Last Update February 23, 2016.
You’ve heard about long-form content, right?
It’s that insanely huge style of article that sometimes goes on so long your scrolling finger gets tired. In terms of a word count you’re often looking at 3,000 to 10,000 words.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you would have come across it on many occasions in articles like this one (3,600 words), this one (4,800 words) and this bad boy (9,000 words). I love sitting on couches in cafes just typing away for
But there is something that has been bugging me about long-form content for a while now.
And I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s probably bugging you as well.
Let’s take a deeper look into the good and the bad things about this new-fangled blogging cure all. As always, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
What is long-form content and why is it so popular?
Okay, so right from the outset I should probably mention that long-form content is nothing new. In fact, journalists (especially investigative journalists) and authors have been writing like this long before blogs came along.
But it really feels like it turned a corner in 2013/2014.
It’s now the go-to style for many bloggers.
And the sad thing is that it doesn’t always work for them. In fact, it often seems as though it’s a huge waste of time given the sheer amount of typing, research and editing that goes into the production of a long-form article.
What is long-form content?
The definition of long-form content is going to be different for every blogger in every niche.
True long-form content, in my opinion, is the kind of stuff you see in the New Yorker like this article on Plant Intelligence by Michael Pollan that took me half a day to read and probably took him months to research and write. This type of content is usually broken up into many pages.
Long-form content on blogs is never quite as brilliant and seems to be anything over 3,500(ish) words. It could be a collection of tips (like this one I did on blogging tips), images or just a really great big story.
Not all long-form content is created (or received) equally. That causes some problems that I’ll talk about more later.
Why has it become so popular?
When answering this question I have to be really careful to distinguish between the questions of “why is it so popular to write long-form content?” and “why is it so popular to read long-form content?” because I don’t actually think it is as popular to read as many bloggers might think.
But in terms of why it is so popular for bloggers to write long-form content you can really trace it back to two main reasons: Google’s search engine guidelines and advice from popular blogs.
- Google’s SEO guidelines
Google has long been spouting the idea that useful content was key to better rankings. That meant tools, videos and longer articles that contained more information and solved more problems. There has even been a few SEO experts assert that longer content ranks better.
- Advice from popular blogs
Many of the bigger bloggers like Neil Patel and Brian Clark have advocated long form content as being important. Less big bloggers (like myself) have also been saying it for a while. And then there is the “indirect advice” that comes from imitating blogs that use long form content.
The difficult thing about all of this, however, is that it often proves to be a massive disappointment for bloggers when they don’t see any of the results that they hoped.
Why long-form content is a bad idea
Saying that long-form content is a good way to rank on Google, or get more subscribers, etc. is the same as saying that making a video will get you to rank on Google, or more subscribers, etc.
What is the video about?
Who is the target audience?
How well do you promote the video?
Is the video even worth watching?
I should probably be really clear at this point and say that people like Neil and Brian (mentioned above) never advocate long-form content just for the sake of it. They always couple their advice by talking about quality and targeting and so on. Whenever I mention it I try to include the topic of evergreen content – writing articles that focus on beginner topics that always stay relevant.
But in all honesty, that isn’t the full picture either. There are a few other things that need to be mentioned if we want to get to the bottom of why those long articles aren’t working for everyone.
And it comes down to pressure.
When you see all the successful/popular/well established bloggers writing ginormous articles it might be tempting to think that those articles were the single cause of their success. And while it might be true that they were the vehicle of their success, it’s a big mistake to assume that if you write bloody long posts that you’ll become Zen Habits as well.
It’s almost like a strange blogging peer-pressure; the cool kids are doing it so I need to as well.
If you’ve tried long-form articles on your blog or guest posting spots but haven’t got the reception that you’d hoped it might be worth asking a few questions like:
- What does your audience respond to?
Some people just don’t consume long-form content. They might be too used to BuzzFeed-type articles that are broken up into tiny animated clips or sentence-long sound bites that make them blow air out of their nose quickly and then move on. There’s nothing wrong with BuzzFeed, by the way. They know their market perfectly.
- Are your writing skills up to the task?
This is a really harsh point to bring up but some bloggers just don’t seem to have the writing skills (yet!) to write 5,000 words and make it interesting. I’m constantly surprised that people read my writing and I’ve been at it for a few years now.
- Are you picking topics that warrant massive detail?
Not all topics need that much detail. Some of the popular “news” that we see now (think celebrities and sport) barely require a photo and a bit of gossip to get people onto the page then then clicking onto the next thing. There’s just no time or space for a long analysis.
If you get one or more of these elements wrong then there is a good chance that your hours and hours and hours of research, writing and editing may be all wasted.
So what do you do?
How to get the most from long-form content
Here are some possible solutions for you and your blog if you feel like the long articles are falling short.
Again, every blog and niche is different so you need to make sure you are testing, tweaking and researching all the time. A few small things can make a big difference to how well this stuff goes.
1. Solve problems, but not all of them
A few years ago I stumbled across a blog that had linked to me (I couldn’t find it today) in an article where they’d praised my writing but said they never leave comments because there are no discussion points left.
That was a huge eye opener for me.
Since then I’ve practiced writing useful articles that solve problems but then always try to leave something open or uncertain at the end. It makes for wonderful conversation and, as I often say, people tend to learn more from the comments on my blog than the article itself!
2. Research carefully (like, really carefully)
Here’s how the article-writing process used to work for me.
Shower > BRAINWAVE > Tell Siri to make a note > Draft headline > Write post > Check facts > Publish.
These days, however, I tend to add about an hour of research into the equation around the time of the headline drafting. I’ve become more an more interested in things like keywords, traffic potential, competition in the SERPs, the kind of articles already rankings, the kind of topics my competitors have covered, etc.
There are many tools you can use to accomplish this kind of thing. Most of them you can find in my Toolbox. Ultimately you want to try and find your own style of research that brings you the best results.
3. Don’t do it just for the sake of it
Someone recently asked me why I don’t publish to a schedule. “It’ll get you more readers and more loyalty,” they told me.
Well, that’s probably true but I can’t seem to get past my mantra that I won’t publish content unless I have something to say. I just can’t see the point putting out an endless stream of daily (or even weekly) articles unless I genuinely think they’re going to be useful.
Click to Tweet this quote.
Part of the reason bloggers seem to struggle with long-form content is that they are trying to do it too often and on topics that they don’t really believe in. If you want to keep a reader interested in your content for more than a few minutes you’d better be sure you’re interested in it too!
4. Get a feel for what works
This probably could have gone up into the research section but I wanted to emphasize it separately because I think it can really help get something over the edge.
One of the best things you can do is go around to blogs that are similar to yours and see what has worked for them in terms of long-form content.
Ask questions like:
- How did they set it up?
Glen from ViperChill sets posts up better than anyone else. Remember when he did that post “outing” Google’s bad policies and followed it up with an SEO product? Amazing.
- What is the flow like?
If you write a long article it needs to be on a design and in a format that is easy to follow. Each section needs to lead on from the previous one and include text, graphics, sources and videos. Demian Farnworth knows how to do this perfectly.
- Does it tell a story?
You can’t just whack up a bunch of facts and hope people read it all the way through. Even journalists talk about how they felt talking to this professional about that topic, and so on. Make it personal. John Morrow is bloody brilliant at this.
- How did they pre-sell it?
Get on the mailing list of some of these bloggers and see how they “pre sell” their articles to their subscribers. Sometimes I’m blown away at how much attention an average article will get on the back of a brilliant mail out. I’m not naming anyone for this point. 🙂
Again, not all of this stuff will work on your blog but it might give you a very good starting point to make some new tests.
5. Practice writing like you’re speaking to a mate
One of the hardest things to do, as a writer, is type out those words like you’re talking to a mate. I’ve been trying to do it for years and still fall short.
Luckily for me I have a trusted and knowledgable friend in Internet Marketing who will shoot me a quick email when my posts go up saying “Too arrogant” or “Get rid of that swagger, mate”. It helps a lot.
The best strategy I can suggest is to write as if you are going on the journey with your readers, not lecturing them. Make it as if you’re chatting to your college buddies in the pub about whatever topic it is, not giving a lecture to some 4th year students.
The more conversational your tone, the more likely people are to engage with you. And that translates to subscribers, shares and a lot of interest.
Does long-form content have a future?
For as long as I’ve been blogging, people have been saying that the format of blogging is coming to an end.
People don’t read that much anymore.
Mobile devices will prevent the format from staying viable.
Video is the new main thing.
And now they are saying all the same things about long-form content.
While I do think that those (three specific) points are entirely correct, they don’t really fully express the truth of the situation. Long-form content does have a future – a big one – and you can make it even bigger by incorporating video, mobile responsive layouts and easy to digest formats into the big articles that you publish.
But the really important point is that no content has a future unless it is quality. Just look at the people who are doing really well from the regularly changing landscapes online.
The New Yorker magazine is killing it with subscriptions because the content is brilliant, novel and engaging (and as such they have a big ole subscriber base).
Blogs, podcasts, whatever… it’s all the same.
It’s not the format that is causing the success it’s the branding, the research, the distinctiveness and the quality of the execution.
Long-form content is worth the work if you are sure that you are providing something useful and distinctive. Make sure you do your research and know the exact type of person that you are pitching it to and then work like crazy to be amazing.
Have you had success or failure with long-form content on your blog? Do you read long articles? I’d be really interested to hear what you think about this. Please leave me a comment.