Is your content marketing strategy backed by solid data?
If you’ve been following content marketing for a while, you’ll know that the rules change a lot.
What’s considered ‘best practice’ one week might be rejected as a bad idea a few days later.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time, companies choose to follow standard industry wisdom, rather than take the time to produce a data-backed strategy that relies on research into audience trends.
The thing is, default wisdom isn’t always right.
Different approaches work for different companies and brands, and not all audiences like being treated the same. Often something will become common practice simply because it makes sense in theory, without any solid research backing it up.
This is often true in the approach companies take to marketing themselves through their blog. Marketers will follow standard practice, then wonder why they’re not seeing the results they’d hoped for.
To make things less complicated and confused, I’ve elected to take the data-driven approach to finding what works best for content marketing.
Through my own original survey results, I’ve gained insights into how more than 170 participants approach blog reading, giving a rare, clear picture into what audiences want from a blog. I’ve cross-referenced this with examples from case studies of projects that I’ve worked on with various companies, and I’ve come to some interesting findings.
In a lot of cases, common wisdom surrounding blogging isn’t necessarily the best practice.
Often, marketers will underestimate their audience, costing themselves a lot of potential readers.
As part of my survey, I’ve broken down a variety of pieces of standard marketing logic, and tested how well they hold up in practical settings.
- What length content should be to avoid putting off readers.
- How likely readers are to return to articles they’re too busy to read.
- How often readers share articles on social media and through email.
- How much brand loyalty a reader feels after spending time on a company’s blog.
Here’s what I found…
The Default Wisdom: Length Content Puts off Readers
People don’t like to read.
That’s the standard belief, anyway. There’s plenty to back this up:
- Top experts argue that people don’t tend to read internet content – instead, we skim it to find the valuable information.
- A Nielsen study from 1997 found that only 16% of internet users read every word on a page, the rest of us quickly scan to find the most important words and ideas.
- This finding was confirmed by a second study in 2008, which found that internet users will only read around 20% of the content on a single page.
There are other indicators that text posts aren’t the most useful way to get an idea across to people.
This is a shame in many ways for content creators, as there are all kinds of benefits to longer text-based content.
More text (and more links within the text) has a big impact on search engine ranking, making your content more appealing to Google because it contains more relevant material.
But just because an idea is popular, it doesn’t mean that it’s accurate.
Do people actually prefer shorter text content? Is there a real danger to overloading website visitors with large text articles?
The Survey Question: Skipping Content
As part of my survey, I asked participants how likely they are to give up on reading an article based on its length.
The results were pretty interesting. In response to the statement “I am likely to skip reading a website article if it is too long”:
- 37.5% of participants disagreed, indicating that they were happy to read a longer article.
- 35.1% of participants agreed – a long post would put them off.
- 27.5% were unsure, responding differently based on the circumstance and the article in question.
With only a third of participants claiming to actively be put off by long content, it seems that the majority of users don’t find long text articles to be a problem.
That said, these results can’t necessarily be taken at face value.
Even if participants aren’t deliberately lying, they may be misremembering their own reading history, forgetting about times when they behave differently to their answer.
Also, readers’ actual behaviors are likely to vary depending on the subject of the content and how engaging the text itself is – not all articles will be received in the same way.
As individuals aren’t always in the best position to answer the question of how often they’re put off by long text posts, we’ll need to look at alternative sources of data to see what the optimum post length is.
Thankfully, through a variety of case studies and research projects with various clients, Louder.Online has a lot of existing data on what internet users are looking for from text content.
Case Study #1
Over the course of several case studies with existing clients, I’ve identified a trend: longer content doesn’t struggle to gain an audience. If anything, longer posts get more attention.
Let’s have a look at an example:
As part of a content review for this brand, I identified an enormous spike in average sessions just over the 2000 word mark.
It’s important to note the blue bars on this graph:
- The majority of articles on the site fell between 751 words and 1500 words – these are pretty standard lengths for articles, and only a few occasional posts exceeded these word counts.
- It’s even more impressive, then, that there was such a spike in the number of visitors each piece of content that achieved 2000 words was getting.
- Longer pieces of content make up a small percentage of the total posts on the site, but contribute to a lot of the site’s traffic.
Even longer content (over 2500 words) sees the best benefit to Facebook actions and LinkedIn shares by a large margin.
More in-depth, detailed content provides solid, compelling reading, which increases the likelihood that someone will want to share it online.
The number of Facebook shares here begins taking off at around 1250 words, with some blips where there are fewer articles of a particular length.
So longer posts, rather than putting people off, actually increase the likelihood that someone will read a piece, and share it on social media.
With more social shares comes more readers, meaning that content manages to travel even further.
Case Study #2
This isn’t just limited to a single content topic – additional studies have found similar results.
Here are the results of another Louder.Online case study.
Note that this time, the website in questions doesn’t have any pieces which are over 1750 words, which is why the graph drops off by that point.
Before the drop off, however, it’s clear that longer posts see a much higher level of engagement on LinkedIn when compared to shorter posts.
Facebook actions are tied pretty closely to the number of posts of each length, but it would be interesting to see how this graph would be different if there was data for longer articles available.
In terms of people engaging directly with each post, the number of comments a piece receives grows phenomenally at around the 1000 word mark.
Here we can see that longer posts help draw users in, making them more likely to want to engage with a particular topic in a way that shorter posts just can’t manage.
While this study doesn’t show the effects of posts longer than around 1500 words, we can definitely see that even a small increase in word length while on the lower end of the spectrum makes a big difference to content engagement.
Finally, let’s have a look at a case study from a company that features far longer articles on a regular basis.
Case Study #3
The two studies we’ve looked at so far have only featured long content (over 2000 words) occasionally, and there’s no data in either of them for what happens when an article hits 3000 or more words.
In working with another client, I’ve found that the benefits of longer content actually peak far later than you’d expect:
Here we can see:
- An initial rise in the number of comments an article is attracting at around 2000 words, which matches up well with what we’ve seen in previous studies for content of around the same length.
- This rise is absolutely tiny compared with the rise that’s experienced when articles go over 3000 words. As the word count goes up, the number of comments rises too.
- This graph peaks at around 4000, although 5000+ words is still bringing in a lot of comments.
The fact that this graph measures comments is particularly interesting.
Site visitors are taking the time to read a longform article and then are so interested in the material that they choose to leave a comment.
This suggests that a large proportion of readers engage more with longer content, rather than being put off by too many words.
The number of social shares also rises based on the length of the content, particularly on Facebook:
For this particular company, Facebook posts far outstrip all other forms of shares, so Twitter and LinkedIn are fairly small lines.
- A significant upward trend can still be seen as longer articles draw more shares.
- Facebook shares have a very pronounced peak at around 4000 words – this seems to be the perfect point for longform articles to gain widespread popularity.
It’s likely the case that, with serious topics that require a lot of research, longer articles back up a point more, and do a better job of convincing readers of the message contained within.
While some users may be turned away by longer text articles, this is more than made up for as the users who are interested in the subject matter engage with it in a meaningful way, drawing in far more users.
It’s important to note that there are other factors at play in these studies.
Not all content that is being published is on the same topic, or has the same approach.
Different audiences will have different needs, and will prefer a specific length of content.
It’s also important to remember that while long form content might bring in more social media attention, it’s not suitable for all subject matters.
While some articles will end up being long and in-depth, other topics simply won’t need that much content, and it can be difficult – even unnatural – to stretch out a topic that far.
Longform content is a lot more time consuming to produce, and producing a lot of longer articles can end up slowing down content production unnecessarily.
That said, there are benefits to long content that go beyond statistics relating to reader engagement.
Longer, more in-depth content with plenty of well-researched points is excellent for helping a website to develop greater brand authority.
The SEO benefit to long content, filled with organic keywords and helpful links, also often means that longer articles draw in big traffic in addition to any social shares a piece may receive.
Longer content will naturally filter an audience. If anyone is easily bored by the content they’re reading, the readers that remain will be people who truly care about the subject matter. These people are far more likely to become long-term customers.
While 30% of those surveyed may consider themselves likely to skip long content, the benefits to producing longer materials definitely outweigh the loss of some disinterested parties.
It turns out that default wisdom is wrong: longform content isn’t going to scare away a significant portion of readers.
But that also doesn’t mean that every piece of content you produce should be over 4000 words long.
Lengthy content isn’t always useful – it depends on the subject matter and the relevance of the content.
As a benchmark, I recommend that content marketers aim for a ‘sweet spot’ of around 1500 words for the majority of their content.
Beyond this, longer pieces of content should be produced periodically which cover particularly niche but relevant subjects in depth.
It’s also important to remember that the findings of the Nielsen studies above are still true. Readers are going to skim your content rather than read it in full.
This means that, especially when creating longer content, you should space out your writing to make it as quick and easy to read as possible.
This way, longer content can also be engaging to readers, increasing that chances that they’ll read through it in its entirety and go on to share it with friends.
Default Wisdom: Busy Readers Ignore Content
You’ve got one chance to grab your audience.
If an internet user comes across your content and chooses not to read it immediately, they’ll never visit your site again and you’ll have to start reaching out to them all over again.
For that reason, your content should be as open and accessible as possible.
The Survey Question: Saving Content for Later
For my survey, I wanted to find out if it was really true that we have one shot at connecting with new readers? Do people actually “leave and never come back,” or is it possible they save content for later?
Internet browsers have features like reading lists and ‘save for later’ features, but how often do internet users see a piece of content and, rather than reading it immediately, hold onto it for later?
According to my survey, it’s actually more often than you’d think.
According to the survey:
- 45.3% of all participants say that they’re likely so save interesting articles for later if they’re too busy in the moment.
- A further 25.5% are unsure, meaning they might do so depending on the content.
- Only 29.2% say that they definitely won’t save content for later under any circumstances.
That sounds pretty promising – if a person finds an article that’s too long to read immediately, there’s a high chance they’ll save it for later as long as it’s interesting enough.
This can’t be taken at face value, though. It all depends on how interesting a piece of content is, and how eager the person is to read it.
Again, what people say in surveys and what they do in real life might not necessarily be the same.
To get a better understanding of behavior, we need to look at more results from one of my previous case studies.
Case Study #1
In my study for the first case study on my list, I identified an interesting trend among pieces of content: the optimal length of time a piece should take to read for maximum traffic.
As the graph above shows, there are definite benefits to longer content that takes a long time to read (e.g. content which takes over 661 seconds receives a lot of sessions).
At the same time, though, there’s a peak of sessions around a far shorter article length. Content which takes between 91 and 121 seconds to read enjoys far more traffic.
Interestingly, this trend is a little different for social media sharing.
On Facebook in particular, articles that take between 241 and 271 seconds to read receive the most shares and other actions.
Again, this supports the idea that longer content is preferable because a more in-depth approach provides more solid content, which helps users to want to share it more widely.
As before, it’s important to bear in mind what types of content are being created.
Content pieces that take a long time to read but that don’t hit on a topic that the reader cares about are more likely to be skipped.
Good quality, interesting content, however, can be longer without damaging the reader’s interest.
In cases where a piece takes a long time to read, site visitors aren’t necessarily going to be put off:
In fact, they often prefer finding the time to read long content at a moment that’s convenient, over absorbing content quickly before rushing off to do something else.
It’s likely that if a piece of content is engaging enough, readers will find time for it regardless of its length.
If anything, a long article which takes a while to read will enjoy greater interest from audiences, rather than a quicker article that doesn’t touch on a subject in any meaningful way.
When it comes to grabbing users’ attention quickly and making sure they actually read your article, it’s important not to skimp on how in-depth your research goes and how much focus you put on your subject matter.
I’d advise that you aim for content which takes between 2-3 minutes to consume for most pieces.
This should be supplemented with longer pieces where possible, as these will get the most attention on social media.
Also, in order to make sure that people actually do come back to your article if they’re initially too busy to read it, it’s important that you make your text as appealing as possible.
Write with authority, and tackle a subject that will be genuinely interesting to your target audience.
In particular, your opening needs to be engaging and summarize the interesting parts of your research so that people will come back later.
While some readers might not necessarily come back to you later, the ones who do will be the best possible candidates to convert into leads and, hopefully, future customers.
Through creating well-written, high quality content, you can help to draw in audiences no matter how busy they might be.
Default Wisdom: Good Content Will Be Shared Regularly
It’s the expectation of every online marketer that good content will travel independently of itself.
A site user who reads an excellent piece of content will post it on social media for those who agree with it to see.
Those who really enjoy a piece of content might even email it to a friend, creating a far more direct, deliberate invitation to view your site that’s harder to ignore.
But do all web users engage with content by sharing it? What proportion of your audience are likely to do so, and how can you encourage this behavior?
My survey found some interesting results.
The Survey Questions: Sharing Content with Others
According to participants of my survey, sharing definitely does happen.
Not as much as you might hope, though.
According to the majority of those surveyed, if an article is worth sharing on social media, they’ll do so. That said, not everyone is liberal with the ‘share’ button.
- 35.5% of those surveyed hadn’t shared an article in the past thirty days.
- This doesn’t mean that they would never share an article, but it does suggest that they’re very picky about how often they’ll post an article on their wall.
So what about more personal forms of sharing? What proportion of users share articles directly via email?
It’s actually even less.
- Only half of all those who participated in the survey said that they’d sent an email to someone encouraging them to check out an article in the past thirty days.
- Again, this doesn’t mean that they never do so, but it means that they’re very sparing with their emails.
It’s difficult, from these results, to determine even how often those who answer positively share articles with others.
Thirty days is a long time, so if someone clicked ‘share’ once in that period, it doesn’t mean that they’re sharing every single article they come across.
There’s no denying that social media and email shares are incredibly valuable to any content marketing campaign – it’s these shares which really help content to travel.
So what can content marketers do to ensure that they’re getting the most possible shares?
Case Study #3
In my third case study, you’ll find some interesting insight into how social media sharing is affected by external factors: specifically, what day of the week content is initially posted.
There’s a lot to take away from this graph.
This particular client did a lot of posting on Tuesday compared to other days of the week, but this wasn’t actually helping them very much.
In this case, Thursday was the best day to post for LinkedIn and Twitter sharing.
The standout hit on this graph, though, is Facebook action on Monday.
Relative to the number of articles that were posted on Mondays, this client experienced a phenomenal amount of Facebook activity.
While not every reader is likely to share every article you publish, you definitely can improve your shareability based on the times you post online.
But what’s going on here? What lessons can be learned from this case study which you can apply to all aspects of your content marketing?
So what makes Thursday and Monday so good for posting (at least, in this instance)?
Firstly, there’s something to be said for people’s attitudes towards work and social media throughout the week:
There is an advantage to catching the crowd of readers on Thursday who are perhaps getting tired with their work week and are more likely to be on social media to pass the time.
This day has been proven by various other external studies to be best for posting online.
This might also partially be the case on Monday – people could be more click-happy on a day that they don’t want to be working.
That said, there’s likely also something else going on:
According to Social Baker, while the majority of social media marketers recommend posting midweek, Monday content actually gets a big boost of interest because the day is otherwise so empty.
Less content means that every social share has extra weight on a Monday, which makes it easier to get your content to travel further.
While there aren’t any solid numbers to compare this with email sharing, it’s likely that the numbers are similar:
- Midweek shares will perform best as people look for distractions.
- Monday shares will be more likely to be clicked as there’s less interesting content for the user to engage with.
So while sharing online might not always be as common as you’d like it to be, you can time your posts to make sure you get the best possible use from every social share you receive.
You should definitely be relying on social media and email sharing to help your content to travel further.
That said, you won’t always be in a position to make it happen – only a small number of your readers will be inspired enough to share your content.
Part of this reticence can be offset by posting content on the right days of the week, either to catch people as they start work on Monday, or to appeal to their desire to procrastinate mid-week.
There are also some other techniques that you can employ to help make the most of shares.
Make sharing easy – arrange your site so that your social sharing buttons are clearly visible and your users don’t have to work hard to share them.
Build your content around topics that are popular or controversial within your community: if you’ve got a unique angle on a particular subject, it’ll be more likely to resonate with someone.
Again, to a certain extent this comes down to the quality of your work.
Good content will find an audience, regardless of posting days or ease of sharing.
Focus on making high quality work that entertains, engages, and educates your audience, and you’ll end up being one of the lucky few that sees their content getting shared around social media and email.
Building Brand Loyalty
Default Wisdom: Reading a Blog Increases Trust in a Company
Any content marketer will tell you that a blog is a great way to build customer confidence in your brand:
- You help customers to believe more fully in your company.
- You get a chance to show off your products and explain the benefits that they bring to users’ lives.
- You can feature case studies and customer testimonials to help readers see the benefit of your products.
- You can open up about the inner workings of your company to help your brand feel more friendly and personal, instead of coming across as a cold and detached entity.
Of course, that’s what marketers think. But has anybody asked the readers their opinions?
How can we be sure that blogging builds brand loyalty?
The Survey Question: Reading a Blog
Because it’s not always easy to tell how much a blog increases brand loyalty (it’s a frustratingly abstract idea that can’t be tied to a single metric), I asked survey participants for their thoughts.
According to this survey question, there’s definitely not much support for the idea that blogs draw readers closer to a particular brand.
- Only 17.2% of participants agreed with the idea that blogs are good for building brand loyalty
- Meanwhile, a staggering 57.2% of participants said that they don’t feel closer to a company after reading their blog.
So apparently, blogs aren’t as good at helping readers to develop loyalty as marketers like to believe.
According to the survey results, only a small percentage of readers will feel genuinely closer to a brand after reading their website.
Except – and you probably won’t be surprised to hear me say this – these results can’t be taken completely at face value.
Case Study #1
Unlike the other questions on this list, there’s no specific metric that we can measure to determine how much brand loyalty a blog generates.
Even asking questions in a survey setting won’t give completely reliable answers, as people may often hold subconscious opinions that they’re not aware of.
This is one of the challenges with trusting a survey – while people say they don’t develop greater brand loyalty, they might subconsciously develop a stronger attachment to a brand by engaging with blog content.
While it’s not possible to measure loyalty or sentiment, there are some measurements we can use to gain a better understanding of how content is received.
While working on my research project with the first case study on my list, I analyzed the sentiment of each post using automated tools to compare how positive a piece was with how much social media interaction it received.
This is a useful metric because it shows the degree to which readers buy into what they’re reading, and whether they develop the trust in the company to share what they’re saying as fact.
According to the results, the majority of the content that the company had produced as part of its marketing efforts were very positive, praising the company and its achievements.
Interestingly, the content which received the most shares, particularly on social media, was the less positive content.
This suggests that readers weren’t often invested in overly positive marketing messages that were clearly advertisements – they preferred articles that were more fair and unbiased.
This speaks volumes about how people interacted with the brand – they might be willing to read the brand’s blog, but they know when they’re being sent advertising messages, blatant or not.
The most useful content pieces are the articles that give balanced reviews of topics, and which aren’t overtly preachy or obvious in their efforts to encourage sales.
At the same time, though, I also analyzed how readers responded to the tone of articles.
I found that the more relaxed and personal the tone of an article, the less traffic it received.
For this particular brand, readers knew what they were looking for – they wanted professional messages with a focused tone that weren’t too personal and friendly.
If an article was more friendly, it was rejected as an off-brand message.
This suggests a lot about how this particular company’s audience react to its blog: They want fair, balanced pieces of content that aren’t too positive in their approach.
They also don’t want the brand to be overly affectionate and improper – brand boundaries need to be maintained.
So what does all this have to do with loyalty to a company’s blog?
Customers know what they’re looking for from the blogs they read, and they will reject any deliberate, obvious efforts to increase loyalty.
Anything too positive or too obvious in its attempts to be pally or overly friendly will be rejected as well.
It’s clear from this why, in response to the survey, participants were unwilling to admit that a blog might change their opinion of a brand.
In order to help people see a brand in a different way, marketers need to be careful.
They have to be honest so that readers don’t think the blog is sugarcoating events.
They also need to respect that an audience is going to be skeptical and cynical.
Of course, it’s important to remember that just because users think a blog isn’t changing their opinions, it doesn’t mean that they’re not being subtly affected by it.
If anything, the fact that audiences consider themselves so wary works out well for marketers.
If a customer doesn’t notice that a blog is changing their opinions, they’ll be more open to having their perception altered because they’re not second guessing everything the blog has to say.
While participants in my survey might think that they’re not influenced by blogs, if a blog post has the right tone and isn’t too obvious in its marketing efforts, it may have more of an impact than the reader expects.
Trust your blog to help increase brand loyalty – but don’t get complacent.
Your posts should meet the tone that readers expect of your brand, continuing what they see in other areas of your marketing efforts.
Your posts shouldn’t be too obvious in their promotion of your products and services.
It’s better to be balanced in your approach and not overly positive.
Taking a more measured approach to blogging will make a big difference.
Even-handed posts will win favor with industry experts, increasing the blog’s perceived authority.
Further, the blog won’t be seen as simply a marketing exercise, and readers will develop more trust with your brand.
Getting the right approach to your blog may take some work, but in this case, the conventional wisdom is at least partially true.
If your blog is well written and balanced, it can definitely help to build up reader loyalty and trust.
Established, common sense ideas about what works best in content marketing aren’t always accurate.
There are plenty of ideas which, while popular, don’t necessarily prove true when examining evidence from actual content marketing campaigns.
If you take away anything from this, bear in mind:
- Longform content that takes a while to read is actually, consistently proven to be better at drawing in audiences and encouraging social sharing.
- Aim for content that’s around 1500 words at minimum, with occasional pieces that are significantly longer than that.
- Not as many people will share content on social media and through email as you might like, so make every piece as shareable as possible to help your chances of seeing it succeed.
- A balanced tone and approach to content will help your blog develop the strongest possible authority and brand loyalty.
Above all, though, remember this important piece of advice: don’t trust a single way of doing things just because it’s popular or because it’s worked for another brand.
Test every possible variation of approaches to your content marketing strategy to find out what works best for your company and its customers.
As you do this, you’ll find what brings your content marketing campaign the greatest possible success.
What has your experience been with creating online content? What conventional wisdom have you found to be true, or false? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.