How Much Content Do You Need?

It’s the great content question of our time, but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, it’s the wrong question all together.

Whether it’s the printed word, TV, texts, or AI, a new medium is often cause for debate. Some people lament what might be lost and warn of lurking dangers. Others celebrate the new possibilities and buy yet another new Apple gadget.

So, it’s no surprise that communication tools based on short formats would prompt discussion. What are all those status updates, tweets, and texts doing to our brains? Are they rotting our attention spans? Making us more distracted than a cat at a laser light show? Changing the very way we think?

The more content vs. less content discussion about different media and situations is well-tread ground, so I won’t try to summarize here. Suffice it to say that, for content strategists, the issue of enough vs. too much never goes away.

How much? How many? How often?

One of my favorite sayings on this topic is by Tim Rich, who proposes the following mantra: “As little as possible, as much as necessary.”

Tim’s handy phrase caught my attention because clients still ask: What’s the “right” number of navigation buttons and content categories? What’s the “right” length for a piece of copy? How far will users scroll? How many clicks are too many?

Say it with me now: It depends.

That answer is a running joke, but it’s also true. One-size-fits-all works for a pretty small number of things. (Scarves, for example. And, possibly, eye patches.)

As content strategists, we know there’s no simple answer to the question, How much content do we need? We have to assess a host of factors, including audience needs and tasks, business goals, the delivery medium, the nature of the content, the environment in which the content is accessed and used, and so on. And then we have to use human judgment, skill, and craftsmanship in our attempt to find the right balance. 

Some people can't handle that kind of ambiguity. But offer up a metaphor about tailors or house builders, and they get it; they see the value in a thoughtful, customized answer to complex questions.

Others want to cite best practices or to emulate what the competition is doing. Best practices are useful, sure, but applying them blindly and without consideration for the particular situation misses a whole lot of opportunity and may even cause damage.

Ruthlessly pursue the essential.

There is value of ditching excess content in order to make room for what’s essential. The thing is, what’s essential changes with every situation, and imposing strict limits based on what’s “right” is arbitrary and counterproductive. Random examples:

  • Most books aimed at young adults are under 200 pages. There are exceptions. When the content is good and in demand, attention spans stretch to accommodate 784 pages. Sales were good.
  • Most help content is short for a reason: users want quick answers in order to get a task done and move on. But there is such a thing as content that is too sparse. (Looking at you, recently-purchased IKEA nightstand.)

“As little as possible, as much as necessary.”

Tim’s mantra is reasonable and useful. It may be only slightly less ambiguous than “it depends,” but it is more to the point. An answer like that might help folks understand that content strategists aren’t trying to apply a set of one-size-fits-all rules. Instead, we’re trying to create bespoke solutions that fit the needs of audiences and businesses in specific situations.

If you’d like to tell us more about your specific situation, we’d love to hear about it.

This post was written by Lee Thomas and has appeared previously on our blog.

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