Top bloggers confess: size matters!

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This article is the third installment in my top-blogger’s roundtable series. Here, I’ve asked a celebrity panel the following question:

Does post length affect readership growth and, if so, how?

And, this is the pure-gold they revealed…

Darren Rowse | ProBlogger.net – I would argue that it can impact readership growth – but that it can be a little unpredictable in how it impacts different blogs.

Depending upon the topic being covered, the voice of the blogger, the demographic of reader and other factors long posts can either be a turn on or a turn off. For example:

At ProBlogger I have a pretty mixed readership with some responding quite well to longer more comprehensive posts – and others preferring short posts – as a result I try to mix it up.

However I consulted some time back on a blog that was aimed at a young and ‘edgy’ demographic. We did a little experimenting with post length and found that posts that were around 150-200 words did significantly better than longer comprehensive ones. The audience wanted short, sharp, to the point posts that they could consume quickly before moving on to the next one. As a result that blog increased shortened it’s post length but upped it’s posting frequency – traffic jumped significantly.

On the other hand I’ve chatted with a number of bloggers recently who found that when they switched to less frequent posting of longer and more comprehensive articles that their readership responded well to this. In fact in a recent ‘one question interview’ series on ProBlogger three separate bloggers talked about how this helped their blogs in 2007:

I guess what I’m saying is that post length can be a key factor when it comes to a blog being well received or not – however it takes time, experimentation and being in tune with your reader to know what that post length needs to be.

Leo Babauta | ZenHabits.net – Does size matter? Whether your blog requires long posts or short ones or a mix thereof really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, and what your readers come to your blog for. For example, the biggest blogs are usually tech blogs, and readers go there for tech news, brief commentary on tech news, and some in-depth how-to posts. For those blogs, they can get away with a dozen short posts a day, with one or two long ones every day or two. That’s what the readers want.

For a blog like Zen Habits, where readers come for more in-depth articles on self-improvement and quality-of-life issues, I can’t do a bunch of short posts and continue to grow. My readers are looking for depth, a wealth of information, resources. While I’m a minimalist at heart, if I don’t provide depth, I haven’t done justice to the topic or my readers … otherwise the topic wasn’t worth writing about in the first place. If I don’t give the readers what they want, I won’t
grow.

Anita Campbell | SmallBizTrends.com – To me, post length is like the difference between USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. One’s short and filled with colorful pictures. The other looks plainer and has longer articles. Both have their place in the world.

Post length is not “one size fits all.” It all depends on what your readers want and expect, and the topic and style of your blog.

Some blogs are wildly successful with 150-word posts.

On other blogs, posts that are just 150 words would be dismissed as “lightweight.” Take, for instance, an economics blog or a legal blog. To have credibility among other economists or other lawyers, a blog post might need to read like an essay or an op ed piece or a legal brief. It might need charts or citations to other sources.

That said, I have 2 observations about post length and building an audience:

  1. Really long posts (over 1000 words) should be used sparingly and formatted carefully. It’s proven fact that it’s hard on the human eye to read long articles online. Contrast on a computer screen is lower than for print pages. Your eyes get tired faster. It’s harder to concentrate. Long expanses of text should be broken up with short paragraphs, bullet points and images
  2. I’ve found that even on blogs that adopt a long-essay format, it helps to mix in shorter posts among longer ones. Sometimes we need salads to lighten up a heavy meat and potatoes diet.

Penelope Trunk | Brazen Careerist – The mainstream media outlets I have written for online — Yahoo, Wired, AOL, Information Week — spend a lot of money to analyze what length works online, and they all specify about 800 words. HotJobs has found that 500 words is best. When I write a post that is more than 800 words, I can usually hold onto it a few days and then edit it down to 800. It’s very rare that you need more than 800 words to make a point. We know this because the op-ed is a very old format, and most op-eds have much bigger ideas than most blog posts, and 800 words is enough.

When I am editing my posts to be about 800 words I also think a lot about linking. Linking is the grease that makes the blogosphere run. And the more clear cut the point of your post is, the easier it is to link to. A post with 10 different ideas makes it harder for a blogger to link to one idea in the post, and most of us link to one idea, not ten.

Here is a good test to give your posts that are more than 800 words. Ask yourself :

  1. Why the post is so complicated that you cannot get a big idea across in the length of an op-ed.
  2. If you have given so much more to the reader that it warrants the 200 extra words.
  3. If this is actually two posts.

Here’s an example of a post that is more than 800 words.

I had a point to make — you could probably throw out half the stuff you have and not notice. And I had a story to tell — bed bugs ruined almost all my stuff. Neither of those things would have worked well alone, so I kept the post long.

But I worried so much that it was unreasonable to ask people would read such a long post that I held onto it for three weeks before I published it. If you are very, very careful and respectful of your reader’s time, then the length of your posts will probably be right whatever you do.

Wendy Piersall | Sparkplugging.com – My best and most successful posts are always the long ones that take me 4-8 hours to research write. They do well with social media sites and always add to subscribers and lead to more return visitors.

But I just can’t write posts like that every day. Not only do I not have the time for those kinds of posts daily, but I think readers would get sick of them if they had to read them all the time.

But make no mistake, long, well researched articles are the foundation of your blog and critical to your success, unless, of course, your name is Seth, and somehow these copywriting rules don’t apply to you.

Liz Strauss | Successful-Blog – Sure it does, but it also depends on the content and purpose of the blog. For example, if the purpose of the blog is capture celebrity fans, short pithy posts with large pictures will draw more regular readers than longer pieces that tell their life stories. On the other hand, if the readership is looking for analysis and depth, you’d better bet that a longer, more structured post is what they want to find.

Also look to your strengths as a writer, the approach to the content could be tweaked to match your style. Both short and long pieces require skill, but skills of a slightly different nature. If you have trouble sustaining interest when reading or writing a longer piece, it’s probably so that your readers also will.

Some hugely popular blogs post 1500 words less often while equally popular blogs post several 200-300 word posts in a day. It’s about matching the content/reader/writer in a way that works.

John Wesley | PickTheBrain – It’s possible to be successful using long or short posts, or a combination of both. Instead of worrying about the proper post length, it’s more important to focus on giving readers the best value and developing a distinct and consistent style. This might mean writing long and detailed instructional articles or posting a single link — it all depends on the nature of your blog.

Glen Stansberry | LifeDev – If you can effectively communicate an idea in 5 words, then that’s the right length. If it takes 5 paragraphs, then that’s the right length. The most important thing is that you’re worried about effectively communicating, not making a post length quota. The last thing you want to do is waste your reader’s time.

That said, it’s usually quite hard to effectively communicate an idea in 5 words. I’ve personally found that longer, feature-length posts tend to “travel” better across social networks and are a little more linkable. But ultimately people are drawn to quality of writing.

Jay White | DumbLittleMan – I want readers to leave my site either more informed on a topic or perhaps with an action that they are going to implement. If I can accomplish that in 3 sentences I will.

However, it is rare for anyone to convince another person to change their behavior in 3 sentences. Therefore, reinforcements in the way of historical data, studies, personal experiences, etc. are brought into the article to help support my beliefs (or tips for life as they may be).

This clearly lengthens the article and frankly increases the odds that my readers are going to gain true benefit.

To sum it up: True Benefit for Readers = Readership Growth

Tamar Weinberg | Techipedia – I think it varies. Truthfully, it’s the style of writing that keeps me coming to bloggers over post length.

For example, Seth Godin is short and sweet and I read his posts. Rand Fishkin and Kathy Sierra are typically longer posting types and I also read their posts.

Ideally, what I look for is if you’re aiming for any sort of post length, you consider the mentality of those who want to skim, so break your articles into sections and use headlines where appropriate. If it’s long, consider that it should still be easy to digest.

I read hundreds of feeds a day and I’ll often glance over items in my feed reader, so calling attention to it is something that should be critical when you compose your posts.

Donald Latumahina | LifeOptimizer – The important thing for readership growth is not post length, but post quality. However, I believe post length does have some correlation with post quality. Provided that the value density is the same, longer post gives more value and therefore has higher quality. The difficult thing is keeping the value density high throughout the post.

But online readers also have relatively short attention span. There is a limit to the post length that is acceptable to them. Beyond this limit, diminishing returns applies and less and less readers will find it worth their time.

It seems like, when it comes to blogging, size does matter.

But, exactly how it matters depends on a number of different factors, one of the keys being your ability to determine and tap a wide-scale reader-preference.

For example, blogs like StevePavlina.com and Leo’s Zen Habits, have a heavy emphasis on longer, more authoritative articles and both have experienced massive growth in the personal-dev/self-improvement category. Which would lead you to belief a big chunk of those readers prefer longer, more-informative articles.

While, tech-readers, like the Lifehacker.com or slashdot.com audience seem to have a strong bent toward fast and concise content.

It would seem, then, in determining the type of articles you post, a critical exercise would be to see if you can suss out any sweeping preferences for the size of content your website or blog readers most desire. And, a great way to do that is to see who the leaders are in your niche, do a quick review of their post lengths (look at a minimum of 50) and see if you can find a pattern.

If you can, then tailor your posts to the size that most appeals to the greatest number of the type people who generally read your topic. If not, try mixing it up for a month and then track the reaction, a la Darren’s ProBlogger.

Before we all jump up an down and celebrate the answer, though…there are a few big, fat wild-cards that can override the preferences barrier and lead readers to not only endure, but seek out and devour content that falls squarely outside their “normal” size preferences.

Why will Seth Godin’s readers run screaming to inhale everything he writes, regardless of size?

Hint, it’s not just about attaining guru status…or shaving your head (though I’d shave mine in a heartbeat if I could have his readership)! It’s about that maverick trifecta I like to call:

  • Extreme-value,
  • Editorial wizardry and
  • Masterful copywriting.

Extreme value comes in all shapes and sizes.

It’s basically about going so far beyond the value provided by comparable writers that people will gladly break from their normal patterns and read whatever you write. And, to keep with the theme of threes, extreme value comes in three flavors. It can be…

In all cases, there is so much value packed into whatever size post is chosen that there is literally no way to avoid reading the entire thing…often a few times, regardless of post-size. But, what of that second flavor in our all-bets-are-off trifecta?

Editorial wizardry overrides normal reading preferences.

Like Tamar mentioned, she doesn’t really care what the length of any given post is, she’s more drawn to the blogger/writer’s voice and unique ability to express themselves. So, people who work to hone their writing abilities and unique voice shine.

Leo Babauta is a perfect example of this. When he hit the blogging scene in the beginning of 2007, there were already a ton of personal-development and productivity bloggers. It seemed nothing was left to be written. Still, Leo decided to dive in, intending to simply share what he’d accomplished and discovered. One year later, he’s got more than 30,000 RSS subscribers and a massive following that will read and evangelize every word he writes.

Does he have a unique spin and original thoughts? You bet. But, what many people don’t know about Leo is that, for some 20-years before blogging, Leo was a newspaper guy, writing columns on everything from sports to politics.

He’d honed his ability to craft grabbing headlines and captivating copy for decades. So, by the time he hit the blogosphere, Leo’s writing and, more specifically, news-writing abilities so outclassed nearly everyone else online (me included), he literally leapfrogged to the head of the pack. And, people will now not only read anything he writes, but, as evidenced by the runaway success of his first ebook, Zen To Done, they’ll even pay for the privilege!

But, what about that final, third preference-overrider…Masterful copywriting?

Extreme value and Editorial Wizardry are immensely powerful at leading readers to drink in anything you write. But, there’s one more giant skill that overrides normal reading preferences.

In fact, it’s not really one tool, but a handful of techniques many bloggers can use to draw readers into a post so fiercely that, no matter how long it is, they’ll stay late at work just to read the whole damn thing and they’ll even subscribe to make sure not to miss the next installment.

These secret-tools come from the world of direct-marketing and newspaper-journalism and, applied to blogging, they’re wickedly-powerful at turning your copy into must-read content, regardless of how long it is.

In fact, they work so well, using them can end up getting you e-mail from readers who are pissed-off that you “made” them read a 2,000-word treatise, instead of eating lunch!

Wanna know what these tools are? Tune back in next Wednesay for the answer!

Or, just subscribe to my blog-updates below, so you don’t miss the the next installment.

And, as always, please share your thoughts, ideas, questions and stories in the comment section below…

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30 responses

30 responses to “Top bloggers confess: size matters!”

  1. Thanks, Jonathan, for pulling together these ideas. Very interesting!

    I tried to find the research I alluded to about reading long articles online, but couldn’t quickly get my hands on it again. If I find it again, I will come back and leave the citation to that research.

    Anita

  2. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Anita – Thanks for contributing! Citation or not, what you shared is immensely valuable!

  3. […] Fields says size matters for bloggers.  Size … ahem … of blog posts, that […]

  4. Cathy says:

    Hmm, seems it’s all about the readers! 🙂

    Seriously, though, with the exception of you last point about copywriting drawing readers in, it is about the audience. If your audience responds well to longer posts, you might write longer posts. If, on the other hand, your audience responds well to short posts, then you will write short posts.

    The thing I wonder about though is, how much does the preference of the writer influence the audience? Or put a different way, can you still be successful if you hate to write long posts, but your readers respond well?

    Do the bloggers tend to gravitate to the types of subjects that lend themselves to the length of article they want to write?

    Personally, I would die if I had to write 150-300 word posts (I’m not even sure this comment has that few!) But, I don’t write about tech stuff, so that doesn’t seem to be against me.

    Food for thought.

  5. shane says:

    I had an interesting experience with a series of posts I wrote for Freelanceswitch. I wrote a very long post which after reviewing cyan decided to break up into small bites and post one a day for 5 days. The posts were reasonably well received but at the end of he series, a few people sent messages saying they really though they should have been combined into one post. Turns out the FSw reader can handle bigger bites.

    Moral of the story – try it and play with, but your readers may surprise you.

  6. As Hillary just discovered in New Hampshire finding your own voice is much more important than how big it is.

  7. […] Matters & Top Bloggers Confess Their Secrets.  Jonathan Fields has interviewed several top bloggers to get their take on the […]

  8. I have been a writer for a long time and have a few books under my belt.

    But I was a real newbie blogger.

    I had to get used to the fact I was not writing a chapter – but an article. My first posts were way too long.

    Now, I mix them up. It’s working so far.

  9. Shama Hyder says:

    I think Liz hit it on the head. It depends-on your readership, your style, and your subject. Can you write a 1000 word post on Britney Spears’ latest risque shot-no.

  10. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Cathy – yeah, there’s always a constant tug, in any form of “writing for consumption” between what you want to say and what and how people want to read. As a former lawyer, it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to write my name in less than a page! 😉

    @ Shane – I’ve found that some of my “you’ve gotta be joking-ly” long articles have gotten the greatest reception. Always goes back to value.

    @ Local SEO Guide – As I said in my earlier article, “voice rules!”

    @ Corinne – Yeah, I write print articles, too, and just launched this blog after handing in a 313-page book manuscript to my editor, so blogging’s been a fascinating adjustment for me, too!

    @ Shama – Hmmm, 1000 words on Britney’s latest photo, eh? Sounds like a challenge has been issued! hahaha! 🙂

  11. You know what I hate? When I read a blog post and think of something off-the-cuff and stupid to say, and then I scroll down to the comments and find everyone before me has said something insightful and it makes me feel dumb. I hate that.

    Anyway, what I was going to say before I was so rudely usurped was that I shaved my head and it did wonders. That’s all.

  12. Jonathan…You had me at “Does size matter?” and to pull off a killer post too! Nice work.

    Mark

  13. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Naomi – hmmm, I think I might have to try the slick-lid look soon! Tell me, did it make you taller? 😉

    @ Mark from MyTropicalEscape – hey, what can I say, I guess I’m not immune to using a touch of sex to sell blogging! haha! Glad you enjoyed!

  14. Great post there, I was JUST thinking about this topic. I’ve gone through cycles of posting every other day, twice daily, twice a week, and at the end of it all I found that posting once a day worked well for generating a response from the readership and pulling in traffic from search engines. Now the trouble is generating discussions off-blog and linkbacks, that is the tricky bit.

  15. […] Fields, comes up with a very interesting report Top bloggers confess: size matters!, which examines and shows that size does matter when it comes to writing posts. So, I guess we get […]

  16. Keith says:

    Nice article – and it is good to have “more” content in an article than “less”, however there are of course articles that are short and deliver a good punch in their brevity too. It is a close call, but this article touches on article length very nicely!

  17. […] **Jonathan Fields has been doing an interesting series called “Top Bloggers Confess” and the latest installment is a good one : Top Bloggers Confess: Size of Post Length Matters. […]

  18. nice! never ever thought about this before, but i geuss since i don’t have much to offer my posts are usually short.

  19. Kae Wagner says:

    Great piece and I appreciate all of the insights regarding specific word counts. I run The Sales & Marketing Forum and have beeen pushing our members to start blogging. The more specific information I can give them, the easier it is for them to get started. So, thanks for the specific tips.

  20. Tate Linden says:

    Great analysis from people who know.

    We switch things up a bit on our blog – mixing quick punches and long diatribes. We find the diatribes get us new readers and the quickies keep the visitors happy.

    We’re still working on the mix.

  21. CatherineL says:

    Thanks – that was an interesting read. It never even occurred to me until now to check how many words are in each of my posts. But, I will be in the future.

  22. […] email or forums. Invite bloggers to answer a compelling question. Use email or a forum to ask a question that you know that many folks have interesting answers for. […]

  23. […] Jonathan/Awake at the Wheel: Top bloggers confess: size matters! […]

  24. Megan says:

    I love to write. That can be a pro or a con. As I tend to get caught up in the subject I find points that I think need to be made I realize instead of an article I have wrote a novel. I spend more time cutting it down then actually writing it. Yet after testing short post and longer post it appears the longer ones do better. Go figure. So no I try not to write a novel but I make sure I cover my points that I intended to.

    There I go again. Writing my novel…Sorry

    Megan

  25. Pete White says:

    This turned into a bit of a long post 😉 Some interesting points though.

  26. […] at the responses you get. I did this with my Cluetrain Social Media article and is something Jonathan Fields does routinely to great […]

  27. […] Size does matter when it comes to blog posts. […]

  28. Thanks for continuing the useful questions for the experts. It’s a lot cheaper to read info on your site than buying re-hashed, out of date ebooks.

  29. I wish I had run across this sooner. A lot of food for thought on both length and quality of content. Nice to hear from so many experts!

  30. […] written about blog post frequency and size along with many others. And, even noted how 95 of top 100 blogs post many times a day. After […]