Quit Blaming The Goldfish For Your Content Failing: Long-Form Content Is Here To Stay

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In this opinion piece, J. Walter Thompson Worldwide content marketing and social media strategist Zeina Khodr (pictured below) discusses why long-form content is here to stay.

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We’ve all heard over and over again that since our lives have become consumed by the act of swiping and scrolling our attention span has apparently reduced to that of a goldfish.

The only issue with this convenient fact is that it’s not exactly true.

Andrew Davis (global marketer, author and documentary maker) inspired me to dig a little deeper and really ask if we simply can’t focus more than 8 seconds to consume content, and bust a few audience attention myths in the process.

For the first time in my career I started thinking about the business of content you need to ‘market’ through a non-agency lens.

Having recently left the content agency I founded and launched in Australia, I was more interested in my immediate lecturing, teaching and consulting gigs.

What do today’s students need to know to start their careers, and what do senior marketers need to get a handle on when creating content that stands up to the speed of today’s digital environment?

How, in fact, do you conquer content mastery when you’re dealing in content chaos and you’re constantly told to make everything shorter form?

I did a little research and, funnily enough, audiences are capable of holding attention for as long as you can grab and hold their attention.

Have you seen those crazy gamers on Twitch? Twitch is a live streaming video platform originally designed for gamers who play video games for a live audience.

It now has over 15 million daily active users and growing at a rapid rate.

Now, it’s game on for ‘content’ marketers, and it’s time to sharpen up the content we create.

Too often what we see (and sometimes, what we create in our rush to feed the content machine) is just more of the same-same. And in the words of Jay Baer ‘same is really lame’.

In our effort to make content shorter, we have eliminated almost everything that makes it interesting and we have in many instances underestimated our audiences.

The audiences you’re trying to reach don’t have trouble paying attention as long as what you create is worthy of that attention – and it’s worth reiterating that worthy means something different to different audiences.

You cannot decide that something is interesting and expect everyone to agree and pay attention, or think that a piece of content is failing to engage an audience just because it’s long form.

In fact, there are serious, science-backed reasons why longer form content might actually be better for engaging audiences that the shorter, easy-to-consume content many marketers have been focused on in the recent past.

Shares and engagement with weightier content is on the rise. The Economist reported their average shares increased from 43 in 2015 to 78 in 2017, while average shares on content from the New York Times increased fourfold between January 2015 and September 2017.

And Google has even hinted that it’s algorithm leans towards ranking longer form content highly, because it offers more space for the kind of analysis, originality and in-depth insights that demonstrate authority.

Where does this leave marketers with a message they want to impart and conversions to drive? At the end of the day, everything comes back to compelling storytelling.

Ever since caveman painted their first stories on the walls, storytelling became a thing.

For students entering the profession, and for experienced marketers, the underlying rules remain the same.

Longer form content and good storytelling will always work and find an audience because our brains are programmed for good stories.

The neuroscience even proves it. Good stories trigger a release of oxytocin resulting in empathy. It also stimulates critical thinking, constructs new knowledge and skills. It’s no surprise psychologists use stories as a form of therapy.

Brands in droves are trying to do the same.

Creating content that builds connective tissue between a brand and audience these days is trend du jour. But lame content sucks, and we don’t need more of it. Audiences want meaning in the content they consume, because we are overwhelmed by how many options for consumption we’re presented with every day.

When we consume content, we want to make it count. Sure, we still want a few cat videos here and there, but it can’t be kitten time, all the time.

Content marketing success is more elusive than ever. The competition for audience eyeballs is fierce and audiences are smarter and more cynical than ever.

Brands are creating more content than they need to in order to have a presence on channels they shouldn’t even be on.

Artificial intelligence and robots are being used to create hyper-relevant, just-in-time content. This game isn’t easy.

While on the professional side I have a deep fascination in the future of storytelling, the implications of AI and the rapid shift to a screen-less Voice world, I’m preaching and teaching the basics to students and senior marketers alike:

  • Be in the audience business – have a laser focus on content that is relevant and for the audiences you want to reach and connect with.
  • Follow the basic rules of good storytelling – make sure it’s relatable for audience connection, increase the fluency in how you tell the stories to break down complexity, add novelty where you can and most importantly find the tension. Or what Andrew Davis calls the ‘curiosity gap’ – the gap between what is and what could be.
  • And to hell with micro content – longer form content works – but it’s got to be meaningful and have the elements of good storytelling at its core.

So for students and experienced marketers alike, some of the old rules remain – add a level of curiosity to all the content you create and take audiences from wanting to know, to needing to know.

Attention cannot be bought, it’s earned over time. People need time to consume content, and it doesn’t always need to be snackable in 15-sec blocks or 6 second Youtube bumpers.

So if you’ve made it this far into this piece of content then I probably don’t need to convince you why a long form read works.

Value the content you create, invest in telling interesting and important stories and audiences will reward you with their attention.

If you’re not being consumed, ask yourself why no one cares.

And quit blaming the goldfish.

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