Conventional wisdom says web content should be concise. However, blind application of this rule is a mistake -- there are good cases for lengthy, dense web content.
Web writers have been trained to write punchy value propositions and short copy. From a design and information architecture perspective the goal is to preserve the "white space." Inline tabs that divide pages into bite size chunks are in vogue as is site architecture that divides content into many thematically organized sections and sub-sections. If you look at the "experts" on persuasion, traditional advertising and marketing agencies, their own websites are often high-style / low-content Flash websites bent to maximize brand.
So the best way to create persuasive web content is to follow the lead from the agencies and web copy writing experts, right? Wrong. When it comes to your website there may be value in short copy; but it may not be the most persuasive content for your visitors. In fact, conventional wisdom may be flat out wrong.
Information Density Has a Place
Look for instance at the influential teachings of Edward Tufte who preaches Information Density. Although Tufte has no patience for superfluous graphics and text, he does recommend providing users with meaty prose that conveys deep information. A two-page Word document is more effective than a PowerPoint in Tufte's view.
According to Web content guru Gerry McGovern the slick agency websites are completely ineffective. Gerry has written a great article on this topic (see: Web Design: The Reason Why Ad Agency Websites are Truly Awful).
Or, for a more conventional example, look at Amazon.com. Amazon probably knows more about web retailing and merchandizing than any company in the world. Is their approach high design, whitespace, witty headlines and short copy? No, it's quite the opposite. Once Amazon gets you on a product page they never let you go until you make a purchase. Review after review, product images, videos, "look inside," specifications, and more.
I call these long-form web pages, Super Pages. They are the workhorses of your website and are designed to keep a user engaged on a page until they take action.
How Amazon Sells the Kindle
The #1 selling product on Amazon is the Kindle. The web page for Kindle weighs in at a hefty 10,000 words and over 60,000 characters. This is all on one web page.
There are no inline tabs or fancy AJAX. The content just rolls on and on like the Mississippi (dare I say Amazon) river. Amazon also commits the cardinal sin of repeating the same information on a page several times. And damn if you do not want to buy a Kindle by the time you get to the end. It comes across like the greatest invention of all time. You have to have one.
In contrast, the web page for the Nook at BarnesAndNoble.com has 300 words and 7 sub-pages. What's more effective? You be the judge.
I am also a big fan of the content for the Motley Fool investment site. They send me emails that ramble through thousands of words and subtly drop teasers that keep me scrolling until I am ready to sign-up. It's Super Page content at its best.
The Secret of Super Pages
So why are Super Pages effective? We have all heard the arguments: Users have short attention spans; you only have seconds to get their attention; people do not want to read text on the web. But you need to understand -- Super Page content only cares about one thing: conversions. Nothing else matters. Forget page views or unique visitors. It is about selling now. Super Pages are for closers.
Value on the web is created when you get a visitor to view a page of content and get that user to take action: register with the site, purchase a product, complete a self-service task like product support or member services. This is where the return on investment is generated from your website.
The Super Page content strategy is to focus on reaching a conversion by writing compelling content that addresses all of the visitors questions and equally as important, presenting as few obstacles to the conversion goal as possible. Whenever you divide your content with a tab or a sub-page you are forcing the visitor to make a choice: "do I want to engage deeper?" The answer more often than not is no. You lose the user to a "bounce" and you have lost the goal.
With the Super Page approach that choice is never explicitly asked and the user will continue to scan the page until their attention is satisfied.
Content Fitness Trumps Concision
The critical thing to understand is why the user is visiting the page. People generally go to websites because they need to complete a task. This is where most websites fail. They are built around the needs of the company or organization, not the user. Information architecture and content strategy should be built to help users complete their tasks. If the task involves making an informed decision, like a purchase, the Super Page content strategy is effective. It provides enough information to satisfy all of the questions a user would ask prior to purchasing. Proving all of the information on a single page results in a much higher chance they will convert on the page.
Contrarians would say, but "What about Google?" Google is often pointed to as the poster child of low content less-is-more web strategy. In contrast to Yahoo! Google has very little content and clutter.
But not so fast contrarian. First Google understands user centric design. People go to Google for one primary task: search. Thus the low content approach works. But once a search term is entered, Google is a different animal altogether. A SERP (Search Results Page) is the epitome of information density. Google delivers volumes of content. A SERP definitely fits the Super Page definition.
When you are planning your website think about where a Super Page content strategy can be used effectively. Challenge conventional wisdom about information architecture and content and think instead about the tasks people are coming to your website to complete and how to best serve them. In many cases providing density of information around your goals will maximize your site ROI and result in a more effective web presence.
Lastly, test your content early and often. Use A/B or multivariate testing to see which versions of your key web and landing pages perform the best. It is easy to get good numbers on your conversions and identify your most effective content. The results may surprise you. You may find that content heavy / low design web pages outperform high-style pages. Web 2.0 bells and whistles may not make your site as effective as a simple page with deep content.
If you made it to the end of this post, congratulations, you have just proven that people will read over 1,000 words of web content. Now, if only if I could sell you a Kindle.