Read This Before You Chug the Long-Form Content Kool-Aid
Peter Panda

A few weeks ago, SEO guru/ninja/hacker/expert Brian Dean of Backinko published an admittedly intriguing article: “We Analyzed 912 Million Blog Posts. Here’s What We Learned About Content Marketing.”

Dean, whose website touts a technique that “almost guarantees that you get high quality links from every piece of content that you publish,” is an SEO Bible for brands and marketers alike. He has the classic candid speaking gig pictures, and he’s been pimped by all the usual media suspects: Forbes, Huffpost, Entrepreneur, and Social Media Today.

Naturally, I bit on the headline. After all, I’m always game for new insights, especially if they can help me do better work.

But after about two minutes of trying to digest the article, I got a headache. The incessant percentages, charts, and graphs made me feel like I was back in college cramming for a statistics class rather than learning anything meaningful about content marketing. Call me a radical idealist, but I’m pretty sure content marketing should be treated as an art form, with room for nuance and agile thinking. Not at Backlinko. In Brian Dean’s world, content marketing can be reduced to a cold, sterile math problem.

Here’s the anatomy of an optimal blog post, if you follow Backlinko’s formula:

  • Write a post between 1,000 and 2,000 words (because they get more backlinks)
  • Make the headline 14-17 words long (because those get more social shares)
  • Make the headline a question with the words “what” or “why” (those also get more social shares)
  • Make the article a listicle if possible


Ok, got it. With this newfound secret sauce for savvy content marketing, I was tempted to write a 2,000-word article titled, “Why do marketing gurus still publish really long studies about shortcuts that don’t exist?” Since Dean didn’t mention anything about the substance of the content itself, I was just going to type lorem ipsum until the word count hit 2,000, add a bunch of links, and click “publish.”

But I digress.

All sarcasm aside, Backlinko’s study is a microcosm of the marketing industry’s insatiable appetite for “best practices.” We salivate at the sound of absolutes, generalities, and patterns. Yay! Less work for me! But there’s a fundamental problem with best practices: if it’s the best practice for you, it’s also the best practice for everyone else that uses that best practice. How is anybody supposed to make something remarkable, that is worth remarking, by simply copying and pasting the industry standard? That’s like trying to get ahead in traffic when everyone’s driving down a one-lane road.

Blindly duplicating what’s worked in the past (in this case, characteristics of blog posts that get shared on social media and rank well on Google) doesn’t elevate us to the top, it drags us all into the middle. And now, thanks to the proliferation of data trend pieces like Brian Dean’s, it has never been easier to be average. As Jay Acunzo, author of Break the Wheel, remarked, Backlinko should’ve titled its study “We Analyzed 912 Million Blog Posts. Here’s How to Create Perfectly Forgettable Content Marketing.”

I did a Command+F search for “quality” within his article. Nothing. I also searched for “resonate,” “value,” and “engage” characteristics that can’t be measured, but are the vital signs of marketing content in any form: nada, zilch, zero. It felt like I was in a kitchen with a bunch of fancy equipment and no food. It’s safe to say Backlinko (and other like-minded automatons) has it all backwards: they obsess over generating leads instead of creating something worth leading people towards. In this worldview, linking to other websites is more important than linking with the emotions of a human being. And yet, many marketers still roll their eyes at consumers who say they’re drowning in boring, irrelevant, needlessly long content.

So, go ahead and write that 1,000 – 2,000-word listicle with a long title that contains a question mark—if that’s exactly what it takes to convey your unique message to your unique audience in your unique set of circumstances. Unless your audience hates long-form content, then you might want to write something short and punchy. Unless your audience is obsessed with long-form storytelling, in which case you might want to write a 3,000-word article. Unless your audience hates blogs more than anything, in which case you might want to try videos, podcasts, sandwich boards, or wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men.

So, yeah: 1,000 – 2,000-word listicles with longs title that contain question marks. That’s it.

At the end of his article, Brian Dean poses the question: “What’s your #1 takeaway lesson from this study? … Leave a comment right now.”

Here’s my takeaway: What the f*** happened to throwing out the rulebook and just creating kick-ass content?

Peter Panda

Pioneering social media panda bear Tagawa “Peter” Panda was born on a Chinese game reserve in 1969. He emigrated to the United States in 1987 speaking no English, with only the fur on his back and $97 stored in a Jansport fanny-pack wrapped around his waist.

In 2003 while searching for food on the campus of Washington University, he discovered a computer lab where he would ultimately teach himself web development, graphic design, and immerse himself into the growing digital media evolution that was erupting at the time.

With his trademark surly demeanor developed during beatings on his boat ride from China to the U.S., as well as having a penchant for eating vast quantities of bamboo, and enjoying Scotch and cigars, Peter is broadly recognized for coining the phrase “social media” in 2004. He joined Elasticity in late 2009 as the agency’s director of social media strategy and wildlife relations. Friend him on Facebook here.

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