Storytelling

The Lost Art of the Mid-Range Blog Post

Before I became the editor-in-chief of a marketing technology company, I was a tall and lanky basketball player. Armed with only average athleticism, I got my edge on the court by being smarter and more skilled than opponents. I may not have been able to jump over anyone, but I was the best shooter on my team and didn’t make many mistakes.

With that kind of intro, I could make some vague marketing connections about teamwork and competition and playmaking, but those are all corny. There is, however, a much more interesting parallel between basketball and blog posts that could impact the way creators talk to their audience. It all comes down to data and analytics.

Even if you don’t know anything about the NBA, you’re probably familiar with the concept of analytics. Access to good data helps us make smarter decisions, regardless of the field.

Basketball went through an analytics revolution over the last decade that changed the way teams play. The gist of the evolution comes down to simple math about which plays offer the most value. Layups, dunks, and foul shots are easy and usually net two points. Hitting a three-pointer is harder, but it’s worth an extra point. The most inefficient play in basketball is a mid-range jump shot because it’s hard to make yet still only counts for two points. So teams stopped taking those shots and replaced them with more threes and layups.

The last few years, I’ve had this theory that the same type of thinking took over publishing and marketing. Companies found that longform content—typically defined as anything over 2,000 words—drove more value than middling posts, even though most digital articles fall under 1,000 words. Those 800-word posts became inefficient. A BuzzSumo study of 100 million articles revealed that longform content gets more shares. Per CoSchedule, there’s a similar correlation for search engine rankings. A joint report from BuzzSumo and Moz also found that longer stories received more referral links than shorter posts.

The takeaway was very clear: The longer the content, the better.

There’s nothing empirically wrong with this data. Based on what we know about search and social platforms, their algorithms have picked up on these signals that favor longer word counts. I, like many other editors, adjusted accordingly. I pushed our marketing team to think long or short. Short posts were still easy wins. We could write 300 words about an infographic in an hour and get decent traffic. A long reported story might take a week or two, but the SEO payoff would be worth it. At one point, I started telling new hires and freelancers point blank: Don’t turn in anything between 700 and 1,000 words.

But what if these algorithmic signals missed something?

In December, we surveyed 1,024 people in the U.S. to find out about their media and marketing preferences. One of our questions dealt with preferred word count when reading online. According to the survey, 75 percent of the public prefers articles they read to be under 1,000 words. Only 5 percent prefer articles over 2,000 words.

When I saw the data, this was my reaction:

The more I thought about it, the more both points could coexist. The average adult reads about 200 words per minute, which means longform articles take at least 10 minutes to complete. Most people can’t dedicate that much time during the day. But they can find four minutes between meetings or during lunch. At the same time, if I wanted to thoroughly learn about a topic, I’d much rather shell out 10 minutes to read a definitive source than piece together knowledge here and there from a bunch of 800-word blog posts.

As an editor and writer, this made me rethink my hard stance on word counts. It makes sense that people would validate the best longform content on search and social even as they typically stick with the mid-range blog posts. That doesn’t mean every longform post is good. In fact, plenty of them are worse than Ben Simmons at the foul line. Some stories work best at 850 words, regardless of what Google prioritizes.

Here’s the true answer to the word count dilemma: It depends. As is usually the case, blanket solutions aren’t that helpful. If you write about transparent hiring practices in the tech industry, your audience probably needs you to write more. If you’re dreaming up a Taco Bell subway system, probably not. The only real rule you should adopt is being open to the word count that your story deserves.

But now I have to wrap it up. I’m over 800 words, and I don’t want to force a longer word count for no reason. As my old basketball coaches would say, sometimes it’s best to take what the defense gives you.

Contently’s full report on 2019 content preferences will be published the end of January. To get early access to some of the data, click here to sign up for our email newsletter.

Image by Matthew Lejune / Unsplash
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