6 May 2016

Can digital longform content talk to the Buzzfeed generation when under the social media influence?

By Brad Rees

Last week I realised the true value of being a follower when I discovered an amazing story by Hillsborough survivor, Adrian Tempany, after it was promoted in a tweet by sportswriter David Conn

It was 5,000 words long, which meant a lot of iPhone thumbscrolls on a Sunday afternoon when I should have been helping with the washing-up. But even the clear and present danger of a domestic bollocking couldn’t stop me from reading the whole piece, crying a bit, en-scroll.

In an offline format, if you were to include the usual print furniture of headlines, photos, captions, breakouts, adverts – the piece would have been a 7-8 page spread.

I’m a painfully slow reader so absorbing this body of content end to end probably took me the best part of 30 minutes or 1,800 seconds to imbibe.

In audience research parlance, I am what is known as a ‘hyper-engaged user’, a news-reading zealot who can be relied upon to deliver the big minutes that ad sales teams use in pitches to ensure the content vessel stays afloat.

According to the latest reading-habit research from the Pew Research Center, I index by 567% above the average time a mobile visitor in their cohort spends on 5,000+ word stories. But here’s the thing – not many of them ever get to the end of a longform article on a smartphone, however hyper-engaged.

Mister Tempany’s editorial odyssey of the collective grief shared by Merseyside friends and families over the unlawful killing of 96 of their loved ones at a football match inspired me to shoot the the link to a handful of mates with the imperative, ‘READ THIS’.

Random chats with these pals through the week elicited their feedback, which corroborated the Pew research; not one of them had finished the article, although they had all tried and read ‘quite lot of it’. This further corroborates the research which says that the more words an article has on a smartphone or tablet, the more invested the visitor will be in that content.

There were elements of the research which were uncorroborated, like the notion that reading habits depend on where the reader has come from, digitally speaking.

A content punter, they say, who starts a longform piece from an internal link, spends an average of 148 seconds, compared to the social media blow-ins who fritter a mere 111 seconds of their attention to the narrative.

My experience was much less cut and dried, if not diametrically opposed to the Institute’s insights. I was under the social media influence of a tweet from a writer not a media owner.

So when I read  …

… this awareness-raising tweet induced me to read the piece from start to finish, something I would not have done in my natural clickstream behaviour on the Guardian website.

In my more self-critical moments I ponder whether my lack of gravitas or credibility is the reason why my friendorsement of the same article lacked the same velocity.

There’s a powerful message to media owners and their protagonists around the value of online content and it being seriously diminished, if the author is ignored or taken for granted.

The Adrian Tempany piece is Ulyssean in its form and its content. In a data-driven, performance-centric media environment – it’s tempting to somehow bow to the wisdom of machines and metrics, not forgetting the incisive research from respected think-tanks like Pew – the risk is we prohibit the human who conveys the human to the human and that’s what advertisers really want, if you follow me.

Sources:

Justice, finally: a Hillsborough survivor’s story By Adrian Tempany

Long-Form Reading Shows Signs of Life in Our Mobile News World By Pew Research