No one reads anymore. What does it mean for B2B content marketing?

Photo of a long bookcase crammed with books.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of non-book readers in the US has tripled since 1978. Nearly a quarter of all adults haven’t cracked open a single book all year. And it’s unlikely that the next generation will reverse the trend: reading comprehension has declined among school-aged children since the 1960s.

Apps such as Yarn, Hooked, and Tap now serve up chat stories—which unfold as though the reader is thumbing through someone’s chat history—for people who don’t have time for an actual novel.

And if scanning all those LMAOs and BRBs is too much effort, there’s always Emoji Dick, which used crowdsourcing to translate the Herman Melville classic into a series of emojis.

Mobile phone screen with empty chat bubbles

The future of the novel looks like this.

We hear it all the time: people are time-strapped multitaskers with attention spans a goldfish would laugh at.

Now what? As the appetite for text dwindles to nothing, where does that leave B2B content marketing? Is long-form content dead? Should we ditch the white papers and just tweet a few snackable stats and charts?

The answer is yes.

And no.

As content marketers, we should definitely be responsive to trends in content consumption. If people are consuming fewer white papers and more podcasts, or less text and more emojis, that’s something we need to keep in mind as we develop the content strategy.

However, as we unpack the research, it becomes clear that the text-pocalypse isn’t quite upon us yet. When we look at the stats from Pew Research on the number of book-readers, it only declined 7% between 2011 and 2015. That’s hardly a nosedive.

Pew Research statistic graphic the shows the change in book readers from 2011-2015

The number of readers dipped—it didn’t plummet.

And keep in mind that at the same time, the availability of online research, articles, and business ebooks skyrocketed. If you consider how much digital content people are likely to engage with every day, the amount of text they consume is probably greater than ever before. (For an eye-opening look at just how many millions of blog posts are published in a single day, visit the real-time counter here. (It’s probably a good thing that no stats exist on how many of them actually get read.)

While content with little or no text is now part of the mix, text is not dead. If anything, it’s gaining ground. Chat- and emoji-based literature notwithstanding, long-form content still outperforms shorter content in many contexts. Here’s the research:

Buzzsumo and Moz found that articles of 1,000 words or more received more shares and links than shorter content.

Medium found that seven-minute posts (which works out to about 1,500-2,000 words depending on reading speed) performed the best.

And HubSpot tallied the averages of 6,000+ blog posts and found that the best-performing articles were 2,500+ words.

Tan scroll-like paper with thousands of small words covering the paper

Yes, your blog post can be this many words.

So, what does it all mean to content marketers?

It means that we shouldn’t be afraid to go long. Substantial, text-based content—blog posts, ebooks, white papers, and so on—continue to appeal, especially in a B2B content marketing context where prospects are hungry for an authoritative and informative read.

These substantial pieces (often called big-rock content) can be the foundation of your content marketing strategy, but they take time and effort to produce. While people are still reading long-form content, they’re increasingly selective about where they allocate big chunks of their scarce time. That’s why you need to make sure your content checks these boxes:

It’s simple.

Long doesn’t have to mean complicated. The best content simplifies complex topics and provides clarity. Vox’s “Explainers” are a good example of this concept; they run long, but they carefully lay out the key points at the heart of some of the gnarliest political and social issues of the day. Or for a B2B example, Redshift by Autodesk helps people keep pace with industries that are moving at light speed. Simplify the language (use a readability checker to ensure an eighth-grader can understand it), use skim-friendly elements such as bullets, subheads, and short paragraphs, and break it up with pull-quotes, sidebars, charts, and images.

It’s original.

Your prospects in B2B are motivated to learn and expand their horizons. But the information or the perspective needs to be fresh. While commissioning or conducting original, quality research can be costly, it can be well worth the investment if the data has the potential to deliver new insight that moves your prospects and their industry forward. For example, DemandLab commissioned new research into leadership perspectives on marketing data and technology so that marketing leaders could see how their own experiences stacked up to that of their peers.


About the Author

Hayden Jackson

Hayden is DemandLab's Director of Content Strategy. She has 20 years of in-house and agency experience in marketing communications and content marketing. Her areas of focus include content strategy, content creation, and content performance. She helps clients deliver content experiences that engage the company's target audiences and align with its business goals.

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