Updated: May 19, 2020
My first digital content that broke 5-figure engagement rates was this story, which gained well over 100,000 unique views and was very well-received. This is quite a feat in Malaysia, where a story with a few hundred shares is often considered to be doing very well.
"Supervillains" was a surprise hit for the site's editors because they had taken a risk to publish a story that was was almost 5,000 words long. This was back in the day when "everybody knew" 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" idea.
However, there is still some debate about long-form versus short-form content. I think the entire argument misses the real point, because it 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 short, it's the quality of the content itself that determines whether audiences will read your content, whether it's 500 words 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.
Reflecting on the huge success of my epic-length "Supervillains" piece gave me some great insight into what really works for digital content. Here are five things that I've learned.
1. You've got to know your stuff
Sun Tzu says, "Know yourself, know your opponents, you will have a hundred victories in a hundred battles." This is true in war and in digital content! You have to really get into the subject matter. Preferably you should know it well enough to to have a reasonably intelligent discussion with subject matter experts. Your level of knowledge comes through in your writing and it will make or break your credibility in your audience's eyes.
You also need to know your audiences really well. You have to get into their heads so that you know how to present your content in a way that resonates with them.
For "Supervillains", I spent many hours researching each character. I spent many more hours researching websites to capture the right tone to appeal to the 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. Well, the next best thing is to deliver what you have in a unique way that resonates with your 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 popular sites like Cracked.com and badassoftheweek.com.
3. It's got to have just the right word count
How many words is that? Well, there is no such thing as an ideal word count for digital. The key principle is "don't keep your 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 before coming to the parts the really want to read. I myself 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 unnecessary rambling? There are literally thousands of other options on Google that won'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 more had to be cut to make way for jokes!
4. It's got to win your audience, line-by-line
Nobody starts reading content 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 at least capture 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 carefully crafted to provoke interest to capture the attention of audiences who would normally NOT be Googling for "history of Malaysian crime in comedy." 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 during the California gold rush.
Now, say your headline got people to go to your content page. Great! But they still won't read through the second paragraph if they feel bored by then. Every line is a battle to keep their interest! So 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 developed a psychological profile of each character, imagining how they would walk and talk. And I closely followed the "Story Spine" structure. These storytelling principles were also very useful for other types of content I had written - from thought leadership pieces to marketing copy.
The 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 NOT word count. It is to make sure you deliver value 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.