Is longform online content about to go mainstream?

Yet Wait But Why (WBW) has had media watchers across the globe scratching heads in disbelief at its success. 

That’s because it takes the accepted norms for online publishing and throws them out of the window. And its success is now causing some online publishers to ask some very interesting questions about their current strategy and tactics.

If you work in publishing but haven’t read Wait But Why you really ought to have a long look at it now. The first thing you will notice is that it is not exactly teeming with content. The team at WBW, essentially a journalist on the east coast of the US and a commercial person on the west, barely post more than one story a week. In fact its strap-line ‘new posts every sometimes’ underlines its modest ambitions for post counts. Each post is something of an event.

Secondly, unlike a lot of media startups the site doesn’t post short keyword stuffed news stories. Almost every post is beautifully crafted and quite often accompanied by some gorgeous illustrations.

Lastly, and perhaps crucially in terms of its popularity, many of its articles are long – much longer than you’d expect to find in a site aimed largely at millennials. Wait But Why has published just over 80 articles and 63 of them are pieces that stretch to over 2000 words, with some reaching more than 3,000.

Tim Urban, the company’s co-founder, told Fast Company.

‘We took a bet that long but really thorough, really high-quality articles would not only be acceptable to certain people but would be a really fresh, standout thing in a current world of really short list articles. And that smart people would start reading it, and would keep reading it and get to the end. Then they’d want to share it, even more than if it were a great short article.’

Although it doesn’t appear that online readers are tiring of the viral short form content pioneered by BuzzFeed and copied by everyone from The Metro through to The Guardian, it is clear that a thoughtful, intelligent audience are once again wanting to engage with longer articles.

In many ways WBW highlights a trend that has been emerging for the past few years through the likes of The New York Times with its Snowfall interactive story, the BBC, Vox Media and the Twitter-owned Medium platform. There’s even talk of Snapchat delivering long form video.

Millennial driven sites BuzzFeed and Vice have also both experimented with long form content while the latest to announce its plans to tackle the format is The Huffington Post.

HuffPost Highline will apparently deliver once-a-week instalments of deep-dive journalism in the mode of a newspaper’s weekend magazine. 

‘What we’re focusing on is the magazine-style stories, which is both something that’s richly reported, but where there’s also a lot of emphasis on the style of the writing, the reading experience,’ Morris said.

Key issues for publishers

While the long form bandwagon continues to gather speed there are still important issues for publishers to consider.

The elephant in the room is how publishers are going to monetise the content. Five years ago online publishers regularly worked out formulas for accessing the relative worth of each piece of content – Demand Media for example, developed a multi million dollar business off the back of this approach. Long form content is not cheap. Even The Huffington Post, which has traditionally been shy about rewarding  contributors, will apparently pay Highline’s writers.

Articles that cost $500 upwards are going to need to generate an awful lot of impressions to recoup the money on an advertising CPM basis. The obvious option for publishers is to seek sponsors for the content, pair it with native advertising that is paid for on a tenancy basis, or possibly getting a brand to sponsor a series of articles. 

Another key question is – where are people going to consume this type of content? On laptops and tablets, but mobiles? Surely even the large screens of Phablets are too small for extended multimedia reads.

Lastly publishers need to discover what type of content is going to attract the number of readers and the level of engagement media brands require to make long form more than just a fad.

Interestingly there is a lot that can be learned here from WBW. The site clearly has not jettisoned the use of click bait headlines (for example, 7 Ways To Be Insufferable On Facebook – which are very shareable. The content though does reflect the passion of the author, so possibly the key to successful content is finding writers that match the longform content they are about to produce. 

It will be fascinating to see what happens to Wait But Why over the coming months. And also how the rest of the online publishing industry responds to its success.

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