By Amanda Milligan published April 2, 2020 Est Read Time: 10 min

When You Should (and Shouldn’t) Create Long-Form Content

You’re staring at a blank document. It’s an intimidating moment because you have a beast of a piece to execute.

How you do write something to make it comprehensive and compelling?

It’s an age-old question, but based on my content marketing experience, you should ask another question first.

Should it be long-form content?

Definitions vary of what constitutes long-form content, but I use BuzzSumo’s definition of 2,000 to 3,000 words for long-form and over 3,000 for extra-long-form content.

Not every topic or idea should be thousands of words. Making something thorough for thorough’s sake can make a piece feel fluffy. Yes, you can write comprehensively about a topic like cars and cover everything from maintenance to reselling to history to the cultural significance. But why? Why are you including all of that? Is that the most effective way to communicate the information to your audience?

Not every topic should be thousands of words, says @millanda via @cmicontent. #writingtips Click To Tweet

Long-form content can be appropriate for every part of the sales funnel. In fact, it’s an essential part of the pillar content strategy. But the most important reason to create long-form content is to give readers something they’re looking for. It’s always in a content creator’s best interest to develop content that allows readers to see your content as part of the solution to their problems — you are the brand that can answer their questions. This goes a long way in building your brand authority.

And when Google discovers that searchers’ needs are being met with your content, it will rank it better, getting your content more front and center.

Here are some questions you can consider to help determine whether your topic should go long.

Does the reader want a quick answer or a topical deep dive?

This question relates to user or search intent. Why is someone choosing to look for an article about this topic? Put yourself in the mind of the reader and figure out what they want to learn from reading your content.

Put yourself in the mind of the reader and figure out what they want to learn from reading your #content, says @millanda via @cmicontent. #writingtips #SEO Click To Tweet

Keyword research is such an important component at this stage of consideration. Some queries are straightforward – how many days are in February this year. The searcher gets the answer and moves on. But other queries aren’t as clear-cut and deserve a different amount of detail.

Let’s look at what that could mean for a brand creating content. I’ll use REI as an example because it excels at creating valuable content for its customers and potential customers.

REI created a piece of long-form content, Winter Camping and Backpacking Basics, that ranks No. 1 in organic search for “winter camping.”

People who search for “winter camping” probably aren’t experts. Professional chefs don’t search for “cooking tips” and athletes don’t search for “strength training.” Why? The topics are basic. Top-level searches are common for people interested but unfamiliar with a topic.

So, REI took the approach of creating a guide that covers nearly everything someone needs to know about winter camping. It clocks in at 2,191 words and does an excellent job of covering the basics.

In contrast, REI has written a winter camping checklist that’s much shorter. Why? People looking for checklists likely are planning to do the activity and have some knowledge about winter camping. They don’t need a detailed explanation about every item, they just want a quick reference.

When deciding on topic length, make sure you empathize with the intended readers. If you think they’re likely searching for long-form content, then create it. Still unsure? Ask this next question.

Think about your intended readers. Do they want long-form #content on that topic? @millanda via @cmicontent Click To Tweet

Is long-form content ranking for relevant keywords?

If you’re still not sure if the topic merits long- or short-form content, see what’s ranking in Google for relevant keywords. Google often ranks pages because they’re meeting the search intent.

Let’s continue our “winter camping” example. We already know the first result is long form. Let’s look at the word count for the other page one results:

  • No. 2: 787
  • No. 3: 1,113
  • No. 4: 1,059
  • No. 5: 1,474
  • No. 6: 1,443
  • No. 7: 16,301 (quite the outlier here)
  • No. 8: 2,883
  • No. 9: 1,809 

The average word count among the second through ninth place results (minus the outlier) is 1,196 words.

I’ll give a caveat: Word count isn’t everything. It’s not even close to acting as a top ranking factor. Far more important are the usefulness of the content to the searcher and the authority of the site it is on. Domain authority contributes to why REI’s article ranks first and it’s why the outlier ranks (it’s published on www.princeton.edu). Princeton University obviously has a ton of authority, which apparently supersedes the bad design and clutter of the page.

Word count isn’t everything. It’s not even close to acting as a top ranking factor, says @millanda via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

But you can glean some top-level insights from the first-page rankings. Most of the articles are shorter than REI’s. Some are more casual in tone and others list tips rather than full exploratory paragraphs on subtopics.

However, none of the results is particularly short. After evaluating these results, a person creating content about winter camping would see two viable options:

  • Create more comprehensive content and offer additional value (perhaps with instructional images/videos, expert tips, etc.) than all other results.
  • Develop short-form, unique content that expresses personality and provides something no one else has done.

Do this exercise to consider how long-form content is performing for your topic. Think about the reasons why. Then think through how your content will differentiate itself both through length and overall quality.

Does this piece address a nuanced question?

This question revolves around your target audience’s expectations. If a topic is complex, skirting over it might leave the reader feeling like you took the easy way out. Once again, you should ask if the reader’s intent is to find the most basic answer or to really explore the topic in its entirety.

Usually, with a nuanced topic or question, they want something more comprehensive. Take the topic of gentrification, a controversial subject about changing a neighborhood’s character as higher-income residents and businesses move into it. It’s not a cut-and-dried subject.

A Google search for “what is gentrification?” includes a result for this long-form piece by Strong Towns. This content explains the complexities of gentrification rather than just providing the dictionary definition. It covers the many effects of gentrification and what that impact means for the area.

This page-one-ranking content is a great example of how a brand can explore a topic that’s meaningful to it and valuable to its readers. Sure, there often are simpler ways to answer a question, but those results may not be what your target readers want.

Tell a story

Most people don’t keep textbooks on their nightstands because reading dry facts doesn’t always make for a rip-roaring time.

Narrative style – telling a story – can help people connect with what you’re saying on a more human level. It’s inherently more engaging, meaning you have a higher chance of successfully communicating a longer story.

Narrative style is helpful for long-form #content because it is more engaging for the reader, says @millanda via @cmicontent. #storytelling Click To Tweet

I love this long-form content – 11 Dog-Friendly Date Ideas for Dog Lovers and Their Pups – by Chewy, the online pet product retailer. The 4,000-plus word article is a great example of how to tell a long story while being useful.

The structure of this piece is brilliant. Instead of just listing 11 ideas with a paragraph explanation (short-form content), it features examples of real-life dates recommended by real-life couples.

The content merits long form because the multiple human stories create pictures and keep the reader interested, evoking how much fun each date option could be.

You might be thinking, “Amanda, I don’t have a brand built around adorable dogs. How can this work for me?”

Don’t worry. The same principles apply to B2B and B2C brands.

Take this piece from The Muse, an online career platform: 22 Phone Interview Tips to Help You Nail the Call (and Move to the Next Round). From the headline, we can tell the article wants to convince job seekers that this article will help them with the interview process and the tips will have a positive result.

Now look at the intro to this 3,300-plus-word piece:

The Muse makes the reader the protagonist of the story. The author presents the problem: You’re nervous about the phone interview. Then they say they’ll help you solve that problem. They build a narrative as a lead-in to the tips. It’s a very effective storytelling strategy, particularly for long-form content.

And the fact that The Muse is telling this story makes sense because it’s primarily a job board that provides career coaching. It wants to be seen as the go-to resource for job advice and this long-form article about phone interviews makes that clear with its exhaustive details.

That’s an important consideration for all brands in this decision-making process: What story makes sense for us to tell — and why does it make sense for us to tell it in long form?

Need inspiration for the types of long-form content you can create? Explore examples by using BuzzSumo’s Content Analyzer tool and filtering in-depth content (2,000-plus words). Filter it by your industry to see what’s worked and where gaps may exist.

Go long or not

If you’re a very discerning reader, you may have noticed that this piece didn’t quite hit long form (meta, I know).

I followed the process I outlined. In the end, I figured readers of this piece already know what long-form content is and the general benefits of writing it. I wanted to provide some guidance on how to decide if long-form content works for your goals and your audience’s needs, and how to do it right.

If you take all of this into consideration, you’ll be much more likely to produce content that’ll attract and maintain readers’ interest.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used). 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Amanda Milligan

Amanda Milligan is the marketing director at Fractl. Throughout her career, she’s managed the creation of 200+ content campaigns, led strategy for 20+ clients, and run a 30-episode podcast, "Ask Amanda About Marketing." She spoke at 2019 SMX Advanced and served as the keynote speaker at Danaher’s 2018 Digital Marketing Summit. Her content marketing advice has appeared in Forbes, Content Marketing Institute, MarketingProfs’ Marketing Smarts Podcast, CMO, and more. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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