We analyse the average word count of some of the biggest stories from five of the top sites on social media in December 2016.
How many words are too many for the reader who shares in their news feed or timeline?
Often, it seems like there are no end of possible answers. It’s true that very short and very long stories go viral all the time. But getting an idea of where different publishers’ sweet spots lie can tell us a lot about what stories get engagement on social platforms.
Using NewsWhip Analytics, we found the top 10 stories from five of our top 10 Facebook publishers in December 2016. NewsWhip Analytics can give data on hundreds of stories from different publishers over various time periods, allowing audience development and analytics teams to perform in-depth analysis on their most successful content.
We ranked the stories by total engagements they received on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest, and then calculated the average word count for the top ten stories. We didn’t include headlines, subheadings, pull quotes, or calls to action within the story (‘Read More’, ‘Scroll down for video’ etc) in the word count.
Here’s what the average length of the top ten most engaged stories from five top publishers were in December.
The New York Times come out on top, with an average of over 1,000 words for its ten most socially engaged stories in December.
Incredibly, the BBC’s average story length is the exact time as the last time we reviewed this data back in November 2013, at 721 words. Many of their most popular stories of the month on social media were breaking news stories of high profile deaths, including George Michael (1,319 words) and Carrie Fisher (606 words).
However, the two other publishers we reviewed in 2013, the Huffington Post and the New York Times, both have shorter average word counts than before.
Five of the Times’ top ten most engaged stories for the month were over 1,000 words long. Just two of the Huffington Post’s stories were longer than 1,000 words. The HuffPo had a mix of stories close to the 1,000 word mark, and very short pieces of text. Their shortest story was just 61 words, plus a video.
While Fox News comes out with the shortest average count, all of their stories are accompanied by exclusive video content, which seems to help their engagement numbers. The role of visuals, including video, interactive content and photos, seems to grow as data plans improve mobile audiences’ ability to load clips and images quickly.
But despite the short word counts of many of the posts we reviewed, it’s clear that enthusiasm for long-form content on social media remains.
The longest story we reviewed was a book extract from the Daily Mail, at just over 2,000 words. A BBC story on west African slaves’ descendants in the US picked up over 71,000 engagements, at over 1,500 words long.
What’s the perfect word count?
Lots has been written about the ideal length of stories online.
As ever, there’s no magical answer, but guidance can be found in analysing your audience data.
The New York Times’ recent 2020 journalism report commented that ‘too much of our daily report remains dominated by long strings of text’, and called for longer stories to make use of more visual storytelling elements. This chart illustrates how they’ve been improving things since 2014:
When it comes to thinking about word count, it often comes down to what your audience thinks.
One thing is for sure: the standard 800 word newspaper article doesn’t always translate well onto the web. And certainly not social media.
When new politics site Axios scored an interview with Donald Trump ahead of his inauguration last week, it broke the story up into numerous, easily-digestible posts, rather than one lengthy feature. This allowed the site to push different angles of the interview out as separate stories, and distribute them numerous times without seeming repetitive to social media audiences.
Using data to analyse the common themes of your most successful stories can help build your valuable editorial insights.