Forget 140 characters for a while, and think thousands of words--preferably with images, interactivity, and lots of well-presented data.
What It Is and Is Not
At a 2013 conference at the Columbia Journalism School, New Yorker editor David Remnick defined long-form* content as "lengthy, relaxed, deeply-reported, literary nonfiction."
Other ways to describe it:
- Numerical: 1,200 words or longer (often much longer)
- Formatted: HTML-based
- Sensory-rich: Visual and perhaps audio content to engage users, beyond straight text.
Long-form content is not posting PDFs on a website for users to download. Yes, your PDFs are long forms of writing. But a PDF does not bring the same benefits as well-done HTML-based long-form content.
Just when I planned to write about long-form for this month's newsletter, Forum One had an excellent webinar and blog post on the topic. With permission, I refer to their insights below. (Full disclosure: I do some work on contract for Forum One.)
In a webinar at the end of March, Lisa Drobek, Forum One's senior user experience designer, pointed to four reasons to long-form content on websites:
- Easier accessibility: Easier to scroll down than move from screen to screen, especially on mobile devices
- Improved SEO: Google ranks longer content higher
- Increased engagement: Metrics show users are more likely to read and share content in this format
- Great platform for stories.
Levels of Effort
In December 2012, the New York Times ran a much-praised piece entitled Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. In highlighting the piece, Lisa acknowledged the resources necessary to create it. Most of us do not have these resources, as wonderful as the end result is.
Rather than throw up our hands, however, she suggested three levels of effort to implement "digital-first" publishing. Whichever the level, it's important first to think through your audience and goals, as you would with any print or online effort.
Flagship experience (highest level of effort)
A major research project, annual report, or other signature piece might merit special attention to a long-form piece that includes video, data visualizations, and other graphics. In addition to the Times piece, she pointed to the 2015 Gates Annual Letter, Pew Research Center's "Next America," and AAMC Diversity Facts and Figures as examples.
Noteworthy reports (medium level)
Not quite as complex, you can transform, for example, a series of reports you regularly produce and distribute into interesting long-form content. She noted several tools, including Hatch and Marquee, that create templates (although still with a learning curve). Her examples: Opportunity Survey and the CUPS annual report in Canada.
Longer detail pages of publications (lowest level)
You will still have an inventory of PDFs, Word docs, and other pieces with important information. Convert these to HTML (one suggestion: with Word2CleanHTML), with some style adjustments for fonts, heading levels, etc. You won't have all the interactive bells-and-whistles, but Google will be able to "see" the content and you can also track traffic.
In the webinar and Lisa's blog post, John Osterman, the deputy director for communications and publications at the Center for Global Development, reported on how his organization uses this last approach. It's a good case study on how small changes will still yield results.
At whatever level, Lisa shared these best practices:
- Readable one-column of text, not too wide
- Imagery to break up the text
- Call-outs and quotes to emphasize key information
- Context to data visualizations and timelines
- Video to explain complex pieces
- Animations to delight users
Finally, she urged starting small, recognizing that the first piece will be the hardest and most-time consuming.
*For the copy editors among us, CJR refers to it as "longform" (closed up), but I am sticking with the more common hyphenated version for now.