Several of my recent posts have referenced new research from the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS). Their report, Marketing 2022: A Survey Exploring Current & Future AEC Marketing Practices, looks at how architecture, engineering, construction, and environmental firms are integrating newer marketing approaches, particularly those currently popular in business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing like content marketing. (Free download, registration required.)
There’s a lot of great information in the report, and it serves as both a wake-up call as well as a call-to-action for AEC firms to elevate their marketing and BD approaches.
In fact, the SMPS report (in transparency, I was the researcher and author) has inspired several aecumen blog posts. In Is Content Marketing Without Thought Leadership Just Noise? I wondered if there’s any value in self-laudatory marketing messaging about the latest project successes, new hires, or other company news. And in Are You Producing Content for All Stages of the Buying Journey? I addressed the lack of mid- and late-stage content being produced by AEC firms. There’s some great awareness content out there, but firms are sorely lacking content targeting the interest and evaluation stages.
Content comes in many forms of course, and can include blogs, videos, case studies, social media posts, ebooks, webinars, white papers, and offline activities like educational presentations, articles, op-eds, and in-person events.
But for this post, I want to drill down specifically to blogs, since that seems to be the preferred content approach by AEC firms.
Whether working as an employee with an AEC firm or as a trainer and consultant to the AEC industry, I’ve been asked this question many times: “How long should a blog post be?”
If you Google that question, you may end up more confused than when you started. Visit a few websites and you’ll find many differing opinions.
There’s certainly some interesting statistics out there, and a multitude of contradictory recommendations.
The first thing to consider is avoiding the perception of having “garbage” content, which is short content of little or no value to your readers. Remember that content marketing is still marketing, and you must know your audience. Who are you writing for? Would your audience be interested in a given topic? What would you like them to do?
We’re all good at tooting our own horn, but does anyone else care about your latest, greatest project? What’s in it for them? There is certainly a critical role for case studies in your content marketing program, and these case studies can be delivered as blogs. In fact, they can be highly effective for the interest and evaluation stages of a buyer’s journey.
A case study, however, delves into the challenges that a client faced, the alternatives considered, the recommendations, the unique components, and the successes. And the successes are not about you, they are about your client.
Alas, a two-paragraph blog post about your most recent project may very well be garbage content, especially if it follows the worn path that most AEC firms take, dumping a vomit of project statistics on the readers.
This type of useless content is also typically very short – fewer than 300 words. And a lot of this crap is produced by third-party content farms, spewing out worthless blog posts for profit. Google understands this, and for SEO purposes, content this short is not ranked highly. This is a change from the early days of blogging, when short posts were common and not penalized by search engines.
Sure, it is okay to share information about a recent project or company accomplishment, but put yourself in the readers’ shoes; why would they care? If you can’t answer that question, don’t post it!
But Scott, Seth Godin’s blogs are often only a few paragraphs. He’s the master of micro blogs.
That is absolutely true. But you’re not Seth Godin, are you? Nor am I. He has a built an audience that he’s cultivated for several decades, both online and off. He’s written 19 bestselling books and has more than 700,000 followers on Twitter. People seek out the wisdom of Seth Godin. Do they seek out the wisdom of your firm?
There are of course exceptions, but in most cases you probably don’t want to be below 500 words. Too many AEC firms cop out at a few hundred words, just hoping to get something – anything – posted.
Experts tell us that if a lot of our content is viewed on mobile devices, shorter-form content will be consumed at higher levels. Makes sense to me: I’m more likely to read a 500-word blog on my phone than I am to read a 2,000-word blog. This is why you must know your audience.
My audience is not mobile. In fact, Google Analytics tells me that only about 10% of my audience is accessing my site via mobile devices (12% if you count tablets). What do your analytics tell you? If you’re like me and use the free Google Analytics platform, check under Audience –> Mobile –> Overview. Thus, knowing that 90% of my audience is on non-mobile devices, I don’t have to worry about structuring content for mobile. At least not right now.
These experts also tell us that shorter content tends to get more comments. So if a goal of your blog is to stimulate discussion, then 500-word posts may make sense. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about comments on your LinkedIn or Facebook posts (although you should want this type of engagement), but rather comments on your blogs.
If your goal is to stimulate discussion, the next question is why? Perhaps you could blog about a newer technology or project approach, and seek feedback from your audience. Have they tried it? Are they willing to give it a shot? What are the lessons they’ve learned? Would they do it again? This can be very effective, if that is your goal.
And certainly there is an argument to be made for having multiple goals, requiring content of multiple lengths.
Another thing you need to consider is frequency. If you are going to be posting regularly, a steady stream of shorter content may make sense. For starters, it’s more difficult to create content of 1000, 1500, or 2000 words than it is to create content of 500 words. Furthermore, if you’re pushing out two 1500-word blogs every week, it might be too overwhelming for your audience. (But many firms and websites do this effectively.)
The SMPS Marketing 2022 research found that within the next three years, Thought Leadership will be the third most important marketing and business development approach, behind only Client Experience and Networking.
Is your firm positioned for this? Are you publishing Thought Leadership content that addresses the client/prospect needs and questions during the awareness, interest, and evaluation stages?
And what type of content are you using to promote this Thought Leadership? (Or do you plan to use?)
If you plan to rely on blogs, 500 words is probably not going to be effective. It’s hard to establish Thought Leadership on the equivalent of roughly a single-sided, single-spaced sheet of paper. (Unless you’re Seth Godin.)
I’ve recommended to coworkers and clients alike to target a minimum of 1000 words for Thought Leadership blogs (higher word counts for ebooks and white papers). I generally target 1500-word blog posts.
The method to my madness dates to the pre-Internet era. My first attempts at Thought Leadership were articles in periodicals, and the editors sought out 1500-word articles. Whether I was being paid for the content or not, 1500 words was a magic number. This was for trade journals, not local newspapers or business journals, and the content was what we refer to today as “Thought Leadership.” Topic ranged from effective use of direct mail to guerrilla marketing tactics for contractors, to a then-newer HVAC technology to reduce energy costs.
Remember that Thought Leadership must provide information of value to your audience. It must educate them or provide insight into doing something better. No value, no Thought Leadership.
The 1000-word minimum is simply a guideline. I worked with a structural engineer on a snow load blog that was only about 750 words, but it was very effective. Likewise, I worked with two lighting designers on a trends blog that came in at about 2000 words. Both were Thought Leadership pieces that reached the intended audience and provided value. The snow load blog generated leads; the lighting trends blog established credibility for a firm trying to build a lighting design practice.
Shareable Content and Search Engine Optimization
When I established aecumen, one of the goals for my blog was Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, as the geographic region I serve is broad. My firm was an unknown entity, and I identified a few keywords that I wanted to rank highly on Google. I had successfully used long-form content at my prior firm to enhance SEO, so I knew that I needed some longer blog posts. The average Thought Leadership blog on my website is about 1570 words, with the shortest being about 800 words and the longest being roughly 4000. Believe it or not, the average blog length for my Engineering News-Record blog, Marketropolis, is even higher: around 1650 words.
This post from Constant Contact provides a good overview of the pros and cons of different content lengths, and also has some eye-opening numbers:
- The average word count for linked pages on Google first page results is 1890 words, based upon an analysis of more than one million Google search results
- The most shared content, according to a BuzzSumo study of almost a half million articles, is at least 1000 words
- A Hubspot analysis of 6000 of their own blogs found that content with 2250 to 2500 words earned the most organic search traffic
So if your goal is to generate website traffic, or to increase social sharing of the blog (e.g., sharing a link to your blog on LinkedIn), longer-form content will be more effective. Based upon personal experience, my most-read aecumen blog post – primarily driven by search traffic – is 1700 words, and my most shared ENR Marketropolis post is 2800 words. These are a far cry from a 300-word garbage post or a 500-word short-form post.
No One Will Read Content That Long
When there’s resistance to long-form content, it usually comes one of two ways:
- “I don’t have time to write that much content”
- “No one will read content that long”
My response to that first question is, “It’s not about having the time, it’s about making the time.” I drafted the post you’re reading right now on a Saturday evening, sitting in my comfy recliner, watching a college football bowl game. This was the second post I wrote that day (the first being Your Seller-Doers Need Training: What Should It Look Like?). These blogs were not intended for immediate posting, but to be spread out over several weeks.
I made the time.
I didn’t miss out on college football, which I love to watch. I didn’t miss out on family time – my wife was a few feet away and our son, well, he’s 12 and was off playing video games. Yes, I understand that if writing does not come naturally to you, this environment is not ideal. (Or even if writing does come naturally.) Sometimes you need a quiet environment with no distractions.
A CEO-blogger once told me that he gets up early Saturday mornings to write his blogs, while the rest of his family is still asleep. I often find that my creative juices are highest early in the morning, so many of my blogs were written around 7am, as soon as I arrived at the office. I used to write for PSMJ publications, pumping out about 60 articles and reviews for newsletters. Their preferred word count was in the 400-600 word range (it was higher initially), which made for great lunch-break writing.
We all have the same amount of time in the day, week, month, and year, so we need to choose how to spend that time. Make the time to write, or it will not happen. (See Productivity: Getting Sh*t Done.)
As for the other typical blowback, “No one will read content that long,” my response is: “Sure they will. If it is interesting and of value to them. Otherwise, you are just wasting their time.”
I consume a lot of content on a daily basis. Sometimes I read every word. Often I skim. And I have an itchy trigger finger on the back button, whether it is educational content or news. My time is valuable, so I don’t want to waste it reading content that isn’t going to educate or inform me.
Your time is just as valuable. So is your reader’s time.
This is why you need to know your audience and establish a goal for any given piece of content. If you want a lot of comments responding to a specific issue or question, keep it short. Likewise, if most of your readers are using mobile devices, keep it short – 500 to 750 words.
Conversely, if you want to exhibit Thought Leadership, target a minimum of 1000 words, but don’t worry about going longer – even much longer. Remember, my most shared ENR Marketropolis post was 2800 words, and I’ve hit 4000 words with some of my posts.
I always tell people that the content knows how long it wants to be. Originally I envisioned this content as a short LinkedIn post – not even a blog. And then as soon as I began writing it, there was no doubt in my mind that it would be a blog; however, I was figuring that it would be fewer than 1000 words.
But as the words flowed from my fingertips, 1000 became 1500, which became 2000 words. If you’ve stuck with me this far, thank you. I appreciate it! Hopefully that means that you’ve found value.
If you’re looking to enhance your SEO, by all means create Thought Leadership content of 1500, 2000, or even 2500 words. Google likes this! In fact, some of the latest recommendations suggest content of 3000 to 10,000 words for SEO!
The first few months of aecumen’s life, Google really didn’t know we existed, unless a search was specifically for “aecumen.” So I focused on generating long-form, Thought Leadership-based content, and now Google is my top source of traffic, I’m ranking first page for a few target keywords, and several leads have been generated by my blog/website.
So don’t shun long-form content, and don’t worry that no one will read it. They will. But only if it is valuable to them.
You do need to make it easy on the reader, however, and the best way to do this is to avoid a wall of pure text, which is simple to do:
- Add an image or two, or a graphic
- Use bullets when you can
- Divide the article into sections via headers
- Use pull-quotes for emphasis
- Keep most of your paragraphs short
- Use bold to emphasize a word or point
This makes the content more skimmable, and allows a reader to jump around, or even skim the sections to determine if they want to invest their time reading each one.
Is Anyone Actually Reading Your Blog?
Marketing is a data-driven profession today, more so than it has ever been. Luckily, a plethora of great information is available for free. I regularly check my Google Analytics to see how I’m doing.
Since this post is about blog length, the way I determine whether or not people are actually reading a blog is by looking at the amount of time they spend on a given blog post. Note that if no one is actually coming to my blog, I have a marketing problem! But we’ll save that for another post.
In Google Analytics, under Behavior –> Site Content, I can view Average Time on Page for every page (and post) on my website. For my top performing blog post, which is 1700 words, I can see that right now the average time spent on that page is just under six minutes. Clearly, most readers are sticking around and reading the entire post – the average college student reads around 450 words a minute, while the average high-level executive is closer to 600 (source).
However, I have another post of a similar length that has an average of only two-and-a-half minutes, so a lot of readers who land on that page don’t stick around very long, and hit that “back” button. Either they were searching for something else and realized they were at the wrong place as soon as arriving, or they didn’t see value in the content I provided. That’s a mystery I need to solve.
In comparing the two blogs, the successful one is more recent, and has received thousands more page visits than the less successful one. So I know that I don’t have a limited number of lengthy visits skewing the time averages.
It is important to check your metrics for every blog post to see how they are performing. And remember, just because you post a blog doesn’t mean that anyone will read it. You still need to promote the post to your target audience to generate traffic. Otherwise, you’ll just be wasting your time.
And with that, I’ve think I’ve stated everything that I wanted to address. The content is “telling” me that it’s time to wrap up.
We’re a little over 2900 words into this post. Was it too long? Too short? Or just write (right)? My readers will let me know – probably not directly, but through the data I’m able to extract from analytics, as well as whether or not there is much sharing when I promote it via social media.
Remember that all blogs are not equal, and although there’s some general rules to follow, every rule was made to be broken. Try content at differing lengths. Develop content around diverse goals, and check your analytics to see how you’re performing.
Armed with experience, best practices, and data, you’ll have a better feeling for how long your blog posts should be moving forward.
Looking to develop or enhance your firm’s content marketing strategy? Do your Thought Leaders need training on how to create meaningful content and tell stories? Contact Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at email@example.com or 717.891.1393 to discuss your goals.
You Might Also Like
- Are You Producing Content for All Stages of the Buying Journey?
- Is Content Without Thought Leadership Just Noise?
- Seller-Doer Tools: Content Marketing
- Content Marketing: A Short Primer for AEC Firms (ENR Marketropolis)