Long-form: why it’s great; why we should stop talking about it

by | Nov 7, 2016

Long-form content is this season’s must-have digital accessory. The best examples of long-form offer a new way of doing online content. They engage people in immersive, in-depth content that breaks out of hackneyed blog post formats to produce an exciting new form of communication that’s refreshingly different to the standard organisation website experience.

A long-form ecosystem of tools and platforms is forming around this new format. Shorthand, Atavist, Pageflow, Exposure et al offer a way to publish content that emphasises good typography and photography, that is enriched with visualisations, video and audio and that rewards exploration: instead of reading a linear article, users often have options for choosing their own journey.

Adaptable content, that works across different channels and devices, has been long called for. Good long-form does this really well, with detachable elements that work discretely on social media as well as an integral part of the flow.

Led by Medium, there’s also a welcome decluttering trend in long-form content that removes or hides away sidebars, complex navigation and other website furniture in order to let the content take centre stage. Cleaner, minimalistic, essentialist designs and larger fonts improve the user experience. The inescapable logic is that if people are using services such as Pocket or Readability to create cleaner, more readable versions of online content, we should be giving them those formats natively.

Long-form done well feels like the promise of the multimedia DVD-Rom finally grown up and injected with steroids.

Long-form tools

We’d advise investing in your own content management system rather than using an external tool if at all possible.

But if that isn’t an option, this review of long-form tools by Soapbox’s Anya Pearson and Stuart Brockwell is an excellent place to start.

Read

Opening the sluice gate

The web is brimful of reports that nobody reads. With time and money, some of these could be turned into excellent long-form content that would reach and engage more people.

But long-form is not in and of itself an answer to creating engaging content. Nor is it an excuse to pile thousands of unnecessary words into a web page, nor a reason to create a native web version of a long-winded PDF.

Investment into quality content is to be welcomed and some of the best examples of long-form cost tens of thousands of pounds to put together. Not all long-form content needs to be quite so expensive but if it’s going to work then long, complex content needs plenty of love and attention by skilled editors.

Show me one office that doesn’t use a stack of reports to prop up an old computer screen somewhere, gathering dust, and I’ll show you Nigel Farage participating constructively in a European fisheries meeting.

Deborah Doane, the Guardian

And though they may be long, many of the best examples are chock-full of images, video, animations and audio and not too many words. The risk of long-form’s popularity is that organisations are forced to give in to internal calls for long-winded, unnecessary, text-heavy content.

Inadvisable investments

Some of the tools for creating long-form content are excellent, but paying for third-party tools is only necessary because of the poor state of many organisations’ native content creation options. External dependencies on proprietary platforms leave organisations open to future problems and content can get lost on URLs that sit outside the organisational system.

Instead of investing in tools for one-off or occasional use, most would be better off investing in their ability to create such content using their own content management systems.

Stop talking about long-form, start talking about good content

Long-form has taught us a lot: that “people don’t read online” is a myth, that investing in sophisticated digital content can bring rich rewards, that people don’t much like cluttered website designs.

All these lessons should apply to all content, irrespective of length. Pieces of string come in various lengths and so should content.

The content elements and techniques that work so well in long-form content work just as well in shorter articles. Digital gives us extraordinary options for creating really engaging content of all lengths. But length shouldn’t be determined by format or vice versa.

We should stop thinking about long-form as a separate thing and invest in great content of all lengths.

Long-form done well

Palm oil

Technically complex and brilliantly designed, the Nice and Serious Palm Oil interactive feature for the Guardian is the most impressive piece of long-form content we’ve seen.

Visit

Snow Fall

Now four years old, Snow Fall was startlingly new at the time and gave its name to a whole genre that followed it.

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Aftershock

Made by Homemade Digital for the Disasters Emergency Committee, Aftershock tells the story of the Nepal earthquake, one year on.

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The Wanderer

Pitchfork have regular long-form features that combine music and in-depth storytelling. This one features Panda Bear.

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Credits: String image based on a photo by Eleanor Cunningham, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Video by Simon Schneckenburger, CC BY 3.0 US.