Lasting Impression: Time and the Argument for Long Form Content

By Troy Lambert, - In Marketing

Why Long Form Content Is Winning

Photo Credit: stockphotosecrets

All written content is not created equal. A long-form New York Times article does not have the same impact a 500 word, click bait type blog post does, even if the latter blog post is placed on a site with a high volume of traffic. Yet digital advertising is still sold based on impressions, which are a terrible currency for selling advertising on the internet, according to a recent article by Max Willens in The International Business Times aptly titled “The Tyranny of the Impression.”

Image of how money is earn't on the internet

Argument for Long Form Content

It is this currency that makes investing in the creation of long-form, high quality, expensive content a foolish business proposition. That is why an increasing number of publishers and advertisers that focus on quality “want to start selling their ads on something very different: time.”

“The only way you can actually look at the amount of value someone’s placed on content is how much time they’re spending with it,” said Brendan Spain, the U.S. commercial director of The Financial Times, one of a growing number of publishers that has begun selling ads using time-based currency; it uses cost per hour.

Let’s look at the current system using the four components of business analytics:

Descriptive: What is happening now?

Right now, businesses are paying for online advertising based on impressions. There is no difference in how much they pay whether the reader sees the ad for one second or three minutes. According to The International Business Times, 45% of impressions are non-viewable because they were too small or flashed across screens too quickly, 7% are served up to invalid or robot viewers, leaving only 48% viewable by actual website visitors.

Diagnostic: How did we get here?

Why would anyone buy or sell useless ad space? It started with the flawed premise that selling ads at Cost Per Mille (cost per thousand impressions, or CPM) was the right metric for the web, the same way ads were sold for television or print. “That’s what the advertisers were willing to pay,” said Andy Batkin, the chief revenue officer of Webspectator and a consultant who helped build Yahoo’s display advertising business. “We weren’t going to argue.”

Predictive: What will happen in the future?

The scarcity inherent in print and television ads is not the same in web advertising, and the cost of an impression has tumbled to next to nothing. Media companies have a couple of choices going forward.

They can try to grow their way out of it. Outlets like Huffington Post have done this, by convincing creators (including this author) to write for them for free, and posting 1,200 pieces of content a day.

They can try new tactics. From sponsored posts that look like informative content to Vice’s tactic of opening their own ad agency, brands are trying to find new ways to sell ad space on their sites.

But these things all do not scale. Most small businesses simply don’t have the ability to create the volume of content needed to make their ads just as valuable. Sponsored content is often ignored by website visitors. So is there an alternative?

Charging by time. There is a lot of excitement around this metric, but time spent is still a kind of proxy for the thing that marketers really want, which is readers’ attention. “It is very hard, without elaborate and expensive neuroscience, to measure attention,” said Sherrill Mane, senior vice president at the Interactive Advertising Bureau. “Time spent,” she noted, is the best available proxy.

While studies show the amount of time a viewer spends with an ad is a better indicator of its effectiveness than how many pixels the viewer sees, according to Interpublic Group’s Media Lab, the argument over how much time is enough remains.

Prescriptive: What can make the shift happen?

There is a laundry list of things that need to happen for a time based metric for selling ads to become mainstream and successful.

  • Advertisers need to realize a time-based metric does not work everywhere. Websites that produce short, hard-hitting pieces will not want to move toward this metric at all.
  • Businesses need to agree on a payment metric. Does a site charge by the second? How long is long enough? Three seconds, five?
  • Revenue sharing for long form content creators needs to be established. Site owners bemoan the fact they are bombarded by short form, link bait guest post content. Yet do not pay for content, and their audience is not big enough to result in increased exposure for the author. If a site wants expert, long form content, they may have to pay or revenue share at least, for it.

Application to Small Business

There are two aspects of this trend for small business.

Advertising and Publicity

Chances are your marketing budget is small, and you want to make sure you get the best ROI for every dollar spent. Here are a few ways to do so:

Marketing Integration: Integrate marketing with all of your departments, specifically the information you gather. Using the information your customers give you voluntarily, social metrics, and public data you can tell a lot about your average user and where they hang out, shop, and live.

Basing your marketing strategy enables targeted ad placement in conjunction with impressions. Be sure you are putting ads in the right place.

Evaluate Time Spent Per Page. What kind of content does your target site post? Is it long form, evergreen content? Or is it short form, paginated content? This can help you determine for yourself how long a site visitor will spend with your ad.

It pays to mention here that in their latest update, Google is penalizing content that is overly paginated or filled with pop-up ads. Google is not only concerned with user experience, but what kind of content a site contains and even who wrote it. “This action could wind up erasing, or at least deeply devaluing, some of the click-bait tactics some digital publishers have grabbed onto in recent years,” says International Business Times.

Question Relevance. How relevant is the site to your product or service? If a user spends time looking at your ad on that site, does it make sense for them to click through or take action on it? Would you?

Monetizing Your Site

Not only do you buy ads, but you would like others to pay to advertise on your site as well, right? What are you going to do to make your site an appealing place for advertisers? You’re going to use the three steps above, applied in a similar manner.

Marketing Integration. Take the information you have about your customers, and look at it from an advertisers point of view. Who visits your page, and what are they into? Where do the advertiser’s customers hang out, shop, and live? Will your content resonate with them?

If not, you may want to shift your content strategy to appeal to the audience you want to have, and the audience your sponsors are likely to find appealing.

Time Spent Per Page. How much time are users spending with your content? Do you offer at least some evergreen, long form content? This is where your most valuable ads will live, where readers spend the most time.

Such content should be an active part of your content strategy. Not all of your content needs to be the same, in fact, it shouldn’t. You should also have short top of the funnel content and good landing pages as well.

Question Relevance. How are you going to sell more ads on your site? If those who have purchased them are happy and seeing good results. In a way their ROI determines yours.

So before you even accept ads, question what they will mean to your user, and whether you would click on them if you were to visit your own page.

Perhaps the best thing about a switch to a time-based metric to sell ads is that it discourages short form content that is of little or no use to users, and encourages informative and relevant content.

The important thing about your content strategy is to avoid some common mistakes businesses make, and get started.

Don’t spend too much time on research and planning. Reading guides to creating linkable content is valuable, and you can learn a lot online, but spending too much time deciding what to do can often cause you to freeze, and not get anything done at all.

Make sure you’re not too close to your industry. If you can’t pull yourself away and get a birdseye view, hire someone who can. You need to get a feel for how similar businesses are advertising and monetizing their sites, and what they are paying and charging.

Don’t chase revenue for revenue’s sake. Don’t monetize your site too soon, before you really know what you are doing. Be sure you are offering good value to your user, and not just charging for ads because you can. Think long term in both your marketing and monetization strategies.

Don’t try to perfect everything. Part of the marketing game is making mistakes, learning from them, and doing better going forward. Give yourself the freedom to fail. Try something, even if it’s imperfect. Sometimes you don’t know what is going to work until you try.

It’s natural as content changes and sites shift toward different types of content that marketing and advertising would change too. Time seems like a logical, if imperfect next metric.

“It’s hard to plan media based on the total amount of time you want spent with your advertising,” OMD CIO Winkler said. “It’s not intuitive, and the tools aren’t designed for it.” However, even before a new metric becomes standard, you can do your own analysis.

After all, your real goal is to make a lasting impression. The best way to do that is to entice your customers to spend some more time with you.


Freelance writer, editor, author, and lover of all things tech.