The Long-Form Paradox: Vying for Attention in the Digital Age

Long-Form Journalism: Keeping Readers Engaged & Interested

You know the feeling: It seems like we’re swamped with bits of text.

It frankly can be overwhelming.

And while longer, detailed stories appear to have no place in this digital world, long-form content remains an effective tool for the spread of messages.

What’s long-form?

Long-form content is referred to as literary content, magazine writing, or narrative journalism.

To be considered long-form, the content needs be more than 1,200 words.

“People are busy and you’ve got to be concise to keep their interest — but when it comes to search ranks and organic traffic, this assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth,” writes Ramona Sukhraj, content marketing manager with Impact, in Long-Form Content vs. Short-Form Content. “Although there is still a demand for short-form blog posts, videos, etc. from audiences, marketers’ demand for long-form content has increased dramatically as posts tend to rank higher in search engines (more specifically in Google).”

At the beginning of the internet, long-form content suffered due to the fractured reading experience provided by early HTML code. But as the internet becomes more advanced, long-form benefits from the naturalized reading environment provided by updated internet coding.

Reports suggest people are reading less. A piece in Electric Literature goes into survey results about this, but long-form remains one of the most effective methods for delivering content today.

The mind online

Many of us regularly have been using the internet for 20 years, and we’re only now beginning to understand its effect on the human brain.

Ever notice how longer tasks now a require conscious effort to keep yourself from checking your phone?

Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing with the University of Texas, writes about brain timing in How to Disrupt Your Brain’s Distraction Habit.

“Whenever you engage in an activity frequently, your brain is trying to predict when you will need to do it again,” Markman says. “And that is where technology can get you in trouble. Many people check their email several times an hour. They may also check their smart phones and social media channels … The brain is learning about the timing of these actions.”

NPR discusses how reading online puts our minds in a “chronic state of distraction,” and makes it challenging for us to concentrate long enough to read complex, drawn-out texts.

Also, there’s this: Most people only read headlines before commenting and sharing a piece, says Forbes in 59 Percent of You will Share This Article Without Even Reading It.

Adding multimedia to the mix

In 2012, The New York Times published the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Snowfall.’

The story showcased how multimedia could enhance the digital long-form experience by integrating video and other visual elements into the story’s text.

Smooth and consistent integration is the trick to executing a long-form multimedia story successfully. Poorly integrated multimedia elements can fragment a reading experience and lead to an unfocused story.

Today’s long-form stories seamlessly integrate multimedia features like interactive graphics and 360° video to create a nuanced story experience. This form of storytelling allows news organizations and media companies to deliver expressive content to their readers in a new way.

A 2015 paper on The Digital Animation of Literary Journalism suggests technological enhancements usher in a new wave of journalism: “Technology has opened spaces to design and mixed media to emphasize specific modalities of news storytelling and presentation, such as journalists of the 17th century who used woodblocks to enable mass-produced illustrations and as today’s journalists do through photojournalism, news infographics, television broadcasts, and graphic journalism.”

The long-form paradox

Holding reader attention is an increasing concern for news organizations.

Although there have been guesses, no one knows exactly why long-form performs well, despite studies that we’re reading less.

One theory is that people prefer to share content from industry experts, even if they haven’t read it. (Computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute found that people were quicker to share than read articles on Twitter, according to a story in The Wireless: You Might Share This, But You Probably Won’t Read It.)

The reasons surrounding long-form content’s success in the digital age are difficult to define, as shown in a graphic on Vertical Measures called The Goldfish Conundrum: Why Does Long-Form Perform Better, When We Can’t Pay Attention to Anything Anymore?

As internet software improves, multimedia components offer unique opportunities for news organizations and media companies that are constantly striving for new ways to entice audience.

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Julian Dossett is a Cision editor and black coffee enthusiast. He’s based in New Mexico.

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