Write for a reason: 6 written content formats and why you should be using them in content marketing

Molly Raycraft

09 Nov 2022

There are a few guaranteed reactions when you tell someone that you’re a professional writer…

The supposed dying state of long-form content or print is usually up there. Alongside those that rudely insist on reminding you of the classic, ‘a picture says a thousand words’. And maybe they do, but words have their place in ensuring there’s little ambiguity. Words help us unpick complex concepts and can carve out a nuanced tone that connects with the reader in a very precise way. It’s something we do every day in the Harvard Content & Editorial team.

I sometimes feel content is very undersold in the B2B space. I love blog posts when they’re written for a reason. But sometimes, we can cling to blog posts as if it were the only form of content out there. I think this is a learned behaviour from back in the days when a WordPress blog post could drive significant traffic. These days that’s much harder to achieve.

For content to land it needs to be backed-up by a robust content strategy which includes  informed decisions on the content format you choose to use. So, let’s have a look at what some of the written formats are and why (and when) you should use them.

1. Blog posts: The Swiss Army knife of content marketing

A blog post is usually between 500-800 words long.

The humble blog post has become the bread and butter of content marketing for a lot of brands. But because we use it so regularly, we’ve become desensitised to what it should do and how one should look.

The strongest examples of best practice can be found in those blogs that broke out in the WordPress days to become professional content platforms. In the tech space, The Verge is one of the best examples of this. TechCrunch, Engadget, and Gizmodo are also up there. Unlike most businesses who are blogging with the distraction of commercial goals, the content here is the sole goal with the audience truly at the centre of it.

There are many approaches you can take with a blog post (a discussion for another time). But I think the strongest ones tend to be written in first-person, are opinion-based but backed with substantial evidence, and have an angle that really drills into a niche (as opposed to just reeling off the merits of a product).

2. Byline: A soap box to solidify your stance as an industry expert

A byline is usually around 800-1000 words and is very similar to a blog post but will (if successful) be posted/printed in a publication. Unlike blog posts they are usually confined to opinion pieces and are earned rather than owned.

If there’s one content format that you absolutely shouldn’t half-arse, it’s a byline. And I say this as a freelance journalist who has thrown themselves at the mercy of editors many a time – it can be brutal. Most of the time, publication editors are like bloodhounds for good and bad copy. And they’ll easily sniff out if you’ve hurriedly typed up the piece without considering their publication or what makes your angle unique.

During my time at trade publication, B2B Marketing, I regularly commissioned bylines to professionals in the B2B industry. Some of the best were from people like Brian Macreadie, Head of Marketing at Addleshaw Goddard and David McGuire, Creative Director and Copywriter at Radix Communications. Why? Because they genuinely had something to say.

These authors had clear opinions, they were helpful to readers, and they often responded to timely developments in the industry. Meanwhile, some of the bylines I could never accept were those that simply listed the advantages of a product (no, I don’t want to hear about the benefits of digital transformation). Or ones that promised a fantastic angle but couldn’t live up to what they’d promised. Saying something unique or different on a well-trodden tech topic is always the best approach. For further reading, check out our guide for writing better bylines.

3. Infographic: Tapping into the reader psychology with quickly digestible content

Infographics tend to be around 100-300 words long and rely heavily on design to illustrate the story. They’re also referred to as data visualisations as they can be very useful in helping convey the significance of data sets.

It’s true what they say – sometimes less is more. Infographics have their place within the content marketing world, but I think they best serve those looking to make gains on social media, simply because they’re so shareable.

Although infographics use very few words in comparison to blog posts and bylines they need a lot of upfront planning. What will the visuals look like? Where should the copy sit on the page? How can you ensure paragraphs are read by the reader in the right order? Also, chances are you’ll write more than you should, so it’s essential to cull all unnecessary copy to ensure your infographic remains snackable.

Some of the best examples of infographics are those published in response to natural disasters. That’s because authorities are often trying to get digestible information to people in chaotic situations quickly – so the message must land. Here are some examples from Australian Wildfire.

However, recently we’ve seen exciting evolutions in the infographic space, especially with its move from static to interactive content. Look at this Covid data visualisation by Univers Lab to see what I mean. It promises new avenues for storytelling while retaining the premise of marrying beautiful visuals with great succinct copy.

4. Newsletter: Your audience’s weekly reminder that you’re an expert

Newsletters remind me of parish counsels and school notices, but they have a remit beyond informing the local community. In the content world, newsletters are having a huge moment right now, and I’m beginning to see a lot of journalists pivot from owning their own blogs to producing weekly newsletters (that’s how we can tell it’s becoming big). The uptake of Substack is particularly important to note.

Most newsletters out there tend to be compilations of pre-existing online content that’s helpfully been put in one place for your readers (probably the easiest newsletter approach). Or it might be a short interview, blog post style piece of writing, or an excerpt from a book.

Of course, these formats are easily transferable to a business wanting an ongoing content series which promises to build its readership and associate their brand with a specific niche. I suggest checking out Bloomberg Fully Charged as a good example of how it’s done.

5. Report: An audit of an industry challenge and how it can be resolved

A report investigates a topic, displaying the results over three to five chapters. It’s usually around 3000-5000 words.

Putting together a report is a pretty arduous task – you either have to conduct a survey (many opt for using a research house) or conduct lots of interviews with industry experts. Either way, there’s lots of legwork before you can put pen to paper.

Despite this, the rewards can be plentiful. Recent research findings are always appealing to editors, and you should be able to pull out strands from the report to build out at least four to eight blogs posts.

In addition, if you’ve put the work into curating content that’s timely, helpful, and relevant, readers will be much more willing to hand over their details to download the report. So, we find a lot of businesses boost their contacts through report writing.

And now, we’re also seeing the emergence of interactive reports, with some achieving this by using platforms such as Foleon, Shorthand, and Turtl.

Others are building more complex platforms that filter information, so the reader only needs to see what’s applicable them. One of my favourites is the recent Kalibrate report which enabled readers to benchmark themselves in their use of electric vehicles. Readers were then shown information based on where they sat on the maturity scale.

6. Whitepaper: A blueprint of products and challenges – and all their technicalities

A whitepaper a is a long-form technical document that usually focuses on a specific issue or product. Word count is usually 2500 words upwards.

I think a lot of people struggle to see when a report is needed and when a whitepaper is needed (myself included). A whitepaper tends to be a standalone document that focuses on one specific thing and the technicalities of that thing. For example, the benefits of one of your products.

Think of it as an academic paper digging into every detail of the topic in all its complexity. You may include diagrams, collected data, and even refer to academic studies to support claims that your product really is great.

If you’re keen to get stuck into whitepapers in all their glory then I suggest you check out this fantastic MasterClass.

A final note from me

This is by no means an extensive list of the glorious formats that content marketing has to offer. There’s a whole host of multi-media options available. However, I have covered the formats that are most used – often without reasoning. I hope by understanding the mechanics behind the formats, you can continue creating purposeful content that scores every time.

If you’d like to see the full range of popular content formats (including video and audio) and the strategies behind them, make sure you look at Harvard’s brilliant Content Trends Playbook.