We are “information foragers.” I am stealing that term from Peter Pirollo and Stuart K. Card who wrote many a paper on the topic including the one I am looking at titled, Information Foraging.
Pete and Stu’s Information Foraging Theory states that in our modern-day information economy, we need quality information to survive and thrive, so we have adapted to become effective gathers of good information. That was true back in 1999 when the paper was written and it is even truer today.
Through this foraging mindset, we as informavores have developed selective information diets. We learn what we like and then gravitate to those parts of the informational menu. These dietary preferences allow us to assess information simply by its look and feel – e.g., this piece information has a lot of words that don’t make sense, or this one has a lot of ads that do not really support the informational meal I had my heart set on.
This basic approach of judging a book by its cover is where we get into the dilemma between short and long form content. Traditionally more content – i.e., more words, longer videos, complex graphics – would signal a bigger meal and be more appetizing. Unfortunately content has fallen into a quantity of quality cycle, which for most digital content consumers, has made the juice not worth the squeeze.
Fitting the Diet Needs of Informavores
These selective information diets have lead people to gravitate toward shorter content not because it is better, but because there is less time commitment. This creates a better chance of gaining some valuable piece of information from the piece of content without risking too much time.
As digital content creators mining big data and usability tracking, we see this trend and conclude that people are engaging more with shorter content and thus we need to create more short content. This, however, is not entirely accurate.
As information foragers, gravitating toward shorter content is the reaction of a larger cost-benefit analysis. A reader wants all the quality content they can get and they want it with the least amount of effort. For instance, if one piece of content is five times longer than other content, but provides five times the amount of quality information, it makes the most sense to consume that one piece of content rather than five separate pieces to get the same amount of information. This is due to something called “between-patch time” – the time required to navigate to other sources of information, ramp up to get to the good stuff, and sift through duplicate ideas.
This is because the metrics we use to measure the effectiveness of content are based on singular user actions – i.e., the click – rather than impactful user experiences – i.e., the revelation.
Genetically Modified Content
Turning content into a marketing commodity has been part of the problem on this one. To keep this agricultural theme going, we could say that content marketers have adopted the practice of creating genetically modified content. This is content that looks like big healthy nutrient rich info meals, but in actuality are just a bunch of filler with a bit of processed fiber added in for good measure.
Being hunters of the click, content only needs to allude to a big idea. This tells information foragers that we got a healthy patch of information over here with at least something to sink your mental teeth into. Once receiving that click though, the piece of content then delivers the minimum amount of information necessary to not be considered blatant spam. For example a short blog might be considered about 500 words. In this scenario, 200 words are devoted to delivering on the big idea and the other 300 words are just filler included to justify the creation of a blog rather than a tweet.
Compare this to food modified in laboratories. It is given all the qualities it needs to be labeled as a certain type of food, but no more. This is very different than food grown naturally. And at first we didn’t think there was any difference. A nutrient is a nutrient is a nutrient. But we were wrong. Similarly, all ideas are not created equally and don’t leave the engager of those ideas as full and healthy as they should.
Similar to how people gravitate to the cheap, quick-filling trans fat, people have grown accustomed to shorter content. It’s not the length of the piece of content that matters though; it’s the assumed percentage of filler people have to sift through before they are full. In a 500-word blog, that’s 300 words of filler; in a 1,000 word blog it’s 600, and so on. Again, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. And when we’re done, we’re suffering from informational bloating.
This doesn’t tell the content marketing industry to create shorter content. It tells us to create better content – not just the promise of better content.
What Makes Nutrient Rich Content Tasty?
We are fighting an uphill battle at the moment. Just as people have developed a taste for the rich and creamy, they’ve also developed an inherent bias toward shorter content. This requires quality long-from content to provide the same reward structures as the quick wins built into shorter content. These are in the form of milestones within each piece that pull people deeper into the content while quenching their urge to bounce and go forage through another information patch.
For this we need to consider all the things that signal a big idea – aka a juicy info berry. Primarily these are our headlines. How can we better incorporate sub heads and poignant framing sentences throughout long-form content? Further, our content has to look and feel right. If we just have 1,500 words on a page and people aren’t hooked by the first paragraph, they assume there is just more of the same. This is where we include pull quotes, white space, graphics, charts, and all the things that add a cadence that keeps the experience feeling fresh.
The other factor that might cause people to bounce is not just the promise of more info berries somewhere else, but the promise of difference berries. This is why we also need to be good curators of big ideas. Yes, your 1,500-word blog might have everything a person needs to know on a subject. You know that, however, your reader does not. And they wont believe you if you tell them. You need other sources to prove that your content provides a well-balanced meal. Cite others’ content and research. People want multiple viewpoints – and if they don’t get that within your content, they will find it somewhere else.
People are getting to be really good information foragers. Make sure your information is worth foraging.