We all remember the time not long ago when short-form content ruled.
In a 1997 blog post titled “How Users Read on the Web,” famed web usability expert Jakob Nielsen stated: “They don’t. People rarely read web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.”
Later, he confirmed this claim in his 2008 study, summarizing: “On the average web page, users have time to read at most 28 percent of the words during an average visit; 20 percent is more likely.”
But as technology developed—smartphone screens grew bigger and higher definition, web design elements improved, and publishers adjusted to digital mediums—search engines began prioritizing long-form content. In 2012, serpIQ conducted a study of the average content length of domains on the first page of SERPs. As you can tell, the longer the article, the higher it was ranked.
Still others defended short-form. Mark Schaefer, a consultant and best-selling author of The Content Code, joined the short-form content camp in 2014, predicting: “There is a definite trend toward small. If we can’t get big chunks of content through a limited ‘pipeline’ of brain cells, maybe we can get grains of sand through. This would explain ideas like Vine (6-second videos), infographics, and even Pinterest, which is simply easy on the eyes without a lot of processing.”
While there certainly is still a time and purpose for short-form content (think Snapchat), and the debate between long- and short-form will likely continue ad infinitum, today, long-form, multimedia stories are gaining in popularity, just as brand storytelling is.
Depending on who you ask, the definition of long-form could be 1,500 words, 2,000 words, 5,000 words or longer. But the best long-form content combines elements of data journalism, storytelling structure, interactive graphics, and a passionate tone of voice in writing. Branded long-form content serves not to inundate readers with ads, but to attract readers through storytelling, teaching and entertaining them.
In 2012, when The New York Times presented its “Snow Fall” story to the world, it signaled to publishers—brand and media—a new era of content marketing where immersive experience ruled over stories of a single medium. Text-only, one-dimensional blog posts suddenly seemed antiquated.
In a perfect word, they would have ceased to exist by 2016. However, far from all marketers are able to afford projects of these dimensions because of their relative production costs compared to standard blog posts. (Even long-form posts with just one or two more types of media cost more than simply text + stock photo.) As we all are well aware, average content does still exist—in droves. But some marketers are also beginning to understand that they must take content creation to the next level to stand out from industry competitors, investing in a long-form content marketing strategy and using stories produced by top-notch media companies as examples.
These expertly crafted stories look and feel great, but to justify their production, publishers need more than a pretty page—they need results.
Long-form content is all about audience engagement, starting with the story itself. It may be somewhat obvious, but a longer post lets you cover the topic in much greater detail, making it more useful and therefore likable and shareable.
The advantages of long-form content are clear, but does every story need to be long-form? Hardly (not that many companies would have the content marketing budget to even think about it). Before you start creating the content, you have to think critically about the story—whether or not it’s original, and you have enough to say about it to merit a longer experience. Below is a guide to help you understand what needs to go into producing a long-form story.
Long-form is not a 5,000-word essay—it’s a story with character(s) who have to have something to lose and something to gain. Through your story, you must make your audience empathize with your protagonist to hold their attention. If you aren’t able to map out the twists and turns in your characters’ lives, you might not have enough material for a long-form story.
Remember, every detail matters, as they draw readers and watchers into a story. Satisfy their instinct to action, encouraging interaction (quizzes, beautiful photos, GIFs, slides, data visualization, etc.).
Even if you are a jack-of-all-trades content marketer, you’ll need help producing your long-form story. These are just some of the experts you’ll need to tap, depending on what type of media you’re hoping to incorporate:
Another consideration when building your team is obviously cost. How many videographers and designers will you be able to hire within your long-form story’s budget? Will the cost of this long-form story generate more ROI than a higher quantity of smaller stories?
To craft a compelling long-form brand story, you’ll likely need data, original quotes, and highly credible sources. This step may be the most time-consuming, and that’s why if your long-form story includes interviews with experts or case studies based on their feedback, you’ll spend time choosing the right questions to ask, conducting outreach, analyzing their answers, and turning them into insights. For example, Tim Soulo from Blogger Jet reached out to 500+ bloggers and spent about 2-3 months to come up with his data-driven article on guest post ROI—and his isn’t even a brand story so much as a blog post.
Here are some helpful tools for other aspects of research:
At this stage, decide how and where to use all researched elements, including:
We all know Flickr and other free online photo repositories, but there are tons of resources for other design elements:
Use these tools to help organize your project:
After the story has been created by you and your team, you have essentially three options for publishing:
Once a long-form story is published, you know what to do: promote, promote, promote.
But how do you analyze your story’s effectiveness?
To solve the problem, we need to analyze one separate page. Google Analytics provides only a few metrics to do that: sessions, new sessions, bounce rate, goal conversion rate, and goal value.
To get a broader sense of how your story is performing, try and track additional metrics.
The reasons to create a long-form story as part of your content marketing strategy are clear: The results are better, you generate more visibility online, more material to build trust and engagement, and more proof of your brand authority. The market for long-form content is relatively new for brands, but big media companies have already been experimenting with it for years. So why not start now?