will stick with it.

Published 02/09/17 by Laura Lynch