It’s Not Too Long, You’re Just Boring: How to Find the Right Length for Your Content Marketing

People always tell you to “keep it short.” They may chalk it up to people being busier, shorter digital media attention spans, or just those darn Millennials! But the conventional wisdom is to get engagement, your content marketing must be short. “Not true,” says Andrew Davis.

Your value proposition shouldn't just be pie-in-the-sky.

People always tell you to “keep it short.” They may chalk it up to people being busier, shorter digital media attention spans, or just those darn Millennials! But the conventional wisdom is to get engagement, your content marketing must be short. “Not true,” says Andrew Davis.

After all, as the great copywriters know, shorter isn’t always better.

The Cult of ‘Short’

“Our audience makes time to consume content that maintains their interest,” says Davis, who is the author of the best-selling book “Brandscaping,” a presidential advisor, and the keynote speaker at last week’s Content Marketing World (where I saw him).

And he’s right. All of the people you’re trying to reach take the time to indulge deeply in content that keeps their interest. How many of them will sit down at some point in the week and binge watch “Stranger Things,” “House of Cards” or even just YouTube?

If they make time to binge watch two seasons of stranger things, says Davis. Then maybe we need to think more like stranger things.

But by not thinking like that, and by always trying to say things as curtly as possible, we’re conceding the battle for interest. We’re telling audiences that our content isn’t worth their time. Worse, according to Davis, “In the effort to make our content shorter and shorter and shorter, we’ve eliminated everything that makes it interesting.”

Short can be a virtue for content marketing. But too often in our quest to force content to fit our purposes, short becomes the only virtue that matters. We glorify short — fetishize it, even.  And in doing that, we sacrifice engagement.

Watch the Gap … We Can’t Help Ourselves

The key to maintaining interest, according to Davis, is the curiosity gap.

“What you know” ___________________________ “What you want to know”

That line is the “curiosity gap,” says Davis. It’s “the key ingredient to grabbing and holding your audiences attention is creating those curiosity gaps.” These are the delays between creating the desire for information, and actually delivering that information.

We have a deep, psychological need for closure. Once a question is opened in our minds, we are compelled to answer it. “Your needs for closure is a deep desire for a firm answer to a question,” says Davis, “and a natural aversion to ambiguity.”

You can think of interest as new questions. “When someone says ‘your content is too long,’ what they’re actually saying is ‘I have no more questions,'” says Davis. “When we eliminate our audiences desire to answer one more question, we eliminate our content.”

So the trick to content that truly drives engagement is to make your audience crave answers, and delay paying off on those answers. But once you do pay off on them, the payoff has to be satisfying. That pleasing sense of closure,  once all the questions are answered is what will bring them back for more content in the future.

He has an actual equation for measuring that engagement: Attention = (tension/time) x payoff

The problem with a lot of content marketing today, is it doesn’t do any of that. In fact, you probably lead with the answers most of the time. Your titles may even answer all the questions. “We’re creating tons of case studies and testimonials, and none of them have any curiosity gaps,” says Davis. “None of them create any tension.”

The Reality TV Director Formula

So how can you use these insights i your own content? “Think like a reality TV editor.”

If you’ve ever watched reality TV, especially the kind of shows that court disaster, like “Ice Road Truckers,” you’ll recognize some of their tricks. They don’t just show you what happened. They draw it out.

First they tell you what you want to happen, what the characters are trying to do.

Then they tell you how it could go wrong. In great detail. … With ominous quotes from your favorite characters set to horror movie music.

Then they show you the journey, and how the character progresses, and every worrisome hint that they won’t do what you want them to do … and might die in the process.

Then the situation gets even worse! Some aspect of it blows up into a huge obstacle! All MIGHT be lost!

Then they show you how the character solves that problem, in detail, with post-crisis interviews about how they overcame it.

And finally, they show the characters achieving the goals, dropping off the load, and getting home safe.

Taking that outside of the realm of reality TV, Davis offers this six-step formula to create questions and tension in your won content marketing.

  1. Show something the audience or character desires
  2. Threaten it for as long as possible
  3. Raise the stakes “one rubber band at a time,” slowly
  4. Delay the reveal
  5. Payoff

Keep sparking questions in your audience’s minds, and you can keep them engaged — and delighted — for a lot longer than you think.

Author: Thorin McGee

Thorin McGee is editor-in-chief and content director of Target Marketing and oversees editorial direction and product development for the magazine, website and other channels.

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