When revered Internet sports columnist Bill Simmons branched out from the confines of ESPN in 2011 to go out on his own (albeit ESPN-owned) with Grantland, mainstream media scoffed at his goal to prove long-form content has a place on the Internet. At the time, most media and marketing efforts were moving in the direction of shorter, visual-based content.
Today, Grantland currently brings in a relatively modest 5 million unique views a month four years later, but it may have been ahead of the curve in understanding that marketing and media are shifting from eyeballs to engagement.
Although most marketing folks have long thought that the click was an adequate measure for having a viewer's attention, research by Chartbeat last year found that 55% of viewers who click-through to content pages on Websites spend fewer than 15 seconds there.
However, the second part of that research found that if you held a visitor's attention for just three minutes, the visitor was more than twice as likely to return than if you held him or her for one minute or less.
What About Visual Content?
Infographics have become template-like and boring, but long-form content can offer a differentiated story experience that builds engagement with readers while it increases your brand's authority.
Moreover, infographics and other pieces of first-generation visual content are static. Long-form content can be enhanced and customized with rich media, such as interactive graphics and GIFs that can bring your detailed thoughts to life.
The Internet after all isn't static, and anything static or too cookie-cutter will likely die.
There has been some A/B-testing around more generic visual content and long-form content that has proven the latter can assist with conversions.
For instance, Highrise, the task management solution, radically experimented with its product marketing page in changing it to long form and saw a 37% increase in customer signups.
Moreover, back in 2012, famed Internet marketer Neil Patel conducted another test. He assumed his personal website, which was tied to his company, needed a concise redesign to make it more visual, so he tossed out his original long-form design. The site converted 7.6% worse.
Long-form content also has continued to displace shorter content in search engine results over the last few years.
The length of content in each of the top 30 positions of Google search results increases year-over-year, according to Searchmetrics.
SerpIQ did a similar study on the average length of the content in the top 10 results of search queries, which found that the top-rated posts usually were just over 2,000 words.
So how do you tackle something as time intensive as long-form content for your marketing efforts?
Here are some thoughts from the frontlines.
Move Passion Projects to the Front
If you're going to write 1,200 to 2,000 words about something, you better be passionate about the topic. If you're engaged, readers will be, too. If they like the content, they will likely come back and take in more content, and when the time to buy something rolls around, there is a better chance of readers doing so.
That's the strategy (minus the buying part) Tim Urban and Andrew Finn have taken with their long-form content site Wait But Why.
As they explained to Fast Company, they've focused on long-form stories that completely change past narratives and often include examples personal to the writer and reader as well. By only posting once or twice a week, they dive deep into stories that they've been thinking about and discussing between each other for a long time. This approach allows the duo to get away from simply posting clickbait to meet their numbers.
Passion can also just mean the content is timely and relevant in the eyes of the writer. A great example of this was Kevan Lee's post for the Buffer blog on what he wish he knew when he joined Twitter. Though Kevan had used Twitter, his previous job limited him from spending time on the platform until three weeks prior to his article. That fact made all his thoughts about using Twitter all the fresher. The article resonated with Buffer readers who shared it more than 3K times on the Buffer platform.
Rich Media Supports the Long-form Narrative
The go-to for long-form content marketing has often been e-books, but marketers can take more of a Wait But Why approach with rich, Web-based content that doesn't need to be downloaded as a PDF to be enjoyed.
UK-based content marketing agency builtvisible experimented with this approach last year in its long-form feature and microsite Messages in the Deep. The long-form content on the history of deep ocean Internet cables has interactive charts, pull-out quotes, sidebars, embedded videos, and navigation buttons to quickly move between chapters.
You can draw some parallels between Messages in the Deep and The New York Times story Snowfall that took on an interactive tale of an avalanche in the Washington Cascades. It isn't the only time The New York Times that has taken on this strategy. In addition to supporting long-form content with rich media next to it, the Times also uses visuals to go alongside in sharing on social media like Facebook and Twitter.
The aforementioned Grantland has taken on a similar approach as well. For every 3,000 word column by Bill Simmons, there is a podcast or "30 for 30" short video on the Website that blends these types of formats.
Other unique approaches to merge rich media and long-form text content also have emerged. For example, Contently, an editorial and engagement tracking startup, experimented with rich scrolling features on a long-form piece on the rebirth of the Brooklyn Nets.
Marketers looking to bring in visuals to support specific pieces of long-form content can use tools such as Giphy to find relevant GIFs and free photo sites like UnSplash.
Find a Content Topic You That Works and Make it Longer
Brian Dean, founder of Backlinko, is one of several people in the content marketing space who argues you don't need to reinvent the wheel to create long-form pieces.
One strategy for creating viral long-form content is finding content from publishers on the topic you're interested in that has already been linked backed to frequently.
Some brands are creating content so good, it's a magnet for sharing. Tools like Moz's Open Site Explorer can help in the process by identifying highly linked to pieces of content that you can use as links in your piece and get the ball rolling with your narrative and outline. Topsy is another great tool for seeing who is sharing content on social media sites and across the Web on topics you want to cover.
Long-Form Content as a Marketing and Sales Connector
Long-form content shouldn't focus on direct conversions from one piece of content, but it should be used as collateral for your sales and marketing efforts.
A 500-700 word long blog post, or even an infographic, isn't reason alone for following up with a warm lead, but a long-form piece of content can be. All those industry influencers you run into at conferences and events would probably be interested in checking it out, too. Experimenting with this type of unique long-form content is a great excuse to run it by all of them and even get some feedback.
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Marketing today still comes down to great storytelling. With infographics and 500-word blog posts becoming a dime a dozen, online viewers are expressing an appetite for long-form stories that can be held onto longer than their morning Starbucks.
Now is the the time for marketers to find the time to pull these pieces of content together.