If you haven’t guessed already, long-form content is a piece of content that is longer than most, on average around 1,200 words. Long-form content is a lost art, one that has been neglected by both writers and readers alike. In today’s world, long-form content has been mistakenly relegated to magazine feature articles or the occasional news editorial. If you find a long-form article online that isn’t a personal blog, applaud yourself — you’ve found a diamond in the rough.
But despite the modern world’s need for quick-hit-content, long-form content pieces actually do better in terms of engagement and on social media sites.
A 2014 report by NewsWhip found that long-form articles do well on social, especially when accessed from mobile devices. In 2013, they chose the top 10-most shared stories on Facebook from a variety of publishers, and the average word counts were 1,000 words or more. Steve Rayson gives an overview of seven studies from 2014 that show long form content drives high levels of performance, thrives online and holds a lively presence on social media.
So if long-form content is so powerful, why have marketing and content strategists neglected it across various industries?
The main reason for long-form content’s decline as a chosen content style is that that no one really knows how to do it well anymore. Writing quick-hit content has taken priority over what was formerly a well-rounded writing education. The ability to tell an engaging, informative story that not only has purpose and presence, but can also encourage readers to take action, takes planning and time. Two things that many people, content specialists and bloggers alike, don’t always take into account.
As someone whose editor has defined them as a “feature writer,” long-form content is my niche. But contrary to what my current intern believes, it’s really not that hard to do — it just takes five inside tips and a bit of practice.
The Inside Tips
1. Background Research First
Before I even go near a Long-Form article, I do plenty of research before hand. I read articles dating up to 10 years back, essentially stalk my subjects on social media (if it’s a profile or feature story) and make sure that I know just as much as I can about the person, topic, and or event I’m about to tackle. One of the worst things you can be is unprepared. It can ruin a project or article before it even has time to begin. If you have the background, you know the past and can then focus on the present and the future.
2. Develop Outline Questions
Long-form content is a story. It’s supposed to ready like a story, and have a beginning, middle and end. After doing background research, or even during, you need to make a list of what I call “outline questions.” These are questions you want answers to, regardless of whether or not you end up using those answers in the resulting article itself. These questions are a framework that helps guide your interview and lay the foundation for your story.
While writing your questions out, think of all the facts you want and need, the details you should have and the topics you need quotes on. Even if you already have an answer from your research, write the question down, because you should be fact checking all your background research during the interview anyways.
3. If There’s an Interview, Treat It Like A Date
The interview itself should be treated like the first, second and third date all rolled into one or two hours. As in a first date, you should start of professionally and cordially, opening with the easy questions that confirm facts, dates, numbers and events. These relax your subject and pave the way for the second date questions.
In the second date portion, your subject should be comfortable enough that you can start diving for details. Ask the questions that will help readers engage with the story and visualize the person or event.
Finally, by the end of the interview, you should be so deep in the interview that the conversation flows like a good red wine — easy and smooth. This is the most important part of the conversation, and it’s when those “outline questions” get tossed out the window. You’ve already gotten the basics, so now it’s time to dig deeper. Search for the questions that are adjacent or connecting to your original “outline questions” or that you form as a response to the subject’s answer. The third date is where you really get your story, and more often than not, a surprise.
4. Find the Hook
I’m not asking you to be Nicholas Sparks and find some tragic coincidence between Person A and Location B, but I am asking you to think while you interview. Don’t just jot down answers and ask questions as though every interview is the same; listen. Every person, every event and every story is unique in some way. There is always an angle, and it’s your job to find it, whether it’s what you originally envisioned or not.
Hooks are what make those really good, have-to-read-then-share-with-everyone-I-know long-form content pieces. Having a hook, often a hook that is so unique it captivates the readers in the first line, makes or breaks your story.
5. Show Don’t Tell
Just because you say it is, doesn’t mean the reader will believe you. And just because you can say it, doesn’t mean you should. Engaging long-form content is a melting pot of your observations, your research, outside facts, expert testimonial or data, and, if appropriate, quotes. Showing is more powerful than telling. Just see below.
SHOW: “I couldn’t believe how quickly they swarmed around the broomstick I’d used to swat at their nest,” Smith said of a hornet’s nest he’d knocked off the edge of his doorway. “They shot out from the cracked nest, buzzing angrily and diving at me from every angle. The sound was awful, and they moved so fast that I was stung multiple times before getting inside the safety of my house.”
TELL: Hornets are dangerous when their territory is invaded. They can be very aggressive when their nests are attacked and should be treated with extreme caution.
Now, which of the two examples above is more likely to insight an emotional reaction from the reader? Which is more powerful? Which makes the reader feel as though he or she is being stung and fleeing in fear?
Exactly. It’s that obvious
Long-form content is a juicy way to help drive engagement and brand loyalty. Try to mix up your quick-hit strategy by including at least two long-form articles each month, and if you find yourself struggling to make it engaging, practice.
Go out on the street and write a feature story about a stranger. Go online, pick a topic, and write a story about something you know nothing about. Practice by writing about anything and everything, until finally you can make a reader care about the most mundane and boring topics out there — like taxes or office supplies.
Still need help? Check out another example of Long-Form, branded content: Sleeve a Message.
Thanks for the tips, Alex!
It’s been a struggle for me to write long-form content. The problem: research took too long. It would take maybe 2-3 hours of web surfing to collect data for a 1,000-word article. I was gathering info, but I didn’t have any outline questions. With that in mind, now I know which answers I should pursue.