The Ongoing Myth That Web Content Must Always Be Short

Recently blogger Rob Birgfeld over at Smart Brief wrote a post on the importance of keeping content short.  Unfortunately, it is an ongoing myth that web content must be short.  There are no “rules” with length of successful content, in fact if you look at some of the most popular digital personalities (consider Tamar Weinberg or Steve Pavlina) you’ll see their content is quite in depth.

Yet this myth that length of content is important continues to be propagated without much backing. Let’s go through some of Rob’s points:

Your headline is only good as its tweet: Can you get your point across in 140 characters? Good, now remove at least 15 characters for the URL. Then, if you plan on getting anyone to retweet, get rid of another 15. And what if someone else retweets that retweet? Remove another 15 or so. You get the point. Oh yeah, and Digg’s headline character limit is only 60 characters.

That’s true to a point – but is certainly not always the case.  I’ve repeatedly seen that communities will rewrite headlines when sharing it for their social news site of choice – whether Digg, Twitter or more niche places.  Don’t worry so much about fitting headlines into character limits – rather, ensure they are both catchy and include keywords.  Also 140 characters is more than sufficient for most headlines, it would be tough to go much longer than that anyway.

Turn your blog post upside down: Take a glance at most of the blog posts you come across and you’ll note the formula. Start with a personal anecdote (see above), transition, then to the meat of the story. While long-form content still has a place, if your customers are likely on a mission to gather information or data, direct is the way to go.

There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write a blog post – so long as you learn the art of the lede the content that follows can flow any direction you want it to.  Note your lede can be anything, it doesn’t need to be simply a personal anecdote.  There are many strategies for openers, to try to apply specific rules to blog posts is pretty silly anyway.  This could do more to kill an interesting post than help make something successful.

I previously listed why most marketing agency blogs are unreadable – but the advice in that post could be applied to business blogs overall.  Note that length of post is not a factor, it’s just not a super high priority to worry about.  Make posts as long or short as they need to be to get your point across.

Video clips, not films: YouTube recently increased its time limit to 15 minutes. Good news if you’re a filmmaker. Bad news for overzealous marketers. If you’re using online video to market products via a presentation or demo, keeping it short is more than suggested. If you must go longer than four or five  minutes, help out your audience with some tips of where (i.e. product features at 2:45) you’re hiding the goodies. They might miss your fancy intro, but they’ll get right to what to matters to them, and to you.

As I noted in a recent primer on content marketing, many companies are producing video but few actually create anything interesting.  It’s not length of time that companies need to focus on – it’s making something that’s legitimately worth watching.  Just because you have a short video means nothing.  Consider the longer ads Microsoft ran which featured Seinfeld awhile back – people did watch the whole ads due to the fact they were quirky and featured a celebrity.  While it’s true you need to hook viewers quickly, overall length is less relevant.  Of course, don’t go longer than you can be interesting.

Word of mouth travels farther with fewer words:  Like Twitter, old-fashioned word of mouth can be affected by length. If you can communicate a concise message to your “talkers,” chances are they’ll be able to pass it along easily. Throw a complicated paragraph at your fans and they might digest the information, but it’ll most likely stop there. A short message is easily remembered, passed along — and has far greater potential.

This graph doesn’t give much credit to the social web as a whole.  Some of the memes that spread throughout the web are complex in nature, but because those involved in propagation have been telling the story since the beginning they’re able to handle a richer narrative.  It’s the user’s narrative, and they build on it through links and discussions.  Also, avid blog readers who are smart enough to follow digital conversations that run deep are more than capable of reading through multiple threads and making sense of it all.  Some of the most influential and timeless conversations/topics (think 1,000 True Fans, The Long Tail, others that were shared/commented on like crazy) are not skin deep.

It is an ongoing myth you need to write short, pithy posts.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If you are writing about a complex subject matter, wish to tell deeper stories or have lots of examples to share, do it.  Just be sure to format properly, have compelling hooks, use visuals to break up content and show readers that yes, you have longer format content – but it is unmissable.  Look at how Glen Allsop does it if you want a prime example.

The web nurtures and accelerates the spread of both simple and complex ideas, but length of content is not necessarily a factor in why ideas spread between communities.  The notion that your content or stories must be short may be true for the general population who only have the patience for soundbites.  But despite the fact that some think it’s TL;DR, the smartest, most influential people will read it if it’s worth reading.