Q&A on Long-Form Content with Jennifer Kane

Recently Jennifer Kane, a marketing/communications strategist and principal at Kane Consulting, wrote an important blog post about long-form content on the Web.

Jennifer Kane

Jennifer Kane

She starts Five Secrets Behind Effective Long-Form Content by stating a fact that is often overlooked: Long-form content is not dead or dying, although it may seem that way because so much of it is “weak and boring” and, therefore, not read. She adds, “in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.”

Then she provides some of these rules, which make a good starting point for anyone wanting to develop long-form content for the Web. These tips do not focus on how to write a better document but rather on how to make the content more presentable on the screen and, therefore, more easily and enjoyably read.

Since her “secrets” in this post are so accurate and helpful, I decided to ask her what other advice she might have for someone interested in writing and presenting better digital long-form content.

Below are her answers to my questions:

David: How narrowly or broadly do you define “long-form content?”

Jennifer: I define it pretty broadly because it really seems to be up to the reader what they consider to be “too long.” On a really basic level, if it’s a video over 5 minutes or written content that the person cannot see the end of even after scrolling down from the first view of the page to a second view of the next segment, I think most people consider that to be “long.”

Even if it’s easy to read or simple to view, if there is no easy end in immediate sight, people can be quick to make a judgment that this is going to take too much time to consume.

I wrote this post because I got trapped inside a number of long pieces I enjoyed, but wasn’t sure how long I was going to have to enjoy them.

If I left to tweet about the piece, I’d have to scroll down and find my place. If I scrolled to the end to see its full length, I’d lose my place. I basically felt stuck within the content’s awesomeness—which is lovely because it was well written, but also annoying because I, like all audience members, wanted to manage my time.

David: Does long-form content have a minimum number of words?

Jennifer: From the guest posts I do on multi-author blogs, it seems like a post that is “long” by their definition is one that is over 900 words. That’s kind of an arbitrary number, but one I keep running into.

David: Do you think that for something to be “long-form content” it must fall into a specific category of documents?

I know you consider narrative journalism as long-form content because you mention The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek as a good example. But do you consider a white paper, a bylined article, a speech, or an annual report as long-form content?

Jennifer: I think this applies to all online content—fiction or non-fiction, educational or entertaining. I do consider white papers, most bylined articles, and speeches to be long-form content.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read an annual report on line. Due to the fact that they’re graphic heavy, they seem to always be downloadable PDFs—which I think people have an easier time processing because they can view, assess and navigate the total breadth of it pretty easily.

I guess I would always define this based on how people are currently defining “average” length. If the average video is 2-5 minutes, and the average blog post 500-750 words, then “long” would be anything longer than that.

I also think this average is becoming shorter consistently over time. People have shorter attention spans, so what constitutes “too long” is always changing.

David: Finally, besides “Tunnel Creek,” would you recommend other examples of long-form content that are easy to read and follow because they are well written and well designed?

Jennifer: Here are some very good ones:

1) Most recently, the Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Usfeature in TIME. (24,105 words—amazing info).

2) I think some of the most consistently amazing long-form stuff I’ve read lately is in WIRED. Every month, they’ve usually got a whopper of an article (often not the feature) that’s a jaw dropper. For example, the recent article Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us.

3) This LEGO video is well done (a little long for me, but I’m not the target audience) and is a great example of company storytelling to boot.

4) And, then in my industry if I mention a tool/technique in a post I’m often hyperlinking to articles from CopyBlogger, ProBlogger, and Social Media Examiner because they post a lot of “definitive guide” kind of posts as well as exhaustive lists of ideas. For example:

My thanks to Jennifer for taking the time to answer these questions and providing her expert advice.

02/16/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are four notable communications stories from the week ending February 16, 2013.

“A Failure of Imagination: Why Bookish and Other Recommendation Engines Fall Short” by Hillary Kelly, on The New Republic magazine’s website, February 11.

In this entertaining and informative piece, Kelly takes a look at Bookish (the newly launched book-centric website) and other sites that use algorithms to attempt to correctly recommend books that readers might enjoy.

She believes these sites, including Amazon and Goodreads, have some value, saying, for example, “Online recommendation engines are not inherently useless. They are indeed fast and convenient, and some more than others provide a certain community.” But she often finds their recommendations to be of little value because they are based on information that is too limited (such as the books she bought only from one particular site or an inadequate understanding of her tastes and desires—even when given plenty of chances to get them right), and are based only on what she bought, not why she bought it.

“The Key to Writing Great Blog Posts,” a post by Shelly Kramer on the V3 Integrated Marketing website, February 12.

Great blogs and other Web content depend, of course, on good writing but also on “making your post readable, shareable and discoverable,” says Kramer. She then discusses the importance of having great headlines, delivering on the promise made in your headline, and using subheads, pictures and meta descriptions to make your post effective.

“The Government is Watching Social Media Policies” by Bob Feldman, on PR Week website, February 15.

In this column, Feldman, a cofounder and principal of the digital and management consulting firm PulsePoint Group, says that although companies are adopting social media policies “to limit the potential of damage and help save employees from the consequences of their own poor judgment,” the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) thinks some companies may be going “too far in restricting employee speech.”

The NLRB’s ruling could affect almost all private employers.

“Why the Word ‘Panties’ Is so Awful (and What to Do about It)” by Sarah Fentem, on the Atlantic magazine’s website,

Fentem, who says the word “panties” creeps her out, is, apparently, not the only person who hates this nickname for women’s underwear. She says many blog posts and message boards denounce the word, which is “simultaneously too-sexualized and too-babyish.”

The word is too babyish, she says, because its “ies” ending “puts it in the same category as ‘booties’ and ‘blankies’—words often associated with small children.” Why it’s a sexy word is not easily understood, she says. But she suggests a few reasons, one being because “it refers to something so exclusively feminine.”

02/09/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five noteworthy communications stories from the week ending February 9, 2013.

“Age, Gender Determine ‘Go-To’ Devices” on eMarketer website, February 4.

As this article explains, TV in 2013 is still the go-to source of news and entertainment for most Americans, according to a new study by Harris Interactive. But young adults—those between 18 and 34—are quickly turning away from TV and relying instead on their laptops and smartphones.

Charts in this article show the percentages of different age groups moving to new devices and those considering replacing their computers with tablets.

“Nine Writing Mistakes You’re Probably Making” by Ben Yogada on The Huffington Post, February 5.

Yogada, the author of How to Not Write Bad, says that for writing, it’s the best of times because so much writing is being done and it’s the worst of times because much of this writing is bad.

He lists nine writing mistakes and explains how to correct them.  The first mistake, for example, is being wordy. By “wordy,” though, he does not mean writing long sentences. He means using words that should be omitted.

“Pentagon gearing up to fight the PR war” by Walter Pincus, in The Washington Post, February 6.

In this informative article, Pincus says that although public relations (referred to as Inform and Influence Activities) is not new to the military, the U.S. Army is now embracing PR as a key element of its 21st-century military operations. He quotes the new Army field manual as stating PR is critical in “. . . leading operations toward attaining the desired end state,” and that “Victory depends on a commander’s ability to shape, sway, and alter foreign audience perceptions, and ultimately behavior, especially in the area of operations.”

These objectives would fit into almost any good PR campaign.

 “The Peculiar Twitter Tactics of Social Media Influencers” by Haydn Shaughnessy, on the Forbes website, February 7.

Shaughnessy, suggests in this post that Twitter has “become the channel for the new motivational micro-speech,” leading the trend in social media to provide readers with inspiration and motivation. He says there are “social media influencers whose tweets and interactions are regularly interspersed with homilies,” and he gives interesting examples.

“10 Tips From Boing Boing On Making Online Content Sing” by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield in Fast Company, February 8.

Sweeney and Gosfield are the authors of The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well. In this article, they excerpt from their book ten tips for building an addictive, compelling website. Their tips come from Mark Frauenfelder, founder of the online magazine Boing Boing, which has been published since 1995 and has 2.5 unique visitors a month.

The tips provide good advice. For example, the second one—be original—says, “Make the blog that doesn’t exist yet, but that you’d want to read.”

Comments Affect Your Readers’ Perception

shutterstock_94785103Here’s a study finding that should concern online writers of all sorts: Comments made by early readers of your piece may significantly affect the way later readers perceive what you’ve written.

The Guardian, Scientific American, and others have come to this disturbing conclusion.

Scientific American, for example, recently studied the response of readers of an article on nanotechnology. The article was sent to two groups of readers. For the first group, it was accompanied by “polite, civil and constructive comments”; for the second, by “uncivil comments.”

In writing about the study in a January 28 post, Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at the magazine, said:

The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.

The finding is concern enough—at least for me, and I would assume for other writers and their readers. But added to this conclusion is this belief by many people who study the practice of commenting on blog posts and other online content: The quality of comments has deteriorated over the past few years.

Many of those who once took advantage of the comment section to share their thoughts about a post now put their comments on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, or have stopped commenting all together—leaving only trolls to comment on the actual site of the content. (A troll, according to Wikipedia “is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, misconstrued, or off-topic messages in an online community.”)

So, it seems that even if you write about a topic that readers approach with no preconceived opinion, there’s a good chance that they will misinterpret what you write and will decide not to trust your content because they have been influenced by commentsScreen Shot 2013-02-07 at 3.17.29 PM made by trolls.

This potential for misinterpretation and distrust worries me, as I think it should anyone concerned about open dialogue and discourse. It’s not easy to write clear, concise content that gets across to the reader the exact message you hope to convey. It becomes almost impossible to deliver the desired message when someone is undermining your attempt to do so.

If, for example, you’re writing about the role PR can play in establishing your company’s brand within your community of stakeholders, you want your readers to know that both PR and a company’s brand are good things and can help the company grow its customer base, industry leadership, and profits. You don’t want someone who hates PR to comment incorrectly that PR is lies, untruths, and a snake-oil saleman’s fast-talk and that it develops a made-up “brand” as a gimmick to sell customers what they don’t need or want.

A thoughtful comment about the pros and cons of public relations by someone who knows what he or she is talking about might encourage your readers to think more thoroughly about what you’ve written. That result, in turn, could add to the conversation within your community of readers. It may also help you better think through your message the next time you write about PR and branding.

But “inflammatory, extraneous, misconstrued, or off-topic messages” help no one. And they may, in fact, make conscientious bloggers and other writers of online content think twice about whether they really should write their posts in the first place. If they decide not to write them, we all lose.

Taking a Hike Plaque and Keeping up with the Jones’

Screen Shot 2013-01-22 at 5.46.23 PMAs it does occasionally, The New York Times in a recent article asked twenty questions about advertising, the media, and popular culture. Here are two questions about ads in 2012 that caught my attention:

  • Do any of the copywriters who crafted the ads for the Crest Pro-Health Clinical Line of oral-care products sold by Procter & Gamble realize that the way they punctuated the headlines, which read “Take a hike plaque, and don’t hurry back,” suggests that consumers ought to get their hands on a “hike plaque,” whatever the heck that might be?

  • Will any English teachers who wear the Jones New York clothing sold by the Jones Group scold the copywriters who came up with the headline “Keeping up with the Jones’ ” for the brand’s ads?

Clearly, the Crest ad is missing an important comma after “hike,” a comma necessitated by the fact that the sentence is addressing plaque, telling it to take a hike. The comma is necessary here just as it would be in a sentence such as, “Go to the office, Bob.” Since this mistake is frequently made in advertising, my guess is that even in an example like this, the writers would not have known that they needed a comma.

The Jones ad leaves one asking, “Keeping up with the Jones’ what?” Clearly the writers meant to say “Joneses,” meaning to not fall behind in the competition to own as many possessions as your neighbors, whose last name is Jones. But by adding the apostrophe instead of the “es,” they made the name possessive, and so it requires an object, such as car, which is, perhaps, speeding down the road, and you are trying to catch up with it. Or maybe it could refer to lifestyle, which would be appropriate in this case, but even then “lifestyle” would have to be added to the sentence, so the reader does not have to guest what it means.

You can read the other 18 questions from the article at http://ow.ly/gJP2A .