At some point, copywriters, blog writers, content managers, email marketers, and anyone who works in digital marketing asks themselves just how long a piece of content should be. There are some general rules of thumb, and sometimes it is best to just go with what feels and looks right.
The worst mistake you can make with content
However, the worst thing a digital marketer of any kind can do with a piece of content is to let go too long. Back in 2000, the human attention span was supposed to be around 12 seconds. Now studies show that it’s around eight seconds. You have only a brief moment to capture someone’s attention or they move on somebody else’s content. With the advent of mobile, it’s especially important to consider length, since nobody wants to strain their necks and read too much for too long on a phone or mobile device.
Most writing guides say that good writing is concise writing. This doesn’t mean that good writing has to be short writing. No, it means that it is writing that is measured for impact. It does not waste words or the reader’s time. It gets to the point. There is no fluff. Like any good magician, you make your point and leave them wanting more.
So, how long should a specific piece of content be? How long does anything need to be?
TV, movies, and books
Have you ever tried to write a book? Did you wonder how long it should be? What about a TV show? Most of them are an hour or half hour long, but how long are their scripts? And movies are always about two hours, aren’t they?
When writing anything, you have to keep in mind audience expectations. No matter what content they consume, audiences have a general idea in their heads how long it should go. People are used to TV, movies, and books being certain lengths, and going too long or even too short can turn them off.
When scripting a TV show, movie, or play, remember that one page of a script should equal one minute of airtime. Network TV dramas run around 40 minutes, with the remaining time in the hour for commercials and end credits. Sitcoms go for about 21 to 22 minutes for a half-hour slot. Shows on HBO and streaming services don’t have commercials and can vary more in length. Therefore, within an hour slot, an episode could run anywhere from 40-something minutes to over 50 to almost the full hour.
Most movies clock in around two hours, but many blockbusters, superhero movies, and big-budget films might go for something closer to around the two-and-a half-hour mark. An epic film like The Lord of The Rings might run close to around three hours or more. This is an exception more than what is generally seen though.
You might also wonder about the length of TV seasons. Most network TV seasons in the US have 22-23 episodes (and sitcoms could have a few more). Yet, cable and web TV show might only have 13, 10, or even around 8-episode seasons. BBC shows sometimes have even less.
That is because different networks and shows and movies have different goals. Some stories only need a shorter number of episodes to tell the story without filler. Some films need more time to fit everything in. There are also commercial concerns, too, however, where a TV show or movie needs to be long enough to justify the investment in it. So, the challenge then lies in making sure there’s enough story and substance for that length.
It’s a judgement call, how long some shows and films should be, and audiences tend to know what they’re getting into anyway, due to pre-release buzz and advertising.
What about books? There are no hard and fast rules, but there are rules of thumb.
It often depends on the genre. It costs more money to produce a book that goes over 300 pages, so that’s the expected general length for many literary novels. Sci-fi and historical fiction require more detail and world building, so they can go up to around 420 pages. A mystery or thriller has to be tight, so publishers and agents expect something short than 300 pages.
Curious about comic books? Most are about 22-23 pages each. Storylines can last one issue or multiple ones, depending on what it is.
Now you’re thinking all the books that go higher than these numbers, ones that aren’t special editions. Well, most of them are done by authors who have already proven themselves as sellers, so they have more leeway than newer and lesser-known commodities. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling can write practically whatever they want. If they want a book printed on papyrus, the plane leaves for Egypt in the morning.
That’s for special cases and exceptions. Some people might break through with a 700-page epic as their first publication, but they are an exception. You can’t count on being the exception. You play by the rules until you’re in a position to see if you can break them.
Your audience has certain expectations for how long content should be, though it depends on what type of content and there are some caveats to that.
For example, take emails and landing pages. Nowadays, you need them to fit onto mobile screens and to get the point across right away. You want everything (or at least everything important) above the fold. This is probably only going to be a few short paragraphs of copy and at least one image in length.
Now, newsletters can go longer, since people except them to have multiple items, but you shouldn’t really go for more than two pages, and the briefer and the more concise the better.
Ebooks and guides? They’re expected to be longer, but in my experience, it’s best to keep them under ten pages for an easier reading experience.
If you are writing a white paper, analyst report, or something packed with more research, details, and information, it can read even longer. I’ve seen some guides that are 60 to 80 pages. I doubt anyone reads all of them, but they can skim chunks of them. Due to the amount of research and information, it would be expected that these are longer.
And a blog? There is no set number. Some are longer and some are shorter. The very blog you’re reading, the Modern Marketing Blog, asks that all blog submissions be at least 500 words and not longer than 800, but, as the blog editor, I break this rule all the time. I’ve published shorter blogs because I thought the writing and information was good. While I’ve never published a hugely long blog, one that is more than 800 words, I would consider if I had a good reason. What good reason would I need?
Well, the writing, the information, and formatting. If they require going long, then that could justify it. You need to be careful, though. Writing about digital marketing is not like writing science fiction. It doesn’t need thousands of pages in an epic series. If you write an actual book about email campaigns, content management, or on how to build a landing page, 500 pages is far too much. Who is going to read that, and do you really have that much to say on the topic?
Try under 200 pages with a lot of images, charts, and graphs, so it’s more readable and to the point.
The bottom line
While some standards exist due to what customers expect, you can break the rules every once in a while, but only for a good and justifiable reason. Most importantly of all, remember that your needs to get to the point and offer value, no matter what kind of content it is. How long does it take you to tell your story (factoring what format works best, the investment you’ve made in it, and customer expectations)? Let that be your guide.
Regardless of length, you need your content to be substantial, and the rest is for you to figure out, depending upon your goals, guidelines, resources, and audience.