Research proves there is still a place for long form content

long form content

By Mark Schaefer

When I was a student in journalism school, I was taught to give an article “what it’s worth,” meaning that the length of the story should be dictated by the value of the story and the appropriate attention needed to cover it well.

We seem to have lost our way with that advice today as we strive to adjust to an Internet public that seems to have a short attention span. Our news feeds are dominated by listicles, infographics, and curated summaries meant to get us in and out of a story as quickly as possible.

However, new research from Pew indicates that my old journalism school lesson still holds true. In fact, people do spend time with longer-form content, even in the challenging reading space of a smartphone screen.

Pew researchers spent months digging deeply into the details of 117 million anonymized, cellphone interactions with 74,840 articles from 30 websites in September 2015. They concluded that long form content still has a place in a short-attention span world.

The study revealed that while shorter news content is far more prevalent than long-form (and thus draws more total traffic), long form articles are accessed at nearly the same rate. Fully 76 percent of the articles studied were fewer than 1,000 words in length. But, article for article, long form stories attract visitors at nearly the same rate as short-form: 1,530 complete interactions per long-form article and 1,576 per short-form.

Among the key findings:

  • Across every part of the day, readers spend about twice the time with long-form news content on their cellphones as with short-form. Readers spend the most time reading late night and early in the morning.
  • People spend the most time on articles referred by others and the least amount of time on content they find through social media. Long form content readers spend an average of 148 seconds with a news article when arriving there from an internal link. That falls to 132 seconds for those who visit the article directly or follow an email link, 125 when arriving from an external website, 119 from search and 111 from social media. However, social media sites drive the largest share of traffic overall – accounting for roughly 40% of cellphone visitors to both short- and long-form news.
  • Facebook and Twitter readers are different. While Facebook drives more traffic, Twitter tends to bring in people who spend more time with content. For longer content, users that arrive from Facebook spend an average of 107 seconds, compared with 133 seconds when they come from Twitter. The same pattern emerges with shorter content.
  • Just a small fraction of users who access a story return to it later (4 percent). 
  • Both long- and short-form news articles tend to have a very brief life span. Fully 89% of short-form interactions and 83% of long-form interactions take place in the first three days.

There is another aspect to long-form content overlooked by many marketers today. Buzz Sumo, The New York Times and other organizations have determined that longer content gets shared more.


long form content

I think the lesson here to re-think your strategy if you’re only dosing your customers with short-form content. If the content is worth reading, your customers will value and share in-depth articles.

Here is some additional reading on an experiment with (very) long content and its SEO success.


SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and David MIchalczuk

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