The pros and cons of creating research-based long-forms

4 December 2018

[This article was originally posted on the ODI blog on 9 November 2018.]

Long-form journalism has expanded in popularity in recent years. The New York TimesWashington PostThe Guardian and Buzzfeed now regularly publish articles thousands of words in length, written in narrative form and crammed full of engaging photos, videos, audio and pull quotes.

These pieces seem to fly in the face of our much-touted shrinking attention spans and ‘clickbait’ media; instead slowly, yet deliberately, unfolding a story.

At ODI, we’re always experimenting with new ways to communicate research, and exploring long-forms seemed like a useful experiment. In the last two years we have published five narrative-based long-forms exploring some of the toughest questions in international development including:

So what have we learned? And what lessons do we have for other think-tanks starting on their long-form journey?

The pros

  1. They are the way of the future.
    Most organisations are now operating with a ‘digital-first’ mentality, preferring to develop content for, and release content via, online channels. This is in line with statistics that show the decline of print media, and the rise of young people preferring to read their content online.To employ such a mentality, think tanks could release research outputs via online e-readers (as Chatham House and the Center for Global Development do) or tailor their content into long-form features. Long-forms are designed to be ‘digital-first’, being easier to browse and digest on computers, mobiles and tablets than PDFs, and may therefore take advantage of the trends mentioned above.
  2. They get better pick-up.
    Long-forms are not designed to purely drive traffic to the report – they represent a way in which we are trying to pull out the story behind the work and turn this into a different product. And this approach seems to be effective. Our long-forms consistently get many more times the number of people reading them than the research products they are based on.Of course, there is some bias here (when we have both, we normally promote the long-form more), yet the difference is stark. For example, to date, our ‘Securing safe roads’ long-form has received 3,607 pageviews, compared with 172 downloads for the research itself. And ‘Journeys on hold’ has received 2,913 pageviews, compared with 433 downloads.
  3. They are more ‘human’.
    Long-forms may not be well suited to all research, but they’re a fantastic medium to be able to give a ‘human face’ to the issues and themes explored in the work.By integrating photographs, audio and video, long-forms enable think tanks to bring research to life – more easily and convincingly conveying the experiences and views of those people we speak to every day.

The cons

  1. They don’t have a defined audience.
    Long-forms have traditionally been the realm of journalism. There, your audience is often clear – you’re trying to communicate a complex idea or issue to the public.Within research communications, your audience can get muddled. As a think tank, we are (honestly) rarely speaking directly to the public. But if we are trying to write our long-forms for a specific audience such as government officials, how do we know that this is the way they actually engage with content?Our evidence suggests that while policy-makers do want accessible, engaging and innovative content, it also needs to be backed up by rigorous and detailed evidence. So while long-forms certainly seem to help us reach a larger, broader audience, they are not necessarily the best tool for reaching certain target audiences.
  2. They are difficult to write.
    Probably as a result of being confused about audiences, research-based long-forms are difficult to write.Most research reports do not have one clear, emphatic, narrative – they are multi-layered, multi-strand, and nuanced. We have found it difficult to tease out one central idea or story and write this in a way that will appeal to a wider audience, while still remaining true to the original research findings and all their caveats.And communicating internally that this is not a research summary but a separate product, with its own aims, audiences and impact metrics, is often a challenge.
  3. They are complicated and costly.
    Long-forms can be extremely costly. Assuming you have the website infrastructure to begin with, you then need to hire a writer, an editor, a photographer, a videographer… It involves considerably more hours spent on project management and technical checks, as well as issues around copyright and distribution rights. For example, with American journeys, we were fixing small website bugs until the last minute; with Journeys on hold, much of the content was almost published by the journalist before our piece came out.

Finally, long-forms also rely on the user having a good quality and high-speed internet connection. If this isn’t in place, then all your hard work could be for nothing. Here, installing a slow-connection button is crucial.

So given the above, are research-based long-forms the way forward for think tanks?

They are definitely an exciting new format to showcase research findings and multimedia, and have potential to take those findings to new and different audiences. But to be worth the time and investment, we need to spend more time thinking about exactly who we are targeting and tailor the content accordingly.