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Performance Marketing October 14, 2016

Short form, High volume: a content marketing shift?


Could producing a high volume of short-form content actually be a better strategy than creating painstaking, in-depth, long-form content?

Back in April, we argued that marketers and content teams needed to be ready for a surge in the amount of content produced. A recent piece from Steve Rayson, Director at BuzzSumo, has now caused a bit of a stir by making a persuasive case; he states that content has and will continue to increase in volume, and that high-volume/short-form could be a key strategy for growth.

As an example, Rayson shows that The Washington Post has been turned around by a massive increase in content volume and short-form posts. Their new approach has brought them a 28% increase in traffic. Other outlets, such as HubSpot, are also using this high-volume strategy and gaining a lot of traffic from it.

Playing the Long-Tail Game

The idea behind the shift that Rayson is identifying is the ‘long-tail theory‘. In any industry, if you have a small number of extremely popular products with broad appeal then, of course, you can sell a lot. But what about all the less popular, niche interests out there?

Digital has brought streamlined distribution and online retail platforms that can make a much wider selection of products available to consumers. Niche consumer interests can now be met at a relatively low cost, and while the products they are interested in are less popular, selling across these groups increases revenue overall.

Rayson is posing an important question, asking us why content should be any different. If you produce a lot more content, addressing a lot more interests and showing up in a lot more searches, you can get a lot more traffic. If one post gains a hundred views, but ten shorter posts gain twenty views each then that’s a lower bar for each piece of content, but more traffic to the website overall.

Content Fatigue?

We hear a lot about peak content these days and, indeed, the increase has been exponential. Alongside this, it has become easier to find enjoyable, useful content through apps, newsletters, curated streams or an email from a friend.

On ReadThink Janessa Lantz makes a strong case that engagement is decreasing and content marketing is not being valued as much. She points out that 20% of the fastest growing companies do not have a blog, and that social sharing per post has fallen, even for high-quality content.

Nonetheless I’m sceptical; I’d like to know what other forms of content that 20% is working with and I’m not sure social shares are necessarily a great measure of engagement; anyone could share a piece having not read a word of it.  Also in the long-tail theory advocated by Rayson, we expect to see more posts overall with fewer views and shares per post.

There’s no doubt that the huge rise in content of every type can be overwhelming, and bombarding your customers with a mountain of content could put them off. On the other hand, if short-form content gives relevant information to more of your users and it takes less time to consume (so they actually engage with it), then why wouldn’t you give it to them? Adding short-form may mean more content, but this content is perhaps able to give a better user experience on some of the new channels.

Adopt a “Needs First” Strategy

In Lantz’s ReadThink piece she argues that content marketers are likely to become more like product managers, seeking out what is making an impact and coordinating internal teams. This seems to me to be a good instinct and represents the maturing, rather than the decline of content marketing. However, this can only happen with a strong strategy.

Rather than jumping into producing mountains of posts with no underlying approach, develop a content strategy that is correct for your organisation. Think about the following:

  • What are your core objectives for content?
  • Does your organisation have a ‘bedrock’ of authoritative, long-form content with a solid audience?
  • Could existing/future long-form content be adapted for short-form/other channels?
  • What will short-form content deliver for your audience?
  • What formats is your content currently in and what formats could it lend itself to?

Once you have considered your needs and objectives, ask yourself the following:

  • Do we have the staff/skills to make this happen?
  • Where does this fit into our wider digital roadmap?
  • Do we have the platform we need to carry this out?

The Right Digital Tools for the Job

With the trend generally towards more content and also towards more channels, having a strong digital platform that suits your current and future needs is another key consideration. With so much content to organise and publish (whatever form it’s in), it’s important to have the tools and expertise available to put your strategy into practice.

Rayson’s example The Washington Post now publishes 1,200 posts per day – an astonishing amount. To do this they have invested heavily, hiring new staff and even creating their own platform and range of tools that they now license to other companies. They have also been using AI to write some of their more standard posts. While you may not be aiming for those numbers, able to develop your very own CMS company, or looking to make use of robot writers, you can make sure you have a system that will allow your digital roadmap to be more than a document.

Best-of-breed CMS like Sitecore offer powerful tools for personalisation and marketing, while others like FirstSpirit allow content to be created once and repurposed for different channels. Other tools like GatherContent can help to keep large amounts of content organised and scheduled.

Consider what you need carefully against your objectives and strategy and ask yourself if your current system can manage it, or if you need an upgrade.

Quality Will Still Matter

On Business 2 Community Chad Pollitt, VP of Audience at Relevance, states that his biggest takeaway from the Content Marketing World conference was that Google has ruined content marketing. He argues that by encouraging ever more content, a race to the bottom is being created and quantity over quality legitimised.

While some of Pollitt’s wider points about lack of budget and the silo that is digital paid media are definitely valid, a retreat from quality doesn’t have to be the case. As my colleague Martin Mir pointed out in  a recent piece on Penguin 4.0, “Google points out that its original recommendation of quality content still stands as a key search ranking factor.”

Many of the pieces that worry about the content future we’re heading into make the mistake of presuming that more content must automatically equal worse content. It’s much more likely that some short-form content will be good and some will be bad, just like with any other format. While there has always been click-bait and probably always will be, quality still matters to a large proportion of users.

Whether a piece is long or short, written by a robot or a human and whatever channel it is delivered on, the user experience and timely delivery of relevant content remain key.

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