New NewsWhip data shows that some of the most shared stories on social media can be thousands of words long — but most fall into a much smaller word count.
How long can a viral story be?
It’s a theme that’s been discussed on the NewsWhip blog before. In January 2017, a NewsWhip analysis showed the average word count of the most viral stories from a selection of publishers. It revealed that the average word count for viral stories from the likes of sites such as the Daily Mail and Fox News skewed to the short side, with longer stories less likely to end up in the upper percentiles of most shared lists.
This report looks at the average length of the 100 most shared news stories, and highlights the extremes of extremely long and short stories that get shared by social media users. Data was based on the most engaged with stories (counting total interactions on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest), for the month of December 2017. NewsWhip Analytics allows users to find the most popular content in different categories on social platforms, from cycling to cloud computing.
Using the English-language ‘News’ category, 100 of the most liked, tweeted and commented on topical and current affairs focused stories of the month were selected. Entries included everything from health news stories about disease breakthroughs to a report about Carrie Fisher’s dog watching Star Wars. A broad range of 49 different publishers were represented in the list, from global media giants such as the New York Times to local newspaper sites like the Charlotte Observer, as well as digital native publishers such as Bored Panda and the Huffington Post.
For this report, the word count of the articles themselves was analysed. This means that the body text of the main article itself was used, without accompanying text elsewhere on the page. Image captions, headlines, stand firsts and calls-to-action, such as links to other stories, were not included in the word count.
A sample of the stories analyzed, with their social media scores and word counts, can be seen here.
Of the top 100 most engaging pieces of the month, 82 percent were 1,610 words long, or less. There was a median word count of 578 words and a notably distinct breakdown in the length of different themes.
Political news stories, such as stories about the election of Doug Jones in Alabama, were on the longer side, while general news stories tended to fall into the shorter category. A number of much lengthier feature stories also appeared in the top 100 stories.
This graph shows the distribution of the stories in five categories, from super short (under 250 words), to notably long (over 2,500 words):
Overall, most stories (44), fell into the ‘mid-range’ category of 251 to 750 words long. They included stories from a wide range of sites including National Geographic, the Verge, Independent.co.uk, and more.
Average word count also varied across publishers. Political site the Hill had nine stories in the top 100, with an average word count of just 371 words. Its shortest piece, a story on student loan debt forgiveness, was 158 words long. Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s four featured stories averaged 1,034 words each.
Many stories from all sites also featured video on the article page, although the video was usually supplementary to the story itself, and not intended as the main focus. One thing that almost all of the longer stories had in common, however, was a heavy emphasis on visual storytelling in conjunction with the text.
The longest stories: In-depth features
Overall, the longest story to make it onto the most engaged list in December was a whopping 14,121 words long. It came from Politico and was a lengthy investigation into the Obama administration’s stance towards Hezbollah. The story saw significant engagement on both Twitter and Facebook. It was the 69th most engaged with story on social media in December.
This was very much an outlier, however. The second longest piece was a story from NPR, at 7,227 words long. The story was a detailed piece about black mothers, and saw most of its engagement on Facebook.
After the extreme outliers, there were 17 stories in the 1,251 – 2,500 word category. This is where the bulk of the political news stories, from sites like the New York Times, CNN and Vox really dominated. In total, stories of 2,000 words or more made up 11% of the list, with none appearing in the top 30 in terms of engagement.
The shortest stories: To the point
18 percent of the top 100 most engaging pieces of the month were 250 words long or less. These very short stories typically were viral-oriented stories from sites such as Western Journalism (‘NFL Star J.J. Watt Gives Entire Military Unit in Afghanistan a Christmas Gift They’ll Never Forget’). They also included some entries from local news sites on snowfall updates, breaking news about deaths, and quirky and unusual stories.
The shortest, from Filipino publisher GMA, was just 64 words long. Its reasons for going viral were self-explanatory: it was a short list of unexpected school closures.
The mid-range: Between 251 and 750 words long
By far the most common category of word count was the 251 – 750 word category, which accounted for 44 stories on the list. These included a wide mix of stories, from a photo-based article about a starving polar bear from the National Geographic to breaking news stories from Fox News. The next step in further analysing the effectiveness of this ‘mid-range’ in appealing to social readers would be to find the total number of stories produced in this word count range, and their average engagement count.
Conclusion: Using the data to hit a sweet spot
Of course, coupling engagement numbers with word count only brings us so far.
Further analysis of publishers’ owned data, such as clicks, time spent on the page, helps complete the picture of how long people actually spend engaging with the stories. But it does indicate that long stories are not exactly immune from online attention.
Chartbeat recently named an 8,000 word story on The Atlantic as the story that readers spent the most time on in 2017. In an interview with Motherboard last year, CEO of Pocket Nate Weiner explained that ‘long readers’ online usually aren’t reading the article all in one go, which is fairly standard behaviour with lengthy pieces, online or not.
“Another interesting behavior we’re seeing with this article is that the average time between first open and eventual finish of the article was three hours… And looking at the number of opens, it appears that people are coming back to finish this article.”
As well as that, a 2016 study from Pew suggested that stories under 250 words attract an average engagement time of 43 seconds, with stories at least 5,000 words long averaging 270 seconds (4 minutes and 30 seconds).
Being able to tie together these strands of data is the first step for publishers in figuring out the puzzle of their own content optimisation.
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