Long form written content is traditionally highly prized by marketers because we know its power. It gets better SERP rankings than short form, it’s seen as more authoritative by search engines, and quite often it's considered more shareable.
Well-written, with the right keywords and centred around carefully chosen topics of ‘evergreen’ relevance, a long form piece of content (such as an ebook) can become a cornerstone of your digital real estate.
It will drive traffic to your site and support a virtuous circle of discovery, sharing and conversion.
But is having a site primed with a collection of long form blogs, ebooks, case studies and white papers really enough for a modern brand to connect with its audience?
Content saturation is a reality and has been for many years, making it more challenging to be found, and click-through and conversions more difficult to secure.
At the same time, content as a whole is being shared less via social media, which is regarded as a key metric of success in this area. What was once an area ripe with possibilities for seeding and sharing is now an increasingly difficult place in which to get a foothold.
The traditional supply of ‘link juice’ is also harder to come by. Only 30% of brand articles published on the internet actually manage to achieve any back links at all. There is more content than ever before but it is cutting through less and less successfully.
So, if it's already failing to move the needle, just putting more of the same kind of content out might not be the answer.
So, what’s the answer? How do you stop yelling into the abyss? How do you stop your words falling on deaf ears? What will guarantee the right kind of visits to your site and the right kind of customers in the funnel?
Be an expert
Expertise is and will continue to be a key differentiator for successful long form content in the future. There’s no substitute for this.
Where an audience have niche and complex business problems, detailed ebooks that provide guidance based on real knowledge and skill will still continue to be an extremely valuable source of information for your audience.
Med tech software and consultancy vendor Greenlight Guru is a great example of a brand with a content strategy driven by this kind of genuine expertise.
High quality, narrowly focused ebooks offer overviews and guidance on specific areas of interest to device and pharmaceuticals developers.
But their strategy is also characterised by a diversity of approach that reflects the different ways audiences are now consuming content.
Podcasts and webinars with expert guests and presenters supplement their targeted ebooks and a regular blogging routine.
Businesses like these are gradually shifting their websites to become media publishing platforms, sharing news and deep, practical insight with customers and prospects at all stages of the funnel, in a wide range of formats.
And the need for brands to differentiate by format is clear.
With the rise of different kinds of devices and the fragmentation of attention, long form content in book form may not even always be the right way to engage with your specific audience.
Offering a mobile user, who has accessed your site, a gated, text heavy, 40 page ebook could be the kind of dead end that stops a ‘conversation’ in its tracks.
But, by surveying the long form landscape, there is also a glaring need to diversify creative approaches for other reasons. This is a lesson that was learned the hard way by the print media in the wake of the internet revolution.
In 2014 The New York Times report into the state of their business was leaked. It warned that the way content was being consumed was changing and they were lagging behind in innovation with disastrous consequences.
It painted a picture of an internet environment was destroying and cannibalising the value of the written word on which their brand was based; that they must adapt or die.
Traditional expertise and long form journalism were proving inadequate in holding the attention of their audience and winning new readers against an array of social media and other digital distractions. The report called out:
“Stories written in a dense, institutional language that fail to clarify important subjects... and feel alien to younger readers.”
It also pointed out that the daily challenge of producing stories for an internet hungry for words was also seeing a general decline in standards over all:
“too many stories… lack significant impact or audience — that do not help make The Times a valuable destination. What kinds of stories? Incremental news stories that are little different from what can be found in the freely available competition.”
This sounds very similar to the problem with the long and short form content being produced by many brands today.
The NYT had to protect itself through innovation and it had to focus on monetising its message through its core skill set of news gathering and presentation, rather than just chasing a sufficient volume of clicks to satisfy advertisers.
The response was a move towards greater creativity. Greater diversity in their output, lead them to produce films, infographics and interactive stories that aimed to build a pool of committed subscribers, with whom a longer term relationship could be built..
There was testing and experimentation with different digital formats, not all of these experiments were successful, but many lead to extraordinary examples of digital story telling that redefined journalism in the age of the internet. Take, for example, the story of the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which spawned a now famous multi-media feature, as well as video optimised for app and mobile consumption. Quality content, packaged in different ways for different consumers:
So, what’s the relevance for marketers?
If it’s going to prosper, long form content marketing is going to have to mean different things than a set of ebooks and white papers. It’s going to have to include extended video, animation, interactive presentations and much more.
But above all, it will need to be part of a highly diversified and creative approach to content that will inform a whole media publishing strategy.
This kind of strategy focuses on creating a mosaic of material for a brand, all springing from journalistic principles. Not just writing words for words sake or merely to sell, but to tell an ongoing story about a brand and their sector in a meaningful, episodic and unique way.
But how will we get there?
We'll need need extra time and resource
If you want quality stories and great digital storytelling for your brand, it’s going to take slightly longer and consume slightly more resource. Of course, you don’t have to create a Pulitzer prize winning piece on your first attempt, but you’ve got be prepared to invest a little bit more than you might on a simple blog.
We'll need more collaboration
Content creators are going to need to collaborate more - writers will need to work more closely with developers and creatives to help bring their ideas to life in more compelling ways. But at the same time brands will need to co-operate more extensively with their writers and creatives, carving out time for interviews, filming and news gathering to support their strategic goals.
The major challenge as Doug Kessler says in his piece on the NYT’s strategic shift, will be to create a publishing strategy that is scalable and repeatable for brands.
This is something brands are and will continue to struggle with, but so far, the most successful have been those who have embedded the right creative talent in their organisations and created the conditions where their creativity can thrive.
In the end, all brands should be asking whether the goal of their content strategy is really to participate in a war of words or a 'page view' arms race of diminishing returns. And if they want a different future, they need to plan for it.