Thoughts from Content Marketing World 2018: Long-form is in it for the Long Haul

Since the day the first tweet chirped forth from the internet, people everywhere have been predicting the demise of our attention spans, the death of thoughtful journalism, and, naturally, the unchecked unwinding of our society into a general state of chaos, instant gratification, and the floating chairs from Wall-E.

We all watched as YouTube gave way to Vine and Snapchat, and blogging to "micro"-blogging and "micro"-platforms. At its peak, this trend culminated in many educated and otherwise respectable people using the term “snackable content” in earnest conversation. Dark days, indeed.

Despite a proliferation in ultra-short content types, long form content isn’t dying. To the contrary, it remains an incredibly valuable tool in your content marketing toolbox.

Benefits of long-form content

On average, long-form content receives higher engagement than shorter forms. It tends to be shared at a higher rate and earns more backlinks. This shows that readers tend to find long-form content more valuable, but also makes it ideal for building authority to boost your SEO.

How to do long-form content well:

Inject empathy into your storytelling.

No matter the length, medium or platform you’re working with, this is a good rule to follow. If the content you create does not relate to your users, they won’t engage with it. Full stop.

Many sessions at Content Marketing World zeroed in on this idea. One in particular, “R.O.E. is the New R.O.I.: Why Empathy Should be a Key Ingredient in Your Content Strategy and How to Do It” from Margaret Magnarelli at Monster, explored it in depth.

While authentic empathy doesn’t exactly follow a formula, here is her recipe for injecting empathy into your content, your approach to marketing, and your relationships with your audience in general.

  1. Go 1-1 with customers. Zero in on their individual pain points, experiences, fears, and hopes. Consider the hurdles your audience faces, whether they are searching for healthcare advice or a new job.
  2. Steer into pain. Even when it’s uncomfortable, don’t downplay or ignore pain. You risk conveying that you don’t understand the pain your audience feels, or worse, that it doesn’t matter to you.
  3. Listen, validate, propose a solution, return. These are the steps you should follow to have — and maintain — a dialogue with your audience. Don’t ever (and this is just good relationship advice) skip the listen and validate steps.

Principal’s “We Can Help You Plan For That” campaign is a perfect example of empathy in action.

Empathy is a key component of many successful long-form content endeavor. How do you expect people to stick around for the long haul if they can’t seeing any part of themselves in the content you’re presenting?

Stop being an expert and become an investigator.

Jay Acunzo reminded us to always stay curious. In our industry, it’s easy to default to “best practices” and “expert advice,” no questions asked. If you’re always following the “best practice,” though — and so is everyone else — then you’re not doing anything to stand out.

This blog, of course, started by questioning the assumption of shorter (and shorter) attention spans and the need to pander to them with shorter (and shorter) forms of content. Usually, the best ideas start by asking a question and not by establishing a “message” — yes, even in marketing.

Andrew Davis calls a version of this the “curiosity gap.” By suspending a question in front of your reader, viewer, etc., you cause tension that creates curiosity and fosters engagement. Take these IKEA ads, for example. The pre-roll ads range from four and a half to almost nine minutes long and feature people doing boring, anticlimactic things — like a disgruntled teenager washing dishes. Despite being able to skip the ads after just five seconds the average view time for these was over three minutes, and an incredible 39% of people watched an ad in its entirety.

What is so mesmerizing about a disgruntled teenager washing dishes? The answer is nothing. Nothing is fun about a watching a person wash dishes. It’s the promise of something that holds viewers’ attention.

These ads challenges the status quo — the “best practice” — and stir up curiosity in people. If you think the idea for that campaign started with a top-down marketing message for IKEA pendant lights, your pants are on too tight.

Long form doesn’t have to mean ebook or white paper.

When marketers hear “long-form,” we tend to default to white papers or ebooks. But just like the wider world of content in general, long-form can mean so much more.

Webinars, podcasts, and interactive stories are all examples of mediums where long-form works well. Podcasts, in particular, can capitalize on a persistent trend in today’s media: episodic content.

In fact, one could probably make the argument that content length isn’t diminishing as much as it’s segmenting. Streaming has instigated an explosion of “binge-worthy” series, and in doing so, it has catapulted television’s reputation from the realm of daytime soaps to award-worthy art. Hollywood has fallen into the trend. Marvel, Star Wars, and reboots galore are the norm now. Everything has a sequel (usually two, plus a prequel, and any number of spinoffs). People are hungry for relationships, and this is one main benefits episodic content can offer.

In her session “Digital Storytelling in the Age of Bad News,” Shachar Orren from Playbuzz spoke in depth about presenting long-form content in ways more enticing to today’s audiences. For example, presenting an interview as a text message conversation. Perhaps a bit too “millenial” for many brands, this example nonetheless demonstrates out-of-the-box thinking that challenges the constraints we place on ourselves as content creators.

Long-form content is not dying. Content creators and marketers just need to continue striving to connect with audiences through empathy and curiosity, and it will always have a place. Long-form may be changing, but as long as customers crave relationships with the brands they love, it’s not going anywhere.

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