Do Readers Still Desire In-Depth Content?

Time Magazine’s Best-Selling 36-Page Cover Article on Healthcare’s ‘Dirty Secrets’ Answers with a Resounding Yes

There is an accepted wisdom these days in publishing, brand journalism and content marketing that readers – or prospects or customers – no longer want to read longer articles or white papers. The thinking goes that, with the avalanche of content and tweets and links and webinars and infographics, people don’t have time to focus for a more than a few minutes on any piece of content.

However, I remember an old marketing adage from years ago that I still think holds true today: you need to attract people with shorter content, but when somebody is really interested in a topic and is ready to learn, you better have the complete story.

Sometimes we need time to reflect.

I was reminded of this when I heard about the recent Time Magazine cover story, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us”, by Stephen Brill, that was the rage on many of the cable TV news shows a few weeks back. At 36 pages, I was amazed that Time would dare to publish so much text in the era of the ‘shorter is best’ mindset. But here’s what amazed me even more:  I found the content so eye opening, so groundbreaking and profound, that I couldn’t stop reading it – even if I had to come back to read more of it later.

Turns out I wasn’t alone. According to a recent article in the NY Times:

“The 25,000-word article that Steven Brill wrote for the magazine’s March 4 issue appears to be on course to become its best-selling cover in nearly two years. Ali Zelenko, a Time spokeswoman, said the issue sold more than double the typical number of copies.

It was outperformed only by Steve Jobs, Osama bin Laden and special issues of Person of the Year and the royal wedding. It also broke online records, selling 16 times more than an average week for digital single copy sales and digital subscriptions and becoming the most viewed magazine cover article on”

Wow. For a 25,000-word article? That tells us all something. That in our new era of continuous tweeting and email marketing and web testing, readers (and buyers and prospects) are still hungry for a full analysis of a subject they are interested in. The only trick: the content has to be more than regurgitated common wisdom and stale ideas. It has to provide unique and profound insights that help shed light on and expand one’s deeper understanding of complex matters.

And it must be well designed with visual images and call outs that provide different ways to consume the information. This applies equally to a white paper or ebook: be sure it’s cleanly designed, has lots of white space and callouts and images. Here is an excellent example of great layout by Hubspot that makes a 52-page ebook easy to either read or scan for useful information.  Adele Ravella, who is a leading thinker in the creation of buyer personas, also uses a creative design for her white paper.

Content Strategy: When to Go Long

I still believe that, in the main, you want to keep your content short. But let your objectives drive your content strategy. Keep these thoughts in mind:

  • Are you at a point in the buying cycle where it’s important for a buyer or recommender to understand your product capabilities in greater depth?
  • Do you have a competitive advantage – such as security – where buyers can’t understand your value unless they understand the surrounding issues?
  • Or are you in the early stages of the buying cycle when potential buyers are trying to understand the “lay of the land.”

All of these might require more depth. In fact, I still have in my possession a white paper from Joe Pulizzi of The Content Marketing Institute that provided me with a mini-education on the growing field of content marketing when I was “early” in the buying cycle – and made me a fan of Joe and his institute for life.

So we all need to be mindful of the avalanche of content that confronts all of us and strive for brevity. Yet we must also remember that readers – and buyers – will take the time when the content is important to them, is presented well and brings clarity to a confusing topic or purchasing issue.


One thought on “Do Readers Still Desire In-Depth Content?

  1. David,
    Excellent article. I wonder if the Time story had more readers in print or digital. I guess there is no stopping the brevity of today’s internet offerings. The usual suspects, FB, Twitter, Constant Contact, are always worth a few minutes or seconds. I don’t believe long form journalism works as well in digitial as it does in print. People are more engaged with a magazine or book for long periods, I believe. My focus dances around the screen when reading blogs (no offense). The shift to digital text books has not been effective when it comes to retaining knowledge. Even online colleges send you text books. It’s a good thing that today’s youngest generation is still reading books in school and using the internet for their personal lives. I believe it means that print and long form journalism should survive at least a couple more generations. I hope some of today’s kids like to write.

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