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.

02/23/2013 Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five notable communications stories from the week ending February 22, 2013.

“Tech Predictions for 2013: It’s All about Mobile” by Claire Cain Miller, in The New York Times, February 18.

In this post, Miller discusses some of the findings from the recent ComScore report on Web and mobile usage in 2012 and expectations for this year. The report, she says, “shows that the effects of a movement toward mobile are everywhere, from shopping to media to search” and that “businesses will have to scramble to stay ahead of consumers’ changing behavior.”

She shares a few of the “interesting tidbits” from the 48-page report, beginning with the observation that “The mobile transition is happening astonishingly quickly.”

“The Dirty Secret about Online Content and Shrinking Attention Spans” by Eric Kokonas, on Ragan’s PR Daily, February 20.

In this thought-provoking post, Kokonas provides more details than are usually given to why our attention span is getting shorter and shorter as we become consumed with Twitter, Facebook, and other online media. And he turns on its head the argument that online content “sucks” (to use his word) because of the shortened attention span.

Kokonas says, for example, “The problem is that digital media is designed to be clicked, consumed, and spread as quickly as possible.” Then he adds, “The goal for digital content is not to produce well-written, thought-provoking articles and videos, but to create content that can be spread quickly and easily” because when someone takes the time to read, ad dollars are not generated.

He also points to evidence of a growing demand for better content and to examples of excellent long-form content being posted regularly on a number of websites.

“Fortune Journalist Cuts to the Core of Storytelling in Business,” a blog post by Lou Hoffman, on Ishmael’s Corner, February 21.

In this post, Hoffman, includes a short video in which Pattie Sellers, senior editor at large for Fortune magazine, discusses storytelling and its importance to entrepreneurs. He provides a graph explaining Sellers’ description of what she thinks the best stories must contain.

Key among these elements is failure. “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested,” Sellers says in this informative video.

“Bookish Aims to Grow Book Market,” by Brittaney Kiefer, on PRWeek, February 21.

Kiefer discusses the newly launched Bookish, a book review and retail website, and its goal to connect readers with books and authors and to expand the book market.

Besides recommending books, the site provides author interviews and videos, as well as book reviews and reading lists. “We’ve tried to create more depth of content and information relating to books and authors than you might get in most places online, as well as bring in the independent expert point of view,” Keifer quotes Bookish’s CEO in this post.

“Images for Wine in Down-to-Earth Designs” by Julia Flynn Siler, in The Wall Street Journal, February 23.

Whether we work in PR, advertising, design or any other endeavor that helps our companies or clients better market their products, each of us must rely on his or her own creativity to execute the best work possible. And we each must address this creativity with an individual approach.

In this article about creativity, Siler discusses the way Susan Pate, a wine-label designer, gets ideas for her designs.

Pate starts, says Siler, by examining the “environment in which the wine is produced, including soil, topography and climate.” Her research helps her choose appropriate color palettes and often leads to images based on found objects, such as twigs or vines.

This approach has worked very well for her. For many years now, she has designed labels—as well as helped name wines and select the shape, type of class, and color for wine bottles—for estates and celebrity winemakers in the United States, Italy, and France.

She prefers to work with clients who are passionate about their wines, people who are not too literal-minded and will appreciate her evocative images.

Choosing between a Printed and an Electronic Book

IMG_0404Last Saturday, The Wall Street Journal published an article with a title that caught my eye as being both strange and obvious: “Don’t Burn Your Books—Paper Is Here to Stay.”

It seems strange to me because I can’t, for the life of me, see why anyone would burn his/her books if paper were going away. In fact, if we woke up tomorrow morning and there were no more paper to be found anywhere, I would suspect that one of the last things people would do would be to burn their books.

What would be the purpose of that Fahrenheit 451 experience? If paper disappeared, would people say to themselves and their friends, “We can’t have any more new paper books, so let’s get rid of the ones we already own. No reason to keep these old relics around.” Instead, wouldn’t we treasure those paperback and hardbound books even more than we do already?

This headline also seems obvious to me because paper is here to stay, including paper books, which was the real subject of this article with the headline that made the reader guess what the story was going to cover.

The first sentence of the article stated without any sense of humor or satire: “Ever since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital.” And the first paragraph concludes with: “By 2015, one media maven predicted a few years back, traditional books would be gone.”

Really? I wonder who these poorly informed pundits and this media maven are and why they made such a large leap from reality because aScreen Shot 2013-01-09 at 5.20.05 PM
company introduced another electronic device on which people could read books—as they could already on computers and smartphones.

I wonder if they ever looked at history to see how correct the “experts” of the day were when they pronounced, for example:

  • The end of radio when television was introduced. I bet most of us still listen to the radio a few times a week, especially when we’re in the car;
  • The end of vinyl when CDs came out. Those who cherish the pure sound of music on vinyl never switched to the new format and now are responsible for a growing number of albums becoming available in that format;
  • The end of CDs when digital downloads were introduced. Today downloaded music accounts for only about half of all music purchased in the United States;
  • The end of newspapers when it became cheaper and easier to publish the news online. A quick look at the driveways on any early morning reveals that the residents of almost every home in the neighborhood subscribe to anywhere from one to three newspapers a day.

The apparent reasons for this article is that after several years of increasing e-book sales, the growth has slowed considerably, and the sale of e-book readers has actually declined, while the number people reading their books electronically seems to have stalled: Only about 30 percent ofScreen Shot 2013-01-09 at 5.36.46 PM those who regularly read books read at least one e-book in 2012, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

Clearly what’s happening here is that the printed book is not going to be totally replaced by its electronic cousin anytime soon, if ever. Instead, these two ways for people to satisfy their desire to read will live side-by-side well into the future, as some people prefer to read their books on paper, and others choose to do so on an e-reader, tablet or other device.

Our household represents this split between paper and electronic readers. I fall into the first category; my wife into the second.

Of the many books I read in 2012, none was electronic. I have nothing against the e-book and, in fact, find the experience to be okay, neither really good nor bad. But somehow, when I think about getting a book to read, it always seems preferable to get a book printed on paper—whether it’s a new one, (heavens, no) a used one, or one from the library. The numerous books I read last year, including those by and about E.B. White, those about pioneer airmail pilots, and the books of essays by William H. Gass, all seemed to want to be read on paper.

On the other hand, Jane never considers reading a paper book. Every book—and there have been many of them—she’s read for the past two years have been electronic.

And now at the beginning of the new year, we are continuing to stick to our reading patterns. My first book this year, was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which was given to me by a friend as a Christmas present. (By the way, I doubt that she ever thought about giving me an electronic copy of this book.) I liked the book so much that I recommended it to Jane. But she had no desire to read it on paper. Instead, she spent $9.99 to buy an electronic version that she can read on her newest e-reader and her iPad.

The two of us—like many others—will long support both the printed and the electronic book.

A Certain Head on Your Shoulders

Zadie Smith, a novelist and essayist, says in “That Crafty Feeling,” her essay on writing, that to be a good editor, you need to get away from your work for as long as possible before tackling this task. She adds:

“You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel [and I would add, to edit anything], and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger, who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.”

I agree with Smith that you want to approach your editing assignment as a stranger if you are going to bring an added spark of creativity to the task and are going to raise the end product to the next level.

But in our work because we’re rushed for time, many of us write that executive speech or that article for the employee newsletter and then immediately begin editing it.

That’s a mistake.

Clearly, it’s got to be done NOW. But whenever possible, it’s best to have someone else edit your work, someone who doesn’t know the material as well as you do.

Many years ago, as a young PR manager and primary writer for the department, I reported to a vice president who edited my documents. Sometimes she made enough good changes to improve my copy, without making enough bad ones to destroy it.

But rather than use a standard ballpoint pen or even an editor’s typical red or blue pencil, she edited my work with a broad, black-inked felt-tipped pen. She always did her editing in the evening after I had left the office—I think so I would not see her making the changes, since our glass-walled offices were right next to each other. And she never failed to make big marks on the page, not gentle strokes inserted between my words or above the type, but bold deletes and lines leading to the margins where she occasionally suggested a word or sentence or two, but where she mostly wrote as boldly as I thought she could in the space available, “What?” or “Really?” or most intimidating and least helpful of all, simply, “No!”

I really enjoyed working for this boss but, to be sure, coming to work some mornings was not pleasant—especially because she always left the edited documents in the middle of my desk, and I could see her big, black scribbles long before I got anywhere near my office.

Nevertheless, having her edit my copy was the right thing to do.

But if no one else can edit what you write, you should do yourself a great favor: Let the material sit overnight, so you can come back to it as at least a partial stranger, an objective observer who by having a little distance from the writing can see its flaws that can be corrected, its good sentences that can be improved by what one client refers to as “enhanced writing,” and its excellent passages that give it real melody and rhythm.

The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader (Part 2)

(To read part 1 of The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader go to http://wp.me/p2jyvn-eN.)

A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses the growing trend for e-book devices to capture all kinds of private data from unsuspecting readers. According to the article, “Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.” That data may be beneficial for retailers, publishers, e-reader makers, and even some writers, providing information to use for determining what kinds of books, at what lengths, with what video, audio and graphics added, might be bestsellers in the future.

Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild and writer of Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof, and a half dozen or so other books, is one writer who likes the idea of knowing more about what his readers want. He says, “If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I’d love to get that information.”

Personally, I wouldn’t mind giving it to him. But I don’t want my e-book gadget to grab it secretly, without my knowledge, when I think I’m reading his book for pleasure, when I’m unknowingly participating in data collection about all I do, think, and feel while reading that book.

Analysts say they are learning important things about the reader from those data. I’m sure they are. But I’m not so certain that what they think they’re learning isn’t wrong, or that from it, they’re not developing incorrect conclusions.

What, for example, did they really learn from my having read the electronic version of Stanley Fish’s nonfiction book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One? And from my highlighting a number of sections and making a number of notes throughout the book?

Maybe they came to the conclusion that I care about sentences and writing. That’s true; I do.

But maybe they now think I’m a high school student having trouble with writing and am looking for help; so they’re recommending that the publisher put out a number of writing books aimed at that demographic. They’d miss the mark by a wide margin here.

While reading that book, I highlighted a section noting that in an Oscar Wilde novel a character explains why he doesn’t like memoirs. Wilde says, “They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering….” Maybe from my highlight, they’ve determined that I’m over the hill and am quickly forgetting everything, and that I want to write my memoir before my memory is totally gone. They’d be wrong on a couple of accounts here, but I can’t remember which ones.

Recently I bought a used paperback book from Amazon for only about $3.95. (It was no longer in print. Why else would I be buying a second-hand book?). Had this book been available in an electronic version, and I’d bought it for $3.95, would the analysts have determined that I’m cheap and want to buy only cheap books, and then suggested the publishers cut their prices significantly?

What would they decide from my marginal notes in printed books if I made such comments on an e-book? Sometimes I just draw a single line beside a whole or partial paragraph; if it’s really important, I might draw two lines. Sometimes I just write a letter or two with no further explanation: “B,” “S,” or even “SS,” rarely “BS.” Sometimes I write long sentences; in others I just put something like, “App to B.”

Clearly, the analysts would be calling in the codebreakers to help figure out the key to what I’ve written. Surely, they would be thinking that getting this key to my notes would help them sell more books.

I doubt that it would.

A publisher’s goal is to sell—sell!—books. An author’s primary goal, as I see it, is to write a great book—whether a novel, a nonfiction company history or anything else—that tells the story he or she wants to tell in the way he or she wants to tell it. Later comes trying to sell it and make money. The reader wants to have an enjoyable experience and maybe learn something just for the fun of it, or perhaps to use that new knowledge for something beneficial.

But the reader does not read to have an intruder take private data, and then come to conclusions that could very well be wrong and misleading or, in any case, are made from information they should not have taken in the first place.