Going Long: The Role of Longform Web Content

Long shadows

A long look at longform web content

With 140-character tweets and short, scannable web copy often top of mind, it can be difficult to think of a situation where we would willingly want to publish thousands of words.

But longform content is carving out a significant niche in the habits of online content consumers, as evidenced by trends in journalism and ebook publishing. In higher ed, there are opportunities to capitalize on this trend, as well as implications to consider.

Longform Goes a Long Way

We’ve been trained to believe that brevity is the soul of the web, yet longform narrative content is flourishing. Longform and Longreads have become two prominent curators of longform journalism content, creating websites, apps and hashtags dedicated to this subgenre.

“There’s a human hunger… for deep information, real examination and the kind of reporting that takes time,” New Yorker editor David Remnick said in an interview with AllThingsD last month.

In an overly concise world, longform content is tremendously valuable. Why? Because that concise world also moves in real-time, where information is slippery and often escapes its necessary context.

Longform content gives us the depth we need to understand a story beyond its first flash of relevance. “People want a beginning, a middle, and an end,” author Jeff Goodell said at a discussion of longform journalism held last April. “They want context.”

The two challenges for longform content are a) relevance and b) format. Is the content something people want to spend a lot of time with, and does the presentation make this process easier?

The Age of Ebooks

The most obvious format for longform web content is an ebook. People don’t read ebooks because they are trying to complete a task or they only have a short amount of time. They read ebooks because they want to learn more about a topic of interest. And with Apple’s iBooks announcement on Jan. 19, creating and distributing an ebook suddenly became a whole lot easier.

Besides iBooks, we’re seeing the viability of ebooks and other longform content in the commercial market through the success of products like Amazon’s Kindle Singles and publishers like Byliner. The Next Web posits that three factors have contributed to the success of ebooks and longform content:

  • Locational convenience: We can read them on our tablets, Nooks, iPhones and any number of emerging devices.
  • Formatting: Successful ebooks are not just a print PDF horked onto the web. The formatting befits the medium and context.
  • Curation: Many ebooks are collections of essays, articles or other content. What makes them work as ebooks is the careful editing and collection of the content.

The other perk of longform ebooks, aside form providing valuable context in a fast-moving real-time world, is that they can be published with a very short turn-around time and dropped right into that real-time information stream.

Back in June 2010, David Meerman Scott wrote about how Simon & Schuster published a chapter from a 1992 book about President Harry Truman as the ebook “Truman Fires Macarthur” because it provided historical context to President Barack Obama’s firing of General Stanley A. McChrystal. They published the ebook within 48 hours of the general’s dismissal.

“This is the new publishing economy in action: fast and flexible and revolving around products whose logic is responsive, rather than predictive,” Megan Garber wrote recently in The Atlantic.

Long Copy is Long

Long cat is long

Long cat likes long copy

Contrary to what we may think, short copy is not the only path to a successful webpage. According to Copyblogger’s Brian Clark, there are instances when long copy works better, particularly if the product is pricey, information-centric, feature-rich, innovative or web-based.

But the key, says Clark, is to focus on presentation and context. If the longform content is buoyed by a tone and design that users know and trust, that will help it succeed. Again: relevance and format make a huge difference.

Notre Dame’s In Depth stories, as blogged about by Chas Grundy in December, are a great example of this. There is stunning, on-brand design supporting engaging content that extols Notre Dame’s core messages. They also enhanced the reading experience by creating what they call “content pins,” an interface guiding the reader through the long editorial copy.

Rather than let well enough alone, Grundy’s team tested the reading experience by tracking event actions via Google Analytics. They found that more than 40 percent of readers made it all the way through the text.

Grundy concluded:

While the long-form articles may appear risky, the format itself is not failing. And it certainly works contrary to the widely-held belief that web users want small nuggets, have short attention spans, and won’t read your content anyway. You just have to give them content they want to read.

Biola’s distictive website uses a similar approach, pulling the reader down a long page supported by the same rich design and presentation found sitewide. Some alumni magazines, like Boston University’s Bostonia, have also gone all-in supporting longform content with exceptional design.

What Does This Mean for Higher Ed?

There are no definitive rules

People may say that you cannot publish a news story on the web that’s longer than 750 words, or create a page where the content extends significantly “below the fold,” but that’s not really a rule. It’s not even a best practice. Your publishing should be informed by your goals and guided by the needs and habits of your audience, and no one knows either of those better than you. That means longform content may be a viable option. And like Grundy, you can (and should) test its effectiveness.

New paths for old content

Student handbooks, course catalogs, employee manuals, viewbooks… you may print these and distribute them at the appropriate times, and you may even link to the PDFs on some tertiary page of your website. But why not treat them like ebooks? Brand and deliver them as such, and you’ve given new life to old content by encouraging people to consume it such that it can be searched, annotated, bookmarked and highlighted, even from a mobile device.

There’s valuable information in those creaky old formats, so refresh the way you’re publishing the content to make it more relevant. It’s not the student life handbook or the student life document, it’s the student life ebook!

Reimagine and redistribute

A couple months ago, Rick wrote about the value that can be found by reimagining our web content. Embracing longform content presents new opportunities to do this. We can bundle articles about an ongoing research initiative, a historic athletic season, or a transformative presidency that is nearing its conclusion into an ebook. What about pulling a four-year admissions blogger’s posts into an ebook, showcasing the full arc of the undergraduate experience? Universities are home to forward-looking research, so when a new technology emerges, maybe we can publish an ebook showing how we’ve been at the forefront of that discovery for years.

Whither the alumni magazine?

As John Carroll University’s Mike Richwalsky observed, Apple’s iBooks Author now makes it “redonkulously” easy to publish a rich ebook version of our alumni magazine. Who needs a flipbook or an overpriced app? We can publish our alumni magazines—which often feature content akin to the longform journalism I referenced earlier—or bundle excerpted content in an electronic formatting befitting their print roots. (This great presentation on alumni magazines by Cameron Pegg at the University of Queensland in Australia points out that the University of Rochester’s Rochester Review is already doing this.)

We still have to be awesome—and appropriate

We can pretend we’re the New Yorker all day long and have a grand time publishing longform web content. But at the end of the day, the content has to be fitting in every respect. We shouldn’t prattle on and on just because we can. Longform content is even more demanding of excellence—in substance, in editing, in design, in consideration of context. Don’t publish an ebook because it’s doable—publish only if it’s sensible.

How else might we make good use of longform web content in higher ed?

Homepage photo by orinrobertjohn and top photo by mig Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »


  1. Mizzou’s “Illumination” magazine does a great job bringing longform to life on the web:

    About the ebooks. ..I love the concept of telling stories in epub/ebook form, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to open a downloaded epub on my imac. Fine, it works for ipad and kindle, but what about my desktop? I can’t even open Rochester’s epub magazine after importing it into iTunes! No native desktop epub reader? No luck with the desktop Kindle app either. I hope there is a resolution to this nagging problem, soon.

  2. Love this! The “bullet points fix everything” approach is getting rather stale.

    Did you happen to see this from Salon’s editor-in-chief yesterday: http://open.salon.com/blog/kerry_lauerman/2012/02/03/hit_record? Essentially, Salon played the quick-and-dirty content aggregation game, but stopped last year and has instead been publishing about a third fewer stories, but spending much more time on each one. These fewer, longer stories are more original, covering topics you aren’t going to easily find elsewhere—and now their traffic is up 40 percent.

    Salon stories aren’t the same as higher-ed content, of course. But it’s refreshing to see folks rethinking the notion that all web content needs to be sliced thin in order for it to be effective. As Salon figured out, it’s about using content that you can produce better than anyone, that makes you unique, and that resonates with your audience. Decisions on length should come from answering those questions, not from arbitrary rules.

    Thanks for writing about this!

    • Thanks, Sara! No, I hadn’t seen that from Salon, but I *love* it. The lesson is that games and tricks won’t win the day, and they certain won’t endure. Exceptional and user-appropriate content will always come out on top.

  3. Great post, Georgy. I love the ending concept of “awesome” and “appropriate” especially when we think about the SEO-benefits of longform text on a site. Rock on!

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