Too long. Didn’t read.

Understanding online content farms can put you ahead of the selling game and out of the “tl;dr” syndrome.
By Neil Evans | Published: November 22, 2013


WordsAccording to a Digiday.com study, Huffington Post publishes 1,200 pieces of new editorial content per day. In addition, 28 blog editors curate 400 blog posts in that same day. Upstart Buzzfeed.com (of list and viral nostalgia fame) pumps out an average of 373 pieces of content per day. The online sports hub Bleacher Report produces about 800 articles in 24 hours.

Welcome to the world of content farms and online publishing. Writers have two choices: Adapt or die.

Increasingly, successful mainstream websites are prioritizing eyeballs and advertising dollars over creativity and quality journalism. The staggering output of the following three examples can be frustrating and discouraging for online writers, especially when you examine what they’re producing and how successful they are.

Understanding that writing for the web is a science – a unique mix of psychology, sociology and literary skill – is half the battle.

Before going any further, it is important to understand the all-encompassing term “content.” Content is anything that gets published online: pictures, animated GIFs, videos, copy. So when you see “1,200 pieces of editorial content,” understand that what it really means is that they published something – a slideshow of pictures from the Super Bowl, a video of a Saturday Night Live skit with a two sentence commentary, GIFs explaining how you know you grew up in the ’90s, or a 2,000 word op-ed piece on Syria.

So why are content farms suddenly more popular than established brands? The belief is that they give audiences what they want. Editors now use advanced analytics to substantiate their need for specific types of content. They forecast trends, are lightning fast when news breaks and specialize in provoking audiences and catering to the lowest common denominator. Pop culture pieces work extremely well in this format specifically because they are easily digestible and require little effort or investment from a reader. Because the output demand is so high, content is often lightweight and disposable the second after consumption. When a piece’s shelf-life is that short, it’s safe to say writers are not dedicating hours to deliver their best.

It is important to note that while content farms typically skew towards time-killing filler, there are always exceptions to the rule. And in an effort to appeal to wider audiences and compete among respected peers, sites such as Buzzfeed and Bleacher Report are also publishing more substantial stories from contributors. (See Buzzfeed’s report on MSG for what the site is capable of when they actually try.)

No matter where a final product ends up online, there are specific tactics writers can employ to compete. At social start-up Upworthy.com, writers create up to 25 headlines for a single piece to find the perfect combination of intrigue and action. A headline is the most important part. It describes content while also serving as the catalyst for a reader to click for the full piece. “Hemingway’s Key West” is an OK title that might attract tourists planning a trip to Florida. But “Hemingway’s Haunts: The Best Places in Key West to Live Like the Legend” is much more descriptive and compelling, and appeals to a wider audience.

How you structure a story is equally as important as the quality of the writing. Slate.com audited editorial content and found that its readers rarely ever finish an article. Scanning has long been the method of choice for online consumption, but now readers aren’t even scrolling. More than ever, it is crucial to have a strong lead that hooks readers, making them want to continue. Stories should build in intensity and climax dramatically.

Writers can also help readers by formatting with bullet points, pull quotes and shorter paragraphs. While editing or restructuring a piece, go ahead and try to cut it in half. Include only the absolutely necessary information. The “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) phenomenon is sad but a real obstacle for online writers.

Online publishing is evolving at a breakneck pace. Sources and scoops are no longer enough. Next assignment, consider the writing as part of the bigger content picture. Does the headline engage? Is there urgency in the prose? Would specific photos and/or videos enhance the thesis?

The Internet offers endless possibilities for writers, and excellent sites on the web are dedicated to producing outstanding work. Just because content farms exist doesn’t mean you need to follow the herd.

Neil Evans is a web content editor specializing in digital and social strategy.

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Three great examples of online content

Story, design and media in harmony

Out in the Great Alone
By Brian Phillips — Grantland.com

The Gangster in the Huddle
By Paul Solotaroff with Ron Borges — RollingStone.com

Snow Fall: The Avalance at Tunnel Creek
By John Branch — The New York Times

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Top 5 Ways to Master Online Content

1. Optimize, Not Compromise

Content farms are so obsessed with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) that they prioritize search terms within content over logical narrative. Worry less about how Google indexes, and focus on delivering great information about potential keywords.

2. Bring Sexy Headlines Back

Try the Upworthy.com exercise and write 25 headlines/titles for your piece. Workshop them. See what would get people to click. A great print title doesn’t always transfer to the web.

3. Understand Analytics

Click-throughs are great but you need an engaging hook or lead to grab readers and keep them scrolling. Time on page is often a better indication of a successful piece than pageviews.

4. Viral Is a Four-letter Word

Do not try to intentionally produce a viral piece. Great work goes viral because readers want to share funny, interesting and amazing stories. Sure, think about the social possibilities during the process but readers are smart and easily sniff out what is contrived versus what is organic.

5. Find Your Niche

Being an expert at one thing is better than being knowledgeable on many things. Do research on a specific area of interest. Find what is under-represented and fill the void.