The Unconventional Wisdom of Ultra-Long-Form Content
Conventional wisdom said that people have short attention spans, that they’ll only consume online content in small bites and that they don’t read anymore. Marketers everywhere latched on to that conventional wisdom, and soon we had businesses of all stripes publishing massive numbers of short pieces. Tumblr and Twitter and Vine and Snapchat came along, each offering a more concentrated and powerful medium for short-form content, and businesses couldn’t sign up fast enough.
Shorter is better, the experts tell us, and they follow that up with both logical and psychological why shorter is better. They inundate us with eye-tracking data, A/B studies, and bounce rates. They wax poetic about short attention spans, small smartphone screen sizes, and busy lifestyles.
But then a funny thing happens: Amid the cacophony of gurus, pundits, and panjandrums expounding on best practices and industry expectations, someone comes along and does exactly the opposite of what conventional wisdom says they ought to be doing.
And it’s a big hit.
The power of ignoring the experts
Take, for example, Slow TV, a format that the national public broadcasting company of Norway, NRK, has been pursuing. The Slow TV format involves continuously broadcasting an event that takes a long, long time to complete, reminiscent of the TV channel that broadcasts nothing but a fire in a fireplace during the holiday season.
What would be the point of broadcasting, for example, an 18-hour video of salmon swimming upstream? Or 100 hours of a chess grandmaster moving his pieces around a chessboard? Or 134 hours — 5-1/2 days! — of a ship traveling almost the entire length of Norway’s western coast?
It’s odd. It’s counterintuitive. And it’s exactly what NRK did, and that funny thing happened: It worked.
The NRK’s first attempt at Slow TV was the broadcast of a 7-hour train trip from Bergen to Oslo in 2009, and it was watched at some point or another by about 20% of the population of Norway. (One estimate even put it at 30%.) For comparison, about 20% of Americans watched Johnny Carson’s final farewell from The Tonight Show in 1992, a figure that hasn’t been matched in the 22 years since.
The 5-1/2-day sea voyage was even more revealing. In June 2011, the M.S. Nordnorge set to sea armed with 11 continuously broadcasting cameras. By the time it docked in Kirkenes in extreme northern Norway, about half the Norwegian population had tuned in to see some of the action — or lack of action in this case. What’s more, during the Nordnorge’s voyage, locals who had been following the broadcast hopped in their own boats and went out to meet it, hoping to get their own faces (or at least their boats) on TV.
Here’s the entire 134-hour voyage of the M.S. Nordnorge, condensed into a “brief” 37 minutes.
In comparison to the Nordnorge’s 8,040-minute broadcast, Leica Camera’s 45-minute commercial seems positively terse. Nonetheless, it’s still a far cry from the short-form, short-attention-span content we expect customers to eat up.
The Leica video shows a white-gloved Leica employee polishing a stainless steel camera shell. By hand. For 45 minutes. It’s really a genius way to highlight the care, craftsmanship, and pride that go into the manufacture of one of their cameras.
These aren’t isolated cases
Of course, conventional wisdom and virality are often at odds; we’re often left wondering why something so off-the-wall would interest so many people. But unlike most viral content, these aren’t isolated cases. Long-form content has more marketing value than we have been led to believe. BuzzSumo’s data reveals that longer content — 3,000–10,000 words — is earning a lot more shares in the five top social networks than content with less than 1,000 words.
This should tell us something. It should tell us that we should stop thinking of the Internet as a snack bar that people come to for little bites of information. People are coming online to dine fully, and they’re sharing the best meals they find.
Why it works
I have my hunches about why these types of beyond-the-norm tactics actually work. I lack the hard analytical data to support my beliefs, but I do have all of human history to analyze. The last century ought to be enough, though:
It gets people involved. As the Nordnorge steamed along the coast, people boated out to meet it. In the Leica video, the voiceover encourages the viewer three times in the first two minutes to simply stop watching the video — those watching are forced to make an active choice about whether or not to reach for the mouse. Two and half minutes in, the voiceover and background music stop, the polishing continues, and a message that directs viewers to jump to the last minute of the video appears. Again, viewers must actively decide whether to stop watching, to skip ahead or to just let the video roll.
Gone are the days of families sitting around a glowing television, passively absorbing your marketing message. Today’s audiences are active, and they like it that way. The content that engages an audience —intellectually, emotionally or physically — is the content that people will willingly give their time to.
The very fact that it’s different holds our attention. Ultra-long-form content bucks convention. We know immediately that this isn’t “just another piece of content,” and knowing that, we become willing to give it more than a cursory glance. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. We have a long history of finding meaning in and praising people and projects that do the opposite of what market research, convention and tradition say they should.
Consider Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol, and The Blair Witch Project. Each of these was innovative and unique when it hit the scene. Each found both critical and popular acclaim and denunciation. Each now stands as a historical marker that current artistic techniques and theories trace their roots back to.
Which means, unfortunately, that each of these once innovative, nontraditional experiences has become conventional.
The future of ultra-long-form content
Is ultra-long-form content the next big thing (no pun intended) in marketing? For many, probably. But it won’t work for everyone.
Is ultra-long-form content here to stay? Probably not. As the Internet fills with more long-form content, we as an audience will acclimate to it. Hordes of content creators will, like Elvis impersonators, take the most interesting characteristics of it and turn it into something expected, if not a clichéd. By then we’ll be looking for that next innovation, the next thing that will break us out of the new box we’ve built out of long-form content.
My point isn’t simply that you’ll reach more people by loosening your restrictions on content length (though the data say you might). It’s that you can reach a wider audience by looking beyond conventional wisdom.
If you’re doing something that seems to be working, by all means, keep doing it, but don’t limit yourself to only that one thing. Consider your current strategies, your self-imposed limitations and your brand image and question each of them in turn. Filter each of them through your creativity and your gut instincts and then take risks.
Do something you’ve never done before. Do something no one has ever done before. Sometimes the opposite of conventional wisdom is outrageous lunacy, but with forethought, introspection, and creativity, it could just as easily be unconventional wisdom.
Image Credit: Flickr