Before I began working with law firms, I was an assistant editor of a Very Serious Business Newsmagazine where there was constant debate about the best length for a story. Other than the breaking news section, where articles were relatively short so all the week’s events would fit, the length of “back of the book” stories about company takedowns, executive profiles and investigative reporting frequently were hot topics at the weekly editorial meeting.
“The story sets the length,” was the mantra voiced by Lew Young, the magazine’s demanding and iconoclastic editor-in-chief at the time. “I won’t force 900 words from a story worth only 500, but I won’t deny big pieces two or three extra columns if the story is worth it.”
Lew’s final words on the subject often were, “Don’t count words or columns, count ideas.”
There’s a quiet but intense debate among law firm marketing professionals about how long attorney blogs should be. There is a growing body of research to help answer the question but the disagreement continues and reminds me of the discussions I remember from my past.
Still, counting words has become a fetish among some blog editors and writers.
Because early blog readers preferred shorter, punchier, newsier posts, the most-read business and law blogs ran between 300 and 500 words: 30 second reads that took no time and provided a 30,000-foot overview of a topic. People who wanted more detail followed what few embedded backlinks were provided or were left to their own devices.
But the financial crisis of 2008, the Great Recession that followed and sluggish recovery that lasted until 2015 had a dramatic effect on blog reader’s desire for information. In less than half a decade – the blink of an eye compared to how long these changes used to take – people who looked to blogs for information and ideas wanted more, and more serious, pieces.
Research done in 2017 is finding that reader’s appetite for meaty blogs is growing: The more thorough the piece, the better. The ideal length of a blog post has tripled, to 1,600 words. Rather than tuning out readers, longer pieces are engaging them for more time. People are willing to spend roughly seven minutes absorbing information, which is about how long it takes an average reader to read and absorb 1,600 words.
Likewise, research done into the best length for articles posted on LinkedIn is 1,900 to 2,000 words – or about the same as for a website blog. For professionals, LinkedIn has become one of the most-important non-blog platforms to use in building a reputation as a thought leader.
But regardless of the platform, readers want depth if they’re going to take the time to read something.
Moreover, longer, substantive blogs give SEO a boost, as well. For instance, SerpIQ examined the relationship between blog length and the position Google awarded it in searches. While the average length of content in the first Google position is 2,450 words, a 2,000-word item ends up in 10th place.
This is mirrored in work done by another SEO agency. It found that for regular content, generally a blog with articles running 1,000 words do well but in highly competitive businesses such as law has become, 2,500-word blog posts do best with both SEO and readership.
This isn’t a justification to write longer pieces just for SEO or the sake of writing 2,000 or more words. Remember the definitive word of my one-time editor: “Don’t count words … Count ideas.”
Clearly, what is important is coherency, and ensuring that the length of a blog post is justified by the subject, the importance of the ideas being conveyed and the readability of the piece. Thus, given the shift in reader tastes, priorities and preferences, here are four new rules for maximizing the impact of a law firm blog.
- Worry about ideas and information, not about length. Lew Young’s advice is as valid today as it was when I was on his editorial staff. Ever since the first firm blog appeared, a common complaint from clients has been that too many posts cover what something says, not what it means – a new law, regulation or court decision. Be sure that every blog helps a reader do their job better by explaining the implication of the topic, and what a business needs to do differently.
- Longer is better but readability is king. The way attorneys are taught to write in law school is the exact opposite of how ordinary mortals read and absorb information. The most-readable law firm blogs follow the writing style of a daily newspaper or a news magazine such as The Economist or BusinessWeek: The lead paragraph needs to tell readers “who, what, when, where, why and how.” It draws people into the rest of the article. If you can’t write this way, hire someone who can; the cost will be repaid many times over because the blog will start to generate inquiries from clients, prospects and referral sources.
- Explain what must be done but not how to do it. An attorney writes a blog is to generate work, and readers do not expect they’ll get free advice. In crafting blog posts, explain what a reader needs change in how they run their business but it’s not necessary – or expected – that the piece will offer a 1-2-3 point guideline on how to implement what is being covered. Your goal is to generate a phone call from a client or prospect asking, “Can you help me do that?” Besides, including a lot of “how to” information will make the piece unnecessarily long.
- Don’t cite long passages from decisions or regulations. Including lengthy citations in a blog to add words is akin to padding a report in middle school because the teacher said to write 250 words on the subject; write long but only to add to a reader’s understanding. Include a sentence or two from a new regulation if necessary but anything longer will bog down the flow of the post and – as likely – bore readers. Only a tiny percentage of readers care about that degree of detail. Instead, embed a link to the relevant source. If someone truly wants to know what a judge wrote, they will click through to read the decision.
When the world’s first business blogs began appearing in the late-1990s, typically they were only a few words that were not much more than a sales pitch to promote a brand, service or product. By the mid-Oughties, though, marketing executives in a range of industries – including law and other professional services – saw the value of what’s now called content marketing. More to the point, the target audience responded positively to the change and blog readership jumped.
Readers’ sophistication has ratcheted up another notch and blogs written by attorneys and their firms need to change again if they want to keep pace – and their audience.
Oh. And how long is this article? According to the information at the bottom of my screen, 1,217 words. I wrote for the ideas, not the length.
Jim Bliwas is PSM’s senior marketing and communications strategist.