Long-Form Content Boosts Engagement, But How Can Publishers Do It Right?
There’s nothing new under the Sun.
Even that saying is way older that you think, at least 2,000 years’ old, appearing in the Hebrew Tanakh in the book of Ecclesiastes…
What has been will be again,
What has been done will be done again;
There is nothing new under the sun.
That’s only slightly older than the conversation the publishing industry has been having with itself about the pros and cons of long form content.
Mother Jones senior editor Dave Gilson recently shared an image of a newspaper clipping on Twitter. It is a letter from a newspaper editor of almost 20 years’ experience. The newspaperman wrote ‘People make a great mistake by writing long articles’ before outlining his formula for calculating the likely success of an article according to its length:
- A fourth of a column will be read by most readers
- Half a column will be read by half of readers
- A full column will be read by just a third of readers
By the time you get to three or four columns, our correspondent believes only the ‘wearied editor’ is going to read it -- an interesting take on the perils of overly long articles, especially since it was published in the Sonoma Democrat, 3rd May, 1860.
It’s strangely reassuring that conventional wisdom in the Information Age is more or less the same as it was in the Victorian Age -- more people read short stuff. Nothing new under the sun. The problem is, smart publishers are no longer just interested in more people; they care as much about engaging the right people as they do about unique visitor counts and pageviews.
The search for revenue has commercial teams trying to sell advertising based on dwell time and audience development people working hard to convert drive-by visitors into digital subscribers. And as increasing numbers of people drift off onto third-party social platforms, everyone is looking for ways to keep their audience engaged with their content on their real estate.
Whether it’s good old-fashioned words and pictures or rising formats like video and audio, one obvious way to keep people longer is to make the content longer. But that takes us right back to that age-old debate: With average human attention span said to be shorter than that of a goldfish, how long is too long?
Content & Context
The good news is that most humans can probably still pay attention longer than a goldfish. There is evidence that the notion of an average attention span is meaningless and that our attentive half-life is directly related to what we are doing. "It's very much task-dependent,” says a scientist in a recent BBC report.
To bring that back to publishing, audience attention spans are very much content and context dependent. That’s why this debate has been rumbling on since before Abraham Lincoln became president. Despite what the Sonoma Democrat’s anonymous correspondent says, people will read, watch, or listen to longer content if it suits their place, purpose, and the story that’s being told.
One simple, but effective piece of long form content I saw recently is the online treatment of July’s Variety cover story, ironically, laying out media mogul and film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg’s vision for professionally produced short-form video content.
I haven’t seen the print feature, but I’m assuming it’s very similar to the online version. That doesn’t mean the web version is a lazy upload of digital galleys, though. There’s been real thought put into the on-screen presentation of an article that probably runs to 3,500 words in print, with straightforward, but engaging animations of magazine art used to break the flow.
The Guardian newspaper has devoted an entire section of its website to long form content. In its first year, 2015, The Long Read landing page of the Guardian’s website hosted 144 pieces totaling 800,000 words, according to section editor Jonathan Shainin.
The section has since developed into a comprehensive archive of features articles and book extracts, many of which first appeared in the weekend editions of the paper. And supporting the text archive is The Guardian’s Audio Long Read collection, a regular podcast series that gives Guardian audiences the option to listen to long-form articles that they maybe don’t have the time (or inclination) to read.
That doesn’t mean audio, and video for that matter, are immune from the ‘How long?’ debate.
Nick Quah, creator of the Hot Pod newsletter about podcasting, was recently asked if too many podcasts were longer than they needed to be? He said some lack the editorial discipline to cut out “self-indulgence, amateurism, and the chaos of process”, but said “podcasts should be as long as they need to be in order to do what they want to do”.
Speaking about his favorite long podcasts he said, “instead of designing a tight experience, they’re doing the work of creating really enjoyable experiential spaces that I want to wrap myself in like a blanket for hours and hours and hours.”
Mobile Video Meets Long Form
The vast majority of video watched is still short-form, and on mobile, but there is a developing long form strand. Vice has led the way and organizations like The Economist are catching up.
Others will join soon them if Buzzfeed Chairman Ken Lerer is right. Speaking at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism last September, he said video publishers should be starting with short form, then develop serials, and then build those serials into long form.
Asked if he thought people would really watch long form content on mobile devices, he said: “Just like some people read books on their mobile phone, people will sit down and watch Walter Cronkite for a half hour on their mobile phone.”
Lerer was also clear that length is not a good measure of how substantive a piece of content is. “You can tell a story in a half hour; tell a different story, but still important, in five minutes; and I think you can tell the same story, but very differently, in 45 seconds.”
And that is the insight that has developed as media formats have moved on from the days of that letter to the Sonoma Democrat. Publishers today have many, many more ways to tell a story than full columns or half columns. And unless you’re Longform - on a mission to introduce readers to the best writing over 2,000 words since 2010 - you can mix it up; long and short are not mutually exclusive.
Buzzfeed made its mark with short, punchy, gif-heavy posts. Those haven’t gone away, but they now sit alongside 5,000-word features that the world’s best newspapers and magazines would be proud to publish.
Of course long form content, good long form content, requires investment. There’s so much short-form stuff out there because it’s easier and cheaper to make. So before you start to spend time and money in creating your own long form content strand, here are a few things to consider:
Test and learn – No one gets it absolutely right first time. Be prepared to experiment with different formats and presentation styles.
Raid your archives – Evergreen content works well. Try creating longform pieces from existing content that has performed well over time.
Tap into audience loyalty – Reach out to your most loyal readers and ask them what content areas they want more in-depth coverage in.
Don’t just fill space – Plan your content creation to support added value in your longform storytelling. More is only better if it brings something extra.
Look at completion – Are people making it to the end of your longform pieces? If they’re not then maybe you’ve gone too long, or maybe longform is just not for you.
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.