The Truth About Content Types and Word Counts

Marketers have searched for years to find the magic word count when it comes to content length. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that you can put on a check list like you would a call to action or a strong headline because it involves too many variables. For every search-engine guru who asserts the ideal length to make Google happy, there’s a counter argument by a social media ninja who claims the opposite. Let’s look into the word-count recommendations of a few different content types and see how they became best practices.

Don’t Underestimate Human Attention Spans

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Image via Flickr by the UMF

We’ve been told over and over again that the average human attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish. Last year, the Telegraph reported that human attention spans have shrunk from 12 seconds to eight seconds since 2000. Naturally, the main sources of blame include smartphones, social media, and technology.

Despite the fact that we’re incapable of paying attention to something for more than 10 seconds, humans seem to consume a lot of content. More than 90 percent of people say that they regularly binge watch TV, with the average person bingeing 93 minutes per day — or more than 568 hours per year.

Humans aren’t goldfish; they’re just picky. Maybe they bounce off your page in less than a minute because your content is boring and they would rather watch Kevin Spacey GIFs instead. You don’t have to shorten your content to maintain attention. You must simply make it more compelling and relatable.

Our “Optimal Blog Post” Length Changes Regularly

Every year, there’s a new ideal length for blog content that everyone rushes to adopt. At one point, everyone wanted short, digestible content that was less than 700 words and could be skimmed in a few minutes. Then Nell Patel broke down the number of backlinks that long-form pieces get, and suddenly blog articles were expected to exceed 2,000 words at a minimum to make Google happy. Today, we all have memories of a goldfish, but we read long-form content. How did that happen?

Our friends at Snap Agency explained this contradiction in a few sentences:

“Would you rather read [five] articles about one subject, or one or two well thought articles with significant amounts of data or thought process to back them up? Exactly. And this is why people prefer these longer form articles.”

Essentially, word count comes down to quality over quantity. A 5,000-word article that doesn’t say anything important won’t be as useful as 300 words of expert insight. Similarly, seven 500-word articles that all skim over the same common information won’t stand out as much as in-depth guide.

The Rise of “In-Depth” Long-Form Content

After content marketers fell in love with long-form content, we started adding white papers and e-books to our publishing calendars. If you have the skill set to write 2,000-word blog posts, then creating this long-form content typically only requires a small increase in the budget.

The White Paper Guy created a FAQ for marketers who want to explore this medium. Essentially, the main difference between a white paper and a blog post is the word count and content style. White papers tend to be more professional, and read closer to research papers than a more conversation blog article. As for word count, he notes, “a white paper is longer at 3,000 to 5,000 words, while a blog post is shorter at 400 to 1,000 words.”

Beyond this, most writers treat e-books as anything that’s too long to be a white paper. Best practices state that an e-book is 3,000 words and up — or until your editor stops reading.

What We Never Discuss: Infographic Word Count

When you’re researching optimal word count, everyone seems to have opinions about blog articles, but few share their thoughts when it comes to digital media. Buffer has a wonderful infographic that breaks out the optimal time for YouTube videos (3 minutes) and podcasts (22 minutes) but there’s not consensus when it comes to digesting visual content.

You can’t put an optimal word count on an infographic. One of the most shared graphics of 2013 had sixteen words before it got to the footer. Even if you offer a general word count to writers, the designers still take the best bits and toss the rest.

Most marketers agree that an infographic is worth 1,000 words — it’s a picture, after all. A few well-placed graphics can convince audiences to share or keep reading in just a few seconds.

Despite this, the average expected length for an infographic is 8,000 pixels and 1.5MB. You don’t want to create something huge that makes audiences scroll and load forever. It’s better to create a stunning product that immediately hits home instead of expecting audiences to hang around for the punchline.

So What Do You Tell Your Writers?

More content marketers are stepping out of the traditional chains of word count and letting their writers have freedom to write as much as they please. The new onboarding process includes a list of best practices, branding guidelines, and a style guide overview, and a discussion about the average expected word count for blog articles, white papers, and e-books moving forward.

Instead of demanding an article end between 1,000 and 1,025 words, they suggest writing a minimum of 1,000 words, but encourage writers to keep going until they feel like they’ve covered the topic.

This freedom, when paired with an exciting subject, lets writers thrive. They’re able to focus on research methods and writing a compelling story, while marketers tend to get more than they asked for. However, freedom requires trust. If marketers let writers have flexibility with the word count, they need to know that their content isn’t going to be filled with “fluff” and that content that’s below word count will be balanced in the future with longer articles.

Even though trends change and best practices are updated, the same message remains: as long as what you’re writing is interesting, audiences will stick with you until the end.

About the author

Amanda Dodge