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Summary:

As more sites focus on longform content, Fast Company disclosed some statistics on how its longer pieces have been doing — but the data shows that the real secret isn’t length but ongoing engagement with readers.

kids reading on ipad ebooks
photo: Scholastic

There’s been a bit of a backlash brewing in media circles lately: a growing movement against the idea that online journalism has to consist solely of hundreds of tiny news briefs or slideshows, and in favor of the idea that “longform” writing can also thrive online. Along those lines, the technology site Fast Company provided some interesting data recently about its experience with writing longer pieces — but I think the conclusions it arrived at aren’t about length as much as they are about engagement. And that is a very different story altogether.

In his post, entitled “This Is What Happens When Publishers Invest In Long Stories,” FastCo Labs editor Chris Dannen talked about how the site decided to experiment with what he calls “slow live-blogging” — that is, a series of stories that would take shape over time, beginning with a short stub article consisting mostly of a topic paragraph or summary of an issue, and then get added to as new developments arose. Dannen explained that this was a way of blending news with a more feature-like approach.

“Instead of starting with a fresh article every time we want to cover something inside a regular beat, which might require a long catch-up introduction, context, background and so forth, we could just put fresh news at the top and let the reader scroll down to read previous updates.”

Readers stay longer and read more

What happened when this approach started getting rolled out, Dannen says, was fairly dramatic. As he puts it in his post, the results “blew up my assumptions about how to drive traffic.” Among other things, the tech site’s “bounce rate” — that is, the rate at which readers decided to quit reading and go elsewhere — dropped substantially. The average amount of time spent at the site also increased, as did the number of pages per visit that were read by users.

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Dannen says it’s too early to tell how permanent these effects will be for Fast Co. Labs, just as it’s impossible to know whether those favorable results stem from the changes they made in their approach to longer stories. But he says that regardless of these caveats, “it sure as hell looks like it’s working,” and that he believes long-form journalism is the future.

It’s not length, it’s engagement

I am a big believer in the value of longer pieces in general, and I think the once-popular myth that people don’t read longform articles online has been largely disproven (although I wonder how many of those who praised the New York Times feature Snow Fall read the whole thing). But it’s also true that editors and publishers often conflate length and quality — as Caroline O’Donovan pointed out in a (short) post on Fast Co.’s experience at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

I think Fast Company’s results actually show something very different from the appeal of longform articles per se: since these posts began with “stub” articles and then grew over time, as more news or analysis emerged about the topic itself, I think they show the value of engaging readers by following a story over time and providing some kind of comprehensive background and context, instead of just bombarding them with a stream of news briefs.

That approach may result in longer stories, but I think that’s almost a side effect rather than the main attraction. No one is going to read those kinds of posts simply because they are long — but if a site builds a narrative and a point of view and some context over time about an issue (the mobile news-reading app Circa is trying to do this by allowing users to “follow” specific breaking news stories, and then alerting them to updates) then it pays off in engagement.

There are lessons in there not just for new-media players but for traditional media outlets that are trying to find a recipe for success online as well.

Note: This post was updated on May 14 at 12:12 am to correct the spelling of Chris Dannen’s name.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Scholastic

  1. In math context has a past,present and prediction.
    In the past with selective (few) news sources it made sense to to provide the whole ten yards every time, today we have a past(already read something about it), most likely we just need new data with no explanation or if perfect if it’s right there. Don’t know if I would call it about engagement. It will break if updates don’t come fast enough or from other sources without the past part or knowledge about the state of my information. So other fast news source integration might be critical for long term success.
    PS. Theoretical point of view, I don’t read fastcompany.

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    1. @ronald “In the past with selective (few) news sources it made sense to to provide the whole ten yards every time”

      …and to every reader. The very inverted pyramid template speaks to this.

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  2. Another huge surprise: readers engage with the story, not the brand. And yet in the current business model, publishers try to sell their brand, putting the stories behind subscription paywalls. Ironic, isn’t it?

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  3. Sanford Dickert Tuesday, May 14, 2013

    What I love is that this just validated Storify’s model all the more.

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  4. hmm nice article

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  5. Ultimately it’s about wallet engagement. Is the advertiser willing to pay more? Is the reader willing to buy the piece? That’s the question.

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  6. i believe the term that used to be used is “installment”

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  7. Unfortunately that Fast Co. story was written on bad data… the ‘improvement’ in metrics was caused by bad analytics set up (see @danbarker comments – probably an event tracking problem). Surprised this story has been written off the back of it – it’s a fallacy.

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    1. That’s news to me, James – I wrote the post on the assumption that Fast Co. knew the data they were drawing conclusions from, and didn’t see anything to suggest the opposite until your comment. I will check out the comments over there.

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