Even for seasoned writers, the task of creating long-form content that ranks and achieves business goals can seem daunting. We created MarketMuse to ease the pain points of content marketers, so we’ve learned a thing or two about how to simplify the process without sacrificing quality.
In our long-form content guide, we’ll walk you through:
- Information about long-form content, including what it is, why it’s used, and how it differs from other forms of content
- How to plan your long-form content, including focus topic, scope, and aims of the piece
- How to do research for long-form content
- How to write long-form pieces to meet your content marketing goals
- Tips and tricks for increasing the traffic to and from your content
What is Long-form Content and Why is it Necessary?
Before starting, let’s quickly tackle what long-form content is and what it isn’t. Long-form content is content that offers a lot of information and/or great depth of information on a given topic. Minimum length should range anywhere between 700 and 2,000 words. The upper limit is variable depending on several factors, including focus topic, scope, intended aims, and audience.
Long-form content requires critical thinking. It is intended to be read (as opposed to skimmed). It is well-researched and contextual. It is not an article that jams as many keywords into a single page as possible. Long-form content must have substance and purpose in order to rank highly and be deemed useful by readers. Sometimes long-form content is gated, meaning that the audience must submit personal information before being able to access it. Forms include articles, white papers, downloadable e-books, guides, or reports, to name a few.
Long-form vs. Short-form Content
Whereas long-form content is a meal, short-form content has been referred to as “snackable content.” It is often between 400 and 600 words, utilizing relevant key terms , buzzwords, and imagery to get its point across. It requires little critical thinking and can be easily skimmed. Forms include listicles, blog posts, or infographics, to name a few.
The goal of producing any kind of content (long- or short-form) is two-fold: Not only should you strive to provide value to your target audience, but you should aim to boost metrics that support your organization’s business goals. For example, if you want greater engagement on social media, you might write content that includes many standalone infographics that have share buttons embedded next to them.
So, which type of content should you use, and when? Well, consider your business goals. On average, long-form content outperforms short-form content in the following areas:
• Improve search engine results and conversion rates
A study shows that on average, the top 10 results of a search were greater than 2,000 words. So, content length - specifically, long-form content - is an attribute of a page that will rank highly. Additionally, a 2012 data analysis shows that there’s a correlation between a piece of content’s length and the number of backlinks it receives.
Why is that? Search engines are focused on context. Long-form content is simply able to create a greater context for the focus topic by a) going into greater depth about the topic and, b) connecting it to a greater number of related topics, showcasing the connection between them. Further, search engines value content that is broad or deep, rather than short or concentrated. In fact, Google’s algorithm will not only not rank thin content, but penalize it. Read about the kind of content not to write here.
Also, evidence is piling up that organizations that publish longer-form content see an increase in conversion rates. Here are some examples: Crazy Egg, Highrise Marketing.
• Social Media Engagement
Long-form content improves organic reach and a better ranking in the SM algorithms, as well as more shares.
Social media delivers long-form content directly to an audience that is already following you. These platforms naturally make engagement easier, because users are already logged in, making likes, shares, and comments more likely. In contrast, blogs and some websites require users to create an account before engaging. Further, social media offers engagement statistics.
• Utility and Lifespan
Long-form content is great no matter when you publish it. Lifespan is good. That’s because good, quality information is useful (assuming it’s not out-of-date) when the person is looking for it regardless of how long ago it was published. The average lifespan of a Tweet, for example, has been estimated at 18 minutes, and is obsolete within 24 hours.
However, you should also consider your audience. There’s some evidence signaling that long-form content can decrease conversion rates in some audience segments that feel the extra information clashes with their prior understanding of the product or service, making them less likely to trial it. Further, long-form content is time-consuming to produce, whereas short-form content can be generated quickly. In truth, a mix of these forms of content is best for your content marketing strategy.
Planning Long-Form Content: Topic, Audience, and Aims
Writing great content that ranks requires planning. You need to define your topic, state your aims, and identify your audience. These are the ballasts of your piece; they support the research you will do, the scope, the tone, the depth, and the measure by which you can judge the piece’s success. It’s okay not to know all three of these items (or any) at the outset. Choosing one guides the other two.
Goals and Audience
As mentioned previously, there are two goals with any content piece: to provide value to the audience, and to meet business goals.
To provide value to your audience, consider how you can establish yourself as an expert, provide engaging or helpful information, and answer their questions. This will tie into the focus topic you choose.
Secondly, consider your business objectives. Try not to bite off more than you can chew with this second category. It’s likely not possible to write a piece that meets every single marketing objective, so choose a few that align best with your chosen topic and audience. Later, you’ll use the business goals to decide where to publish your content, the form it will take, whether it will be gated, exactly how long it should be, and the kinds of supporting graphics, images, videos, or link you’ll include.
You're also going to need a good grasp on who you're addressing with your content. You’re not writing just for the sake of writing. You’re writing to reach a specific audience. Who is that audience? Knowing your audience will inform the questions to be answered, the tone and style, the depth, and the piece’s value.
As an example, let’s take a look at the audience that we defined when writing this piece:
Our audience is someone who needs to create long-form content but…
- doesn’t know how to structure it
- is intimidated by the writing process
- is short on time and needs a quick way to put together effective content
Or, our audience could be someone who has written long-form content but...
- needs improve it
- it isn’t meeting the stated business goals
- they’re looking for explanatory resources to help new employees
- they’re looking for tips to boost their content marketing performance even further
From this, we can conclude that our tone should be straightforward, because people are reading to learn, rather than to be entertained or find quick information. The structure of my piece should likely be step-by-step, so that someone can easily follow along with their own writing, or they can pick up at the place where they need the most help.
Focus Topic & Treatment
The focus topic tells in a word or phrase what the piece is about. How do you choose a focus topic? Well, consider your organization’s industry, niche, and personality. What topics relate to your organization, either directly or tangentially? For example, if you’re a furniture-maker, you could write about:
- trees (connects back to the type of wood used to make your furniture),
- the history of furniture and time periods as they relate to furniture (showcases the styles you sell and how the features of each display a time period or style),
- the process of making furniture (craftsmanship, can point to that in your own furniture),
- the clients (who uses this furniture, things to consider when purchasing furniture, the types of furniture that complement large houses, small apartments, modern/retro looks,
- the types of people who will be using it (kids, adults, families, pets),
- where you live (city vs. country), etc. etc. etc. etc.
Ensure that you can clearly state the reason that the focus topic relates to your organization.
Further, make sure that your focus topic is broad enough to allow you to reach your target word count, but not so broad that you would have to write a novel to cover it comprehensively. You can always refine the focus topic as you research.
With regard to treatment, you should decide how you’re going to present information about the focus topic. For example, here we’re not delving into a complicated history of SEO relating to content length, or giving examples of good or bad long-form content, we just want to teach people the best process for writing it.
Researching Your Focus Topic
Once you have defined the audience, aims, and focus topic, it’s time to start researching. We start by tapping into our audience’s point of view. What questions would they need answered by this piece? For this piece, we asked:
What is long-form content? What are some examples of long-form content?
How long should long-form content be? Is there such a thing as long-form content that’s too long?
Why is it necessary? Who should create it and use it?
- For marketing
- For reputation
- For SEO
How do you structure long-form content?
- Depending on the topic
- What questions are you trying to answer?
- Who is your audience?
What is the process of building long-form content?
- How to choose the topic
- What are some tips for structuring long-form content?
Connecting it to the value provided on your site.
That’s a good start. To ensure that we’re not missing anything, we turn to the MarketMuse platform. Again, we’ll use this post as an example. We type in “long-form content” to MarketMuse’s Content Analyzer. Scrolling down to the top-ranking sites for this focus topic, we see that the best score to beat is 40, at a length of 2,332 words:
A few other sites have approximately that word count; one even has double. So, we know that our piece will have to at least match that word count. We’ll aim for 2,400-2,700 words. Further, we will have to treat the topic as comprehensively as possible if we’re to beat that score of 40. To figure out what subtopics will help improve comprehensiveness, scroll up to the related topics:
So, our piece will have to, at the very least, include these keywords. Ideally, we would use these terms and related long-tail keywords to guide the research. Let’s take “short-form content,” for example. In a first draft of this piece, (but not the draft that you’re reading), we lightly explained short-form content. We know now that we’ll have to expand on that section a bit, perhaps even include an infographic. We add to my research list:
What’s the difference between long-form and short-form content? When should you use long-form vs. short-form content?
Then, we start researching. We slowly work through the list of questions, answering what we can, researching answers to the questions we don’t know, and adding more questions to the list as we go.
Writing Long-Form Content
Once you’ve addressed all the questions on your list, you can start to write. If you’ve done your work correctly, you’ll have most of your content written because you’ve answered questions that can be adapted into paragraphs. Read through the research to determine the best way to organize your content, and then start copying and pasting it into sections so that a logical narrative is created. (In this case, “First, define what it is. Then, explain why it’s valuable. Then explain how to research it. Then explain how to write it…”)
Once a first draft is written, the immediate next question is, “How did I do?” To answer this, plug your content back into the MarketMuse platform. It’s not published yet, of course, so we copied and pasted it into the Content Analyzer without an accompanying URL. On the first go, we received a score of 22, and our word count was at 1,950. Hmm. We could do better.
Scanning my list of related topics, we realize that there’s room to better address the relationship between long-form content and both SEO and social media. We do more research, and flesh out these sections.
Running it again, we end up with 2,436 words and a score of 25. Not bad. We’re definitely in the top 10. We update and optimize our blog posts regularly, as all good content marketers should. Hitting page one doesn't happen in a day, so be sure to always revisit your content to see how you can improve it, using some of the steps we've outlined.
Additionally, make sure you're taking the following points into account when posting your long-form content:
A Few Tips
- Add images! Data shows that content with images receives more links than content without images.
- Ask for feedback. If your clients are looking for information, ask them whether the post answers all their questions. Not only will this increase engagement, but you’ll get better market data about what your audience is looking for directly from the horses’ mouth.
- Make sure to include a few inbound and outbound links. Inbound links should direct the audience to related posts and other long-form content. For example, I will definitely link this article to some of the other blog posts we’ve published that give information on keywords. Outbound links should go to related, but not competitive, content. In this case, I’ll add a few links about SEO algorithms, and possibly about creating infographics.
- If you get writer’s block (happens to us all!), here’s a secret: talk out loud. Answer the questions to yourself freely and then write down what you’ve just said. From there, you have a base with which to work.
Sometimes, the hardest part is determining what to write. MarketMuse's content outlines give you data-based recommendations on which topics to cover and what you need to include in each post to rank for keywords related to your focus topic. Using this strategy, we helped Neil Patel double his traffic and rankings. You can get all the details by reading our case study: