is short content or long content better?

Does short content help you more than long content? Does long content engage more than short content? The nature of engagement has changed and we address it and what you should do here to deal with "twitter attention spans."

Author: Frank Wazeter, Nov. 24, 2020

Meet the tweet: a 140 character message shareable to an infinite audience of internet users. In 2007 (changed to 280 in 2017), twitter explosively busted out on the scene with this one simple concept: post messages, to everyone, with something called a hashtag and limited to 140 characters.


It would force people to be clear and concise in their messaging in order to make an impact - with 140 characters, you can’t do much more than post up a fleeting thought or single commentary about something. 


I remember being skeptical about the medium. After all, in web development and design at that time (and really, even for many years after), it was empirically proven that the longer the written copy, the more engaging and the higher qualified the lead was. For your website you always wanted a ‘long copy.’ 


Long sales letters. Long articles. Long, detailed descriptions. The longer it was, the more engaging, the higher your credibility and the more sales growth you achieved. 


So, how on earth would twitter be useful? You could only write. 140. Characters. I remember early on when social media was still an ‘unknown’ for small businesses, I created a following on YouTube for them that had over 2 million views in 2010 with tens of thousands of subscribers and a Facebook following of over 120,000 - incredibly innovative use of the media at the time.


Twitter? We had 200 people. We tried, but we couldn’t figure out the 140 character thing, and, well, after a while when you’re getting such widespread success on other platforms (we even had more success on early Instagram), you end up just focusing on them and doing better there.


We did excellently on visual media like Facebook and YouTube. We did excellently on blogging and heavily written content. We even did great on Instagram while everyone was figuring out this “it’s like twitter but with pictures instead.” 


And we weren’t alone - twitter struggled for years and years to figure out how to turn a profit on their own platform. People used it, but were wrapping their heads around it.


However, even for as early as twitter's growth was in 2008, it had a fundamental impact on the outcome of the Presidential election of Obama over McCain. Obama’s use of social media was a first in an election of that scale and his mobilization of the internet resoundly beat McCain, who took an old school route. 


Obama’s use of twitter then helped him soundly win re-election against Romney, and in 2016, Trump’s infamous use of twitter directly led to his surprising election day upset over Hillary Clinton. Arguably, Trump’s use of twitter also led to his defeat at the hands of President Elect Biden in 2020. 


In many ways, twitter impacts elections and engagement way more than facebook. While facebook connects groups of people together, twitter seems to have the ability to engage everyone with everyone. 


That’s significant. And it’s implication is significant in how we think about content, the website design experience and presentations.


We often joke about the ‘twitter’ attention span. That people can no longer bother to read things longer than the span of a tweet. Yet, in many ways this kind of communication is infinitely more impactful in it’s reach than long form content. 


Want to know who the real subject matter expert is on a topic? Who has true mastery? Take a complex subject and drill it down to one or two sentences. It’s an incredibly difficult task that requires a clear, concise understanding of the topic and a clear and concise knowledge of how best to communicate the core idea in as few words as possible.


That’s mastery. Anyone can take forever and a day to make a point and make it eventually make sense to a reader. The person who can do it in as few words as possible has better topical mastery and therefore reach. 


Short attention spans are only increasing in prevalence.


Every single social media outlet out there is getting increasingly shorter and shorter. The best tiktok videos are around 12 seconds long. Instagram and Facebook stories get the most engagement and response at about the same length. Pictures tell a thousand words and small video clips under 5 minutes have the most impact.


Even in web development, the most bleeding edge websites have adopted ‘web stories’ using AMP HTML coding in order to create instagram-like web stories for website content. By the time you read this blog, that feature may already be implemented on this very site. We’re already working on the implementation of it. 


Does long form content still have a place on modern websites or social media?


If the twitter attention span and the rate of people watching individual pieces of content continues to get less and less, then the obvious question is: well, shouldn’t all my content simply be short form?


TL:DR; No. You still want long form content. 


When it comes to website design you aren’t trying to just make a single type of content. You’re fundamentally trying to do a couple things.

  1. Keep People On the Page (keep them interested).

  2. Capture their attention with meaningful short form content

  3. Keep them engaged by allowing them to explore “deeper” on the subject.


Fundamentally, the idea here is that people are going to ‘scan’ content before they commit to reading it to find things they are interested in.


Short form content works extremely well for social media because social media is consolidating a huge feed of hundreds and thousands of different sources all at once into a consolidated area for you to consume.


It’s kind of like the news ticker in times square - you’re getting bombarded with headline after headline. 


However, let’s say a topic in particular piques your interest: like about website design or how to grow your business.


While the short form content may get someone's attention, when they seek more depth of information about the topic, they need forms of content that allow them to explore it in a more focused form. 


Content marketing formula for the highest level of success on your site.


Remember: people scan content before they commit to reading the entire piece of work. What that means for your business website is you want it structured somewhat like a business plan or a business report of any kind. Think about it.


Business reporting doesn’t just go into all the big details of each section immediately because busy executives don’t have the time to read every detail without knowing what’s inside every section. The most effective reports have what’s known as an “executive summary” at the top of the document that is about a paragraph or two in length, with key bullet points that summarize the entire document and what the key findings are.


Then, this same formula is repeated for each individual section of the report. Each section of content has an executive summary that’s then followed by pages and pages of specifics detailing the findings covered in the summary. In this way, someone can walk away with the key takeaways and bullet points, but if they need or want to, can delve into the specific long form content that talks about all the details.


The same is said for an effective website design and an effective leverage of your own content. Long form content is for the more committed reader or viewer who wants to dig deeper into subjects of interest to them. Short form content is there to engage and capture attention and interest. 


Bottom Line Takeaways


You need both forms of content. Not just for your website, but also within your social media. The good news is that by creating long form content, you can cut it up into ‘short form’ content that contains the bullet points and the key takeaways to use throughout the site to direct people back to reading the longer content, or otherwise use social media to promote the content. 


The twitter attention span isn’t going anywhere. As we continually become more and more used to rapid fire content, the shorter it’s going to get and the more concise in your communication you’ll have to be. Remember that content of different lengths and styles have different purposes.


Long form is for research, delving into more details and figuring out more information about a topic.


Short form content is for engaging, driving initial interest and letting people ‘summarize’ information. 


One without the other leaves you in a position where you’re not taking advantage of the creation of the content to begin with and losing out on conversion on your website.


So, in the end, remember this: start small, start concise, and expand on the topic and let people determine how far down the rabbit hole they want to go.