When writing content for your website, blog, or newsletter, should you aim for brevity or go in-depth?
I’d dump Q and maybe J.
Because if attention spans continue shrinking, we’ll need to cut down the alphabet to make words shorter (shrtr).
Given the online ADD epidemic, it surely makes sense to go short if you’re producing articles for a newsletter, blog or website?
If short was always the way, this blog would be dead. We just assume people won’t read long articles. The ADD problem has been hammered home so often that we hardly pause to think anymore.
But it’s not that simple.
Like everything online, the “ideal” content length depends on context: the ideal length is the one that says everything you need to say to get the right response.
Not short. Not long. But what suits your needs and the audience you’re targeting.
The problem isn’t really people’s inability to pay attention, but the greater competition for that attention.
If they read your content, that comes at a cost to them. It means they’re not doing something else. And there’s so much else they could be doing online.
The short content solution
Short articles address that problem by making the cost of giving attention as low as possible. Hence their attraction.
If it only takes a moment to read your content, the cost of doing so is low and so people are more likely to do so. D’oh!
That’s not the only reason to go short:
It’s much easier and faster to whip out a 200-word blog post than a 1200-word one
Short articles are great for communicating quick, pithy content and concepts, like Seth Godin or Chad White do so well
Chances are people will read the whole content, which helps when it comes to getting comments or links
The downside (and it’s a big one) is that it’s very hard to be unique, meaningful and valuable in just a few words. Not impossible, but hard.
There is a difference in experience and impact between reading:
“So this boy and girl meet and fall in love. But the families aren’t keen and the girl is kind of promised to another. So they get a priest to help them. Unfortunately, the plan goes wrong and they both die.”
Long content works with the other side of the attention equation. Instead of lowering the cost of giving attention, it increases the value of doing so.
Long content lets you:
get into the detail necessary to communicate extensive knowledge, build an argument or tell a good story (or all three)
better demonstrate in-depth knowledge and expertise
attract links, Tweets, comments etc. through its comprehensivenes
The main disadvantage is that it takes more effort, skill and time to create. Though the compensation is that you don’t need to produce it so often.
Quality trumps quantity in a world where quality is in short supply and quantity…um…isn’t.
This “disadvantage” is also a real advantage in a world full of people looking for information. Short content is easier to produce, so there’s an awful lot more of it: an awful lot of people saying more or less the same thing.
If you’re prepared to take the long content route, there’s less competition and it’s easier to be unique. It’s easier to develop a loyal audience that simply can’t get the same information elsewhere.
A real problem with long content, however, is the cost side of the attention equation.
Before people can see the value, they need to read the content. But they don’t want to read such lengthy content because of the commitment that demands.
That’s why long content needs to ensure it has:
a good title: like an email subject line, it should grab attention, raise interest and encourage further reading
a strong introduction: the introduction needs to draw in the reader with crisp, engaging writing and/or (if the title hasn’t done so already) quickly communicate the value of reading further
an eye-friendly structure: headlines, bold and italics, bullet points and, most important, sensible use of paragraph and line lengths (as discussed in detail in a previous post)
Snacks versus meals
A problem with many sites, blogs and email newsletters is that have become slaves to ADD. They are snack foods that satisfy a short-term craving, but don’t fill anyone up.
It’s hard (not impossible) to stand out when you’re just selling snacks. Hard (not impossible) to build a real gourmet experience that has people raving to their friends about you.
Snacks are popular but don’t confuse popularity with influence or longevity. Snacks are easy to copy, gourmet meals aren’t.
Equally, if you’re trying to provide a gourmet experience, you can’t offer bland meals that leave no lasting, positive impression.
Ifs and buts
I started life as a scientist, the worst possible training for writing just about anything in an engaging manner. But it means any general advice (like that above) has to be qualified by ifs and buts.
1. The choice of long or short is often dictated by circumstances and markets
For example, news-type content is going to lean toward short to make up for the high frequency demanded to stay current.
2. There is nothing wrong with a mix
In fact, a mix of long and short often works well.
For example, the lengthy blog posts I publish are mixed up with the occasional famous inbox or stats update.
The inverted pyramid structure used by news journalists is another example of short and long content. The first few lines communicate all the critical information, and the rest of the article expands, argues and explains. People can explicitly choose between long and short content formats, depending on how much detail they want.
Another example is providing article summaries in a newsletter, with links to the lengthier article back at a website.
Short content communicates facts, principles and concepts quickly. Which is a good thing for us time-pressed citizens of the brave new web world.
The danger is it does so superficially. It’s hard to touch an audience meaningfully in a few short words (we can’t tell everyone “I love you” and mean it).
The move to concise, succinct, snappy content has many advantages, but don’t forget the opportunity that long content has in letting you reach people in a deeper, more influential, way.
3. There is no right and wrong approach
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt online it’s that there are very few hard and fast rules.
If you go short, you leave some people looking for more detail. If you go long, some people will never read it: in a comment elsewhere on this blog, “Jake” introduced me to the lovely acronym TLDR (too long, didn’t read).
For those who prefer short-form content, here’s the one-line summary:
Make your content as long as needed to say what you need to say to get the best response from your target audience.
So…long or short? What do you think?
By Mark Brownlow
Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.
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