Why Long-Form Content Marketing is Staying

Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni, circa mid-2000’s. Mike might have found a new niche off the court in marketing.

Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni, circa mid-2000’s. Mike might have found a new niche off the court in marketing.

Seven seconds or less

This mantra powered NBA team Phoenix Suns’ fast-paced offensive strategy to push the ball and get a shot within seven seconds, led by former coach Mike D’Antoni. It dominated the league for a brief time from 2004 to 2008, but it looks like the philosophy has found a new home in 2018 within digital marketing to deliver messages to consumers.

Modern research has come to a collective conclusion that our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter — Microsoft even claims that we are now no better than goldfish at paying attention. 8 seconds before we get distracted in 2018 compared to 12 before 2000, to be exact. Nowadays, before you watch that ASMR video on YouTube, you might experience a 6-second bumper ad that’s gone before you even notice it. They’re unskippable, but anyone can spare a few seconds, right? You might even wonder how much an ad is capable of doing in that time.

It turns out that seven seconds or less is in fact working for brands when it comes to driving brand awareness and ad recall. On average, Google found that 70% of brands experienced a lift in awareness, with an average lift of 9%, and a 30% increase in recall with its bumper ads. You don’t need that much time to get the word out there.

A bumper ad example - by 7-Eleven.

Is the future of digital marketing a flash on the screen?

In YouTube’s eyes, more likely than not. It introduced bumper ads in early 2017 with the intention of promoting the format heavily moving forward, while leaving 15 and 20 second formats alive and phasing out unskippable 30 second ads for good (thank God). In the crowded attention economy, this was likely a necessary change for the platform to remain competitive against others looking to take away traffic (e.g. Facebook).

But not so fast. Despite our attention spans becoming shorter, it turns out that the ability to consume long-form content is still within us. When speaking to Laura Henderson, SVP Marketing of BuzzFeed, for my third-year digital marketing class project, she remarked that behaviour on digital is more akin to TV than what marketers have originally thought. This presents an opportunity for brands to have more freedom to express their message and still trust that people will follow their stories, if done correctly.

The definition of long-form content marketing is unclear across the industry, but in the written form, 1,200 to 2,000 words is the common understanding among experts. That number has recently been climbing toward 10,000. It’s also definitely longer than a 30-second TV ad.

“People assume that content must be short for people to watch it, but we’ve seen an interesting spike in traffic around long-form as well. Our show Worth It is the #1 show on YouTube and generates audiences that rival TV… 75% of its traffic [is] within the first three days of episodes being released, Henderson says. At five seasons and 48 episodes, the average Worth It video is at least 12–16 minutes long, and receives at least 10 million views. In 2018, people watched 1.5 billion minutes of the show’s engaging cast trying similar foods at three different price points, equating to over 90 to 125 million views in a year. More significantly, this counters the common misconception that content must be increasingly shorter for people to watch or read it.

Three fried chicken competitors - $ vs. $$ vs. $$$. How are you not intrigued?

Of course, there is no disregarding the fact readers will likely finish a shorter piece of content more often than a longer one. Marketers have adapted to shorter attention spans with snack-sized videos and articles, with the latter being 350–600 words on average. However, that doesn’t mean that they receive the best quality out of it. With Google as the powerful gatekeeper between the audience and the brand, efficiency has been prioritized rather than creativity. Keywords and SEO became top of mind, but what happened to the story?

As a result of the internet saturated with keyword-heavy content, this has provided an opportunity for value-heavy content to shine through. The research is widely in favour of longer content, not shorter. Longer content is more viral — on average, BuzzSumo found that longer content receives 70% more shares than its bite-sized counterparts. It is not a detriment to SEO either, with research finding that most top results for search queries are over 2,000 words in length.

Longer articles received up to 70% more shares than <1000 word articles. Credit to BuzzSumo.

Longer articles received up to 70% more shares than <1000 word articles. Credit to BuzzSumo.

Telling a story

But when it comes down to it, long-form ultimately has more storytelling potential and power to engage an audience.

Long-form is marketing is what allows fintech startup Wealthsimple to share the complex money stories of celebrities like French Montana and Kim Kardashian in their Money Diaries series. Described by the company as a series of “interesting people telling their financial life stories in their own words,” the stories help spread the idea that money is a universal topic with everyone sharing a unique relationship with it. They humanize the celebrities as well - Aubrey Plaza lived on peanut butter (now that she’s wealthy, it’s almond butter). Andre Iguodala made a dollar stretch by buying no-name brands before the NBA. And so on.

In contrast to a shorter medium, Wealthsimple’s call-to-action within the post is to simply ask the reader to “Learn More” about how it makes investing simple, and to sign up for more stories. The strategy behind Money Diaries is to start building a sticky, long-term relationship with the viewers - the campaign is catching on to other companies as well. Freshii’s f(ood) diaries invites influencers like Amanda Cerny to talk about her relationship with food, and her approach to leading a balanced life. Bench Accounting keeps it on brand with its Small Business Stories - in one post, the accounting startup invites Lululemon founder Chip Wilson to share his story of entrepreneurship (though I’m not sure about Lululemon being small).

As thought leaders in SEO, B2B SaaS company Moz has leveraged long-form content to deliver weekly digital marketing lessons with Whiteboard Friday. Through 5-minute (or longer) videos and their accompanying blog posts, Moz breaks down the barriers surrounding the complex world of search engines and what they’re looking for within content to rank results appropriately, and making the industry transparent for beginners to experts looking to refresh their knowledge. The average Whiteboard Friday receives 15,000 to 20,000 views, which Velocity Partners calls “bodacious” in the B2B world in their analysis on the series. And what’s the next step for aspiring SEOs after they become part of the Moz community? Paying for the company’s software to help them do their job better.

In short, it’s the ability to engage people, leave a stronger message behind, and build the foundation for a lasting relationship with your audience that long-form content marketing makes its mark. It’s a lot harder to do the same with seven seconds or less.