The age-old debate about whether size matters has plagued humans for centuries, and now, it has invaded the marketing world. Today's brands and agencies find themselves contemplating whether long-form or short-form content is more effective.

Long-form content has won the debate in recent years. Because in-depth articles and e-books provide more information, we assume they increase our brands' authority, drive higher engagement, and boost desired metrics across the board.

That may sound logical, but I'm not 100 percent convinced.

That's why my company recently analyzed more than 4 million pieces of content for our report, "The State of Digital Media." We wanted to know whether longer pieces really do perform better than shorter pieces. And if so, we wanted to know why.

When all was said and done, we found that the long-form/short-form debate wasn't so cut and dry.

What's in a word count?

As Rand Fishkin put it, great content isn't defined by its length. It's about delivering the right information to the right people while providing an excellent user experience along the way.

But at the same time, word count isn't completely irrelevant.

The content we analyzed fell into three categories:

· 500 words: Short enough to be digestible, but light on detail

· 600 words to 800 words: Substantial exploration of ideas with minimal time commitment

· 1,000-plus words: Deep dive into a subject

While the middle category seemed to be the sweet spot for content distribution and engagement, the other two had their places as well. The length and format of any article, e-book, blog post, video, and case study should reflect that piece of content's purpose. Sometimes, a quick read tells your audience everything it needs to know about a topic. Other times, you need a few thousand words to really flesh out a concept.

Having a diverse editorial plan lets you leverage each type of content and take advantage of new opportunities. Our research found that many major media outlets publish a high volume of articles that range from 480 words to 695 words. Because they're appealing to large audiences, they tend to go wide rather than deep. Publishing an article in an impressive outlet can give your brand a significant boost, so you want to produce midlength content that will appeal to those publications.

Meanwhile, you also want to capitalize on opportunities to contribute to niche publications that welcome long-form articles, as those allow you to establish real authority in your field. You should always publish where your readers are. Often, they're reading articles at smaller, industry-specific outlets.

A bright 'IDEA'

Rather than getting hung up on content length, I recommend focusing on the IDEA method. IDEA stands for "Industry-Leading, Data-Driven, Educational, and Amusing" -- which are four key ingredients any piece of content, regardless of length, should possess.

Obviously, you'll also need to follow any publication guidelines that may call for particular length requirements. Still, if you keep the IDEA method in mind along the way, you'll successfully prioritize quality over quantity -- which always leads to a more effective strategy.

By sticking to this method, my company knows it's providing real value every time it updates its blog posts or social media posts. The team is also safeguarded against creating overly promotional content, which is a no-go for most publication editors.

In our research, we discovered editors are eager for guest content. They love when thought leaders contribute their unique insights because those pieces give publications an edge. At the same time, editors absolutely deplore promotional content. Their jobs revolve around providing value to their readership, not giving brands free platforms to sell their products.

As you develop your editorial calendar, prioritize the value of your content above all else. What topics will resonate with your audience? What questions do they have, and can you provide the answer? Then, decide on format and length. Different topics are suited to different delivery methods, so let your goals dictate your strategy.

So remember: When it comes to developing content, size doesn't matter (much). Quality does.

Published on: Apr 9, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.