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.

My February Challenge: 10 Tweets a Day

It’s somewhat sad, I suppose, that my only effective mode of self-improvement is to set arbitrary goals. But it works.

Last November, I challenged myself to write a blog post a day. I am happy to say I met my goal. Although I subsequently fell off the wagon in December (8 posts) and January (5 posts), it still feels like a significant achievement.

This month, I’m setting my sights on Twitter.  I think of myself as an active and enthusiastic user of the platform, but when I actually calculate my daily tweets, the number is unimpressive. A visit to How Often Do You Tweet? tells me that I’m averaging 0.7 tweets a day. That ties me with the estimable Paul Conley, but leaves me well behind even the moderate output of new-media mavens Rex Hammock (7.0) and Adam Tinworth (7.6). And if I can trust the MediaPost claim that average Twitter users tweet 0.5 times a day, that makes me only slightly better than average.

Now, to be fair to myself, I rarely used Twitter for the first year or so after joining in April 2008. How Often Do You Tweet? calculates your daily average by dividing your total number of tweets by the total number of days since joining Twitter.

But even calculating my output for the last six months yields just 1.4 tweets per day. Clearly, that’s not enough if I want to consider myself a genuine participant in the conversation.  But how many daily tweets is enough?

According to Dan Zarrella, “Users who tweet between 10 and 50 times per day have more followers on average than those that tweet more or less frequently.” Now Zarella notes that the optimum number of daily tweets appears to be 22 (and can it be sheer coincidence that the the wily and ultra-productive Mark Schaefer tweets exactly—you guessed it—22 times per day?)

Realistically, I will never hit that level. It’s just not in me. But 10 tweets a day should be doable.

I’m not sure one’s number of followers is a good proxy for effective use of Twitter, but let’s assume that it is. If I tweet at least 10 times per day, how many more followers will I have, I wonder? My count as of February 1 is 255. Let’s see where I end up on leap day.

No challenge is complete, of course without a few rules. Here are mine:

  • Every day I must post at least 10 times on Twitter. Ideally I will spread my tweets throughout the day, but I won’t rule out the occasional barrage at 11:30 p.m. (Just hope you aren’t awake and on Twitter then.)
  • Retweets and @replies count toward my daily goal; direct messages do not. Twitter’s not strictly about originality or broadcasting, but about sharing. If the world can see it, it counts; if not, it doesn’t.
  • Exactly three of my tweets must be self-promotional. I want to follow my formula of one-third of my daily tweets being conversational, one-third curatorial, and one-third promotional. For me, the last of these quotas is the biggest challenge; not, as for many others, because I need to cut down on promotion, but rather because I need to increase it. Marketing does not come naturally to me.
  • Escape clause: One day a week, I can make up any deficit for the previous six days (but by no more than 10 tweets total). I hope I won’t have to exercise this one, but realistically, I probably will.

Will my challenge make me a more prolific Twitter poster in the months ahead? Perhaps not. But that may be OK. We also serve who only sit in the back of the classroom and take copious notes. As one Douglas Ferguson of the College of Charleston commented in reply to the MediaPost article cited above,

Defining “activity” by messages “sent” is misleading. Twitter is also for receiving messages. In fact, much of what counts in the media world is concerned with receiving messages, not sending them. No one holds YouTube to the same standard as Twitter, so it seems unfair to focus on messages being sent.

Still, one wants to encourage those students in the back to share their thoughts more often. So here goes my humble effort. (And if you want to check on my progress, follow me. And on the other hand, if you don’t relish the thought of 1000% more tweets from me every day, feel free to unfollow!)