Marketing Content Strategy

“I Have a Rendezvous with Death” But No Long-Form Fear: It’s Time for Digital Storytelling

7 Minute Read

When you’re excited about your platform and the numbers are looking great, it’s natural to get a little overzealous about goals. When you feel you’ve cracked the code for digital storytelling, time on site, organic search, SEO mastery, and engaging content, you’re more likely to push your ambitions and see how far you can really reach.

But then you notice your numbers are falling short and, what’s worse, you’re feeling trapped. Your current strategy isn’t hitting the goals you’ve set for the program at this stage, but your audience is used to reading what you’ve been putting out. Your writers are used to creating listicles and short blog posts for you, complete with direct CTAs.

What’s that they say about the definition of insanity? If your audience now has the association with your content as being snackable and your numbers are missing the mark, it’s a sure sign what you’re doing isn’t working for your target—and something has to change. It certainly doesn’t mean you continue pigeonholing your brand for fear of taking a leap. That’s not how experts become visionaries.

So what has to change without overturning your entire process and starting from scratch? You start opening tabs in your browser in some version of frenzy, your mind racing the way it typically does when you accidentally let yourself go on Pinterest unsupervised. All your favorite platforms—The New York Times, The Atlantic, even Fast Company and Wired—are all focusing on long-form content and content creation that tugs at audiences to keep them scrolling down the page the way we all used to rapidly flip pages back in the day. Even a few of your contributors have started to produce long-form content on their own sites. They’ve realized the value of this form of storytelling and want to show clients they’re not only capable of taking—and willing to take—their work to the next level, but that it’s worthy of investment.

You love this idea because it’s an inclusive way to develop your publication as thought leadership-quality, which may just be the element your audience is missing from your content as it currently stands. This gets your gears turning. If your writers are already crafting long stories, they’re clearly capable and interested in doing more than listicles and short posts. But the idea of making a big change is still giving you a good amount of vertigo.

How much does it cost to create a long-form story with all its pieces and parts? How much time needs to be devoted for it? What story would you even want the writer to tell?

Dangling feet off a tall building looking down at a city

Image attribution: Kaique Rocha

Fear is exceptionally powerful on the brain, and it can make it nearly impossible to see simple paths and solutions. All day long, your amygdala works to keep your fight or flight at the ready, and risks can be hard enough to take when they don’t have the possibility of affecting your job. But if you’re afraid your writers and readers won’t want to follow along for an epic (to scale) journey, you’re focusing on the wrong parts of this story. Long-form content may seem larger than life and can have revolutionary effects on your site performance (and your audience), but all it really takes is a talented, willing creative and a great idea your audience will connect with. These are both well within your limits to curate and achieve.

You set these goals for your content for good reason; they didn’t fall from the sky (at least, we hope not). If your strategy isn’t working, it’s time to spice things up, and long-form content is notorious for improving time on page, hooking readers with empathy, being highly favored by Google, boosting SEO, generating leads … I can keep going if it’s helping to keep you from amygdala hijack.

Deep breaths, everyone.

“I Have a Rendezvous with Death”

Change is one of those things where, no matter how big or how small, it takes a lot of mental preparation whether you realize it or not. When it comes to content creation, any deviation from your current digital storytelling strategy can seem like too big a leap, even if it takes the shape of only one or two long-form pieces to experiment with your analytics. If telling one long-form story has you hesitant, do me a favor and think of a little brand called National Geographic. What comes to mind? Documentaries on history and nature? Glossy magazines becoming dull in waiting rooms as the years go by?

A few years ago, they leapt so hard into long-form for one particular story that the splash is more or less still giving me goose bumps. Tasked with developing a companion site for their major docudrama of the same name, MullenLowe U.S. created the experience “Killing Kennedy,” a parallax site of long-form content using visual structure to tell two stories at the same time.

This dual story line is assisted by enhanced site navigation and is set to Alan Seeger’s poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” (one of President Kennedy’s favorites), hauntingly read by the poet’s nephew Pete Seeger. We could talk about how insanely impressive this site is for probably about 5,000 more words, but beyond the interactive narrative elements of the physical site itself, the storytelling is what makes the project so impactful and, well, a little terrifying.

Before I saw this project, my idea of National Geographic was still the yellow-bordered magazines in my pediatrician’s office. But they’re all grown-up and playing hardball in the content world. I recognize them as being hugely influential in their sphere still to this day, and they refuse to go unheard with their stories. They invested in “Killing Kennedy” and, in doing so, further solidified themselves as a major thought leader in their space (still!).

Massive site project aside, your brand wanted me to tell you it’s ready to play, too. To increase your time on page analytics, help your writers tell great stories, and get Google in your corner, long-form is the way to go. Now all you need to find out is where to start.

Expert or Visionary? Diving Headfirst

Even if you do feel ready to give long-form a try, you have to be sure your audience is. That’s where the Content Marketing Continuum comes into play. Last year, the Content Standard’s Jon Simmons wrote that survey results conducted after a 663 percent program ROI in 2015 informed him that readers thought the content was just skimming the surface. Depth of content was lacking, and long-form digital storytelling was the answer.

Simmons felt that same fear that’s keeping you from diving headfirst into long-form. He wrote:

Soon after, the TCS team decided to run an experiment. We asked a few of our freelance writers to shift to long-form content creation (1,000–1,200 words) and reduce their publishing frequency, and we compensated them accordingly. We’d keep the rest of our contributors in the 500–700 word range.

“I was nervous. I didn’t know how our contributors would respond to being asked to write longer articles. I didn’t know if we’d be spending more time and money on content that would ultimately prove to be just as (or less) successful in engaging and converting our audience. It was a big bet, but one we were sure we had to make.

The analytics spoke for themselves, and now TCS is all long-form, all the time.

Take the Content Marketing Continuum assessment to see where your brand falls. This should help eliminate any further hesitancy about how necessary it is to evolve your brand’s content. The five-minute assessment will give you an idea of just how much storytelling can transform your marketing platform for the better. Your first long-form story likely won’t be as involved as “Killing Kennedy,” but there’s no reason to aim any lower when it comes to raw storytelling. There are tons of ways to begin storifying content, from individualized, Black Mirror-esque content to profiles of people who spark empathy in your audience.

Once you know where you stand, give your writers a call and tell them you’re gearing up for long-form content. I’m willing to bet it will sell itself, and you’ll be brainstorming your first content epic—maybe even on the same phone call. Your writers and readers want the depth in your content.

Take a deep breath.

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Featured image attribution: Julian Svoboda

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Jacqueline Frasca earned her Bachelor's in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. She has served as the poetry editor for Gauge Magazine; associate editor of New South Publishing, Blush Publications, and Diversity in Action; and founder and editor-in-chief of East Coast Ink literary magazine. Frasca has been published on a wide array of topics from diversity in STEM fields and athlete nutrition to features on women's rights, local area interests, and national health and security concerns. She lives in East Boston with her two dogs, #brodythehandsome and #pippinfox. 

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