DIGITAL CONTENT: HOW I DISCOVERED THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT REALLY WORKS
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
My first digital content that broke 5-figure shares was this story, which gained well over 100,000 views and was very well-reviewed. This is quite a feat in Malaysia, where a story with a few hundred shares is often considered to be doing reasonably well.
"Supervillains" was a surprise hit for the site's editors because it was almost 5,000 words long, back in the day when the conventional wisdom was that digital content should ideally be between 500-800 words long. Today, new research has debunked the "No one has the patience to read long form articles online" mantra.
However, the debate on long-form versus short-form content is still going on today. I think it misses the real point, because the debate assumes that word count determines how engaging the content is. That's absolutely putting the cart before the horse.
As Rand Fishkin, a leading figure in SEO, explained on the Moz blog:
“Yes. I’ve read the studies. I know the correlations. Long-form content, on average, earns more engagement, higher rankings, and more shares than their more concise brethren.
But, that does not make long-form content the same as great content. It does not make long-form content the goal of every content effort. It certainly does not mean that longer content is better content.”
In reality, it's the quality of the content itself which determines whether audiences continue reading until the end, whether the piece is 500 or 5,000 words long. No amount of padding or trimming the word count is going to cut it if audiences find the content itself dull.
The success of the epic-length "Supervillains" piece gave me some great insight into creating content that really works for digital. Here are five things that I've learned.
1. You've got to know your stuff
Sun Tzu says, "Know yourself, know your opponents, a hundred battles, a hundred successes." This is true in strategies for war and for digital content! First, you have to know the subject matter. Preferably well enough to to have an intelligent discussion with subject matter experts. Your level of knowledge comes through in your writing and establishes your credibility in the audience's eyes. You also need to know your audiences really well. You have to be able to get into their heads so that you can present your content in a way that resonates with them.
For "Supervillains", I spent many hours researching each character. I spent many other hours researching websites to capture the right tone to appeal to target audience.
2. It's got to be something audiences want to read
Here's the tricky part: with the deluge of information on the internet, it's hard to stand out and deliver something truly unique. The next best thing is to deliver it in a unique way that resonates with audiences. If you can't find a unique way to tell your story, you have to at least be entertaining.
I had originally written "Supervillains" as a crime epic but that tone did not fit well with the website's brand, which targeted urban Malaysian millennials. So, I had to completely rewrite the piece, taking my inspiration from Cracked.com and badassoftheweek.com.
3. It's got to have just the right word count
There is no such thing as an ideal word count for digital. The key principle is not keep the audience waiting! Nobody's going to give you a 30-second read, much less a "2 minute read", if they are forced to read hundreds of unnecessary words. I have often abandoned content where the prologue seemed to take up 70% of the word count. Why should I be forced to wade through all that rambling? There are many other options on the internet that don't waste my time.
In the case of "Supervillains" there is hardly a wasted word, because it had been trimmed from an original word count of 9,000 words! Every unnecessary word had been ejected. Then some more had to be ejected to make way for the jokes!
4. It's got to win your audience, line-by-line, para-by-para
Nobody starts reading with a full commitment to reach the end. You have to work hard to keep giving audiences a reason to read the next line. And it all starts with the headline. It doesn't necessarily have to be clever, but it has to address what audiences are interested in. For example, if they are searching for "best New York cheesecake recipe," and you're sharing your wonderful New York cheesecake recipe, it makes no sense to have a witty headline that DOESN'T mention "best New York cheesecake recipe."
The "Supervillains" headline was specifically crafted to create interest. I had capture the attention of audiences who would normally not be searching for "history of Malaysian crime." So if I was going to interrupt their day and ask them to commit to a 20-minute read, I had better to make the headline work like a Chinese coolie in the California gold rush.
So, your headline got people to go to your content page. Great! But they still won't read past the second paragraph if they feel bored by then. Every line is a battle to keep their interest! As such, your content has to be crafted in such a way that audiences feel that it's natural, or even necessary, to read from one line to the next. And that leads us to my final point.
5. It's got to tell a good story
Everyone loves a good story. When done right, storytelling will grip the attention of your audience and make them want to read your content. To tell a story successfully, you need to understand human emotions, motivations, and psychology. You also need to master the elements that make a good story. Fortunately, storytelling is an art that can be learned. Unfortunately, I'll have to explain hows to do it in another post, because it will take too long here.
In "Supervillains", I tried to give each criminal a character arc and journey. I also closely followed the "Story Spine" structure. These storytelling principles were very useful for other types of content I had written - from thought leadership pieces to marketing copy.
The core truth is that everyone is willing to spend time to read useful, informative and entertaining content. As such, the key to creating successful digital content is to make sure you deliver that to audiences - line by line, until the end of the piece. Not only will you keep your audience's attention, they will appreciate you for it.
You can read the full "Supervillains" story here.