THE FUTURE OF LONG FORM CONTENT

Why brands should be writing, not writing off, long form content

Ignore the haters who say long form editorial content is dead – it’s far from it. If marketing experts, SEO bods and countless research pieces on performance are to be believed, then long form content, whether it’s an investigative article, feature, research piece, white paper or eBook, is just as valuable as any other type of content – if not more, depending on what your objectives are.

But this isn’t a long form vs short form post – they’re both hugely important. It would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise with the number of social media users reaching 2.3 billion in 2015, and Facebook on the brink of worldwide domination. But long form, when done properly, has a very important job: it builds connections between brands and customers, and it helps companies to establish themselves as an authority in their space. It shows they’re serious about what they’re doing. It shows that they know their stuff, and care about proving it.

When we talk about long form, this typically means a piece of content that’s more than 1,200 words long. But in this day and age, when content marketers are lucky to hold consumers’ attention spans for more than three seconds (the ‘TL;DR’ phenomenon is evidence of this), it’s probably more like 500 words. However you choose to define it, long form often takes a bit of a backseat in brand strategies. But for me, the ability of long to develop meaningful relationships with internet users, drive traffic to websites and give your brand credibility means it should receive just the same amount of consideration as other content types when pulling together a strategy.

An example of good long form is the latest piece of research from the Content Marketing Institute, which outlines the top content marketing trends for 2017. For a start it’s very useful to anyone in our industry, as it gives us an in-depth look at what we should be thinking about for the year ahead, from an integrated content marketing strategy to influencer and purpose-driven marketing. But it’s also very high quality: it’s detailed, well-written, accessible in the way it’s been broken up with quotes and sub-heads, and authoritative thanks to the Content Marketing Institute’s reputation. This last point has also meant the article has been linked to hundreds of time since being posted in August. How long is it? Around 2,000 words.

Most of us will engage with a piece of long form every day, whether it’s an investigative piece on the Press Gazette or that one Facebook friend who posts a 3,000-word long status every day. So why should brands and agencies be producing their own long form editorial content? Here are just a few reasons.

Most people will read to the end – if you get it right

There’s plenty of scaremongering around how few people will actually finish a piece of long form editorial (cheers to those who are still with me), but if you produce content that’s relevant and does what it says in the headline, then your readers should stay with you for most of the article. Yes, okay, internet users are time-poor, impatient, and they love to skim, but there are definitely ways you can keep them scrolling. For one, a good hook and concise storytelling – keep people interested with content that entertains, inspires and educates. Just as you’re unlikely to finish a boring book, people may well abandon your article if it doesn’t offer twists and turns.

The way you lay out your article is also important. One big block of text is pretty off-putting to look at, but if you break the content up with sub-heads or go for a more accessible listicle format, people are less likely to reel away in horror. Just don’t ramble on without any sort of plan, whatever you do.

It goes hand in hand with social

When BuzzSumo analysed the social share counts of more than 100 million articles in 2014, it found that in the top 10%, 3,000 to 10,000-word pieces received the most average shares: 8.8k, compared to less than 5k shares for articles under 1,000 words.

You can see why agencies everywhere would be shuddering at this news: that’s a lot of words and a lot of employees’ time. Not to mention that social is still very much the cool kid at school. But social and long form are in fact perfect partners – just think about how often you’ll see your Facebook friends post links to interesting pieces of long form they’ve read. Whether or not they’re doing this to look clever is by the by, the fact is, this content is shareable. People do want long form, and they want others to see it too, as confirmed by a study from tech company NewsWhip which found that long form content of more than 1,000 was one of the most shared types.

It boosts SEO performance

This doesn’t mean that to improve your website’s SEO, all you need to do is waffle on for 2,000 words, chucking keywords in whenever you feel like it. As with any type of content, long form needs to have an SEO strategy behind it. But the obvious advantage with this type of content is that you have more opportunities for optimisation, and the longer your article, the easier it’ll be to weave in keywords naturally.

Studies have actually found that content upwards of 2,000 words perform particularly well in terms of SEO – primarily thanks to its ability to pick up long-tail keyword searches and, therefore, more visitors to the page. According to marketing software company Moz, there’s a direct link between longer content and the number of backlinks sending people to it, due to the fact that people prefer to link to content-rich pages as it indicates authority.

In fact, Google actually recommends it

And you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Google. For those who aren’t familiar with the search engine’s algorithms, these are the tools Google uses to crawl people’s content for keyword stuffing, poor quality and other dodgy practices. Google isn’t down with that, oh no. Its Google Panda algorithm in particular, which launched in 2011, penalised content that was too ‘thin’ and ended up affecting rankings for around 12% of search results.

What Google does like, however, is content that’s unique (duplicate content is also an indicator of poor quality), well-written and properly optimised. According to marketing expert and founder of The Sales Lion Marcus Sheridan, ‘If Google has a choice to show two articles for the same keyword, which one are they going to choose: the one where readers average 45 seconds on the page, or the one where readers average 4.5 minutes on the page?’

BUT – it has to be good

In its trends report, the Content Marketing Institute identifies the importance of having marketers who can actually write, whether you have a team of copywriters or reach out to freelancers on an ad-hoc basis. Quality is essential, and there’ll always be someone out there who will call you up on a typo or second-rate article – so if getting a nice piece of long form means hunting for experienced writers, do it.

This also applies to writing for SEO, social media, ad copy, email marketing, PR, and so on. It may seem obvious, but quality and knowing how to use long form content is the most important thing. Ultimately, your content should be relevant – so if you’re producing SEO copy, it needs to actually answer web users’ search queries – and interesting.

 

It’s the age-old ‘does size matter?’ debate. And in this instance, it really is what you do with it that counts. Long form, short form – the point of a content strategy is to choose a form of expression and communication that works best for your brand or client and their audience.

The point is, don’t forget about long form. Whether you use it to boost your social, convert more customers, or build authority, it’s worth investing your time in it – because when it’s done right, it works better than you’d ever expect. 

Jessica Cole, Senior Content Exec.