Stop mindlessly following character count recommendations on Facebook posts

A question I often fielded as an editor was “how long should my story be?” I had my pat answer — “write it ’til it’s done.” Clearly print just wasn’t my thing. At the heart of my answer was the journalistic truth that words matter and that sometimes you need to use more of them, other times fewer. But let your narrative dictate that.

Facebook has softly recommended that post descriptions be between 100 and 250 characters. Those get 60 percent more engagement than ones that are more than 250 characters. And Facebook will force the issue and truncate posts — a “See More” intervention — after 477 characters.

However, many folks have gone further, recommending character counts tighter than 477 or 250. The one I see most often is by internet marketer Jeff Bullas when in 2012 he studied retail brands. His final assessment was a recommendation that posts should be 40 characters or fewer, and it remains cited and cemented in some social media circles. Buddy Media research found a similar trend, determining that posts under 80 characters have 27 percent higher engagement rates. A Buffer and SumAll study also recommend posts under 40 characters. Same with HubSpot.

How short it that? This is exactly a 40-character sentence. (With period)

My gut told me that while this may work for some shares, it was insufficient for many, especially in the media where many stories are nuanced and complex. You can’t just grab an anecdotal lede. So I decided to pull and study data from the Chicago Tribune’s main Facebook page to see where we fell and what had worked and what hadn’t.

The analysis

I used CrowdTangle to grab six months of Facebook posts. My sample size ended up being 4,080 posts, ranging from 6 characters to a whopping 938 characters.

The average character count of a Chicago Tribune Facebook post was 155.1 characters, with a median of 140. That’s an average that’s nearly four times what conventional social media wisdom would dictate.

The full breakdown, however, is very much within general Facebook guidance, with 75 percent of posts coming in under 200 characters.

So were the longest posts the least engaged? Not even close.

As we focused on the top performers, we saw no negative correlation to length. The 182 posts in our sample that averaged 10 times normal engagement or higher had an average length of 164.2 characters. And the top 50 had an average of 174.2 characters. The top posts had higher than average character counts.

Conversely, the bottom 250 posts had an average character count of 149.5, so slightly below the 155.1 character average.

Let’s quickly look at some of the highest performers. Here’s the top item from our dataset with 13,425 engagements.

Fairly straightforward. 82 characters. The post mostly just reinforces the headline. But it clearly got the job done here.

Here’s another from the top 10 of CrowdTangle’s overperform engagement metric.

This is long, with 423 characters, but the post didn’t get truncated. Could we have just echoed the headline? Sure. But this took some effort, some writing. We wanted to reinforce exactly what this story was about — the victims. The photos and names purposefully work together. And it paid off with 7,159 total engagements. I absolutely believe a 40-character post would not have been as effective.

Last one. This is in the top 3 percent of our 4,080.

This is enormously long with 702 characters. And the post was truncated by Facebook. But it still had 1,439 engagements. In this case, it was beneficial to not only get the author’s name higher up, but also a quote. Give readers a sample of the emotion in the story. Again, 40 characters would have been insufficient.

Takeaway

So is this an exhortation to write long, rambling Facebook descriptions? Not at all. I saw many very effective shares in the 40- to 80-character range. And unless you can A/B variant test Facebook (please), we’ll never know if a leaner version would have done even better on some of those examples above.

The sweet spot of this dataset was definitely in the range of 160 to 175 characters, but there was tremendous variance. Looking at the stories, columns and videos shared, there was no one-size-fits-all approach. It really depended on what needed to be accomplished with each individual post. Do you need a quip or a long quote? Should you open with just a name or do you need a narrative with nuance? If you need the latter in either case, then ignore ridiculous social media recommendations of 40-character max posts. Just write it ’til it’s done.