Data analysis of millions of articles and surveys thousands of bloggers find long-form content outperforms short form
A long time ago an agency owner called me into her office. I was being put on a client account that was deemed a “flight risk.” We needed to get the client some coverage.
This sort of thing had happened before, and I relished the opportunity. I was pretty good at media relations and I was confident I’d be able to turn things around.
Most of what I did wasn’t a secret: I read what reporters wrote before pitching, developed subject lines that got my emails opened, and use a strong lede in all my pitches.
There was one aspect of my success that was different: I wrote long pitches. This is contrary to 99% of all PR advice that says short emails are best. And yet it worked over and over, so I could go with the prevailing opinion, or I could go with what was driving results.
Something similar has happened in content marketing and blogging in the marketing community. Too many marketers believe that short content outperforms long form. It’s often driven by an individual’s personal reading preference: “I don’t read long posts; nobody does.”
That thinking discounts a deluge of data that says otherwise. It’s a form of blindness that’s liable to show up elsewhere in marketing and the organization; we are all forever students.
That’s the theme for this week’s Unscripted Marketing Links [UML]. The UML is an occasional roundup that curates three links worthy of your attention, wraps them in insight and presents them here for your perusal.
1) Long-form wins in data analysis of 700,000 articles by SEMrush
Long-form content, that is content with 3,000 or more words earns 3-times as much traffic, 4-times as many shares, and 3.5 times as many backlinks than articles of average length. The average article runs 901-1,200 words.
That’s according to a data analysis of more than 700,000 articles by SEMrush, which makes a tool for analyzing web content. Importantly, the findings are based on data and not a survey. In other words, this isn’t driven by opinions but by the performance of content once it has been published.
The analysis had several other notable findings:
- Long headlines outperform short headlines. Articles with headlines of 14 or more words earn twice as much traffic and shares and earn five times as many backlinks as articles with 7-10 words. This counterfactual finding challenges the current wisdom that short headlines are better because longer headlines get cut off in the search engine results page (SERP).
- Headlines with lists outperform those without lists. Headlines that promise lists outperform other types of headlines in terms of traffic and shares. Headlines about “guides” and “how-to” rank in second and thirds spots. Keep in mind if the length of content matters, as this study suggests, the listicle posts must have depth and quality.
- Effective use of H2 and H3 matters. The study found, “36% of articles with H2+H3 tags have higher performance in terms of traffic, shares, and backlinks.” Most content management systems (CMS) will give you a simple way to adjust these headline tags. Search experts assert H2 and H3 tags are critical to search marketing. I don’t disagree, but I suspect these add to the aesthetics of text which provides a better user experience, which in turn is rewarded in search.
This analysis was part of a larger study that SEMrush published titled the Global State of Content Marketing Report 2019. I first spotted the data about the content length on MarketingProfs. You can find the full SEMrush data analysis here: The Anatomy of Top Performing Articles: Successful vs. Invisible Content.
2) Long-form wins in data analysis of 912 million blog posts by Backlinko
On average, long-form content earns 77% more backlinks than short content. That’s according to a data analysis by Brian Dean of Backlinko, who founded the company to provide SEO training. He used a content research tool called BuzzSumo, which again underscores the fact these findings aren’t based on a survey, but the online performance of blog posts after publication.
These backlinks are important to digital PR and marketing for two primary reasons. First, backlinks send referral traffic, so it adds the possible ways your site can be found. Second, relevant backlinks from credible domains can improve search rankings, which is how most sites earn the vast majority of their traffic.
Backlinks are a digital signal to search engines – a vote of confidence – that indicates a site so helpful that other sites are linking to it. This idea of links as votes is how Google got started.
What does that mean in the context of the Backlinko study? According to the findings, “94% of all blog posts have zero external links.” Of course, because it’s really hard to organize thousands of words on a page in a way that helps people.
The analysis had several other notable findings:
- Long headlines earn more shares. The study found that blog posts with headlines of 11-17 words earned about 77% more social shares than short headlines. This finding is in line with the findings in the study above.
- List posts earn more shares. Backlinko found that “list posts get an average of 218% more shares than how to’ posts and 203% more shares than infographics.” Again, this matches the findings in the study above. Traditional writers often express disdain for the listicle format, but the fact is, this format performs well because it structures content in a way that’s easy to understand.
- A difference between search and social. The analysis “found virtually no correlation between backlinks and social shares…in other words, content that receives a lot of links doesn’t usually get shared on social media (and vice versa).” Other studies have shown people share content on social because it makes them look good; they search for information when they need answers.
There are a number of other interesting revelations in the study worth reviewing. The complete analysis by Backlinko is available here: Here’s What We Learned About Content Marketing.
3) Long-form wins in data analysis of 40,000 “most-shared” posts by BuzzSumo and LinkedIn
“A few years ago, the received wisdom was that online copy should be no longer than 650 words – and that anything more would try the patience of an action-oriented, forward-leaning, digital media audience,” according to 2017 report by BuzzSumo and LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. “Our research finds conclusively that this is not the case – in fact, the opposite is true.”
The study pulled data – not a survey – from 400,000 social media updates to determine the 40,000 most shared posts across 10 vertical markets and try to understand why these pieces moved. These markets included technology, financial series, higher education and legal services, among others.
The report highlighted data from the technology vertical and found, “the sweet spot for content length comes in at between 1,000 and 2,000 words.” Posts within that length earned an average of 485 shares and a median of 180. By contrast posts of less than 1,000 words, were shared an average of 348 with a median of 165.
The report continued:
“There’s a similar story when it comes to the number of links that a post attracts – only this time the benefits keep increasing with content length. Posts of less than 1,000 words are linked to 10 times on average. This jumps to 13 for posts over 1,000 words, and then leaps to 26 for those over 2,000 words.”
The authors later concluded:
“Plenty of content marketers have convinced themselves that, since human beings now have an attention span less than that of goldfish (a complete myth by the way – there’s no scientific evidence for this whatsoever), they have to keep dumbing down content, making it ever-more digestible and snackable. Our study proves that this is a mistake.”
Jo Detavernier recently wrote about this study and the goldfish myth here, which reminded me of the findings. The full report is available online here: The DNA Behind the World’s Most Successful Content.
4) Long-form wins in a survey of 1,000 bloggers by Orbit Media
Bloggers that report having success in their blogging efforts blog publish content at least weekly, spend hours writing posts, they obsess over analytics…and the publish longer posts. Those are the findings of an annual survey of bloggers conducted by Orbit Media.
The study has been conducted annually for several years (I’ve followed and written about it each year: here, here, here and here) and the length of blog posts continues to grow. In this year’s survey, the average blog post runs 1,236 words. More than half (55%) said their average post exceeds 1,000 words, 28% say their average post runs 1,500 words or more, and 11% say 2,000 words or more.
What does length have to do with results? According to the survey results:
“bloggers who write longer content are far more likely to report success. More than half of the bloggers who go big report ‘strong results’ from blogging.”
Of course, this is a survey, so that’s just the collective view of 1,000 or so bloggers. However, in the context of three data-based studies above, the survey findings are compelling. You can find the Orbit Media survey results here: How Has Blogging Changed? 5 Years of Blogging Statistics, Data and Trends.
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The findings in these studies reflect my own experience. In the last 10 years alone, I’ve published – either personally or for clients and employers – in the ballpark of 3,000 blog posts (not including contributed articles, white papers, reports, press releases or other forms of content). There’s no doubt the posts I have written have gotten longer and yet performed.
Mark Twain quotes aside, that’s not to say that short content can’t perform…because sometimes it does. Every post you do does not have to be 2,000 words long but you should make sure some are exceptionally well done long-form content.
Similarly, that’s also not to say that long-form guarantees success because it doesn’t. But the next time someone tells you that short posts are better, or that no one reads long blog posts…that’s just their opinion.
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Image credit: Pixabay and respective studies