Blog mythbusting: is less more?

Someone gave me some advice about my blog yesterday – its advice you hear so often that its simply assumed to be true – I was told that I’d probably get more readers if I wrote shorter posts. Now, I think this person is an occasional reader, rather than regular reader, so I suspect his view on my typical content strategy is slightly skewed by the posts he’s read, and we’ll get to how that is relevant in a moment…

I’ve given this advice myself before. It seems sound. People digest information in relatively small chunks, and scan the internet relatively quickly. There are some stats that support this from my all time visit figures…

The average visit length here is just under 90 seconds. 78% of visitors “bounce” – they land on the page they come to, and click no further.

I wonder if this “myth” ultimately comes down to metrics – I think there’s probably something to it if you’re after comments and discussion – if you leave some things unsaid, people feel the need to say them for you – and that’s certainly been true of the discussions I’ve entered elsewhere. So engagement might be higher on short posts…

But if you’re interested in people reading what you have to say, and sharing it, then in my experience – it’s the longer posts where I’m attempting to provide something of value, or articulating something I think – usually on a timely issue – that traffic and sharing go through the roof…

Here’s my all time visitation in a graph… we’ll drill down in a sec…

Screen Shot 2012-10-13 at 12.22.26 PM

There are a couple of noticeable spikes there, one, around the 29th of September 2009, was a real outlier – I was Pharyngulated – visited by some of the internet’s angriest atheists after I wrote this post. That was a list. It got more traffic, and more comments than anything else I’ve written – except, now, for my guide to making Sizzler’s cheese toast. These two posts, together, account for a significant chunk of my all time traffic, 5% and 4.7%, respectively. Other popular posts have been tied to getting near the top of Google’s search rankings for planking, a fake Martin Luther King quote, a Thom Yorke shirt, Ehud, Things to do in Townsville, and Instagram web profiles.

Interestingly, thanks to the comments, the atheist post became a long form post – and people spend, on average, 5 minutes trawling through the comments. In fact, there’s an interesting trend in my top 30 posts, where people spend 3 minutes or longer on site, on average.

What gets more interesting is if we just look at 2012, so far…

Screen Shot 2012-10-13 at 12.35.12 PM

Something interesting happens around the 29th of February, the 22nd of March, the 11th of April, the 18th of April, the 16th of May, the 7th of June, the 8th of August, the 19th of August, the 1st, 5th, and 11th, and 27th of September and the 12th of October – those are the sustained 2-3 day spikes you see in the graph.

But why? Did I post a particularly funny youtube video? Share a pithy observation? A series of observations in the form of a controversial list? A fantastically popular “how to” guide?

No.

On the 29th of February I posted a couple of things – one, a video of two jumping Eric Cantona lookalikes who couldn’t sing or keep time, two, a lengthy piece on abortion and a controversial ethics paper that advocated after birth abortions – the first was shared five times on Facebook, which is significantly better than the average number of shares, the second, was shared 54 times on Facebook.

The first was 21 words long, the second, a staggering 2,881 words long.

What about the other days?

It seems from this data that there’s a fairly direct correlation (and, based on a more in depth look at my analytics – direct causation), between long posts offering some sort of substantial content, and increased sharing and traffic. Which are, I think, the best metric for my blog. Here’s the top 15 posts, by visits, from this year – this doesn’t include page views of the home page, it’s people who’ve clicked through to particular posts…

Screen Shot 2012-10-13 at 7.03.10 PM

I don’t really go out of my way to cultivate comments or foster discussion (though I enjoy it), I’m more interested in contributing to a conversation with a more “finished” product.

By this metric, longer is better.

This isn’t true for all cases – I don’t think every long post I’ve written has been worth reading, but I think most of the stuff I’ve written that has been worth reading has been in long form. Some posts have been worth writing, and are now in the resources tabs in the menu above, though they weren’t particularly widely shared at the time… I don’t think this post is as substantial as some of the posts it links to… but the conventional wisdom doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.

Looking at the posts that have been shared widely there’s also a bit of a common theme – which is certainly something for me to think about as a content strategy… they’re generally substantial posts about a public Christianity/PR/ethics kind of issue.

I’ve got a plugin currently crunching some numbers to tell me what the average word count of my posts is, but I’d suggest it’s somewhere around the 100-200 word mark. I’ll update this paragraph when the count finishes. If it does. – turns out, at this point, I’ve published 1.52 million words in 5,639 posts for an average of 270 words per post…

The number one rule, I’d say, is to produce content that people want to read, word limits are arbitrary. Some of the posts above were, in my opinion, longer than they needed to be, but hitting the right content, at the right time, while saying the right thing, will always trump saying something in half the words but four days too late.

I’d say the myth is busted, but there’s also a good reason I don’t only post long posts, or only post about the same thing – I’d get bored, as would the readers who’ve been here for the long term, and I do think there’s something to be said about sustaining the discipline of blogging regularly – there’s a reason I’m still going after almost six years, while most of the blogs in my blog roll (except for a few, like Simone’s, Ben’s, Anna’s, Findo’s, Andrew’s, and Arthur and Tamie’s have been either sporadic, or died).

15 Comments Blog mythbusting: is less more?

  1. Al Bain

    Well I think he’s right.

    This post combines the worst of both worlds.

    It’s long.

    And it has statistical graphs.

    I haven’t/can’t read it.

    Of course, it could just be that you’re taking the proverbial. In which case – ha.

    1. Nathan Campbell

      One thing I’ll never understand is people who comment about something they haven’t read, to maintain a position they held before reading the thing which claims to be the evidence against it…

      The TL:DR; version of the post is that by every relevant metric – time spent on page, traffic, shares (and comments, though I didn’t go into that) – the longer posts do better.

      Sorry to those without the attention span, the good news is I’ll keep posting short ones too…

    2. Nathan Campbell

      PS – I don’t claim that all my long posts are good, just that all my good posts are long.

  2. Gav

    I stopped reading after “things to do in townsville” after I scrolled down and saw it was a long post.

    But then I should be finishing my sermon now and not reading your blog post which was RSS’d to my Outlook.

    I still probably wouldn’t have read it all, unless I was waiting for a train of plane or…had a long wait.

  3. AndrewF

    Just to prove that I read all the way to the end, I feel a bit convicted about being named as having a non-sporadic blog – I was about to post something apologising for not having posted in a while!

    1. Nathan Campbell

      I mostly defined “non-sporadic” as still alive having not required resurrection – yours went through some major changes (ie the one blog to two blogs to one blog thing), with at least one post a month (partly because I had a hiatus something like that around the time I got married).

      1. AndrewF

        I have to say, I’m still not convinced of the necessity for regularity, but maybe that’s simply me not wanting to endure the discipline of that. I suppose it’s more important if you want to develop a solid reader base, and I’m not yet convinced that’s something I ought to aim for.

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  5. Gabby Kempthorne

    Long posts are good!

    Although, I think I’d would be good to use the “continue reading” feature, especially for videos. Takes a long time for my iPad to load the page :)

  6. Phil S

    Nathan-
    Do your stats also include those following your RSS feed? I’m one of those and I rarely visit your actual site unless its a video that won’t load or if I really want to read the comments. I also don’t really use FB and rarely comment (!). I do read virtually every post of yours (even the long ones).
    I think this long vs short posting is not only a myth but a false dicotomy. I agree with Trevin Wax that the blogging world is about curiousity and interest. If people are curious or interested in what you have to say, they’ll read on or subscribe regularly to your blog.
    (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/10/11/your-blog-post-isnt-christian/)

  7. Andrew

    Hi Nathan,

    What a fascinating little post for a whole range of reasons.

    Firstly, it is usually a bit taboo for people to post their graphs or even admit they check (perhaps more regularly than they post) their blog stats. I loved looking through your graphs.

    Secondly, as you can probably tell from my own blog I love the short pithy pointless posts about nothing that give people a smile so they can then move on with their otherwise very important lives. But I also love your longer in depth posts. But have you thought it may be because the longer in depth posts are usually quite controversial in both their headings and their content? Perhaps you could run a control experiment and post some ‘controversial’ shorter posts to see if you get the same blips on your graphs.

    Thirdly, I am also very impressed with the length of time people stay on your blog for those longer posts – which as an average, if you assume some people click through and the bounce out, it means the people who are hanging around are reading for even longer than those averages depict.

    Fourthly (I have more, but feel this is getting too long for a comment), I wonder if there has ever been a study done on the mental well being of people who can keep a regular blog going. Perhaps we all need a study done on us to see what is right (or more likely what is wrong) with us.

    Keep up the fantastic blog.
    Andrew

  8. Bruce

    Long posts that are well written and reasoned get read. The guys at team pyro don’t do super short (unless deliberately for effect) and they aren’t short on traffic or comments.

  9. Gary Ware

    You’re a thinker and a communicator.
    I appreciate knowing that when there’s a long form piece it’ll be worth investing the time to read it.

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