First, a warning: this blog is 632 words long. According to a piece published this week by Buffer, that’s 969 words too few for the average internet denizen, so you might want to head over to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s website and read something more substantial. If the Buffer article is to be believed, the ideal length of a blog is 1,600 words – that’s seven minutes’ worth of reading time – which would be all well and good if it weren’t for the fact that, elsewhere on the internet, claims are being published suggesting that the average adult attention span is a mere eight seconds.
In case you’ve lost the gist of this already, here’s a summing up: the ideal blog length – the perfect piece of net-based writing, capable of delighting the minds of adults the world over – when judged in seconds, is somewhere between eight and 420. In word-count terms, that’s the difference between 32 and 1,600. Thank goodness for excitable data stories. Where would we be without them?
Word counts have been an obsession for bloggers and web-based publishers ever since the first person managed to log in and spout off. ‘What is the ideal blog post length? How do I calculate that perfect number?’ Does anybody know? The answer, simply, is that the ideal length depends on the purpose of the post, and that anybody claiming to be able to give you an exact figure is powered entirely by ones and zeroes and probably hasn’t engaged their human instincts in some time.
My own instinct tells me that posts on the Samsung Galaxy S5 and a humorous April Fool’s piece for a pizza company would probably require very different word counts – neither of which would ever amount to 1,600 words. The length of each piece depends on how long it takes to get the author’s point across. Certainly, you can put limits on that, but trying to squeeze the highlights of the latest smartphone into 300 words, just because someone somewhere has deemed this to be the golden number, might hamper your sense of authority. Equally, telling any kind of joke successfully requires a sense of timing, and as any stand-up will tell you, spend seven minutes on a pizza joke and you’ll probably go home wearing the pizza.
Okay, so I’m being a little facetious here. I do understand that the eight-second rule is meant to apply to the amount of time we have to capture our readers’ attention (although plenty of articles have suggested that, as a species, eight seconds is all we can manage now on anything). I also understand that Buffer’s data comes from a study of a single website (in which case, why hold it up as ideal for the whole of the internet?). My argument is clearly with the kind of sloppy data journalism that Nate Silver is currently waging war against. What is fascinating is that these stats are accepted without question.
Back in my days as a print editor, it was drummed into me that we had three whole seconds to capture the attention of the shoppers in front of the newsstands. I had no reason to question that – maybe I should have. Ultimately, though, it makes no difference – three seconds or eight seconds, the solution is easy. It always comes back to a strong headline tied to a powerful and relevant image, served up with an enticing standfirst. A well-planned distribution strategy follows, of course, but absolutely none of this is new. Whether you’re working with newsstands or Outbrain in mind, the rules are fundamentally the same. Age-old skill sets and an editorial knack are always the winners here. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and if they start by waving their questionable length around, get in touch with the relevant authorities.
[button link=”http://www.arena-media.co.uk/blog/2014/04/blogging-and-our-unhealthy-obsession-with-length/” newwindow=”yes”] First published on the Arena Media blog, April 2014[/button]