Longform Content: When to do it, and when not to

“Longform content” is all the rage these days. Newspapers are doing it. Magazines are doing it. Huge corporations are doing it. Nonprofits are doing it. Everyone is jumping on the longform train…even those who shouldn’t.

Yes, longform content is pretty cool. It can be extremely engaging. It can be positively received. And Google sure loves engaging, well written pieces. But so often, folks jump onto the train without asking whether or not they should.

So instead of discussing the pros and cons of longform—that would make this article longform—let’s tackle the hard questions we should all be asking before embarking on what can be a very expensive journey.

Defining “Longform”
First, a very quick trip down memory lane. “Longform” is a term that’s been around a good long while. Magazines and newspapers have used the term to refer to feature-length pieces. Word count has varied traditionally, but typically the term implies more than 2,000 words.

“Longform content,” however, has taken on a new meaning. Thanks in part to the release of a piece called Snowfall by the New York Times in 2012, publishers everywhere took notice, because this wasn’t just any feature-length article. This was a piece that was well written (as expected), but also engaging in a way that felt different. There were moving images. There were interactions. It was new.

This new image-heavy, ambient style of longform became something different than what publishers previously meant by the term. So, to be clear, when we say “longform,” we don’t just mean “longer than 2,000 words.” We mean it:

  • Is longer than 2,000 words
  • Has an interesting look and feel
  • Tells a story

Now that we’re all on the same page, here are a few critical questions to ask before committing to building out longform content.

Do We Have a Story to Tell?
This may seem like an obvious question. The answer to it is often a resounding “of course!” with little consideration as to what “story” really means in this case. A story wants its audience to feel something. A story wants to resonate. A story wants to convince its audience of something. Often, organizations get stuck writing for and about themselves, and broadcast that “story” to audiences that might not be very interested in the message.

Both fiction and nonfiction stories need:

  • Characters
  • Conflict
  • An ending

And most importantly, a story needs to have a point, a Big Idea. No matter the story type, if you’re not resonating with the reader in some way, the story has failed. A Big Idea relates your story to readers. Longform content is no exception, and can be even more challenging when considering the atmospheric elements, like scroll effects and moving images and sound we now have access to. When considering what your story’s point is, think about Big Idea elements that connect with your audience. Starting with common literary themes can be super helpful in figuring this out.

Do We Have Goals for Our First Longform Piece?
Longform content production can be pricey. Take Snowfall, for instance—11 staffers worked on it for 6 months straight. That adds up. So even if you’re not shooting for Snowfall-level fame, there will be an investment of time and money.

That’s why it’s absolutely critical to have a handle on what it is you hope to accomplish at the end. Google Analytics is seductive; however, analytics alone might not be telling you what you think it’s telling you. Not all goals are created equal.

For instance, one of the goals I’ve come across often in my life as a consultant is, “We want 100,000 page views per month!” This is a goal, sure, but it’s not a very meaningful one. Why would we want 100,000 more page views? What does that get us?

So instead of relying on just metrics, consider goals more holistically. Ask why it’s a goal. Make sure it can be measured. A few examples might be:

  • Increased mailing list signups
  • More donations
  • Increase in community partnerships

Do We Have (or Have Access to) a Writer and Editor?
Telling a story is hard. Really hard. Writing is also hard. The trouble with writing, though, is that most of us learned how to “write” at a young age. But writing and Writing are different. It’s like the difference between being able to order a coffee by talking to a barista, and delivering a speech. Not everyone understands this, and egos can be very sensitive.

By hiring or assigning a trained or experienced writer to your longform content, you’re ensuring that at least the text parts—the most important parts—will be getting the job done.

Consider too, who will edit this longform piece? An editor needs to be able to spot high- and low-level issues, as well as typos, readability errors, inconsistencies, and so much more. All written content benefits from at least one writer and editor.

One caveat: If you’re looking to staff a writer on a longform project based on his former work, be sure to keep in mind that he likely had editors for his published work, and a 1st draft can be drastically different than a final product. Ask for pitches from potential writers. That will show you their raw thought and writing processes.

Is That All?
No. For sure no. I’ve mentioned briefly how much this kind of work can cost, but after that come lots of other decisions:

  • Do we want to use an established tool, or build a longform piece ourselves?
  • How much developer involvement will we need?
  • What will our editorial process look like?
  • Will we need a photographer? Videographer?
  • How will we promote this content when it’s done?

And more. We even made a flowchart about this should-I-or-shouldn’t-I process. But if you can make it through the 3 questions in this article with a “Yes!” to each, you’re in a pretty good spot.

Photo credit: Jens Lelie

Kristina Bjoran
Kristina is a senior creative strategist for Forum One (https://forumone.com). From her sunny Seattle office, she works with nonprofit and government clients to develop, create, optimize, and promote their web content. After work, she walks home and eats an unusual amount of cheese before editing the user experience magazine, UX Booth (http://www.uxbooth.com).