Writing for Short Attention Spans

by James Mawson, March 2014

It's like this:

I keep having this same conversation over and over again.

I review a website, and see blog posts and articles with nothing over 400 or even 300 words.

So I point out that their content is kinda thin. The response is always the same:

“Well, people have short attention spans!”

This is frustrating, because 300 word articles are actually a really bad way of holding attention.

300 words is a great length for some things and really far too long for others. But for your feature content?

That's like sitting down for a movie and getting a trailer.

But don't get me wrong

Short Attention Spans are Definitely a Thing

When did you last pen a personal letter? Unless you're a hipster, a kidnapper, or someone's grandmother, you probably fired off an SMS instead.

Writing for the web put you at the pointy end of this.

Work the phones or go door-to-door and at least a few will listen out of politeness.

When you write for the web, nobody owes you jack. The most considerate conversationalist won't feel at all bad about closing a tab.

And why not? There's literally the entire rest of the internet to look at.


What We Can See Working

Enough chit chat, let's look at what performs.

You could do worse than start with Cracked.com. I realise it's not everyone's favourite website. But it's consistently one of the most visited websites in the world.

It performs particularly well on Facebook: in the heartland of the cat videos and selfies, it gets a lot of clicks.

These articles typically clock in at about 2,500 words.

No, not 250. It's not a typo. Two thousand five hundred.

If writing 500 words is long for you, this will seem gargantuan. But out there in the real world, this length still sits well within the realm of bite sized entertainment for the idle bored.

One reason I like this example is that you can hardly say these articles are running long because I cherry picked an intellectual, highbrow publication. I mean, sure, some of them are good writers. But it's hardly Salman Rushdie remembering Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. These are tabloid funnies for a wide demographic.

Still, it's just one website.

What's the big picture?

Average Shares by Content Length Source: OkDork.com

Here, we see longer content crushing it on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.

And search?

The average length of a page 1 Google result is 0 words.

Source: Backlinko.com

That's in line with what other studies report.

Does this mean that if you just type more, you'll get more search hits? No. It's not that easy.

What we're seeing is that Google loves content with enough substance, depth and detail to offer real value. That's what it takes to get the right backlinks, user engagement metrics, and on-page factors to reach page 1.


How Long is 1000 Words, Really?

Writing 1000 words can feel endless. Especially when you're new to blogging and every word is a struggle.

But the average adult reading speed is 300 words per minute.

So 1000 words is done faster than most radio pop songs.

The 2,000+ word articles dominating search and social traffic only succeed because they are still a short read.


Why Does Anyone Click on Feature Content?

Different clicks carry different expectations.

Nobody browsing socks online expects a 2000 word product description.

But when they click on articles, it's because they want to spend a little time with the topic. Not all day, but at least a few minutes.

Do This:

Be Useful

Check this out: 24 Quick Actions You Can Do Today That Can Change Your Financial Life Forever from the Man vs Debt blog.

Notice how detailed each of these points are. Typically, this kind of list post is just a few quick comments on each point.

But the Man vs Debt post gives a full set of step-by-step instructions, with links to further resources. It makes the post much more useful.

So how has it performed? A quick look at ahrefs shows that it's gotten hundreds of backlinks (screenshot below) and been featured in hugely popular websites like Lifehacker.

Man vs Debt Backlinks

How many links from high quality websites did your last 300 word blog post get?

Now check out this Woks of Life recipe. Here we see the same thing in reverse: instead of adding useful instructions to their comments, they add useful comments to their instructions.

This recipe starts with an extremely readable introduction. It gives background for the dish and explains the cooking techniques and ingredients. Without these, you could still cook it.

The thing is, when you are browsing recipes online, you are often still deciding what to cook. A recipe on its own is not all that helpful here. When you have rich descriptions and lush photos, it's a lot easier to anticipate what the dish will be.

It also makes the content much more memorable. The exact same recipe without the explanation would taste just as good, but you'd never remember the website.

I keep coming back to Woks of Life. It helps that these are recipes for a really great feed. But it's the descriptions that make this content extra useful.

The more useful detail you can add, the more your readers will value of your content. It becomes more memorable, more widely linked and shared. Readers pay more attention.

What it's all about

Write for Buyers

Who is most motivated to spend a little longer on your website? Often enough, it's someone genuinely contemplating a purchase.

Those who tune out quickest, generally weren't serious about buying anything in the first place. There's not a lot of money to be made in trying to keep them happy.

You can see this in your analytics. Notice how much longer people who send you a customer enquiry are spending on your website.

You tend to see this most when you sell something expensive.

When there's a few bucks involved, the guy who won't spend a few minutes researching the decision was never going to buy anyway.

And the serious customers quite resent being put in a jiu-jitsu choke and marched straight to the cash register.

Customers can agonise over cheap stuff too - when they care greatly about what's at stake. To see what I mean, try asking guitarists what picks they like. Or lurk on a home brewing forum to see how much thought goes into a few dollars of hops.


It's About Connection

It's about rapport, trust and authority.

These are built with time and credibility.

So show you know your stuff.

But For God's Sake

Don't Ramble

Don't find a longer way to say the same thing.

Drown useless words. Be ruthless.

To not edit tightly is lazy. Lazy writing is the opposite of what I'm arguing for.

A good length is not born of using too many words to say things. It comes from being packed tight with substance.

The Perfect Number

What's The Ideal Word Count Then?

I know this is the obvious question. But it still makes me flinch.

Because it sounds too similar to “What's the bare minimum of work I can get away with?”. That's the wrong mindset.

And I think the real reason behind so many of these 400 word blog posts was to post something just for the sake of an update. That's also the wrong mindset.

Ask yourself “What's the most useful amount of substance, depth and detail I can give?” and the length will take care of itself.

Now Be Honest

Is The Short Attention Span Yours?

There's a huge drawback to creating long form content that gets results: it's a lot more work. And perhaps you need some help with it.

In the short run, thin content might feel easier. But it goes nowhere. It's a losing position.

So make your work count. This might mean you can't publish as often. That's okay.

Because when you get your feature content right, it can be promoted over and over again.

It can win traffic and customers for the life of your business.

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