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Digital Content: How I Discovered The Truth About What Really Works

Nobody starts reading content with a commitment to reach the end

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

My first digital content piece to break 5-figure shares was this story. It gained over 150,000 unique views and was very well-reviewed. 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 actually taken a risk to publish a story that 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, the debate about content length seems to have swung to the other extreme. Now it’s about stuffing as many SEO terms into an article as possible, which means it has to be heavily padded to fit in all the words.

I think both extremes miss the real point, because it assumes that word count determines how engaging the content is – whether it’s short enough for people to digest or long enough to fit all the SEO terms. 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 is the quality of the content itself that will determine if 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 work 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 discovered.

You’ve got to know your stuff. As 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. Scanning a few Google pages is not going to cut it. Preferably you should know the subject 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 relevant websites to help me capture the right voice to appeal to the target audience. This is hard work, because if you read the Supervillains article, you will see that it’s a very different voice than how I’m writing here.

It’s got to be something audiences want to read. Here’s the tricky part: most times, audiences won’t know that they like something until they see it. So if you can deliver something fresh, they will love you for it. But with the deluge of information on the internet, it’s hard to stand out and deliver something truly unique. 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.

It’s got to have just the right word count. How many words is that? Well, I discovered there is no such thing as an ideal word count. 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 that really matter to them. I mean, just ask yourself – how often have you abandoned reading a piece of content halfway because the prologue seemed to take up 70% of the word count? Why should you be forced to wade through all that unnecessary rambling? There are thousands of other options on Google that won’t waste your time, right? 

In “Supervillains” I had to trim it 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! So there is not a single wasted word there.

It’s got to win your audience, line-by-line. Nobody starts reading content with a 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 had to be carefully crafted because presumably, audiences would not normally be Googling for “history of Malaysian criminals – but funny.” So it had to provoke interest to capture the attention of audiences. 

Now, say your headline has 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. If I was going to interrupt their day and ask them to commit 20 minutes to read “Supervillains”, I had better make the copy work like a Chinese coolie during the California gold rush. Every line is a battle to keep audience interest! Craft your copy 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 me to my final point.

It’s got to tell a good story. Everyone loves a good story. So you have to grip your audience’s attention 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, It’s too long to explain here but there are plenty of resources online.

In “Supervillains”, I gave each criminal a character arc and journey, like any good story does. I also developed a psychological profile of each character, imagining how they would walk and talk. I closely followed the “Story Spine” structure. These principles are also very useful for other types of content I write – from thought leadership pieces to marketing copy. 

In conclusion, the truth is that everyone is willing to spend time reading useful, informative and entertaining content. It is up to you to make sure you deliver real 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.

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Lai Chee Seng
Written By

Chee Seng is a writer and independent communications consultant with over 20 years' experience in advertising and marketing, corporate comms, digital media and content, PR, thought leadership, authorship and more. He helps corporations and agencies establish comms strategies and tell their stories well. Follow him on LinkedIn and website.

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