The Internet has evolved at a rapid pace in the last two decades, and that is in part, due to the rapidly changing ways of how we access it. One of the subtle ways that the Internet has grown to accommodate the mobile generation is by cutting down on long investigative reports and instead focusing on shorter less than a 1000 word length articles. But does this mean the death knoll has been heard for the long form pieces that have so far characterised journalism and has been a much lauded and appreciated part of print media? A recent report into the reading habits of US smartphone users assures us that there is still a significant chunk of the audience who still prefer the long form reading even when glued to the tiny screen of their smartphones.
Now while the research by Pew Research Center is based solely on the US audience, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to extrapolate the same scenario to most of the world’s mature smartphone markets like the EU, Japan, Korea, and Australia. In fact, as we have seen in multiple other cases as well, the trends that have manifested themselves in the US, has later been observed among other markets worldwide, albeit with a few regional caveats. With that out of the way, let us dive deeper into this in-depth analysis of the news reading habits of US smartphone owners. In an entertainment world, that has been largely dominated by video games and online media; writing is a dying art. Can smartphone readers give written journalism the much-needed jab in the arm?
Long Form Articles on the Mobile Web: Are they worth the effort?
The research throws up some interesting metric as it shows that every 3 out of 4 articles on the web is a short form article with less than a 1,000 words. So while content writers seem to be leaning towards the shorter format, what do the readers have to say? As the graphs above reveal, on an individual basis, long form articles draw in just as many viewers as their shorter brethren. Not only that, long form articles have more than twice the engagement time of shorter format of articles. This points to the fact that if there is quality content to be read, readers are willing to invest a lot more time and effort into getting to the bottom of such investigative reports even if they’re on smartphones with a comparatively lesser amount of screen real estate.
In recent years, news aggregator apps have come to the forefront with multiple apps claiming to serve all the important news of the day in bite sized pieces. Interestingly it seems that a majority of people have either not yet used such apps or found them productive as we see throughout the day, longer form articles getting more engagement time rather than smaller articles. Another point which must have caught the eyes of the astute reader has been the jump in engagement times at the beginning and fag end of the day. With nearly 60 seconds for short form reading and more than 2 minutes spent on long-form articles, morning and late night seem to be the time for news readers engage more with their content.
While a long-form news may not have as widespread an audience as short form news, they have a very dedicated niche audience who keeps the numbers up to a level where long-form articles on an average get the same traffic as short form articles. However, one must never forget that the target audience of long form articles are generally avid readers and as such, binge reading becomes a very important factor. Thus, we see that a good write-up drives up user engagement the most as we see internal links manage to get the most attention from the readers while social media gets the short end of the stick. However, we cannot leave social media out of the equation either as they play a massive role in driving up traffic for a website.
With more than 40% of the traffic coming from social media sites, we find that social media is the most important factor in driving traffic to a website. Taking the second spot in the list is direct visits which basically refers to regular visitors or subscribers of newsletters who make up nearly one-fifth and one-fourth of the audience of long and short form articles respectively. This reiterates the point that Content is King as even a brilliant marketing campaign across social media wouldn’t be able to drive up user interaction with subsequent articles if the quality of content is not good enough to entice the reader into a long time audience.
But all these statistics, while they throw an interesting light on the written content of the Internet, are not very useful for content creators or publishers on their own. This is why in our last segment, we have cherry picked a few points into actionable points for publishers across the web.
With a myriad of social networks out there, it becomes difficult if downright impossible for newcomers in the online written creative space to know where and how to effectively market their content. This is where data analytics came to the fore and based on the findings of this report we can safely assert that the best bets for creative professionals to advertise their content is on Twitter and Facebook.
When it comes to driving traffic, Facebook is unparalleled with 8 in 10 complete user interaction on an article coming from Facebook. However, in spite of the traffic, engagement times of people who have come from Facebook remain surprisingly low. Twitter with a little 15% traffic on average, drives a lot more engagement for long form articles. At 133 seconds, Twitter outpaces Facebook with a 24% lead when it comes to average time speQnt on user interaction on long articles.
With the threat of ad blockers looming large, Content creators are striving to find more ways of retaining their customer base ever. However, the smartphone news consumer seems to be a very fickle one as we see that for both long as well as short format of articles, the retention rate is very low with almost 3 out of 4 people in each case choosing to read a single article from a site in one month. However, longer form articles do have a slight advantage with 28% of the reader base returning for 2 or more articles from the website compared to 21% for the shorter ones.
The Internet’s insatiable appetite for newer and fresher stories have decreased the shelf life of any content on the web to a sliver of what it is in the offline world. The worst affected are shorter length articles where 82% of the interactions are done within the first two days, and the number rises to 89% by the time day three is done.
There are slightly better signs for long-form articles with user interaction times steadily increasing throughout the first week to hit the peak of 147 seconds by day 7. Longer articles also tend to have significantly more shelf life with 90% of the total interactions extending up to day 5. In fact, as the number of words grows, so do their relevance as we find that 5000+ word articles have a significant amount of user interaction even by the end of the month.
Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Unfortunately, a great ending is not in store for this particular piece as the fact of life remains that there is no cut and dried method to achieve success in the field of online content writing. While we have seen that longer forms of articles have managed to garner a better response from users in general, it must be remembered that at the end of the day, if a piece of content is drawn out unnecessarily, it will begin to test the patience of even the most diligent reader.
With that being said, it is somewhat comforting knowing that even in the age of brevity, a well thought and investigated a piece of journalism finds its real worth and appreciation, if not in printed columns of newspapers, then in the luminescent screens of a generation married to their smartphones.