Five ways to be successful in long-form: Examples to inspire think tanks and research organisations

18 August 2016
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

For us comms types, the world of digital long-form publishing feels like a veritable playground. The PDF dims in comparison to parallax scrolling, looped background videos and interactive maps.

But publishing successfully in digital long-form means choosing a topic that truly suits the medium. Then there’s building long-form into your communications strategy. Then you need to throw yourself into gathering quality assets, all the while making careful editorial decisions so that you achieve your overall aims.

In our previous article we put the leading long-form platforms through their paces by carrying out Which?-style product testing. We had lots of fun exploring the relative pros and cons of Atavist, Shorthand, Storyform, Pageflow and Medium for think tanks, research organisations and NGOs. And we promised to look at ways to create successful long-form pieces in our next installment.

So, before you get all the toys out of the box, here are five things to consider.  

1. Pick a topic that will succeed

Organisations get it right first time when they pick a topic that will really shine on a long-form platform.

The Disasters Emergency Committee knew it when they commissioned ‘Aftershock’, about the Nepali earthquake.

The Brookings Institute knew it when they made ‘The Citizen Soldier’, giving readers a rare insight into the American military using personal testimony (the militaristic typography is also a nice touch).

The BBC nailed it when they created ‘The Mochileros’,  a piece of investigative journalism about the young Peruvian backpackers risking their lives to export cocaine. Digital long-form can turn readers into investigators themselves, enhancing interview-based pieces, especially if there are videos or audio.  

As you start planning your topic, ask yourself: What is your aim for the piece? A summary of your research or an annual report? Advocating, or pushing a policy agenda? Campaigning?

Then think as a commissioning editor might. Will writing and publishing this work fill a need in the field? Does it have something new or relevant to say? Now determine whether long-form publishing is actually the best way forward.

2. Make digital long-form part of your project strategy

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. You need to think about how to incorporate long-form into your communications plan. Even using a relatively cheap digital platform like the ones we looked at in our last blog still demands gathering content and investing in a good edit for web — all which divert time and money away from the guarded comms plan.

You’ll need to convince people early on (before funding is siphoned away elsewhere) of the impact you can have with long-form and the resources you need. Be smart about it: are your researchers visiting the field: can they take a local photographer for the day? Can they conduct some interviews? And don’t forget permission forms…

Did someone say impact? You need to decide what success indicators you’re looking for and how to measure them. Is it more important that people share your infographics or that they scroll to the end of your piece? James Higgot’s blog on what to measure and how to measure it is a great guide to making these decisions early on.

3. Write for the medium

In long-form publishing, editorial and design cross.

First, enlist design and editorial support as early as possible to get an idea of how the final piece will look. It’s also useful to audit your content (both written and multimedia). You’re likely to have too much, so be brutal about what meets your aims for the piece, and what gaps still need filling (see step four).

Second, you’ll hang your content on your structure, so design the right  structure. Take these two examples: the Humanitarian Policy Group’s ‘Time to Let Go’, and the King’s Fund’s ‘The Future is Now’. Both are evidence-based appeals for system change, and both use an incredibly effective three point structure.

Alternatively, case studies structured around a few central themes are perfect for digital long-form. In ‘Whatever It Takes’, case studies are structured around a few central themes. This balances the qualitative and the quantitative nicely.

Third, write with your audience in mind, and remember, people read differently online. You need to write economically: cut the length, cut again, then run it through the Hemingway App to check how web-friendly your copy is.  

4. Shake your assets.

You will have started gathering content early (right?) including multimedia and attention-grabbing statistics. Now it’s time to figure out what content deserves special attention.

Background videos are a popular way to add impact to your landing page. They are most effective and high quality if they are short and looping because you need hosted them on the website itself (like any other image) rather than embedding from Youtube. Background videos are not supported in older browsers, so it’s good practice to provide a fallback image. Careful not to overuse them, though, as they can become distracting.

Infographics on a ‘reveal effect’ image like this one from Save The Children allow your readers to process the refugee crisis in Europe more meaningfully. If you want to portray a process or a system but can’t afford to code more advanced interactivity into your piece, the reveal effect is a good compromise. You can achieve a lot with DIY platforms such as Shorthand, who have now advanced their image reveal functionality so that the image can fade-in from different directions – neat!       

5. Tell the story.

A bit of creativity goes a long way. But before you get carried away, remember: the best way to innovate is always from your story. Interactive features should ultimately be funnelled into accentuating your key messages.

For example, the ‘The Future is Now’ from the King’s Fund have included animated lines on a ‘journey’ down the page accompanied by pop-up images. Clever touches to illustrate its message of inclusivity are reinforced by case studies, which you click on to ‘air both sides of the patient-doctor relationship’. This is a great example of using simple functionality to inject some energy into your piece.

Another good example is ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System which highlights trends of rising numbers of emergencies with animated graphs and rocketing numbers. It also illustrates the ‘organic’ nature of systems with animated dotted lines in an organogram – making it feel alive.