The Complete Guide to Long Form Content that Sells
Recently I wrote about the benefits of long form content. Long content—meaning blog posts of 1,200 words or more—has massive benefits for your site: higher conversion rates, more social media shares, and a tendency to rise to the top of the search results. If your blog never runs long articles, you’re missing out on a lot of traffic.
But long content is a lot harder to write than short blog posts. So how exactly do you write long articles that perform well? Here’s our complete guide.
Step 1: Choose the Right Topic
Choosing strong blog topics is always important, but it matters a lot more with long form. Reading a long article takes commitment, so the topic has to be interesting and high-value. And that topic has to stay in sight through each section—your audience won’t keep reading for 10 minutes unless there’s a clear point.
Your topic is then going to be your “through story,” the theme that drives the whole article forward. For example, in an article called Does Your WordPress Theme Really Support SEO? there could be sections on what good SEO is, what technical factors are hardest with WordPress, and what plugins can help solve them. But every section has to support the through story, helping them learn what to look for in a good theme.
This is what sets apart topics that make good long form content. For a short post, almost any topic will do—5 Best Themes for WordPress or 6 WordPress Plugins You MUST have for SEO. But not all of these topics can be expanded easily. They may not make a good through story for a longer piece with many different sections.
So, one way to come up with your topic is just to brainstorm a list and then circle those that can be expanded into meaty, well researched articles. Topics where you have a lot of technical knowledge are great. So are topics that your average reader may not understand without your help.
Other ways to get good topics include:
- Your audience. Sometimes your customers can give you ideas for blog posts. Do a lot of readers ask the same questions? Have you sent out a customer survey? Is your customer service team sitting on a gold mine?
- Existing content. Which of your existing blog posts are performing well? Look through your top performers and ask if any could be expanded. For example, if a “5 Tips on ___” post is popular, a comprehensive guide on the same topic would be a hit.
- Keyword research. Your company should already be doing keyword research for SEO purposes, and you can use that same data to guide your blog posts. In particular, long tail keywords indicate niche, high-value topics that customers want to read about. Long tail keywords are phrases like, “how to create infographic” or “DUI can I keep my license.” They usually have 4 or more words and reflect a specific interest.
- A look at your competitors. Your competitors are probably producing their own long form blog topics and there’s no reason you can’t crib ideas from them. Scroll through their blogs and see if they have any over 1,200-1,500 words. In particular, note those that are performing well in terms of comments or shares. The same topics will probably work well for you.
There are also some long form topic “don’ts.” Don’t, for example, just make an extra-long listicle. “23 Ways to Improve Your SEO” might sound like a winner, but the truth is it’s too general of a topic for most people to want to read all 23. Most of the tips will either be things they already know, or so technical that it’s too niche for a general post. You’ll get less clicks and less shares, defeating the purpose of crafting such a hefty post.
Step 2: Outline by Sections
Your long post absolutely, positively must be broken into sections. This is not optional. For a long read, sections help break up the text visually and keep the reader going. The sections also help you organize your thoughts, making for better writing.
Expect each section to have several paragraphs to it. Not every section needs to be on-topic, as long as they relate to your “through story” in a logical way. For example, if you are arguing for a new way of doing something, you might have section that explains the old way—then tears it down.
Each section should have its own header in the article. For example, let’s say you’re a law firm with a blog about DUI cases. An outline for a good long article might look something like this:
Topic: The Breathalyzer Is Not the Rock-Solid Evidence You Think It is
Section 1: Intro – open with a question, suggest that you can win your DUI case even if a breath test says you were drunk
Section 2: How the Breath Test Works
- Explain difference between the “Breathalyzer” and other devices
- Discuss blood alcohol content (BAC)
- How a breath test device reads your BAC
Section 3: Flaws with the Breath Test
- The process itself is flawed and has a margin of error
- Not everyone has the same weight—this effects accuracy
- Devices need to be maintained and calibrated properly, but sometimes they aren’t
Section 4: A Shaky History
- Breathalyzer originally meant to guide the arrest decision. Not meant as scientific evidence.
- How breath tests were admitted to court
Section 5: Winning Against a Breath Test
- Common strategies (bulleted list)
- Likelihood of success
- Plea deals
Closing: End with a call to action. Offer a free consultation on their DUI case.
Step 3: Focus on How To
Generally, long articles from businesses do best when they teach the audience something. This could be anything from how to tell a good product from a bad product, to a DIY instructional (like this post). The more informative your post is, the better.
When writing the post, that means that you focus on delivering the mst value possible. You have to understand what constitutes a “fluff” piece and why this will not perform well (with exceptions; see below). A fluff piece is a piece that either:
- Promises how-to content, but doesn’t really deliver; or
- Is purely inspirational with no how-to at all.
For a business, most fluff pieces are guilty of mistake #1. They under-deliver. When you finish your first draft, look at the problem or question you introduced in the first paragraph. Does your draft completely resolve it? If no, you need to add more meat.
Be especially careful of skipping over technical explanations. This can be something big, like linking to the instructions for setting up a WordPress blog. Or it can be very small, like explaining what “blood alcohol content” is instead of just using the abbreviation BAC.
Exceptions: Inspirational content works well for some businesses. If you are a single individual with a personal brand, or your main offering is information products, the inspiration pieces can fire up your audience and get them to make a purchase. Even here, however, I would suggest that some meaty how-to content would put you ahead of the competition.
Step 4: Trim the Padding
There is absolutely no room for padding in a long post. But adding some is almost inevitable as you strive to reach the 1,200 word mark. So how do you get rid of it?
You already have one advantage, because we’ve discussed how to choose the right topic. Good topics will actually have the opposite problem: you’ll set out thinking you can easily do it in 1,200 words, and soon realize you’re at the 2,000 word mark (which is great, by the way).
Other tips include:
- Focus on concision. Concise writing is harder than ramble-on writing, but if you learn to police yourself you’ll find your drafts padding-free. As always, I recommend the Hemingway App (free) to help you make your writing tighter.
- Kill the intro. Most padding ends up at the beginning, which is the absolute worst place. Remember that you don’t have to explain or justify why you’re writing the article. Most how-to content solves a problem readers already have, so just say what it is and dive right in. Use a single intro paragraph to ask a question or bring up the problem, then promise a solution. Now start the real content.
- Do your research. If you don’t have enough to say on a topic, you may not know enough about it. Take the time to read more related articles, gather stats, and educate yourself. Research time is part of why long form content costs more to produce, but it’s also what makes readers love it.
- Be flexible. Not every topic is meant to be 1,200 words long. If you can’t get the draft over 750 words, change strategy. Instead of adding filler, just release it as a really strong 750-word post and find a new topic for your long piece.
Step 5: Demand Quality Writing
By now you should have an idea of why quality matters. In long form writing, any section that seems slow, fluffy or boring means a lost reader. Long form performs well, but only when it’s so good that it leaves readers hanging on every word to the very end—and still clamoring for more.
If you’re writing it internally, make sure you have a staff member who’s actually a gifted writer. Anyone can write a blog post, but not anyone can write a clear, well researched, filler-free article. Provide your staff writer with a clear outline and as many helpful links as you can find. Then institute a review process so that the content goes through multiple stages of editing.
If you’re outsourcing the content, make sure you have a quality writer. Ask for writing samples that have appeared on high quality websites, and make sure those samples read like engaging articles to you. Quality writers will charge more, but it will pay off.
Step 6: Include a Call to Action
There’s a perennial debate over whether to put calls to action on company blogs. It increases conversions, but can seem out of place with some small blog topics. With long pieces, however, you should go for it.
The entire point of a long form article is to show the customer you are incredibly good at solving their problems. And because you chose a detailed, niche topic, you know that the reader has a problem and is already a couple of steps down the buying funnel. Leaving out the call to action is leaving money on the table.
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