‘You Need Enough Time to Get It Right’; Longform Articles Take Prizes, Clicks and Time

“From the data, it’s clear to see that there’s positive correlation between high performing pages within organic search and word counts of over 2,250 words,” wrote HubSpot’s Matthew Howells-Barby. “The sweet spot seems to be 2,250-2,500 words.” Barbara Spector, our 2022 Grand Neal winner, went well beyond that.

In our summer editorial council meeting last Thursday (which you can view here), Barbara Spector of MLR Media and Rachel Engel of Lexipol spoke about their 2022 Neal Award-winning articles, and the benefits to taking the time and effort to write longer pieces.

Writing earlier this year, Christian Cappoli of The Hoth also cited the benefits of long-form content—including more keywords—adding “if it’s done right.” He noted a study by Pew Research showing that “users spend twice as much time on articles over 1,000 words. They found that short and long articles both attracted the same number of visitors, yet people would actually keep reading the longer pieces versus navigating away to something else.”

HubSpot also found that “higher word count is correlated with more social shares,” something Engel expressed concern about. She praised her colleagues and the new voices she was able to amplify.

“I have a great team that is very encouraging of these types of articles,” Engel said of her story, titled Modern Day Rosies, about a paramedic/illustrator who embarked on a project spotlighting diverse, female essential workers. “But I also feel like it’s important to showcase the people and the demographics that aren’t typically seen and thought of.

“It’s good to be able to pull in those voices when there is a gap in our coverage. We want to make sure we include all the kinds of people that are working in our industry so we are reflective for audience members.”

The article by Spector—titled Reckoning: Family Businesses Confront Race, Racism and Inclusion— put the long in long-form, with riveting sidebars, photos and pullquotes. She did it right and won the Grand Neal.

Spector offered six takeaways from her experience with the story:

  1. Get the support of top management.

2. “When tackling a big project, you need enough time to get it right, including a lot of time for a major rewrite if needed,” she said. “…If possible, wait until the editing is far along before committing to publish it on a specific date.”

3. It’s important to be known to your readers “as a trusted resource that is sensitive to audiences concerns. It will be easier to find sources and get them to open up to you. That being said, of course, I had many people just declined to take my calls and I had to just keep pushing.”

4. “Back up your assertions with quotes, facts [and] statistics from trusted sources. This is especially true for controversial topics.”

5. “If you have a complex story to tell, break it up into parts and make ample use of subheads, pull quotes, illustrations and sidebars to avoid the old wall of text,” Spector said. “Link to sources where readers can go to research and learn more.”

6. “Everyone needs an editor, and you also need a talented creative director and web designer for projects like this. David Shaw, our publishing director, talked the story out with me, read my drafts and gave me great advice on structuring. And Monica McLaughlin and Richie Madden made it easier for readers to navigate all the various parts and made it all visually interesting.”

BioPharma Dive’s Ben Fidler, another 2022 Neal Award winner for a longer article, added that a cooperative staff is also much needed.

“There are always trade-offs when someone has to cycle off of daily coverage to do something bigger,” Fidler said. “In our case, because we have a small team, it means others have to pick up the slack quite a bit. But we all know that and aspire to write great stories. So when someone has an idea in the works, we come up with a plan to give them the time they need to execute efficiently. And I think that goes for other publications at Industry Dive, not just BioPharma. Many journalists I’ve spoken with here want to write standout stories, not just daily churn.”

Engel said that her piece took about two months to write, but she was able to work on other things during that time such as daily newsletter articles and social promotions. “So it was a relatively straightforward process.”

“Today’s online culture, along with the pressure to control costs and the competition for reader’s attention, has created a trend toward shorter articles,” Spector said in conclusion. “But there can be great value in doing a deep dive into an important topic. You can still save on print costs and hold readers’ attention if you publish a report like this as an online series, but the reporters still need support from management and the freedom to put in the work.”

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