People say Seth Godin is the Godfather of content marketing, but way back in 1996 Bill Gates wrote a now – mostly – forgotten blog post called “Content is King”.
It’s worth remembering that this was two years before the term blog was ever used, nine years before YouTube and eleven years before, Tumblr and WordPress. The Internet was a different place back then. Fast forward nineteen years: Blogs are ubiquitous, content is everywhere and everyone seems to have agreed with Seth Godin’s famous quote “Content Marketing is the only marketing left”. The thing is, too many of us seem to have forgotten what Gates had to say all those years ago.
”When it comes to an interactive network such as the Internet, the definition of “content” becomes very wide…..If people are to be expected to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen, they must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will. They need to have audio, and possibly video. They need an opportunity for personal involvement that goes far beyond that offered through the letters-to-the-editor pages of print magazines.”
Content marketing is about connecting with customers through valuable and relevant content. The problem is that too often this content is not that valuable. Gates’ assertion that people would want “deep” content, was bang on the money. He certainly didn’t say “…they must be rewarded with a 500 word blog that summarises what they already know”. Of course he didn’t know what a blog was, but you get my point.
Some might say longer content is a gamble, given audiences supposedly goldfish like attention spans, but in-depth content does have value. The web is full of 500 – 800 word blogs because conventional wisdom is that once you get much above this it’s too demanding and no one is going to read it. For me, the problem with this approach is that because everyone’s doing it, once the reader has read one blog on a subject they’ve read them all. Google knows this. It’s done a lot of research on what content people value and guess what? The the average word count of top ranked searches is 2,416 words. In fact Google has a term for content of less than 800 words it’s called Thin Content.
SEO specialists serpIQ carried out a study on the average length of the content in the top ten results of search queries. They found that the top-rated posts were nearly always over 2,000 words.
Of course, all this has lead to a lot of chatter about making blog posts longer than ever–simply for the search rankings. But why does Google prefer longer copy? One thing that we sometimes miss is that Google’s job isn’t to rank pages in a methodical and scientific way. It’s using science and methodology to rank pages in a very human way. In other words, they are trying to connect their visitors to the most valuable content they can find. Longer articles are typically well-researched, and have plenty of data to back them up*. They offer more than a generic summary of what everyone knows anyway.
With longer content there’s time to build an argument and space to put in the facts. This tends to make them credible and valuable. For both Google’s algorithms and your visitors. Originality and quality are very closely related in the eyes of Google. Their search ranking guidelines talk about expertise and authority. If you’re just regurgitating the basics you are never going to be seen as an expert on anything. So a topic that’s already been covered by your competitors isn’t going to benefit you unless you can add value. Quality means going deeper into topics. However you present your content, the most important thing to remember is that it must provide some value. Give your readers a new angle, make unusual comparisons and do it with a unique voice.
The standard news article has been around for more than a century; a concise round up of the facts still dominates new publishing. A very quick and unscientific look at half a dozen articles today on The Times, the Guardian and Mail Online websites shows that they all are between 500 and 800 words. The question is, does a format designed for the printed newspaper and it’s physical production constraints over a hundred years ago work online today?
A good example is business news site Quartz who found that its readers are avoiding this sort of middle ground. Their editor-in-chief Kevin Delany has said that his readers like “short, sharp takes on news stories that are creative and say something new, or long, in-depth articles providing strong detailed narrative or insightful analysis”. This has become known as the Quartz curve. It seems to be working because it only took Quartz a year to go from an audience of nothing to around 3.5 million readers, largely through social sharing. Quartz puts much of this success to them avoiding the 500 – 800 word article.
Who’s getting it right?
As part of the launch of the Apple Watch this week, Apple have updated it’s Apple Watch pages on it’s website:
- A blog by Christy Burlington Burns about her training for the London Marathon and her work with Every Mother Counts and how the Apple Watch is helping her. The first instalment includes long form copy and a beautifully produced film.
- Over 100 high resolution images.
- Extensive video content: 1 hour keynote, TV ad, plus seven short films
- Long form article about craftsmanship (1,350 words)
- Long form article about technology (1,426 words)
- Long form article about Health and Fitness (1,121 words)
- Long form article on Time keeping (1,283 words)
On the one hand, the sheer volume and quality of the content is well above anything that’s ever been done before, but what Apple have got right is that they have understood that people want to engage with the brand and are prepared to invest the time. If you are so inclined you can spend two hours and still not see everything – my 13 year old son did exactly that last night. They know that the launch and the content are part of the experience of buying the watch.
From a design point of view, the content never seems daunting. The white minimalist layout and the way the content is contained across multiple pages means that the visitor is never overwhelmed and are (as Gates said) “rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will”.
With a great track record of producing really high quality content – if you haven’t seen their editorially-driven city guides check them out. Wall and Chainwas launched at the end of last year and was created to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It tells the story of Airbnb guest, Cathrine and a trip she took to Berlin with her father, Jörg, who had been a Berlin Wall guard at the height of the Cold War.
With a great twist, the video garnered more than 5.7 million YouTube views in its first month and further helped to establish Airbnb as a brand connecting travellers to what they most value – experiences.
With a calendar of Berlin Wall-related events on the Belong Anywhere site and an interactive feature highlighting Airbnb’s effect on the Berlin culture and economy (part of its Economic Impact series), the brand has managed to make itself part of a contemporary global conversation.
What both these examples show is the power of well crafted, relevant content. And that people will take the time to engage with more demanding content if it rewards them with a deeper experience, whether that’s an emotional connection like Wall and Chain or multiple layers of information like the Apple Watch website.
* Like this one. Source: 4 Statistics Every Blogger Should Know About Content Word Count.