Long-Form Content Marketing Drives Engagement, Not Advertising

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In today’s hyper-competitive digital marketing environment, it’s easy to believe that businesses are all competing for an ever-shrinking slice of consumers’ attention. After all, the prevailing wisdom lately has held that today’s consumers have an attention span for marketing content that doesn’t exceed six seconds. With that in mind, marketers all over the world have increasingly turned to short-form, punchy content that’s designed to garner attention and hopefully go viral.

Of course, anyone that uses the internet can tell you that instances of marketing content going viral are exceedingly rare, and studies have shown that as many as three-quarters of North Americans engage in at least one type of ad blocking on a regular basis. An impartial look at the available data can only lead to a single logical conclusion: today’s consumers don’t have short attention spans – they’re just sick of being bombarded with marketing messages.

Despite the challenges though, businesses still need a way to raise their profile with consumers as a means of making sales. To do it, they need to throw away the old interruption-based model in favor of a new value-driven paradigm. That means putting renewed efforts into content marketing to achieve visibility and authority in a crowded market, and the kind of content marketing that works best may surprise you (spoiler – it’s long-form content). For a look at what’s happening and what your business needs to do, read on.

Marketing by Distraction

The reason that consumers have grown tired of traditional overt marketing techniques is simple to understand. The fact is, the largest subset of marketing is advertising, and consumers are quite literally drowning in it. Consider your own daily experience. If you wake up to the sound of a clock radio, you’re more likely than not to wake up to an ad. Turn on the television? More ads. Checking email, posting on social media, or reading the news? Ads, ads, ads. They’re everywhere, and they’re all designed to distract you from whatever you’re doing and grab your focus.

The reality that marketers now have to face when trying to reach consumers is that most of them are well beyond their messaging saturation point, and quite frankly, they’re in revolt. That overload of advertising is exactly why companies like Google and Facebook have been making so much money selling sophisticated ad targeting services in recent years. The main hypothesis behind that approach is that consumers don’t mind ads, but rather that they don’t like the random nature of the messages they see. In practice, however, the data doesn’t seem to support that, as the average advertising click-through rate is still hovering at a dismal 2% overall.

The Un-Marketing

If the low success rate involved in digital advertising doesn’t prove that consumers don’t respond to advertising with any regularity, there’s another, more disturbing trend that should help illustrate that point. A 2012 studyrevealed that 20% of US adults and 27% of UK adults would take the drastic step of stopping their use of a product or service if they felt targeted by an excess of advertisements and promotional materials about it. In the intervening years, it’s safe to assume that that number has increased, if only because advertising saturation has increased since then.

The key takeaway from that particular aspect of consumer attitudes is that businesses that insist on using the traditional advertising methods and channels may be living on borrowed time. It’s also indicative that consumers are looking to take control of their own experiences, and are more than happy to punish those companies they see as preventing them from doing so. With reactions like that, it’s easy to conclude that traditional marketing methods are at or on the verge of being counterproductive or worse, destructive to business marketing goals.

Content is King

There is one way to reach consumers that does have a high success rate, and won’t turn them off if done well: content marketing. When executed well, content marketing produces high ranking search results tied to keywords related to the brand or business that created it, and that can become an evergreen source of new leads and valuable traffic to the business’ web properties. Compared to the minuscule click-through rates offered by traditional advertising, a piece of content marketing that rises to the top spot on a search results page (SERP) can have a click-through rate of up to 30%.

More importantly, the consumers that arrive at a business website via content marketing pieces have gotten there by choice, and with a specific goal in mind. That means they’re already primed to hear whatever marketing message the content contains, and it won’t be seen as intrusive. As any marketer can tell you, that’s as close to a “holy grail” as you can get – a willing and receptive audience that came specifically to hear what the business has to say. That’s a golden opportunity, but the content itself does matter if it’s expected to fulfill any real business objectives.

The Value of Information

The key to successful content marketing is that it should be less about the message and more about providing something of value to those that see it. After all, when a consumer reaches a page on your website because it was the number one result to their search query, they expect to find content that answers whatever question they had in the first place. If the primary goal is to put a marketing message in front of the viewer, and not to satisfy their request, the effort will be worthless.

In any successful content marketing effort, an inside-out approach is more advisable. Instead of creating content intended to sell a specific product or service, create content designed to sell the authority of the business within its industry or area of expertise. Save the hard-sell approach for landing pages and the like, and focus on the needs of the visitor. Today’s savvy consumers and internet users will see right through hollow content, and if that happens, the whole effort will have been for naught.

For Engagement, Be Thorough

That brings us to the type of content marketing that works best in the current environment, and it flies in the face of everything most people assume about modern consumers. Although studies of digital advertising reveal that consumers have almost no attention span, the opposite appears to be true when dealing with content marketing pieces. The data is as stark as it is illuminating.

One study that analyzed 100 million articles online found that long-form articles achieved drastically higher rates of social sharing than shorter content, with articles over 3000 words in length performing roughly twice as well as articles of 1000 words or less. Also, another study that analyzed trends in Google’s SERP data revealed that the average first-page result contains 1,890 words. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that yet another study found that the optimum time-to-read for an online article is around seven minutes, which is just a little less time than it would take to read the average first-page search result.

The In-Depth Approach

The reason that long-form content marketing works as well as it does is easy to understand. Since most people use search engines to find answers to specific questions or to help solve specific problems, the more complete the information they find, the happier they are. That happiness translates into their feeling about the company providing the information, as well as their willingness to evangelize the content.

For example, a homeowner looking to repave a driveway might use Google to get a rough idea of how much money they will need to spend to complete the project, with a search term like “2018 paving costs”. Now, on the surface, they are looking for a way to estimate their specific project, but they’ll likely have questions about the process itself, as well. On the first page of results for that query, you’ll find a result from www.SaveOnPaving.com that provides the perfect object lesson in content marketing. The linked page not only provides the means to create a job estimate but also contains a long-form, thorough rundown of everything the visitor could ever want to know about a paving job. It’s a safe bet that visitors to that page won’t feel the need to look elsewhere and that they’ll remember where they found that valuable information.

Creating Effective Long-Form Content

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As the above example shows, long-form content is useful when it provides the viewer with accurate, actionable information. Creating such content takes time, research, and a dedication to getting things right. Fortunately, there are some simple guidelines to follow that make the process a little bit easier. They include:

  • Don’t be afraid to give away some insider information – doing so pulls the reader in and helps to establish credibility
  • Make sure to include specific, actionable information that empowers the reader to feel confident that they’ll be able to make a sound decision
  • Don’t talk down to the audience, even when the content is distilling expert knowledge to beginners
  • Keep it readable and coherent
  • Make use of a narrative structure to keep the reader’s attention
  • Include media elements when necessary, but don’t overdo it

Testing Long-Form Content

Simply creating lengthy, in-depth articles related to a business’s core competencies is a good start, but as is the case with every other kind of digital marketing, there’s always going to be room for improvements. To find out what’s working requires not only a careful study of the normal success metrics of the content itself (pageviews, time-on-page, clickthroughs) but also thorough A/B testing of multiple variants of the pages involved.

When dealing with long-form content, the most oft-used method of creating multiple variants involves the substitution of one or more sections of text or the addition, removal, or reordering of graphic elements on the page itself. The goal is to find any apparent pain points within the content that may prevent viewers from seeing it as a valuable, easy-to-digest resource instead of a complex and long-winded sales pitch. It’s important to note that it’s common to find performance metrics within such tests that vary by double-digit percentages, so they’re well worth the effort.

An Attention Grabber

In the final analysis, long-form content marketing outperforms most other conventional marketing efforts and drives engagement like nothing else. After all, long-form content hasn’t risen to the top of SERP pages for no reason, and companies like Google aren’t doing it to benefit marketers. They’re doing it because that’s the kind of content that their users find most relevant, and that gives marketers every reason in the world to make sure they get a piece of the action.

It’s also worth mentioning that long-form content marketing isn’t only happening on the internet. On the contrary, it’s already all around us. If you’ve seen any of the recent LEGO-branded films (or movies based on comic books or novels), you’ve already been exposed to it. The fact is, long-form content marketing not only works, but it seems to be the one marketing tactic that the average person doesn’t mind very much, and in some cases, will even pay to see.

For marketers, the case is clear. In a world of declining attention spans, long-form content checks all of the boxes. It ranks well on search pages, it increases engagement, and most critically, it works for mobile users, too. There’s even evidence that long-form news content is thriving online, which most experts had previously thought was impossible.

You don’t have to take our word for it, though. If your business has an existing content marketing strategy, consider running a side-by-side split test to compare the results you get from long versus short-form content. If your results are anything like those experienced by companies like Highrise, who achieved a 37.5% higher conversion rate with long-form content, you’ll see just what we mean. Also, if you’ve made it this far into the article, you’re already living proof that long-form content works – and it will work for your business as well.

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