Is Longer Better? Books, Twitter, and Engagement

One of the truisms of new media is that if you want your content to have an impact, you should keep it short. It’s a handy rule of thumb, but not an iron-clad rule. Tl;dr doesn’t always apply. Sometimes, in fact, longer is better.

Best Sellers by Tier, Mark Coker, Huffington PostFor a case in point, see Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s recent Huffington post article, “Do E-Book Customers Prefer Longer or Shorter Books?” In it, he offers data showing that bestsellers on Smashwords run long, and that “readers go out of their way to search out and purchase longer e-books.”

I doubt that readers actually seek out length per se—figuring that out for an e-book takes some effort. The key, rather, is that longer works tend more often than shorter ones to produce the kind of engagement that prompts readers to recommend them to others.

What long books are good at is creating a flow of thought or, if you prefer, a world, that absorbs the reader into it. Length is not an impediment to this end, but (almost) a requirement.

One of the defining characteristics of Twitter is its severe restriction on length, with a maximum of 140 characters per tweet. Though you might think its brevity is the key to its success, I don’t think that’s quite true.

A single tweet generally won’t draw you in. It only does so to the extent that it is part of a flow of thought, whether that’s a collective Twitter stream or an individual’s ongoing tweets. The brevity of a tweet makes it accessible, but frequency of tweets is what builds engagement.

I’d stop short of suggesting that length is necessary to engagement, though. It’s possible to build engagement through a short form, but it’s much harder. Both time and artistry are required. As Pascal told a correspondent, “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.”

The lesson to draw from this, I think, is not that longer is better. The important thing is focus on engagement. Don’t ask whether your content is too long or too short. Ask instead whether it’s connecting with the reader.

One thought on “Is Longer Better? Books, Twitter, and Engagement

  1. Hi John:

    For me “Is longer better” was a timely post. Over the weekend, the significance of “longform journalism” was a focus of a TV panel discussion led by the executive editor of Rolling Stone Magazine. Among the points made:

    (1) Site visitors have become increasingly responsive to longer articles.
    (2) Audiences may be getting bored with online brevity because there is so much of it.
    (3) And as you pointed out in your commentary, length on its own means very little unless the focus is deemed to be significant and therefore engaging.

    Which brings me to what this means to B2B publishers and editors.

    A few weeks ago, I finished judging the Best Debut Issue for the annual AZBEE Awards competition sponsored by the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

    The winner, among other things, included a dynamite Q&A article stretching out over several pages with the chief executive of a company that has been the subject of controversy. It was well done and certainly non-stop in terms of constantly touching on signficant points. Even more impressive — the author was the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

    And a few weeks ago, “Meating Place” — one of my favorite B2B magazines — hit the streets with a cover graced with a one-word headline — “SLIME” — supported by a staff-written investigation of a high profile meat industry scandal.

    The point: When well done, longform always has been a B2B strength. But due to current staff squeezes and heightened online content workloads, dramatic longform has become more difficult for many staffs to deliver.

    Perhaps more notable, particularly for print and digital magazine news sections, there is something to be said for including at least one significant “longform” article and perhaps transforming entire sections into a collection of high-value analytical content. This is as opposed to what for some has become stuff cloned from web output or a bunch of low value puff pieces.

    A while back on the ASBPE site, I blogged that “Brevity has become a foreign language.” Now that we’re more adept at being brief, perhaps it’s time to restore our capability in terms of longform presentation.

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