When you imagine the perfect piece of written content, what do you see? A short and sweet article clocking in at about 500 or 600 words? Or a comprehensive deep dive that breaks up three times as much content with headers, lists, and bullet points?
This is a trick question, and not just because the perfect piece of content doesn’t exist.
A question like this, much like the general debate on long-form versus short-form content, is flawed because it starts from the (mis)understanding that word count predicts or reflects how good a piece of content actually is — something Rand Fishkin explained well on the Moz blog last year when he said:
“Yes. I’ve read the studies. I know the correlations. Long-form content, on average, earns more engagement, higher rankings, and more shares than their more concise brethren.
But, that does not make long-form content the same as great content. It does not make long-form content the goal of every content effort. It certainly does not mean that longer content is better content.”
Of course, in reality, what makes a piece of content amazing or a waste of time is how well it engages your audience and meets its needs. Stretching your content to meet a minimum of 1,400 words because you read that you should be creating long-form content won’t automatically do the trick, and neither will reflexively condensing it.
So if amazing, engaging content can really be any length and forcing it one way or the other is more harmful than helpful, then what the heck does word count have to do with your content’s success?
That’s exactly what the Influence & Co. team set out to understand through our analysis of more than 4 million pieces of content. We published our full findings in “The State of Digital Media,” but you can explore some key findings below:
After looking at the average word count of all 4 million published content pieces, we found the bar was set at right about 565 words. Then, we looked at content that had gotten at least 1,000 social shares and noticed that the average word count increased to nearly 800 words.
Now, an article that sits around 800 words still isn’t exactly what you’d call long-form content, but it’s a good amount longer than the 565 average. What is it about content in the 800-word count range that gave it some extra social power?
Content between 600 and 800 words is in a somewhat unique position. It’s not super-short or devoid of substance, like you could say about some of the standard 500-word blog posts of the past, but it’s not going to take your readers more than a couple of minutes to peruse, either.
What this means is that audiences may be likelier to engage with your content on social when it’s just long enough to share compelling information yet short enough to consume quickly and move on.
Our analysis didn’t stop there, though: We then compared the word counts of popular content on social media with the word counts of content published in online publications with 1 million or more monthly visits.
The word count of content in major publications dropped pretty significantly, falling to an average of 480 to 695 words. (If you’ve read more than one or two articles written by yours truly, then you know how crazy it is to me to even think of squeezing my ideas into less than 700 words.)
Still, this finding isn’t entirely surprising: When a publication speaks to a large audience, content is usually expected to be more broad than deep, and that will limit its length.
This is exactly why it’s so important for your content marketing strategy to include a plan to reach a blend of impressive and impactful publications. If you want to speak to a large audience, you can absolutely work with online publication editors to contribute content to those outlets — but that content will probably be brief.
Niche publications, on the other hand, often give your company’s thought leader some wiggle room in terms of word count. Because they speak to narrower audiences, niche publications let you dive deep, get hands-on and tactical, and share specific advice with an audience that’s already highly interested in your team has to say.
Analyzing content word counts and performance can shine a light on some interesting trends in content marketing, but at the end of the day, content isn’t great simply because it’s long or short. The way readers engage with content and how valuable they find your ideas is what matters — and that’s the long and short of it.
I love cloudy days, office supplies, and rewatching the same sitcoms I've already seen a dozen times. When I'm not looking for ways to elevate content, I'm looking for opportunities to tell stories about my dog.