Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
2 mins read

Optimal article length: The relationship between word count and engagement

Content analytics firm Chartbeat is using engagement data to try to identify the ideal article word count

How long, or short, should an article be? Purists would say it should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story properly. But the publishing reality is that resources are tight, formats are fixed and as wonderful as your prose might be, readers have limited attention spans. New research from content analytics firm Chartbeat aims to take the guesswork out of story planning and find the ideal article length based on audience engagement data.

Takeaways

  • The content tightrope sees writers and editors balancing short, sharp information nuggets against extended feature articles. Too many words and readers looking for a quick update are unlikely to hang around; too few and casual readers won’t see enough value to register or subscribe.
  • The best editors have a feel for what their audiences want. But beyond instinct and sometimes guesswork, audience data would seem to be the obvious way to find out if engagement rises or falls in relation to article word count.
  • Seeing an opportunity to help content teams optimize performance, Chartbeat’s data science team set out to determine if they could identify a link between average engaged time, a strong indicator of reader loyalty, and article length.

The study

Chartbeat’s data team analyzed millions of articles published between January 2019 and April 2022, focusing on those with a word count of 10,000 words or less. In examining average engaged time by word count, two patterns became clear:

  • Between 0 and 2,000 words, average engaged time increased as word count increased.
  • Beyond 4,000, the variability in engaged time grows and the return on additional word count is less certain.

In reporting the findings Chartbeat’s Jack Neary wrote:

We can confidently say that for articles of less than 4,000 words, the longer the article, the more engaging it will be. Beyond 4,000 words, however, the interval of expected engaged time varies much more widely.

The research shows that, while below a certain word count there is a direct increase in engagement time as word count rises, beyond that article size, the return on investment is less clear. Chartbeat concludes that, beyond 4,000 words, performance will depend more heavily on how well optimized a page is for engaged time after publication.

Benchmarking

  • The research shows that articles between 2,000 and 4,000 words get more engagement than shorter articles, but few of the articles analyzed in the study were more than 2,000 words. The majority of articles in the study were actually fewer than 500 words.
  • Chartbeat found that, while the average engaged time for 500-word articles was in line with recent global engagement benchmarks, 2,000-word articles were registering almost 30 seconds more engaged time.
  • Other findings highlighted that loyalty doesn’t immediately translate into longer engaged time on longer articles. Readers who visited a site on at least half of the previous 16 days, were more engaged on articles of 2,500 words or less. This echoes previous research from Chartbeat that shows loyal readers tend to read more pages per visit but spend less time on individual pages.

This piece was originally published in Spiny Trends and is re-published with permission. Spiny Trends delivers updates and analysis on the industry news you need to stay on top of if you’re running a media and publishing business. Subscribe to a weekly email roundup here.