It’s hard to know what to believe anymore. For every scientific study that concludes long-form publishing is dead, there seems to be another that concludes long-form publishing is the only way to go. What’s a digital content creator to do? How can we create media products that people will love consuming and sharing despite these conflicting reports?
A Tale of Two Audiences
Here’s a brief drill-down into the confusingly paradoxical evidence, or at least the opposing key takeaways that various data sets have revealed:
- Nobody reads articles anymore. You might get people to pay attention for 15 seconds or so, but then they’ll lose interest and bounce out.
- Articles that are longer than 1500 words yield 68% more Twitter engagement and 23% more Facebook engagement.
- Social sharing is the best way to get people to actually pay attention to your articles.
- Just because someone shares a page on social media doesn’t mean they’ve read it.
- The content formats that are shared most are listicles and infographics.
- Digital content is consumed differently from print. On the web, we “scan” rather than read.
- Longer content yields more attention minutes per visit.
- Over time, human attention spans are shrinking, and we’re consuming a higher volume of media.
- The most popular item of content on the New York Times website last year wasn’t an article at all. It was a quiz.
- The content pages that people most commonly “save” via the Pocket app contain an average of nearly 3200 words.
- A good headline is what makes a difference – not the word count.
- The longer the article, the more likely people are to share it. In fact, articles that are over 3000 words long are about 12 times more likely to be shared than articles under 2000 words long.
Snacks, Gourmet Meals and Everything Between
Let’s see if we can make order here and gain a better understanding of where content consumers stand when it comes to long-form articles. Storytelling has always been in flux. As humanity progresses, so do our technologies and our patterns of perception. The latest popular trends in story consumption involve formats like listicles and quizzes, but people do still like to read.
It may be a generational thing, but it always comes down to personal preference and the mood of the moment. There’s still plenty of room in the content media industry for interactive, quick fun as well as long-form, in-depth immersion into topics. When it comes to putting news scoops into nuanced contexts, presenting multiple narratives on the same events, or establishing authority and thought leadership, Or, to riff on the oft-cited “snackable content” analogy, just because someone loves a thick, juicy steak doesn’t mean she’ll never want a candy bar.
The Best Formats for Your Audience
If you try and tackle the content format conundrum from the perspective of the end results, then you’re going to skip some important steps in your decision process. Start by asking yourself what kinds of audience members you want to attract and why these people might want to consume your content. What kinds of experiences are these people looking to consume and share? How can your content differentiate your publication and brand from the noise?
Next, think about the consumption patterns that fit your brand’s content experience. How does your audience find your content? What are they doing when they’re interfacing with your media? What kinds of actions do you want them to take as the result of having consumed your content? When you know the answers to questions like these, choosing the best format for the story you tell gets much easier.
Interactivity Wins with Long-Form Too
Even if you do decide it’s a good idea to stick with strictly long-form content, there’s a lot you can do to make it more shareable and better suited to how people consume content today. The last thing you want to do is lull your audience into a passive state. When that happens, you won’t be able to evoke an emotional response, people won’t identify as strongly with your content, and they’ll be less likely to share it. If you’re publishing in a digital format, there’s no reason to pretend you’re bound by the limitations of ink on paper.
Injecting interactivity into prose doesn’t need to be so demanding on resources. You don’t have to go all in with high-concept product development, and interactive elements shouldn’t take over your articles’ concepts to the point where they’re turning your editorial process upside-down. All it takes is a single-question poll or quiz to add a bit of interactivity to what would otherwise be a one-way flow of information, and creating elements like these is easy and quick.
Long Live the Article?
Every brand, publication and audience is different from the next. Knowing what’s trending across the media industry can be plenty helpful, but what works for one publisher might not be the best for you. Perform your own experiments, and see what your audience responds to. It may be an article, or it may be a trivia challenge. But either way, make sure to keep them paying attention, tapping, clicking, unlocking, reacting, identifying and sharing.