Contrary to popular belief, readers want to consume lengthy, chunky, get-your-teeth-into pieces of content over short form gifs, Vines and listicles, made popular by the BuzzFeeds of this world. Last year’s Pearl Awards gold winner, for best long form writing, iostudio’s Vice President Keith Kawasaki and GX® Magazine’s Editor in Chief Mark Shimabukuro talked to Content Magazine about how GX’s award winning ‘Home of the Brave’ story, of three generations of National Guard members, captured a legacy in print while triggering a 65% uptick in online traffic to the digital version of the cover story. Here, Kawasaki and Shimabukuro share their formula for creating compelling long form content (1,000+ words) and talk about why long-form is an experience people want to sit down and engage with.
Congratulations on winning gold at last year’s Pearl Awards for your long form writing story. What made it a stand-out piece?
Mark Shimabukuro: It’s a terrific story, one that you just don’t come across very often. One thing that struck me about this piece is that it really embodied the values of our client, The Army National Guard, of loyalty, a sense of duty and self-sacrifice – you had all of that in one family. They really could be the poster family for The Guard.
How did the long-form piece resonate with your audience?
Mark Shimabukuro: We received immediate evidence of its success online. It saw a 65% increase in open rates above our average cover story, and it received a 127% increase in page views and our users spent 126% more time engaging with the piece than average. We also heard back from a marketing official for The Army National Guard from Wisconsin, where the story originated, who said although it’s difficult to pinpoint how any one story can be responsible for an increase in interest, coverage like the Shanles’ story definitely helped, especially because it showcased the family aspect of the National Guard. When a recruiter can point to the fact that a soldier’s own children joined, and they wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps, that speaks so much, because those types of stories change people’s perspectives of The Guard in a positive way.
What made this particular long form piece so popular with your audience?
Mark Shimabukuro: One thing we try to achieve with the magazine, and we take pride in, is that we are so closely tied in with the soldiers’ stories. We’re out in the field reporting on them, talking to them, getting their feedback and researching what they want or need, and that tied into this story. Whenever we look for stories for the long form narrative, we seek out the human element—the stories about the struggles or conflicts they’ve had to overcome or the day to day challenges they face, and that’s one of the things that made this feature so important.
Keith Kawasaki: The one thing that differentiates GX from other government publications is, it focuses on the individual and allows the soldiers to see themselves in the magazine. GX is their magazine, it’s part of their culture and the soldiers’ involvement in it is critical. When soldiers see themselves in the magazine – the stories spread like wildfire – it gives them encouragement and motivation – and that’s just wonderful for us to see.
In a world that celebrates brevity, why does long-form writing still work in your magazine?
Mark Shimabukuro: There is always a spot for long form narrative, no matter how busy people are these days, there’s just a natural yearning and hunger for good stories. We have access to so many good stories from our soldiers, which you can’t sum up in just 200 words, you have to give them the space to do justice to their sacrifices and courage.
Keith Kawasaki: Long form pieces are very common for us to do. They are the kind of articles that our soldiers want to engage with. Because its priority is the print product, and it’s delivered to the home of the soldiers, we’re creating an experience that people want to sit down and engage with. We very much believe in creating, what our friend Bob Sacks describes as, a “luxury print experience.” It has to be worth readers’ time. We also make this a magnetic experience by 1) intense audience and client research, 2) audience involvement and 3) audience empowerment. Ensuring we hit each of these three tactics ensures each piece resonates in meaningful ways that encourage sharing, conversation and lasting impressions.
What makes a long form story compelling? Mark Shimabukuro: When you’re dealing with a long-form narrative, it always helps if there’s a larger, universal theme that you can touch on, because that’s what people really connect with. The great long-form pieces always have this. “Home of the Brave” was an incredible story about a whole family of talented National Guard soldiers, but the story was also about love—the love that the family members have for their country and for each other, and how those two loves are so intertwined in a unique way.
How do you keep the reader engaged for that length of time?
Mark Shimabukuro: When you write a long form story you need to give the reader ‘little treats’ along the way, little surprises of revealing information, to keep them going to the end of the story. For instance, with the Shanles’ story we wrote about how the Shanle couple met, the lengths the dad went to reach out and connect with his daughter when they were both serving overseas, as well as how one of the sons cheated death. We also use great art work and graphics to complement the piece and serves as another way to engage the reader. We break up the text by structuring it into chapters while creating multiple entry points, which helps the reader follow along with you. We also add sidebars—in this instance we included two small profiles other all-family members of the National Guard. When you have a long form piece, it helps to have those short bits to keep the reader engaged.
What makes a long form piece successful?
Mark Shimabukuro: You see success in long-form writing where creators are offering unique perspectives in attractive packages. Attractiveness may be in the form of a high-end print magazine, or an intuitive, responsive website. Long-form content, even in this era of Snapchat and Instagram, has never gone away. Consumers have an appetite for it. Magazines such as Esquire, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic continue to engage their readers with long essays, interviews or think pieces that appear in print and online. ESPN, both the website and print publication, thrives, of course, with short content, but they also stand out for the stories of Wright Thompson, whose features run to thousands of words. When the content is done right, users are more than willing to dive deep and sit with it for long stretches.