Gini Dietrich

The Role of Long-Form Content in Brand Journalism

By: Gini Dietrich | February 4, 2014 | 

The Role of Long-Form Content in Brand JournalismBy Gini Dietrich

Welcome to the fifth blog post in our series on brand journalism.

If you’ve missed any part of the series, you can find more about the trend, how to breathe new life into old content, how to use user-generated content so it doesn’t all have to be original, and how to monetize your content through sponsorships.

Today we’re going to talk about long-form content.

Garrett Moon had a really good post on the topic a couple of weeks ago.

If you missed it, “It’s Time to Take Long-Form Content Seriously” does a test of Google search results to show you how well organizations are being rewarded for their research and writing efforts.

To boot, our own Clay Morgan has a piece on the topic tomorrow. I won’t steal his thunder, but I will tell you he looks at how to use multimedia as part of your strategy so your readers aren’t scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

Before we get to how you can use long-form content in your own brand journalism efforts, let’s back up for a second.

Who Does Long-Form Content Well?

The writing program at the University of Pittsburgh has an interesting project called Longform.

On the site, there are hundreds of long-form articles that you can peruse, even clicking some and saving for later.

You will find interviews with famous authors, critically acclaimed directors, and this week you’ll find a series of interviews with and stories about Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

None of the articles are written or created by Longform. Rather, they compile the best of the best into one aggregated site for you.

It’s an interesting way to build a brand, create readers, drive engagement…all without writing a word.

And then there is The Paris Review, which I think is one of the best publications printed today (Vanity Fair and The New Yorker also compete, particularly because of the multimedia they offer digital subscribers).

They publish only once a quarter and the interviews, stories, and articles are highly-researched, well-written, and extremely engaging.

In their Art of Fiction series, you can read multi-page interviews about the practice of writing and they are presented as long-form content.

In 2006, they wrote a nearly 13,000 word piece about Stephen King, which remains one of my favorite interviews ever.

Because it was so well done, you didn’t think about having to scroll and scroll and scroll or not having bullet points or headings or pictures to balance things out.

A Series of Blog Posts

But, let’s be real. We’re not all The Paris Review and we all have full-time jobs that don’t allow us the time to really dig into a piece of content that could take a week or more to write.

So what to do?

Truth be told, I’m testing the idea of taking long-form content and breaking it down into more manageable pieces by doing this very series.

With this blog post included, we have nearly 4,000 words on the topic.

By the time I’m finished, we’ll have close to 7,500 or 8,000 words and it will have taken me eight weeks.

But it’s easier to digest because it’s one blog post per week and I know that I have a great topic every Tuesday that I don’t have to think about. The thinking and research is already done.

Start there…and then build up to the creation of long-form content that may still very well take you eight weeks to write, but has a very specific purpose on your website or blog.

For instance, we have a client that helps organizations put crisis plans in place for life-threatening events.

They have particular experience with the police and military (most of their executives are former secret service agents) and do a lot of consulting (terrible as it is) around active shooters.

Because of the unfortunate series of events last year when so many organizations faced gunmen who killed children, employees, and innocent bystanders, they had a lot of pieces that could be combined into long-form content.

It took a year and it certainly isn’t a pleasant topic, but their expertise is demonstrable and now they have something that will not only develop their expertise, but help Google understand their authority on the topic.

How You Can Implement

Deciding how you want to approach long-form content is entirely up to you and the time you can commit to it.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Don’t write a lot of words for the sake of doing so. If you only have 300 words to say on a topic, stop there. But if you have a real expertise – like our client does around active shooters – spend the time to get it on paper.
  • Write for readers. Yes, Google is going to reward you if you can demonstrate real authority on the topic, but if you’re writing around keywords and adding copy to get you to thousands of words, it won’t work.
  • Research, research, research. Most of us work in industries where there are experts and influencers who can speak on particular topics. Take a page from The Paris Review and do an in-depth interview. Add in video and images and you’re golden!
  • Demonstrate your own expertise. B2B organizations, in particular, have expertise that truly makes them stand out from their competition. Use that to your advantage. If you don’t know how to take technical speak and develop it in layman’s terms, hire a freelancer who can help you. It’s highly likely you already have content (brochures, sales materials) that can be repurposed.
  • Strike a balance with multimedia. Unless the long-form content is extremely compelling – like some of the examples I’ve used – most of us will need some video, audio, and images to balance out all the text.
  • Plan time to write every day. If you have to sit down and write a 12,000 word piece of content, it’s never going to happen. If you take an hour every day to write, you’ll have that bad boy finished in a month or less.

Because I love to write, this is the piece of brand journalism that excites me the most. And you’ll see us testing it in different areas around these parts this year.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • jenzings

    I am really, really enjoying this series and like the idea of breaking long-form content into “digestible” bites. I love reading a well-written and thoroughly researched article, but I think it’s tough to process on a daily (or multiple-times daily) basis. Long form content (done well) *should* be rewarded by Google, and I’m glad to see that happening. However, it also has to be read, and I think that given most peoples’ time constraints, their ability to do so on a regular basis will actually be quite limited. Breaking it down makes a lot of sense.

    And yes, yes, yes on the research. When I was in college I *loved* helping friends bolster their research efforts–digging to find material was just so much fun for me. (Nerd alert, apparently.) I’m wondering if there’s an opportunity there somewhere for research assistance, because I see that as likely being the bigger challenge for many, as really good research does take time.

  • I love it Gini. Especially the “write for readers” part. 

    I can still remember as a young reporter the city editor just constantly telling me, with plenty of adjectives of course, “don’t write for me, write for them,” and he’d point out the window. Or when I ask how many words he wanted, he’d just say, “as many as it takes.”

  • I’d glad there’s this general “liberation of long form” going on.  It’s more fun to be able to break out of a 500 word box and let posts go (meaningfully) longer… it’s also better for everybody.  Jonathan Salem Baskin has a great book on the benefits of forgoing brevity: “A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight the Tyranny of the Brief, Vague and Incomplete.”  Going long(er) certainly helps.

  • Loving this series! As a reader, I’ve noticed that the longer form pieces posted on Medium have been striking me lately. Maybe there’s a thirst for deeper topics happening in our brains right now. As a writer, this just reminds me that researched pieces require lead time…which requires an editorial calendar…which requires planning…gotta go!

  • Getting readers to accept long form journalism is tricky when we’ve been told for years that our readers want shorter pieces of content. You really have to capture their attention right away, or you risk them clicking elsewhere.

    We’ve been experimenting with long form content on the GM environmental blog (when we have time), but it’s usually in the form of a story about a dealership, or another local angle. In other words, something written for a built-in audience.

    I guess the best route is to continue to experiment and try to extract those really interesting nuggets. I hate that word.

    p.s. Thanks for linking to the Stephen King interview. I’ve saved to read later.

  • I am among the unwashed – a consumer! If you’re out to impress me – then “Tell me what you’re going to tell me – then tell me – then tell me what you told me.” I know “boilerplate” when I see it. And unless I’m intensely interested in the subject matter under discussion – I’m probably not going beyond the first paragraph.

  • This is really interesting. Just reading this is making me want to go back and read the other posts to better understand the series. I actually was inspired by the last couple to do an interview & article with one of our clients, which is more story / journalism than the standard marketing content (which I am not so good at writing anyway). We’ll see how it does, but the initial idea seems solid.

  • bradmarley  Buzzfeed’s long form editor has an interesting take on this if you haven’t run into already —>
    A separate but related point is that marketers aren’t necessarily the bet storytellers.

  • jenzings  Note to self: When you need research help, call Jen.

  • I am really happy with the Google changes. You shouldn’t have to format for SEO anything. In fact the content should stand on it’s own with the best rising to the top. Showing up first page doesn’t make you any authority on a subject. It just means you were good at getting on the first page. And if your business requires you to be on that first page….and you aren’t promoting yourself as an SEO expert….you don’t have a lot going for you

  • ClayMorgan  “As many as it takes.” Amen.

  • creativeoncall  I’ve never been able to write just 500 words. So it makes me happy Google rewards those of us who are long-winded.

  • rosemaryoneill  Ah. I forgot to use Medium as an example. You’re right…they do a very nice job.

  • creativeoncall one note from my last conference call with ginidietrichwas her expectation for you to whip up some new songs…in long form. She said ‘Why can’t Chuck go all Free Bird or Whipping Post? the next time he does the Follow Friday slot?” 

    BTW I love JSB! But have not read any of his books yet.

  • bradmarley  I really love creating stories around the customers or vendors or local businesses. I’d be curious to see your stats on those compared to the shorter pieces. I’d venture to guess they’re higher.

    P.S. That interview is REALLY good.

  • ginidietrich I can’t wait for the post that ClayMorgan goes ‘OMG Gini did you not consult with me on this post before hitting publish?’ IT WILL HAPPEN! 8)

  • jdrobertson  Amen.

  • Howie Goldfarb  I know people generally feel Google is evil, but I like the changes they’re making.

  • ginidietrich I don’t see it (just) as a reward for the long-winded, but for those who are will to dig, and think, a little deeper. It helps get us all past “life in the shallow end,” the intellectual short-changing that superficial content creation and consumption can create, a la  Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,’ a book I consider to be scarily brilliant.

  • ginidietrich compared to Facebook Google is Ghandi Buddha Jesus and the Hamburgler all in one.

  • ginidietrich I don’t have specific numbers, but I know they always perform well. It’s partly why we’re trying to do a dozen or so of them this year. Like I said: we’re experimenting. But they are stories that can be told, so we will. 🙂

  • ClayMorgan  I love a good “former editor” story! You inspired me to write something based on mine.

  • JayDolan

    ginidietrich It’s already long and I have to consider six things? Sheesh!

  • Thanks for the reminder of Paris Review. Love a great interview/profile. This post was encouraging as I just started a series about Facebook and rediscovering the value of it whether for business or personal use. And you’re right, one of the benefits of breaking up the long form is that you have a great topic waiting for you the next week.

  • JohnMTrader

    EleanorPie Love it!

  • If you produce content that is interesting, useful and informative people will read it. I have never bought the argument that people will only read short pieces.

    I can’t provide you with any studies right now but I do know that almost every discussion I have had about this dies when I ask someone to pull out their analytics and show me how they know their readers won’t read longer posts.

    You can’t base it off of the number of comments received or not received either. The comments have dropped on all of my blogs but traffic is stable or growing.

    On a side note I’d argue that commenting is down in most places because we are competing with blogs, FB, Twitter, G+ etc.

  • ginidietrich

    JayDolan Shaking my fist at you!

  • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes  How funny is it that we both have Stephen King in blog posts today?

  • bradmarley I love it!

  • creativeoncall That book sounds interesting. I’ll pick it up.

  • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes MY friends and I are political gadflies. We are active in most campaigns on one side or the other and in the interest of getting our message out we produce literature germane to the our candidates’ position. We have discovered by direct contact with our constituency most of it is not read. We found almost anything over two minutes (120) words) reading time is all but DOA. But if our candidate is lacking name recognition and a limited budget we must put something in the hands of the  voters he can paste on his refrigerator door so he can refresh himself on the candidate’s position/s just before going to the polls. And an 11X17 four fold is overkill. Believe me we know the “long and the short” of it. I am adamant in the thesis more people will read only short pieces than there are who read long pieces under an circumstance.

  • iCopyright

    ginidietrich wondering … Why long form? because it establishes thought leadership, or some other reason?

  • Okay… I like the idea of writing a series around one topic to turn it into a long-form piece, but I do have questions.  
    Are you suggesting writing that series… posting one “chapter” at a time to your blog. Then when the series is complete, rolling all the pieces into a single post that is then the long-form piece?
    Or… are you saying to just think about it as writing a series, and then post everything all at once into a single post?
    Does that make sense?
    –Tony Gnau

  • JoeCardillo Thanks Joe. I’m going to read that later (right after I read the Stephen King interview.)

    The key to marketers is telling stories is to tell the story so well that people forget they are being marketed to.

  • ginidietrich

    iCopyright It establishes authority…so yes, thought leadership in a sense

  • Word Ninja  I LOVE that idea. Love, love, love.

  • T60Productions  Yes. And yes. I’m saying you should choose one or the other. It feels less intimidating to do your first option so if it is, do it that way!

  • JayDolan

    ginidietrich Shake it like a Polaroid picture!

  • @ginidietrich iCopyright  Also storytelling. Which is an important factor in helping people quickly connect to a brand.

  • bradmarley JoeCardillo  Ha! Too true….but I would argue it’s easier said than done

  • jdrobertson
    We’ll have to agree to disagree about this and to clarify I am speaking about online communications.
    I think one of the great challenges is being able understand and read the analytics report. When I review mine and clients I have always looked at unique users, time spent on page, pageviews and other metrics based on CTA.
    Relevancy is critical so some topics won’t do as well with particular crowds.

  • Howie Goldfarb creativeoncall ginidietrich  I’m still waiting patiently (and practicing) for Chuck to come out with Spin Sucks the musical. I already choreographed several tap dance routines for this.

  • I’m super excited about long form because it really allows us to tell a story and it encourages extraordinary writing. You can eek by with shorter so-so pieces and survive, but if you are going to write something that requires more than a few minutes attention span it needs to be good. I think this trend is going to make online writing better in general.

  • ginidietrich

    nateriggs Thank you, sir!

  • ginidietrich

    JayDolan LOL!

  • ginidietrich

    coledouglas7 Thanks, Cole!

  • stevesonn

    ginidietrich Nice brand journalism series. You should develop an eBook on the topic.

  • nateriggs

    ginidietrich : )

  • iCopyright

    ginidietrich Enjoying the series, Gini, Good stuff.

  • ginidietrich

    JonathanWich Thanks, Jonathan!

  • ginidietrich

    stevesonn That’s what I’m going to do! Much easier to write once a week and then compile.

  • “Research, research, research”
    THAT is why I like long form content so much better. It’s just impossible to create using empty filler. I’m on a kick where I’m starting to want less of more – declutter everything and spend more time and deeper engagement with the select information that REALLY has value.

  • Content Chemistry at its finest, right? Do I get bonus points from Andy for that one?

    Give it to me in bite-size pieces first, like in this series, and then give me the option for a downloadable PDF later…heck, maybe I’ll even provide some contact information to download it. Oh yeah, and perhaps you curate a Listly list with each post in the series and have it in your sidebar – also easily embeddable by others.

    Hmm, I’ve mentioned a book and a product in that comment – and neither one was mine!

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