August 2, 2017 Last Updated 10:24 am

Long-Form Digital Content Is Being Upstaged by New User Behaviors and Videos

Guest column: Ben Kendrick, Director of Content Operations at Valnet Inc., says a lack of time, small screens and shorter attention spans are reshaping what users encounter online

Have you noticed that many of the videos you encounter on Facebook today contain short text overlays – real-time sentences that describe what’s going on and why the video is important?

There’s a reason – and it’s one of three factors changing the face of digital content.

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Given that most consumers today read and watch content on smartphones or devices that are smaller than a desktop monitor, digital content producers are abandoning older online formats – especially text-heavy, long-form content – for shorter formats that are:

  1. more visual or more likely to include a video component
  2. easy to share
  3. scripted/produced specifically for today’s shorter (and shorter) attention spans

And how long would today’s raised-on-technology attention spans be?

About 8 seconds, according to studies about today’s Generation Z, also known as Centennial consumers. They’re the post-Millennial demographic born a few years on either side of the year 2000. Born into an always-connected world, they’re either (depending on one’s viewpoint) very distractible or extremely capable of processing large amounts of information – because of their multi-screen upbringing and behaviors. As a result, they demand content that’s quick to consume, easy to share, and gives them what they need quickly, so they can move on to another activity.

These three factors are influencing the demise of long-form digital content, which has traditionally been characterized by word-heavy, analysis-laden, detail-filled web pages and essays on a variety of topics.

From deep analysis to quick factoids

Before the mobile web became the dominant channel for accessing online content (in 2015), many digital publishers embraced articles and webpages designed for hard-core fans and readers who wanted as much information as possible and were willing to click from page to page to page to access it. Particularly on sites that lent themselves to deep exploration – entertainment, sports, gaming, TV, movies and the like – editors and publishers encouraged writers to explore every nook and cranny of categories and genre beats. More pages meant more clicks, and more clicks meant more revenues.

But increasingly, today’s readers have neither the interest nor patience for that type of long-form content. Instead, they want more consumable content – shorter, pithier, share-able content with built-in nuggets and visuals that are easy to read and share with family, friends, social networks and peers.

Smaller screens = larger role for video 

Because readers/viewers are more likely to be watching content on a smartphone, they’re encountering more videos, which are easier to digest than text-heavy small screens, and those videos are being supported by short, headline-like descriptions that aid comprehension and context.

The videos can be “read” or viewed quickly anywhere and on any device – with or without sound (85% of Facebook videos, in fact) – and can be shared easily on other channels and platforms. It’s all part of a growing trend toward more video consumption, or what Google calls the “blurring lines” of TV and online video. And as Domo noted in 2016, content-sharing continues unabated, with 100 hours of new video shared on YouTube and 159,380 pieces of content viewed at Buzzfeed every minute.

By shifting from long-form to shorter, more engaging types of content, digital publishers are doing more than responding to their viewers’/readers’ interests and behaviors. They’re changing the way that information is presented, consumed and shared – a strategy they must adopt if they hope to survive in the world of online publishing and continue to attract advertising dollars and sponsors.

We’ve experienced the shift at Screen Rant, a site dedicated to movies, TV and entertainment, and the growth curve began in early 2015. At the time, our site specialized in think pieces, deep analysis, and articles that required click after click for our diehard fans and cinephiles (and their interest in every single detail).

In April of 2015, one of our most popular articles was “Best Hidden Messages in Movies, an article that attracted high numbers of visitors in its original format and required one click for reach of the 10 movies featured, with roughly 500 words explaining each “hidden message.” Today’s updated version of that piece is viewable as a single page that allows for continuous scrolling from beginning to end on a PC monitor.

A case study: video boosts results
But in 2016, we added a 6-minute video to support the “Hidden Messages” article, and it became our first major hit on YouTube, now with more than 11 million views. Later, in 2017, we also converted that video into a shorter version with descriptive text for Facebook. Since then, many of our popular content pieces also have companion videos that attract audiences, are easier to engage with on digital devices, and produce metrics that make our content attractive to advertisers.

Now, during the content creation process, our digital editorial teams constantly explore new ways to fashion and build content for today’s audiences. What digestible facts, photos and video clips are readers seeking? What are they searching for online? What questions are they asking? What’s trending in social media? How can we pounce on trending topics and find different ways to cover the latest topics, memes and talking points? Which pieces of content are ideally suited for a companion video? How can we give readers the information they want – information they are likely to share with others? What can we provide that will make them a knowledgeable pop culture guru on any particular topic within their inner circles of friends, coworkers and peers?

Ben KendrickDigital content today is not what many writers, videographers and editors had in mind even three years ago, and it no doubt will continue to evolve – especially as interest rises in artificial intelligence, voice-assisted technologies and other new innovations.

In fact, to examine what digital publishing will look like in five years, let’s peer into our virtual reality goggles and find out…..

Ben Kendrick is Director of Content Operations at Valnet Inc., a digital publishing firm in Canada. He serves as Managing Editor of Screen Rant, a go-to source for movie, TV and entertainment news, and consulting editor of Comic Book Resources, an online site for comic book-related content. Ben can be reached via email or via Twitter (@benkendrick).

Photo: Person looking at smartphone in the dark by Japanexperterna.se, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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