Long live the article! Word count and its effect on your content

The Article is Dead. Long Live the Article!

By Dan Davenport

March 1, 2022
We're redefining K.I.S.S. for the modern article: Keep It Short, Stupid.

It has long been a refrain in content marketing — at least since the birth of the smartphone: Everyone’s attention span is toast. Nobody reads anything anymore.

Those of us trained in journalism to pledge fealty to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) tweaked that acronym for this age: Keep It Short, Stupid.

That led to bookend trends: the explosion of visual storytelling, and reports of the death of the article. And who could argue? People do many things at once, on many screens at once. It’s on us to flag them down and deliver the information they need, and to get our clients’ brand noticed and engaged with. That’s a big ask for a gray wall of text.

But it turns out the smartphone didn’t change everything about people and their needs. Many topics — say, health care, legal and financial services — present deep, complicated information gaps. And as I was reminded recently after user testing on our financial services content, people get this.

They know a flashy video or whirring pie chart may catch their eye, but it might not get the job done on subjects like sustainable investing or diabetes management. Sometimes, they need us to show them the article.

The modern digital article

So while reports of the format’s death have been greatly exaggerated, the rules haven’t changed. Readers, alas, will not hang on every word of every 1,000-word post. But nail the basics — understand our audiences’ challenges and give them information that truly helps — and they’ll stick with us. Here are five ways to do that and create the modern digital article.

  1. Clarity now. Generally assume that three-fourths of your readers will find your article on a mobile device. This puts a premium on every word. Heds and subheds must prize clear over clever. If readers need what you’re writing, they’ll scroll but you’re on a short leash.
  2. Graphics are your friend. Visual storytelling is here to stay. “Microcontent” — small, often animated or interactive graphics embedded in articles — helps guide a reader through an article. Or drop in a quick poll or short quiz. Visual tools like subheds, paragraph breaks and bullets all help your reader scroll on.
  3. Stay focused. Some highly-invested readers will churn through a white-paper-length piece but they’re indeed an endangered species. Slice story concepts thin. Help readers get in and out feeling they’ve learned something valuable. An all-inclusive piece on “estate planning”? Sounds like a slog. Try zeroing in on “Estate planning for parents of young children.”
  4. Create collections. Tighter story concepts are key to successful content packages. Plan bundles in which each piece delivers information you know the reader needs and creates opportunities for them to explore related content. If your health insurance client wants to help women prevent heart disease, create a package that includes compelling data visualization of the prevalence of heart disease in women and a listicle outlining warning signs. Grab attention at the top with an emotional 90-second video featuring three women describing their own heart challenges.
  5. And yes, keep them short, stupid. Or as short as you can. It’s true: word count has SEO implications — just not as much as you might think. A targeted keyword strategy, subheds that complement your strategy and outside referrals or links to your post all have much more impact than word count.

You can always test longer pieces. But if you write tight story concepts, use graphics, craft heds and ledes that scream value and ruthlessly slash excess words, you can say a lot in 600 to 700 words. Best of all, your audience just might read every one of them.

Do you agree with our take? Have you tried some of these tactic and seen success? We’d love to hear from you! Drop us a line and let us know what you think.

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