Rough cuts: When is length a good thing in digital copywriting?

Too Long, Didn't Read or TL;DR: find out why long-form content still has a place online, and when you should use it

 Rough cuts: When is length a good thing in digital copywriting?

It only takes a quick Google Insights search to see how ubiquitous the TL;DR. acronym has become across the internet. 'Too Long, Didn't Read' is a reaction shared by many of us when we receive weighty content at the wrong time or in the wrong place.

These days, it seems people don’t have the time or energy to take in long-form written content. In a world where Twitter has reduced ground-breaking news to 140 characters, many people only want quick-fix blasts of information. They’re on the go. They don’t have the attention span to stick with longer articles. And they need to get to the meat of a blog quickly and easily. So is there still a place for long-form copy online? And, if so, when should you use it? 

Is long-form copywriting dead?

Well, no, of course not. Any content marketer worth their spellcheck knows that online trends are constantly in flux, and that there is a time and a place for all lengths – and types – of online content.

Even BuzzFeed – the king of digestible listicle content – agrees. Just a quick look around the site uncovers archetypal light listicles alongside whopping 6,000-word heavy-weighters.

Undeniably, in the right context, long-form pieces have been proven to increase dwell time and engagement. According to Medium, for instance, the optimal length for a blog post should be a 7-minute-read. Likewise a study by SerpIQ argues that the sweet spot for posts is around 1,500 words – equating to a 5-6-minute-read, based on an adult’s average reading speed.

Strengthening the case for long-form

  • Following the Penguin and Panda updates, Google now likes big content – that is, content that keeps someone on a page longer. Success is now as much about attention and bounce rate as it is about clicks.
  • Longer content can make readers feel there is more value to an article, making them more likely to share it.
  • Tablets have made the experience of reading longer content online more comfortable and enjoyable, and therefore more appealing. After all, reading long-form content on a tablet is very similar to reading it in magazines which is still popular.

So, when should you consider writing at length and when should you stick to short, punchy pieces?

Reviews

Not all product reviews or descriptions need to be long, but some products demand more than others. Generally speaking, if a product is expensive or technical, it pays to write at greater length. Customers will want to know everything about this kind of product before parting with large amounts of money, and will be looking for in-depth analysis, rather than a quick thumbs up or down. This is why Which? takes time and space over each and every review.

Another prime example is content about video games. Games are expensive and customers like knowing what they’re getting before they invest. Eurogamer – which, incidentally, has dropped the review score in favour of telling the full story in text – has many great examples of long-form reviews done well.

Interviews

Sometimes interviews work as a quick 400-word Q&A. But if you’re speaking to someone of special interest in your area of expertise – someone with interesting and valuable points to make – give them space. Your audience will thank you for it.

Music site Pitchfork approaches long-form interviews in an interesting way with its Cover Story section. The content is certainly lengthy, but the scrolling page design and moving images keep it arresting throughout.

Thought leadership

If you’re looking to position yourself as a thought-leader in a specific topic, then a 6-step how-to article might not be the best way to go about it. Remember that while some of your traffic will be passers-by, other visitors will be experts looking for detailed information. To reassure them that your views are worth listening to, you need to showcase your understanding, and that means getting really involved with the topic.

The Guardian is full of great examples of long-form thought leadership in its Comment Is Free section. Salesforce also offers longer blogs that provide greater insight into its thoughts on business and IT.

Serious stories

Writing about serious and complex topics can be a tricky assignment for brands, and is sometimes best avoided. But if you’re going to do it, and want to be taken seriously, then you should be prepared to cover all angles of the argument – and that often means writing at length.

It’s very difficult to provide a credible, informed opinion about taxation or global warming, say, in a short, pithy blog post. Serious and complex topics demand serious and expository narrative. Don’t rush them – treat them with the respect they deserve. Research rigorously and construct your argument carefully.

Storytelling

If you’re telling a sequential story rather than simply imparting information, then you need to draw your audience into the narrative. And this means doing the unthinkable – throwing the copywriter’s precious inverted pyramid out the window. You need a beginning, middle and satisfying end.

The New Yorker does this often and particularly well. It imparts information through detailed, lengthy and intricate stories that really engage.

Remember!

Long-form digital copywriting has the power to get people talking – it gives them information to discuss and subject matter to pore over. It stimulates head-bumping in comments sections and most importantly, provides material that’s worth sharing.

However, as with everything in digital content writing, long-form is not necessarily better than short-form – it’s just a different way of speaking to your audience. They’re two different tools in the writer’s toolbox, each used for a different purpose and only at the appropriate time. Don’t write long copy for the sake of it: write long copy when your audience needs it.

It all goes back to content marketing 101. Know your audience. If you know who you’re writing for, then you’ll know when a 2,000-word blog is appropriate, and when it’s not.