This article was published on July 15, 2018

Data shows people want serious long-form content — and brands need to take note

What to do when changing tastes in social media are making it harder than ever to get content viewed and shared.

Data shows people want serious long-form content — and brands need to take note
Brandon Geary
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Brandon Geary

Brandon is tasked with planning the future direction of the agency, leading a global network of strategists, and providing thought leadershi Brandon is tasked with planning the future direction of the agency, leading a global network of strategists, and providing thought leadership to POSSIBLE clients. Prior to joining POSSIBLE, Brandon spent nine years at Razorfish, where he led a team of Account Planners and Business Strategists to drive break through experiences and media plans for XBOX, Nike, Miller Coors, and Intel, among others. Prior to RF, Brandon was SVP of Account Planning for McCann Worldgroup in the West, where he won multiple Effies and creative awards over a seven year period. Linkedin

You probably noticed the recent video that asked people whether they heard “Yanny” or “Laurel.” It would have been hard not to. That tiny piece of audio drove more than 10 million views, inspired countless memes, created conflict between friends, and even re-surfaced the Greek composer Yanni for a new generation.

Seeing this, you might think that we’re in a golden age of sharing when any random image or video has the potential to grab an audience and with a little luck spread like a contagion. But oddly enough, data tells a different story.

Your chances of going viral have gone way down in recent years. While there are exceptions, people are less and less likely to share content — and that has major consequences for brands. Why?

The content market is saturated

Today, 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, and 527,000 photos are shared to Snapchat every minute. That has consequences. It has become so easy to create and distribute content that we’re seeing massive competition for engagement.

On top of that, generic engagement has been declining steadily across social channels. A study from Moz found that 50 percent of Facebook posts have two or fewer shares, likes, and comments.

According to BuzzSumo, the median number of shares dropped by 50 percent, from eight to four in only two years — an astonishing fall. Meanwhile, Google has retaken the lead from Facebook as the primary source of referral traffic for publisher’s websites for the first time since 2015. The search engine is once again back in vogue.

Viral content isn’t going viral

When Facebook changed its News Feed algorithm in January 2018, it intended to prioritize friends and meaningful content in people’s feeds. As a result, social content publishers like Upworthy, ViralNova, Elite Daily, and Distractify saw steep declines.

Upworthy’s traffic went from 90 million in November 2017 to 48 million in January 2018. Overall, social content publishers were down 11.3 percent, after once dominating our feeds and conversations.

People are getting serious

The numbers also show that our taste for weightier content is growing. According to BuzzSumo, seven of the top 10 most shared articles from Harvard Business Review over the last five years were published in 2017.

The median number of shares for posts published by The Economist increased from 43 in 2015 to 78 in 2017. And the average sharing of New York Times content increased fourfold between January 2015 and September 2017. In an era of political polarization, people have clearly turned away from quizzes and cat videos in favor of business, political, and social topics.

While all this may seem grim news for brands that rely on social content, marketers need to realize that changing tastes also create new opportunities. If people want more good content and less fluff, we have our marching orders. In particular, there are four major ways we can respond to changing tastes.

1. Make advertising great again

The good old commercial may be coming back. For the past five years, YouTube has gradually evolved to become a go-to platform for premium advertising.

In addition to being the second most-used search engine with a reach of over one billion views per day, it has an engaged user base with 95 percent advertising viewability and 95 percent advertising audibility. Not only are people watching it, but they’re also not skipping the ads.

What’s more, YouTube is a dominating force in key demographics. A Google-commissioned Nielsen study revealed that more than half of 18- to 49-year-olds hardly watch television — but over 90 percent watch YouTube.

In addition, YouTube analytics have further revealed that more people are watching videos on television screens, using devices such as video game consoles, and smart TVs.  

To take advantage of this, advertisers are now being offered new tools and designed to reach YouTube users watching on TV screens. So, after many years of creative directors and copywriters changing their titles to content producers, it might be time to re-surface the art of effective advertising — albeit without the usual :15, :30, and :60-second time constraints.

2. Create something that lasts

Today we have plenty of evidence that deeper, research-backed, and longer-form content has more potential to be shared and drive links over time. Sharing of magazine articles, which tend to be longer than 1,000 words, is up 11.3 percent since December. Links generated by articles (an essential metric of SEO efforts) increase the odds that they will be found long after the original post.

That said, marketers may be missing the boat. Longform and evergreen content remains the domain of B2B, but perhaps it’s time for more B2C brands to accept the data and its implications and stop demanding that everything be “snackable.”

3. Take the long view with influencers

Because of the temporary nature of social content, it’s easy to think of influencer marketing as something that can be turned on and off quickly. But winning brands are taking a longer view and working directly with individuals to build engagement over time.

Back in 2011, for example, Nike signed an 11-year contract with a young soccer player named Neymar Jr. At the time, he was 18 years old and an up and coming player on a team in Brazil. His rise to world superstardom would arrive two years later when he’d sign with FC Barcelona.

Today, Neymar boasts an Instagram following of 94 million and regularly garners between three and four million interactions per post.

4. Use data to anticipate trends rather than follow them

Topics come and go so quickly these days that trying to anticipate trends may seem like a fool’s errand, but technology is quickly evolving to help. Networks like the BBC use companies to help identify audiences likely to engage on particular topics in art, music, film, and fashion.

Many companies use networks of creators as ongoing sources for product, content, and marketplace insights. Such services have the potential to bring a higher level of taste, precision, and intelligence than traditional online panels.

In short, it’s time to start taking ourselves more seriously. After an era in which diversions and fun ruled our feeds, today’s audiences expect us to bring something more substantial to the conversation.

Whether that’s reports or white papers or simply longer content done well, we need to recognize that random memes have stopped being king, and quality content has taken their place.

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