Much has been written about the demise of print and with good reason. Newspapers — remember those pieces of paper with words printed on them? — are in the grips of a catastrophic decline. But while everyone accepts that digital is the medium of choice, that's not to say that every digital publisher gets it right first time.
Don't overestimate your audience's attention span
Before I helped launch a content marketing agency I worked at Fairfax and Bauer, publishers that are rapidly trying to reinvent themselves for the digital age. Too often in the early days of the web, publishers assumed that they could just shovel content online and reap the benefits. The problem with that is that digital distraction has become the norm: the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds in a little over a decade. And more alarming for digital publishers is that 83% of page views last less than four seconds.
On a site like smh.com.au there are close to 20 shiny, colourful stories and advertising tiles "above the fold" (roughly the middle) of the home page, which adds up to a lot of competition for clicks. Whenever I was overseeing online content for publishers I imagined our target audience browsing with a sandwich in one hand, or watching TV at the same time. How best to get — and hold — their attention? That's a good discipline for brands: assume the audience is fickle and that they are one click from something better.
But don't assume they won't spend time with great content
On the other hand that doesn't mean that digital audiences are not capable of spending time with really good content. I wrote about this in my last post for the IAB; it used to be conventional wisdom that long articles would not find an audience online. No more. Now that the web is awash with listicles and snappy blog posts, there is a growing trend towards deep, immersive long-form digital content. Several studies show longer articles are actually shared more and get better search results.
Speaking about its new website a few weeks ago The New Yorker's editor David Remnick noted that among its most successful online articles was a 25,000-word piece on the Church of Scientology. The Guardian, regarded as a digital innovator among publishers, is now publishing several 4,000 word articles every week.
Don't overlook the power of your archive
In May, the media world was buzzing when an internal report about digital innovation at The New York Times was leaked. One of the many observations in the 96-page report was that The New York Times had failed to realise the potential of its archive. One example given was that readers could not easily find the original review of a long-running — and exceptionally popular — New York play. The report's authors also noted the potential of old content in new formats published when it is timely. For example, the Times launched a collection of videos about love on Valentines Day.
Unless you're a library you won't be able to compete with "The Grey Lady's" archive of 14.7 million articles dating back to 1851. But the lesson remains the same: repurpose, repackage and reuse.
Innovate but don't forget to replicate
Many commentators — myself included — have praised The New York Times for the quality of its digital journalism. Snowfall, a 17,000 word story about a fatal avalanche published in 2012 that seamlessly embedded video and graphics (and was simply a gripping read) set the standard for interactive online journalism.
But we all know that few publishers or brands can devote an entire team to a SnowFall-esque project for many months, so while it is important to innovate it's also important to understand what you can replicate. The incredibly popular Buzz Feed Quizzes would be an example of an online format that works exceptionally well that has been replicated many hundreds of times to great effect.
So innovate, strive to be different, by all means. But at the same time find something that works and do it over and over again.
Of course, we all make mistakes. The good news is that immediacy of digital means that brands can change course relatively easily. Publish, learn and publish again.