One of the most high profile online platform launches last year is the brainchild of Biz Stone and Evan Williams, two of the original founders of Twitter. The new start up though isn’t another site where users can quickly and easily update their statuses. In fact it is quite the opposite. Medium is a high-end blogging platform designed to provide a forum for people who wanted to share long form essays and articles.
Medium wasn’t the only new site aimed at writers of long form content. Over the year several others sprung up from Narratively through to Longform all delivering extended reads or enabling users to posts their own 1000 word plus articles. Even mainstream publishers like the New York Times experimented with their own versions of long form - in this instance the highly acclaimed Snowfall which used words, photo galleries, infographics, audio and video to create a compelling interactive read.
Ironically the trend for long form occurred in tandem with the rise of sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy which specialise in short, pithy curated content. Online readers now have a choice - they can snack on viral content or feast on articles that sometimes push several thousand words.
So why though is the long form content trend happening now and what are the implications for brands?
One of the main reasons for its emergence is the popularity of designs and templates, often created using HTML5, that make long form content attractive and easy to read. Sites like Medium have jettisoned the two and three column grids that have been staples for online content for years. Many of the new sites have just one column, sport text in a large typeface and break up that text with magazine style highlighted pull quotes. The sites also tend to kick off the articles, and quite often intersect them too, with large, prominent images too.
Another key part of the trend is that although the sites work well on desktop, they are designed ostensibly with mobile, and especially tablet audiences in mind. The content flows in a very natural way on say an iPad and in some ways mirrors the way that words and images are presented by tablet magazines.
For some publishers words and images are supplemented by other rich content especially video and infographics. They come together to tell a story, often from many angles, in an intriguing and comprehensive way.
Authority and distribution
The trend for more long form content isn't solely about design though, there is a clearly a demand for it not just from readers but also from publishers too. Some SEO experts believe that creating an extended piece of content can give a site credibility and authority. If that post attracts lots of views via recommendations through social media then this will have a positive effect on the way that Google views the site and it may increase its search rankings.
Hosting long form content is also the latest weapon in a site or brand’s push for thought leadership. Long form content says to an audience that a site is serious in that it is prepared to invest significantly in creating quality content and that it recognises the intelligence of its audience. It isn’t afraid to ask big questions and use different types of media to answer them.
So what does this mean for brands?
Long form content is a significant opportunity for brands on a number of levels. Writing in Marketing Week, Econsultancy’s Ashley Friedlein outlined his list of key content marketing trends for 2014. Top of that list was Authority. Ashley says ‘Content marketing cannot work if it is broad and shallow. Brands will need to be very clear about where they can be authoritative and focus on that.’ In some ways that sounds like a call for more long form content.
In the UK many content marketing agencies have a glorious heritage of producing this type of content - the key difference being that they have largely been creating it in printed versions. So far few brands have experimented with this format. The most high profile is mobile chip maker Qualcomm whose Spark site includes some longer reads that look at the future of technology. It will be fascinating to see if brands start to adopt this format and how they use it to connect with their audiences.
Examples of long form content
Medium - A platform where anyone can post their own long form content, think of it as Twitter for longer reads.
Narratively - A US based site that specialises in producing a series of long reads about a different topic each week. Some of the content is of an exceptionally high standard.
Snowfall - The New York Times’ re-imagining of long form content. It uses words, images video and more to create a compelling story.
Longform - A rival to Medium, not quite as visually impressive.
ESPN Packages - An example of how a sports publisher is using long form.
There is a good list of examples of mainstream publishers using long form content here.