People have been talking about the death of long-form content for a few years now. But the eulogy is a bit premature.
Indeed, the increased speed at which information flows past us each day, combined with shifting screen sizes, have all meant that certain types of long-form content have gone the way of the dinosaur…
- White papers that aimlessly process data with no visuals and little white space.
- Rambling blog posts; part manifesto, part publicly-optimized therapy session.
- Documentary series spawned from uninspired, unwatchable source material.
But those things are dying because they are weak and boring. Not because they are long.
We still need content that can take the time to educate on complex subjects, tell sweeping stories, investigate far-reaching conspiracies and untangle thorny questions.
The changing digital ecosystem just means that this kind of in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.
1. Long-form content should be strong and strategic.
Yes, this should go without saying…but it’s worth repeating.
- The first requirement is a gift to your audience. They will be more apt to stick around if your content can grab their attention from the beginning and refuse to let go, and fulfill a need they have.
- The second requirement is a gift to yourself. It takes more time to produce long-form content. So, it’s worth your while to do homework, first. Clarify what you are hoping this content will achieve, to what audience you are hoping to speak, and what is it that you’d like that audience to do in response. THEN begin the development process.
2. Long-form content should be visually appealing.
Long-form content must be easy to read if you want anybody to read it (Especially if it’s going to take an investment of time to consume it all.) So, take into consideration these three factors when you are creating your content…
- Design: Make sure the text is in an easy to read font and on a neutral colored background that won’t cause eye strain. Use visual elements like photos, charts and infographics to break up space and support themes.
- Spacing: Scrolling down long-form content with gigantic paragraphs can initiate an immediate TL;DR response. So, break up your paragraphs so they are easier to read (And yes, maybe just skim.)
- Multimedia: Much has been made of The New York Times’ gorgeous series, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. And for good reason. It’s an excellent example of augmenting written content with multimedia elements. While your production budget may not be as generous as the NYT, you can borrow some ideas from their strategy and start to play with transmedia storytelling.
3. Long-form content should be easy to consume and share.
Your audience is likely to be interrupted while they’re consuming your long-form content, so make it easy for them to find their place when they return.
- Create breaks: Break up your design into bite-sized chunks for easier consumption and/or add sub-heading “way stations” where it makes sense for your audience to pause.
- Optimize for mobile: Make it easy for your audience to toggle back and forth from desktop to mobile should they need to switch device, mid-read/view or time shift their consumption of your content.
- Be “sharable:” Artfully add things like “tweet this” buttons near meaty facts or quotes. Or, include social sharing buttons as anchor points throughout the text, and not just the end.
- Be “pinnable:” Imbed images within your content (not in a digital header) so the content can be easily pinned to Pinterest.
4. Long-form content should have an end in sight.
It can be disconcerting to read long-form content because, unlike a book or magazine, you often have no idea how long the piece actually is until you dive in.
So, take a lesson from e-books and videos and add elements to your content that can help people manage their time and expectations, as well as direct their journey. These can include…
- Countdown features: Similar to what you see in e-books, include a progress bar that indicates the percentage of the total content the audience has consumed thus far.
- Countdown cues: Give cues at the beginning of your content (e.g. “This post is the first in a three-part series on…”) or in the title (e.g. The title of the post you are reading informed you that I would be reviewing five tips) to help manage expectations.
- Wayfinding aids: Include things like a hyperlinked table of contents to outline the scale of the content (Be sure to include multimedia elements in the table of contents, too) or anchor tags to enable people to jump down and back within the content.
5. Long-form content should be published/delivered when the audience is ready to consume.
Often audiences save content for another time when it is easier to sit down and read it (time shift) or have windows of time that they historically consume things which are long and meaty. Take advantage of both windows.
- Publish during time shift windows: Data from ReadItLater shows that people save articles consistently throughout the day, but tend to time shift and read them: on computers, from 6pm-9pm; on iPhones, at 6am, 9am, 5pm to 6pm and 8pm-10pm; and on iPads, predominantly from 8pm-10pm.
- Publish during natural windows: Sunday mornings (When many long-form pieces from daily newspapers get read and shared online) and mornings in general, tend to be a popular times to publish long-form content, (Perhaps, a throwback to the days of reading a daily newspaper with the morning cup of coffee?) Study the analytics on your exiting content to get a sense if these windows are a good fit for you audience, too.
- Promo before publishing: If the piece of content is substantial, use other communication tools (email, social media, etc.) to promo that you’ve got something big in the pipeline. This can help to both build anticipation for the content and plant the seed that your audience should make time to consume it.
Since you’ve made it to the end of this post, you get a bonus, sixth secret, which is this: Long-form content isn’t really a tool for pushing out info that speaks to everyone. It’s a tool for pulling in select people who have a specific question that only you can answer. Companies that can do that well, and consistently, will never become dinosaurs.