Longform content and its place in the digital world is a much-debated thing. As I’ve blogged before, nobody seems to be able to decide whether we have the attention span for it or not. Personally, I’d like to think that we have, and that people actually warm to brands that produce it. You need look no further than Patagonia’s Cleanest Line to see the levels of social sharing and engagement that their articles generate, and I’m equally as encouraged by the growing popularity of Medium – a platform that insists on posts that are considerably longer than 140 characters.
My feeling is that people respond well to these pieces because they’re created with something other than distraction in mind. Brands such as Patagonia (or Williams Sonoma, or Basecamp) understand what their audiences like about them – what they want from them – and they’re subsequently able to produce informative and helpful content that doesn’t add to the cacophony of the internet. Sure, it’s not for everybody, but that’s the point. It’s intended to appeal to a niche, core audience, rather than aim for the lowest common denominator.
Of course, the internet is a constantly evolving space, so it’s interesting to see how longform techniques are adapting to changing tastes and advancing technologies. Although the old print journalist in me would love to say that people will always go for the 2,500 word print feature, it’s clearly not the case. We respond to different content styles in different ways – the fact that 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute shows that video might just be gaining in popularity.
But what if you could combine the written word with video, alongside epic photography and choice soundbites, all in a single piece? It sounds incredibly obvious, and the kind of thing that has probably been done a million times before. That may indeed be the case, but being first isn’t necessarily what people will remember you for. In the case of the Guardian’s Firestorm project, it’s the quality of the production that really tampers with the memory glands, and as far as I’m concerned, the piece opens up all kinds of possibilities for engagement. It’s a form of ‘storytelling’, whether you like the word or not, for a wide and varied digital audience.
There’s no way to embed the Firestorm piece onto this blog, so you’ll have to make your own way through it on the Guardian’s homepage. But here’s a brief overview for anyone in a hurry. It’s essentially a multimedia composition (known as a multimedia narrative) made up of video footage, dramatic photography, straightforward print journalism and talking heads interviews from those involved in the tale. The story in question is that of the Holmes family and how they survived the bushfire that devastated their Tasmanian community.
The whole thing is presented as a kind of interactive eBook (it’s available to buy via the Guardian’s eBooks page), written over a number of chapters, and it’s simply beautiful to look at. It’s also a great example of a story being told successfully in a way that covers off the myriad of content formats available to creators. It works on laptops, on tablets, on phones (it’s responsive) – it’s a great piece of content all round.
So how does it fit into a branded content strategy? As far as I’m concerned, it has a number of potential applications. You might use it as an update on the age-old ‘about us’ page – talking through the history of the brand in an engaging way. For Domino’s Pizza, I was once involved in trying to make their ‘about’ page a little less dry, and – thanks largely to Domino’s willingness to try something different – we ended up creating the mildly entertaining ‘Domino’s Online Museum‘. It may not be the most viewed page on the site, but it had a remarkably high dwell time, suggesting that we’d managed to tell a corporate story in a reasonably captivating way. Apply the Firestorm technique to any semi-interesting brand story, and I think dwell times could go through the roof.
Imagine, too, what you could do with this for a leisure brand, or for the marketing of a new album, or for the likes of AirBnB, where customers tell a good party of the brand story. Imagine if you made the framework available to your users so that they could populate these eBooks themselves (which is, in part, what Google Plus Stories pulls together for you, albeit in a rather scrapbookish way).
It’s amazing to think that, only a few years ago, longform content was seen as something best left to print media. And yet here we are in autumn 2014, looking at the possibilities as though it’s the next big thing. It’s funny how these things come round again.