In the last few years, snackable content has become the norm among communicators competing for mindshare. In an increasingly mobile (and hyper-busy) society, the trend in content format has been to serve messages in smaller and smaller morsels that consumers could accesss without committing much time. The trend has only gotten more pronounced amid the mass proliferation of tweets (140-characters maximum), Vine videos, memes and Facebook posts.
Media companies, which PR pros rely on as their communication channels, continue to curtail the length of their stories, both in print and online.
Earlier this month, for example, managing editors at Reuters and Associated Press said that most stories should be no longer than 500 words.
The AP’s Managing Editor for U.S. News, Brian Carovillano, said stories from the states should fall in the 500 to 700-word range while “top global stories” may exceed 700 words but must still be “tightly written and edited,” according to the Washington Post.
For PR pros, all of this begs the question: Is snackable content giving way to more of a nibble? And, if so, what does that bode for PR professionals whose stock in trade is the written word?
They’ll have to adapt, of course. At the same time, they shouldn’t succumb to any hard-and-fast rules when deciding what the best length of a piece of content should be.
“Today’s digitally driven world has only served to redefine brevity, one character at a time,” said Albe Zakes, global VP of Communications at TerraCycle Inc. “Our overall goal is simple: talk less, say more.” Zakes said that the company is constantly reducing the length of its media pitches, press releases and social content. “The opportunity for deeper engagement will always be present, be it a follow-up call or social interaction in the comments section of a website],” he added.
Shrinking content may also be a function of Google. The search giant displays roughly 65 characters in its search results. Yet only 19.5% of all press releases had headlines with 65 characters or fewer and just 23.7% were at 70 characters or fewer, according to a study released earlier this year by Schwartz MSL Research Group.
Schwartz MSL examined more than 16,000 Business Wire press releases from 2011. The average headline length was 123 characters.
Call it the cinemazation of PR copy, in which the headline has to give the targeted audience a sense of the entire story, or fail to stoke any interest.
“We try to make the headline and the pitch itself short, engaging and provocative and have the release to back it up,” said Nina Kaminer, president of Nike Communications, whose clients include De Beers, Dewar’s and Rosewood Hotel & Resorts.
She added: “When we email journalists we have to get their attention very quickly, but we try not to get obsessed with every last detail.”
Indeed, as content shrinks, relationships with reporters and other stakeholders become even more important in terms of the proverbial follow-up. “If we don’t get their attention we’re not going to be able to get to the rest of the nuances” of the story, Kaminer said.
ALTERING THE MESSAGE?
Optimizing headlines for search results is one thing and should be encouraged. However, PR pros should be careful about truncating the length of their communications, lest they risk trivializing the message.
“An easy way to protect yourself from content so brief it’s flat, is to send the pitch or the message to a team member and ask her if she ‘gets it,’” Terra Cycle’s Zakes said. “If a coworker is missing the point, so are you. When it comes to a press release or media pitch, consider opening with an executive summary of sorts. You can always provide more information in the ‘attached release’ or in an addendum or link.”
He added: “Our strategy is to use imagery, links and concise language to position our messaging, but always offering more information to interested parties. Be it a reporter or a Facebook fan you want to reach, provide the minimum amount of information to support your messaging and offer to provide further data as required.”
Before deciding on the length of the content, regardless of the medium, PR pros need to combine message, audience and format, said Lisa Astor, VP at PAN Communications, whose clients include Novell and Coveo. “If you can figure out those three elements you can figure out what the best length for the communications should be,” she said.
For instance, millennials may like most content in smaller bites, but hospital CEOs prefer longer, in-depth content, Astor said. “Memes and tweets are not the best way to communicate with every audience.”
The Long and Short of PR Messaging
There has been a tremendous amount of buzz lately regarding creating “snackable” content. These are shorter, more digestible items that today’s consumer—who is often “speaking” in 140 characters or less—can devour. In the midst of all this, AP and Reuters recently issued decrees that reporters should try to cap their stories at 500 words.
On the other hand, media brands like Sports Illustrated now boast splashy sites dedicated to longform journalism. And The New York Times has launched Times Premier, a premium service that, among other trophies, offers access to entire e-books on a single subject So which way should we go? As communicators, are we now supposed to be creating content that’s shorter or longer? The answer, of course, is yes.
Don’t get me wrong: size does matter. But here are three tip to consider when sizing up your content strategy:
1. Fit for purpose. Finding the right length is not the goal; it’s a means to an end. Your overarching aim should be to create a compelling storyline that both fits the business strategy and resonates with your audiences. Only when you know your storyline, how it differentiates the company or campaign and how it will inspire audiences to engage, can you start thinking about the size and scope of the specific pieces of content.
2. Ear we go. Good carpenters measure twice and then cut. Good communicators listen twice and then create. It is crucial to use your eyes and ears to determine the ideal length(s) of content for your key audiences. Don’t guess at this. Ask them, survey them and research the size and scope of the content that they already enjoy. But remember: when scripting content, don’t use words unless you have to. Extra words dilute the point and distract the audience.
3. One size does not you know what. When telling your story in a strategic way, think of creating different “episodes” a la “Game of Thrones.” These episodes fit together and build on one another to drive the story forward.
Each episode will employ different platforms. One episode might use tweets, blog posts and a custom app. The next episode a video and a bylined article. Again, it’s not so much about picking the right size. It’s about mixing and matching different media to surround your target audiences and build your story.
The bottom line is that there is no easy answer to the question: “What’s the best length for this blog post?” Nor should there be. Good communicators act as strategic advisors who create bespoke solutions to connect business strategy with target audiences.
This sidebar was written by Matt Purdue, director of content strategy at Peppercomm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the May 26, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.