Photos from one of the Wellcome Collection’s magazine style articles about taxidermist Jazmine Miles. Credit Thomas S.G Farnetti/Wellcome.

The rise of long-form content

Rebecca Reynolds, 17.07.2017
Should museums publish longer articles on websites?
“If museums can deliver snacks, why not three-course meals?” asked the Wellcome Collection’s digital manager Danny Birchall in an article for the Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network in 2015, which explained how the museum's digital story Mindcraft took inspiration from long-form journalism.

Since then the London museum has dropped its blog and switched to a magazine-style format with longer articles published in the Explore section of its website.

What is long-form content and should museums publish more of it on their websites?
If a short blog post is up to 800 words, long form can be anything over that. Some also define it as word-light articles that use multimedia and design to encourage a longer virtual dwell time and more immersive experience.

Long form also covers essays, short stories and academic papers. Museums have been putting this sort of content on their websites for years but these are gaining a higher profile as long form becomes increasingly popular with readers.

“People seem to be steering away from traditional old-school chronologically-ordered blogs into one centralised place where they are pooling learning resources, videos and multimedia,” says Georgina Brooke, the web project manager and content creator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

From a reader’s point of view, long-form content can obviously be more satisfying and in-depth. From the museum’s point of view, it can improve a page’s Google ranking too, since page dwell time is a factor in the search engine’s algorithms. Repeat visits will also contribute to a better ranking.

But switching completely to long form only makes sense if there is enough time, money, willing staff and a clear rationale for doing so. The Ashmolean Museum’s plans to introduce long-form content have been put on ice after Brooke estimated it would take two staff days a week to set up, and maintenance demands would also be high.

National Museums Scotland (NMS) started using long-form templates alongside its blog in 2014 after research found that site users wanted more multimedia and in-depth articles.

Hugh Wallace, then the head of digital media at NMS, wrote in a blog post that long form would allow it “to experiment with layout, divide content into chapters, and embed an array of different media”.
Entries are broken up with pictures, larger print pull-outs and audio. And readers are given an estimate for how much time each article demands. The template offers options rather than requiring a particular length, and many posts are text-light.

Articles on the Wellcome Collection’s website are written by staff who have public engagement in their job descriptions as well as external contributors.

Birchall says each article gets about 3,000 views, a number that he is keen to increase. He believes that traditional short-form blogs may not consider content and audiences thoroughly enough, and are more about process than their more polished long-form rivals.

The Museum of London has also replaced its blog with a Discover London section of its website, which features long-form content covering behind-the-scenes at the museum as well as different aspects of the city.

This approach is resource heavy. Alwyn Collinson, the Museum of London’s digital editor, says it is like “starting a magazine” and the main issue is “consistent content generation”, which can’t be done without supportive and enthusiastic staff.

His Arts Council England-funded post allows him to focus on the site, and he works with managers to plan and build time for writing articles into people’s job roles.

Should other museums publish more long-form content? Enthusiasm for longer posts suggests experimentation might be a good idea. Initially, mixing long-form posts into existing blogs might be the way to go.

Long-form content doesn’t necessarily require a large multimedia budget.

“There’s a lot to be said for what you can achieve with just words or images,” says Collinson. One of the most popular entries on Discover London features excerpts from the diary of Elizabeth Chivers, who visited London from Bath in 1814.

“Think about what you’re trying to achieve first and foremost – whether it’s about an extension of collections online or about marketing,” Collinson says. “Expect that it will take a while and a lot of work to get off the ground.”