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Slow Digital: Is Long-Form Content Coming Back?

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Last year, BuzzFeed launched Big Stories, a collection of traditional feature articles that are often more than 3000 words long. That a website that built its popularity around snackable content – bite-sized nuggets of information that can be quickly consumed – decided to get into serious journalism has been a subject of wonder for me at the time. Most of Buzzfeed’s traffic comes from social media – 75 percent of the site’s referral traffic! – and its content is designed to be easily consumed and shared via those platforms and on mobile. Buzzfeed is famous for its viral lists, fun facts, and memes. Research worryingly shows that we have an average attention span of 8 seconds, less than the one of a goldfish, and it’s getting shorter with every passing decade. That’s just enough time to read a few sentences. So why on earth would Buzzfeed want to invest in the development of long-form content?

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat all offer ephemeral, fleeting and fluid experiences. Even the word “twitter” describes a short burst of trivial information. But do people really remember those messages, and are re-shares, +1s and likes a true measure of engagement when it only takes a few seconds to perform those actions? Even if we use them as success metrics, what is the brand or business impact of these engagements? Facebook recognizes that users can like your content without actually clicking on it and consuming it. The Reddit community uses the acronym “tl;dr,” or “too long; didn’t read” for any content it considers being too meaty.

Case studies offered by social media platforms – obviously biased towards a business objective – are numerous, but I haven’t found any independent research answering those questions, so I started looking elsewhere, specifically at websites that specialize in long-form content, and get it right.

I’m sure you all know about Medium, the open blog-publishing platform created by Twitter founders, that specializes in social journalism, and one of the most recent examples of publishers as platforms. Their most popular content is 1600 words long on average and takes 7 long minutes to read. It’s interesting to note that the king of short content decided to launch a long-form content platform, and that this platform is thriving. This paradox and the success of the operation perfectly illustrates the Quartz curve, a model developed by Kevin Delaney, Quartz’s Editor-in-Chief. The business news site refuses to publish articles in the typically news-friendly 500-800 word range. Based on their social media engagement internal metrics, they either publish short articles of less than 500 words, or in-depth features of 1200 words or more.

This chart shows that people do read short, fast content online, but long-form, analytical pieces are also very popular. Stories that are between 500 and 800 words are too long to be easily sharable through social media, the main source of referral traffic to content on the web, and too short to provide real insights. This is crucial for marketers: to be successful with content marketing, brands should focus on both ends of the spectrum, and create snackable nuggets of information, as well as long-form pieces and deep-dives.

So should we just start creating more longer pieces content? Not quite. Even if quantity does play a role in terms of content popularity and social engagement, marketers still need to produce qualitative, informative, and useful pieces that target the right audience. As Stephen Kandell puts it, mass is unfortunately fetishized, as if that alone should be a selling point, because other pieces our audience appreciates are short. Making bad content long-form won’t make it any better, and people won’t be enticed to read and share content just because it is long: length has never been a virtue in itself.

This soup tastes awful, but hey, at least there’s a lot of it! – Steve Kandell, Features Director, BuzzFeed.

Digital offers many opportunities to create engaging, non-linear pieces of content. Some great examples include the illustrated long-reads from the New York Times – incidentally, Mary Pilon, the award-winning journalist who wrote this particular story, announced a few days ago that she was being laid off as part of a company-wide restructuring – and, more recently, the Mindcraft experience created by the Wellcome Collection. The website is an immersive experience that uses music, video, animated images, and a seamless scrolling experience to deliver the content to the reader. It was featured in this week’s BBC Click show, where its curator, Mike Jay, presented the concept of slow digital to describe our renewed appetite for long-form content. It takes a minimum of 20 minutes rather than 20 seconds to explore the content on the Mindcraft website, making it more similar to a novella than a blog post, and its non-linear nature makes it a different experience for each reader. It’s an amazing and memorable experience that the audience is likely to share.

Beside, the rise in time-shifted reading apps such as Pocket, Instapaper and Readability makes it easier to consume long-form content whenever it’s most convenient. Despite the success of short, snackable content, there is a market for high-impact, long-form pieces. Websites such as The Atavist or The Information have even created successful businesses out of it. Everyone loves a good story, and marketers should embrace the storytelling tools offered by digital platforms to create unique, engaging and useful content for their audience. It won’t hurt at all if people need to scroll a little bit to read all of it. In fact, it might be even better.

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