Longform in lockdown: why short content isn’t always best

There’s a great opportunity right now to produce copy that really immerses your users.

As a UX copywriter, I’ve spent many years telling people to never use two words when one will do, since busy people will not read past the first few paragraphs. However, longform content does have its place, particularly while people are stuck at home with little else to do.

In the early days of marketing, the ‘father of advertising’ David Ogilvy, said “on average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” That’s still just as true when it comes to online content. As such, it’s worth spending “80 cents on the dollar” on the headline and certainly not worth writing three-thousand words on a web page.

So, shall we call up Amazon and tell them not to publish any more novels or autobiographies, and tell the Sunday Times to stop the presses? Will no-one ever read anything longer than 100 words any more? Of course they will. Long copy isn’t dead. There’s much more to it than that.

Longform has its place

When your users are trying to find out whether you’re still delivering during lockdown, they don’t want a 2,000 word treatise on your supply chain. They just want “yes, we are still delivering.” However, they will sit down and read a Stephen King novel for fun or enjoy the latest column on home decoration in a newspaper supplement.

This is why there appears to be an SEO black spot on length when it comes to Google ranking.

Generally, the algorithm is clever enough to identify junk content from good content, regardless of the length. However, short, informative content of around 300 words performs well. Between 400 to 800 words however, Google will often judge your content as too long to be concise and too short to be detailed, so it may not rank as high.

Good content over 800 words though, and particularly over 1,000, starts performing better again. Long content definitely has its place.

Lockdown reading

When people were nestled in a stranger’s armpit on public transport, trying to work out how to order something on their mobile without falling into someone else’s lap, short and sweet was ideal.

Now they’re sat on their couches furloughed from work and bored out of their brain, reading a thousand words of creative copy to really figure out if they want a new sourdough breadmaker.

With your staff working from home and your customers isolated in theirs, there’s a great opportunity right now to produce some longform copy to really immerse your users in their journey. Just be sure you’re using it in the right places.

When to use which length of content

How do you know where to use shortform and when to go further? Well, the best option would be to hire a content strategist who can tell you how to do each piece of copy, but failing that, just think about what context your copy will be read in.

When your user knows exactly what they want and that they want it quickly, you want to make the user journey as short as possible. If they’re ordering a top-up of printer ink, they probably don’t want to read a long description of the wonderful properties of your fantastic, dynamic, vibrant ink cartridges.

Likewise, if they’re trying to see how much it costs to get something delivered to the UK, it should only take a few seconds to find the information.

On the other hand, if they’re buying their dream car, they may well want to read an e-booklet about the luxurious, heated leather seats; the purring eco-friendly engine; and the smooth acceleration.

Likewise, if you’re a company CFO, you probably want to read a 5,000 word breakdown of the financial support available to you during the coronavirus lockdown, and all the better if it’s interesting, funny and informative.

The specifics

For landing pages, try to stick to these rules:

  • Keep to the 300 to 350 word mark and make it concise, simple and easy to skim
  • Put the key words at the start of the sentence and in bold so they stick out and direct users to the right place
  • Be sure to use subtitles, drop-downs and illustrative images
  • Keep the copy in a simple, large font, with minimal punctuation
  • Try to keep all the text above the fold and keep paragraphs to two sentences each, wherever possible

On the other hand, where longer content makes sense, spend a bit of budget. Hire a good creative copywriter and let them do some research into the topic. Make the text colloquial, descriptive and pleasant to read. Include tasteful jokes, anecdotes and links to further reading.

Be informative on your chosen topic, but concentrate on the experience of reading the text.

Make sure to use a white background and black text. Space the text out with white space in the margins and between the lines. Feel free to write in long paragraphs and use full punctuation, and try to write about visceral experiences, like the feel of your product and the happiness it can offer.

Hedge your bets

Of course, just because you use different methods for each category, that doesn’t mean you have to pick and choose. Different users may want different types of content, so feel free to A-B test.

There’s no reason you can’t have a short landing page that summarises the information in 300 words, then offer both a ‘book now’ button and a link to ‘more information’ that leads the user out to a brochure page with high-quality images and long, descriptive text.

You may find more users convert from one of the pages than the other, but even if that’s the case, there’s no reason not to keep both.

Of course, if many more users are converting from the longer page, it might be worth putting that page upfront, but you may also find that hurts the conversion. Experiment and see what works, but don’t be afraid to offer users a choice of experiences depending on their needs.

Ultimately, the golden rule of UX is ‘go with what works’. If shortform converts, use it; if longform is best, do that. Keep experimenting until you find the right formula for your product and then experiment some more. Just don’t rule out longer content, as that may be the magic ingredient you’re looking for, especially under the current circumstances.

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