A funny thing happened over the past few years: long-form content has made a huge comeback.
It’s funny because not too long ago, when the trend was moving more and more micro, the “experts” concluded that people didn’t have the attention span to consume long-form content (or even medium-form content).
Well, they seem to have missed out on that one because they glossed over the basic tenet of the writer/reader relationship: make it worth reading and people will read it.
Google understood this. So a few years ago, they started rewarding well-written, well-researched long-form pieces by tweaking their algorithm to move that kind of content up the ladder.
Today, the average blog post is roughly 1,600 words, a far cry from the 140 characters that defined the way we communicated in the recent past ¾ and even Twitter has rethought their insistence on brevity, moving from their original 140 to 280 character limit the other month.
Now, to be competitive online (that is, to put yourself in front of them when they’re looking for whatever you sell), long-form content has to be a key part of your strategy. And it’s not just because Google likes it.
People WANT to learn. They WANT to know more about a topic. They’ll APPRECIATE you for educating them, or just making them laugh. And they’ll SHARE your content because that’s what we do: show our friends and colleagues great stuff we find online.
The four rules of effective long-form writing
We’ve written a lot (a laaaawwt) of long-form pieces for our clients, and also for ourselves, covering topics ranging from weight loss supplements to city events to social media management. Each felt a bit different in its own way, but we took the same approach to each because it works.
If you can adopt these four strategies in your long-form writing efforts, you’ll produce better overall content and you’ll have a WAY easier time doing it.
Start with an outline
Remember back in high school, your English teacher would always ask you for an outline of your essay before you wrote it so they could vet your argument before you went too far? You probably saw this as extra work you had to do, but as it turns out, it’s extra work you’ll want to do.
For the return on investment you should expect to get from the effort you’ll put into a long-form post, you’ll want to craft your piece in the form of an argument.
Now, keep in mind that there’s a distinct difference between presenting an argument and being argumentative.
An argument is explaining a position you’ve taken for the purpose of convincing others to take it as well. Being argumentative is digging your feet into a position for the purposes of pushing others towards to your view. Everyone appreciates the former. No one likes the latter.
A strong outline will help you craft a compelling argument without the risk of falling into an argumentative tone because it’s meant to be a 20,000-foot roadmap to guide your writing.
It’s not supposed to be long or even that detailed. But it should contain all the information you’ll need to evaluate your finished piece against. They should align.
So let’s say you were writing a long-form piece about the evolution of winter wear in Canada (I just made that up because it’s –27˚ today and I’m staring at my toque on my desk). Your outline might look like this:
Topic: Evolution of winter wear in Canada
Keywords: Canadian-made winter coats, Canada Goose, winter coats, Canadian winter
Intro: Despite the popularity of European haute couture winter wear, Canada has actually led the world in quality winter wear. And given our climate, that makes sense
Part 1: The Hudson’s Bay Company sets the standard
Part 2: The rise of the department store (Eaton’s, Simpsons)
Part 3: Canadian winter wear defines its look through local designers
Part 4: The rise of Roots as a Canadian winter icon
Part 5: Alternatives to fur — Canadian fashion develops a conscience-focused technology
Part 5: Olympic gear
Part 6: Canada Goose becomes bigger than Roots
Closing: The rest of the world can learn from Canada when it comes to winter wear both from a product standpoint and an evolutionary standpoint. We do winter better than anyone because we have to. And that’s why we’ve succeeded in this category for so long.
Now, if we were to sit down and write this piece, we’d know where we were heading every step of the way. We can craft our section openings and closings accordingly so the piece flows, and we can stop ourselves from veering off topic. Readers hate that.
Do your keyword research
Yes, you should be writing your long-form piece for your readers, but those readers have to find you first. So your target audience is always the Google bots as well.
At its most basic, here’s how Google works: when someone types in (or now speaks in) a search term, the Google algorithm presents them with links that are relevant to what they’re looking for. Many factors go into determining what Google deems is relevant, but the biggest is a keyword match with what the searcher is looking for.
So if someone is searching college courses for advanced open source technology, ideally Google will present them with a page or two of class options with a few links to articles or blog posts related to college courses for open source technology. But the only way the Google bots can know if a webpage or article is about college courses for open source technology is if those words (or a variation of that concept ¾ Level 5 open source technology education, for example) is present on the page.
But remember that gaming Google is way more about human behaviour than it is about technology. You’ll want to know how your target audience speaks, what they want to read and how they’d describe what you’re talking about.
For example, if you learn that people interested in advanced open source technology refer to it more as OST (again, I made this up), and if you see OST as a commonly used acronym on social media, then it might be that your target audience would never key in “open source technology,” but would almost exclusively search for OST. In that case, you may want your keyword to be OST instead.
Another important note about keywords: with the steady adoption of voice search, we’re seeing more money and resources being put into long-tail keywords, which are key phrases that help better segment a search market.
So going back to college courses for advanced open source technology, the searcher’s not going to simply type or say “open source education classes”; they’ll be more specific with something like “advanced open source education classes in downtown Toronto” because (a) that’s what they want and (b) especially with voice search it’s not difficult to type it in.
So if you happen to offer advanced open source education classes in downtown Toronto, make sure that keyword is prominent in your post. And when we say prominent, we don’t mean repeating it over and over. What we mean is that it’s featured in prominent places on your page, like in your headline or subheads because those elements are what the Google bots crawl first.
Do your actual research
The name of the game in long-form content development is adding value. You want your readers to come away smarter, happier, more hopeful or more aware than they were going in.
This is the implied social contract of internet content: I give you my time, you give me a reason to feel good about that. Think about it: you’re asking a person to give you an average of seven minutes of their lives, which, today, might as well be an eternity when you think about what else you can do with seven uninterrupted minutes.
So do the digging to find information your readers don’t know. Consult multiple sources to make sure your information’s accurate. If you come across unfamiliar terminology, look it up so you can explain it to your readers.
Most importantly (and we really can’t stress this enough): credit your sources with a backlink. A backlink is simply a link to another page on the internet that readers who find your piece interesting will also find interesting. Here’s one to our copyediting service page (hint hint, nudge nudge).
A backlink serves three purposes. It can give your argument credibility if the facts you present come from accredited, accepted sources or the positions you take are shared by influential people in your space. It can push your blog up the Google ranks, as part of their algorithm rewards content with solid backlinks, and it encourages other websites to backlink to your content (the internet’s a tit-for-tat world), which also tells Google that you’re a credible source, which boosts your content even higher.
Consider visual appeal
In the last section, we reference subheads, and when you’re writing a long-form piece, these can be your best friend because they split up the content into manageable chunks.
No matter how voracious of a reader you are, a large block of text is still intimidating. By breaking up your content into sections, and paragraphing often, you’re making it easier on your readers’ eyes and minds to get through your piece.
That paragraphing creates what designers call white space. What white space does for a reader is give them a perceived break to further digest and internalize what they’ve just read. It may only be a split second of time to move from one paragraph to the next, but it makes a big difference.
Make the time to post consistently
To be a thought leader, you have to actually lead. And you don’t do that once a month. You have wisdom to share about your field and you should be sharing it often. Of course, if you don’t have the time to write your long-from pieces, we’re happy to take it off your hands. Again, hint hint, nudge nudge.