Longform is trendy, but publishers are still chasing fast clicks

By Erin Griffith , written on January 7, 2014

From The News Desk

In 2013, the media world became obsessed with longform.

There was the Epic, the longform project of Medium, and Beacon, the investigative project by Former Facebook managing editor Daniel Fletcher. Vox Media's properties spit out interesting, well-packaged longform stories by the ton. Politico has launched a magazine to ramp up its longform writing. ProPublica also launched a digital investigative magazine. Even properties known for their click-baiting headlines and aggregation, like Buzzfeed, Business Insider, Mashable and Gawker, began publishing long, investigative stories presented in rich formats. In August, Hamish McKenzie called longform "the new necessity."

Digital publishers clearly want to do good, expensive journalism. But their financial incentives still aren't aligned to do so. Sure, some groups have novel monetization schemes: Epic hopes to sell options for its longform stories to movie studios, Beacon intends to use crowdfunding to pay journalists for their investigations, and others might dabble in sponsorships of stories or micropayments for individual pieces.

But the majority of digital publishers still monetize content the old-fashioned way: They measure audiences by pageviews and unique visitors, and that's what advertisers use to make spending decisions.

Say a well-researched longform story gets the same amount of readers as an aggregated photo of a Miley Cyrus nip-slip. Those stories are essentially worth the same to an advertiser, even if the longform piece took weeks to report and far more resources to edit, package and promote. That's the case even if readers stayed on the longform piece for an average of ten minutes each, scrolling all the way to the bottom and sharing the story, instead of the empty nanosecond they spent with Miley article. The click is the monetizable act, and it's an equalizer among web content. (Except slideshows, which you can debate among yourselves.)

No, at this point, longform serves the purpose of brand-building for the publisher. It makes the publication look good, and might help it recruit top writers who want to produce in-depth investigative journalism.

Meanwhile the advertising world isn't particularly happy with the current paradigm, either: Mention banner ads and clickthrough rates to an adtech person and you're in for a long, self-loathing rant about how we've got to kill them both but never will. (Then again, maybe native advertising will save us all.)

One company that's trying to change this for both sides is Chartbeat. CEO Tony Haile has been "pissed off for some time" with the way media outlets chase the wrong kind of traffic. He's seen this firsthand through his company's publisher traffic dashboards, which are used by just about every media outlet in the business from the Washington Post to New York Magazine. Often, high-traffic stories with great headlines get zero engagement, he says.

He's so frustrated that, last month, he decided to bet the whole company on a solution, he says. Whether his solution is the right one, it's too early to say, but solving this problem is now central to Chartbeat's mission. "I want the publishing industry to move from traffic development to actual audience development," Haile says.

Chartbeat already measures how much time readers spends on a particular article and whether they're actively reading. But now, Chartbeat is arguing that the key to measuring actual engagement over mindless traffic is how frequently a reader returns. "Write a linkbait article or put in a slideshow you may well get a second click, but they won't come back. Write great content and they will," he says. Longform is the field of content dreams, or something.

Alongside this mission, Chartbeat released new product to help publishers measure return viewers is called Chartbeat Publishing for Editorial. It tracksĀ second-by-second behavior of every single visitor across every single visit, and helps publishers understand what influences a person's propensity to return.

One month in, and 40 percent of Chartbeat Publishing clients are live with the product. Haile says the focus on repeat visitors appears to be changing the way people value traffic referrers. This means a link from, say, Yahoo might not send as engaged of readers who will become regular readers, versus one from, say, LinkedIn. This means publishers can focus on what kinds of content create more repeat visits, and rely less on big traffic hits. Haile says the goal is to have ad sales people saying, "We need more engaged time and more quality articles," which is what the editorial side clearly wants to produce anyways.

Chartbeat isn't the first company obsessed with engagement, but other efforts have focused on the ad side, and almost all still rely on the dreaded click. Social media is obsessed with measuring engagement-by-click, building a myriad of low-impact reasons for us to click or tap, be it a favorite on Twitter, a heart on Instagram or a Like on Facebook. The only company I'm aware of that removes the click measurement altogether is Moat, an adtech startup that uses mouse movements to track whether a banner ad has been engaged with, rather than rely on clickthrough rates.

Haile notes that digital advertisers buy ads for traffic or for audience. The traffic play is a race to the bottom -- it's a commodity. The only way to make digital media worth more is to make the ads it serves more valuable. Charging more for an engaged audience that returns over and over is one step in that direction.

[Photo illustration by Hallie Bateman]