Ryan McDermottRyan McDermott

Social media and digital content have become staples of every forward-thinking company’s marketing and PR plan. But even as the technology advances, the best content creators are looking to the past for inspiration, using digital platforms typically filled with quick hits and hot takes for long, thoughtful discourses.

Harkening back to the era of the public intellectual, when lively minds like Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Marshall McLuhan and William F. Buckley debated lofty ideas on primetime television, many organizations are turning to long form digital content as a way to reopen a dialogue about technology and society as well as to tell human stories about how these advancements are changing lives.

While the medium may change over time, the conversations often stay the same. Content doesn’t have to suffer because best practices tell us it should be short and easily digestible. Sometimes so-called best practices need to change.

Digital rules, so get used to it

CEOs are increasingly recognizing how much digital strategies affect business goals. In 2007, only about 40 percent of Chief Information Officers were involved in strategic planning, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article by Tom Puthiyamadam. Now, CIOs are considered integral to business strategy, not just to a company’s IT plans. While about 33 percent of executives in 2007 said their CEO was championing digital strategy, that number more than doubled to 68 percent in 2017.

“Top performers … have a better understanding of the human experience that surrounds digital technology,” Puthiyamadam said in the HBR article. “These companies prioritize user experience specialists and creating better customer experience through their digital initiatives.” 

Just ten years ago, Twitter was a fledgling social media platform with about 60,000 tweets per day. Today Twitter is a must-use sales tool comprising more than 500 million tweets per day from its 330 million monthly active users.

On the other end is LinkedIn, which has a smaller user-base at 106 million people engaging monthly, but tends to be populated by professionals. LinkedIn is where you can more deeply explore the technology and how it’s shaping the future. The platform gives more room to stretch out and analyze how things really work.

Don’t fear the long form

While for a long time, snackable content was thought to be a best practice, long form content actually tends to procure more engagement — as long as the stories are thoughtful, well-researched and have a strong viewpoint, according to Camille Ricketts, Head of Content and Marketing at First Round Capital, and Sonal Chokshi, Editorial Director at Andreessen Horowitz.

“I actually have a big pet peeve around word length,” Chokshi said on a recent Y Combinator podcast. “I hate when people get into religious debates around length like, ‘Short is good, long is bad,’ or, ‘People only do this,’ and I hate all those rules.”

Ricketts said that long form wasn’t her first thought when developing First Round Review, which now features articles often exceeding 2,000 words. But she found that the complex topics she wanted to explore couldn’t (and probably shouldn’t) be digested quickly.

So instead, Ricketts aimed to make First Round Review a content marketing platform with the analytical heft of the Harvard Business Review and the narrative style of The New Yorker, giving topics both a laser focus and the ability to breathe. A lofty goal, no doubt, but it shows the seriousness with which First Round takes their content.

“We don’t have word counts, but we write extremely long. And so we get a lot of people saying, ‘Why are you doing that?’” she explained.

The trick to getting people to spend the time to read long form content is to make them understand the point of the story quickly. Once the audience knows what is there, you then keep them engaged through devices like subheads, pull-quotes and bulleted lists.

“If you give people a sense of how much they can anticipate from a certain section, they’re more likely to read it,” she said. “And so knowing that people make those types of calculations and feeding into it has been really helpful.” 

Don’t rush the research or the writing

Bloggers have been taking notice of this as well, with Orbit Media’s 2017 Blogger Survey showing that posts are being created more thoughtfully and less frequently. In 2014, the survey showed posts normally took about 2.5 hours to create a story or article. That number jumped nearly an hour — a 40 percent increase — in 2017 and had already been on a steady incline in previous years.

“Breaking that number down, you can see a sharp decline in the percentage of bloggers who write posts in less than an hour and a dramatic rise in the percentage of bloggers who spend six-plus hours on a typical post,” the survey of 1,377 bloggers said.

Nearly half of those who took six hours or more on a post reported significantly higher engagement than when they spent less time writing and researching before posting. This means writers are focusing more on creating meaningful content and less on how frequently they’re posting, showing that snackable content and quick hits aren’t always the best or most engaging way to communicate.

Trust your readers to engage

Along with those longer hours spent writing, bloggers are publishing less often than previously. The survey shows that most bloggers now post “several [times] per month” while in the past it was closer to several times per week.

Ann Handley, Head of Content at MarketingProfs, said the survey touches on two major themes. Firstly, quality matters. And second, we don’t need more content, but rather more relevant content. 

“Good writing takes time. Crafting relevance for your audience takes time. Inspired content takes time,” Handley said. “To me this survey signals that writers are recognizing that less truly is more… it’s better to spend the time to create a beautiful one thing than less time creating a bunch of meh.” 

Gini Dietrich, author of Spin Sucks, agreed with the blogger survey, saying long form has always been the way to go. “After 11 years of blogging, I can vouch for longer form content, smart SEO, and consistency as the keys to success,” she said.

Thoughtful content makes good business sense

Deeply researched content also helps sell products. Just because long form content should be about people and technology, not products, doesn’t preclude it from being a good sales tool.

A June 2017 survey of 1,300 business decision makers and C-suite executives by LinkedIn and Edelman showed that nearly half of those questioned said thought leadership directly led them to award business to a company. And the same number said thought leadership helps companies command a premium for their goods or services.

Of course there are risks to long-form thought leadership, whether it be through LinkedIn, Medium or a corporate blog. More than half of C-suite executives said they’ve “lost respect and admiration for an organization because of its poor thought leadership content,” the survey said. And more than 30 percent of business decision makers said bad thought leadership content actually made them decide to actively avoid doing business with a company. 

“When it is executed poorly or fails to connect with an audience, it can serve as a net detriment to business development,” according to the survey. 

If you’re going to produce thought leadership content, especially the kind that purports to be at the leading edge of an industry, you better take the time to do it right or it could be damaging to your business. 

Good content is value-added

This all goes to say that quick bursts of product peddling might be a cheaper, less-intensive route for content creation, but that type of content is a waste of money and offers little value to users. It is exponentially better — for the company and the customer alike — to write long, thoughtfully researched content that explores human stories, even if it costs more to make.

In the long run, prioritizing long form is worth it because the content serves as much as a historical and cultural document as it does marketing copy. Articles like that have shelf life, and therefore staying power in the minds of readers. People remember it. And, most importantly, thoughtful content actually creates value in people’s lives.

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Ryan McDermott works at Sage Communications. He formerly worked as a journalist for The Washington Times, Patch.com and FierceMarkets.