Going Long: Can Long-Form Content Work in Higher Education?

Long-form content is a tried and true content strategy for B2B companies, but can the tactic succeed in higher education, which still largely markets itself to 18-year-olds with limited attention spans and an obsession with small screens? It’s complicated.

By: Stephen App
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The value of long-form content has been established for B2B marketers for years now. That trend began in 2013, when Google rolled out its in-depth articles algorithm update, claiming that up to 10% of users’ daily information needs involve learning about a broad topic.

In the years since, authors and publishers alike have discovered clear benefits to publishing long-form content. A joint 2015 study by BuzzSumo and Moz, examining more than a million articles, found that long-form content (posts of over 1,000 words) consistently received more shares and links than shorter-form content. Hubspot found similar results, analyzing 6,192 articles and finding that 2000+ word articles received more backlinks and shares, with 2500+ word articles earning the highest level of benefits.

Those statistics alone are enough for most marketers to invest in long-form content — backlinks in particular have become the preeminent way to earn more organic search traffic. But more recently, long-form content has also been found to resonate with new technology like voice assistants. One report from Backlinko found that the average word count of a voice search result page is 2,312 words.

 A joint 2015 study by BuzzSumo and Moz, examining more than a million articles, found that long-form content (posts of over 1,000 words) consistently received more shares and links than shorter-form content.

Today, the devotion to long-form content remains strong. In Orbit Media’s 2018 blogger survey, the average reported article word count was 1151 words, the 5th straight year that the average blog post length increased. Even more interesting, there was a strong correlation between average article length and bloggers who reported “strong results” from their efforts, with more than half of the bloggers who write 2000+ word articles reporting such results.

Long-Form in Higher Education

And yet, within higher education, long-form content can be difficult to find. In eCity’s own research earlier this year — exploring student and administrator-led blogs within higher ed — we found dozens of short-form or even text-free content samples for every long-form approach.

That shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Many departments rely heavily on student bloggers to create content on behalf of the school. And without direction, those writers are more likely to keep things short; we found that most student blog posts came in around the 500-600 word mark.

Higher education marketers are also drilled with the idea that the primary or only way to reach and influence traditional college prospects is through short-form, snackable content like gifs, social videos, and emojis.

68% of high school seniors complained about a website not having enough information in 2018, while 38% criticized a website’s lack of mobile-friendliness. Both options were more heavily criticized than a website having too much content.

That ideal is partly rooted in truth — research on high school juniors and seniors has shown a general move to social platforms that are built on videos and photos, like YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat.

But part of that resistance to creating long-form content is based on shaky assumptions. In particular, the idea that prospective college students won’t engage with long-form content.

That’s partly due to what we know about how teens use technology. 95% of teens now say they have or have access to a smartphone, with 45% of teens saying they use the internet “almost constantly.” The idea here is that teens won’t engage with long-form content on a mobile device, which, paired with the knowledge that teens pretty much only use mobile devices, precludes them from engaging with long-form content.

But that’s too big a leap for several reasons. For starters, teens have far bigger issues with browsing higher education websites on mobile devices than the length of your content. In fact, 68% of high school seniors complained about a website not having enough information in 2018, while 38% criticized a website’s lack of mobile-friendliness. Both options were more heavily criticized than a website having too much content.

Beyond technology, however, there is an incorrect assumption that prospective college students today simply don’t have the attention span to engage with long-form content. Again, however, digging deeper shows that line of thinking hasn’t been confirmed by reputable sources. The main culprit here is the 2015 statistic that says teens today have an attention span of 8 seconds, less than a goldfish. That’s a cool stat to throw around in headlines, but when the BBC followed up on that statistic in 2017, they found that the science was a lot less clear.

Going Long: Four Schools Investing in Long-Form Content

Of course, one legitimate challenge to creating long-form content is that it takes additional resources, which can be a particularly difficult hurdle to overcome in higher education. But as the examples below will show, long-form can pay dividends, depending on your institutional goals. These three schools are all-in on long-form. After you see their work, you may be too.

University of Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame launched their long-form storytelling initiative a few years ago, with the goal of becoming more intentional about the stories they told as well as how they told them. “We were inspired by the work being done by The New York Times, and their famous ‘Snow Fall’ feature that came out in 2012,” said Andy Fuller, Director of Strategic Content, who joined season one of the Hashtag Higher Ed podcast to discuss the platform. “We wanted to create a unit that took on the same look and storytelling as an enterprise.”

More recently, Notre Dame has doubled down on long-form storytelling, mixing in video and a dedicated podcast into the fold while giving their long-form content premium real estate on the institution’s new homepage redesign.

University of Notre Dame Homepage

That increased investment has been a result of positive trends in data. Fuller, along with Social Media Manager Liz Harter, have experienced increases in website pageviews, time on page, and increased organic reach on social channels since investing in long-form content.

They’ve also experienced improved results in another key area: peer institutions. “That’s an important audience for most colleges and universities because they are the ones who rank you,” says Fuller. “We’ve seen a nice uptick there as a result of this new emphasis on content and doing it well.”

Marquette University

At Marquette, long-form storytelling is about longevity. “The nature of social media is fleeting,” says Marquette’s Social Media Director Tim Cigelske, “and often that’s OK – most messages are for just right now, in the moment.”

But at the same time, says Cigelske, certain ideas and stories require more attention. For those stories, Cigelske and his team have turned to the popular publishing platform, Medium. There, they have shared stories of strength in the face of adversity, such as the story of a student who unexpectedly lost her father during her sophomore year, covered important societal topics while showcasing career outcomes, such as the post highlighting women in sports journalism, and published letters from faculty, administrators, alumni, and students, each of whom has advice, a message, or a story to share with the larger Marquette community.

But the theme that ties these pieces together is longevity. Long-form content allows Marquette to create more evergreen content that can be shared and dissected repeatedly as the content becomes relevant due to annual events or student lifecycle stages. Cigelske points to a recent profile piece on Marquette’s Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Xavier Cole, or a commencement speech by Mr. Rogers from 2001. “I share that piece every single year,” says Cigelske. “The message never gets old. In fact, it only gets better.”

Harvard University

One of the more unique challenges in higher education exists at Harvard University, where Mike Petroff is tasked with telling the stories The University wants to tell, in part to balance the enormous amount of press coverage directed towards The University. “If you’re a prospective student, you want to see what opportunities are here,” says Petroff, Harvard’s Director of Content Strategy. We have close relationships with our faculty, students, and administrators. That puts us in the best position to tell the stories we want to tell,” he continues, while noting that in many cases, those stories are about students’ education beyond campus.

Those stories largely exist on The Harvard Gazette, the official news website for Harvard. Petroff notes that a benefit of long-form content is that it allows his team to sell a story to their audience by incorporating various types of media into a story, thereby appealing to different types of users. He points to a recent story about a trip to Cuba by the Harvard Jazz Band. The article includes video, 360-degree photos, and audio clips sprinkled throughout, allowing users to fully immerse themselves in the story.

Harvard Gazette Article

Incorporating mixed forms of media also allows Petroff and his team to diversify the way they appeal to users on promotional channels such as email and social media. “Our analytics show that there’s no cutoff to how much time a user will spend on a page,” says Petroff. “If something is good, people will read it.”

He also notes, however, that it’s rare for a user to visit a page with the upfront agreement to spend 25 minutes reading an article. More likely, he says, is a situation in which an individual skims an article before saving it for later, through an app like Pocket or by emailing it to themselves for a later time when they can dive into the story in more detail.

“For content strategists,” says Petroff, “the challenge is not only how to tell a story that’s interesting, but how to get people to the message.”

Long-form content, while difficult to plan and execute, has tangible benefits for colleges and universities. That’s especially true for marketing teams who are tasked with telling stories that reinforce their institutional brand and engage prospective students. And yet, examples of such content is sparse at best. But the schools that have invested in the practice to date offer inspiration for others ready to take on the challenge. Immerse yourself in their content, go long and prosper.

Stephen App

Stephen App

Account Executive

Stephen App helped pioneer our content marketing strategy here at eCity Interactive. As part of our higher education team and as the founder of the Hashtag Higher Ed podcast, he brought higher education marketers together and built a unique community that has continued to flourish. Although he is working in new pastures at CampusSonar, we look forward to Steve’s contributions to Volt. You can connect with Steve on Twitter @StephenApp, where he considers himself a power user.

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