The Quality Paradox: When Shorter Content Is Better

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In the world of media, longer content is heralded as higher quality. A six-minute piece is more prestigious than a minute-twenty package. Full-length features trump shorts. Shows beat webisodes. Two-thousand words are better than two hundred.

There are lots of reasons for the industry bias toward longer content. Legacy platforms and business models. Prominence and awards. Creative freedom and journalistic context. Ask just about anyone in the content business, and they prefer longer work.

‘Nobody wants to wait while they wait’

However, for mobile users, shorter content rules the day. It’s not just the smaller screen size, it’s how people consume content on their phones: in quick, frequent bursts, capitalizing on small moments of downtime. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest rule the mobile content airwaves, all with short, bite-sized content optimized for people on the move.

“Mobile experiences fill the gaps while we wait. Nobody wants to wait while they wait,” explains Mike Krieger, co-founder of Instagram.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a market for longer-form content on mobile. I read books and watch movies on my iPhone while flying back and forth from NYC. Tablet users, especially in evening and nighttime hours, read longer-form stories and binge on Netflix.

But on average across the mobile universe, shorter content is consumed more. It’s also the gateway to longer forms of content: social apps act as recommendation engines for your attention. That’s how Facebook’s app became the “home page” of mobile, accounting for more time spent than all mobile browsers combined.

For many journalists, keeping it short isn’t popular. Just look at the reaction to Reuters’ edict last week limiting the length of stories. “Reuters seems to have completely given up trying to be a serious media organization,” said one journo on Twitter. Somehow, longer content has been conflated with higher quality content, but for mobile, the reverse is mostly true.

Time saved over time spent

Part of the problem is the industry’s fixation on “time spent” as an engagement metric. I remember a Poynter study a couple years ago that discovered the average “bail out” point on a tablet is 78.3 seconds of reading. The recommendation? Write the story in such a way that gets users to keep reading. The obvious solution: write a shorter story.

It’s often better to maximize “time saved” rather than time spent, especially on a per session basis. Imagine, for example, that you can get the nugget of a 2-minute video in a 24-second clip, or 80% of the value in 20% of the time. For most mobile users, that’s more delightful than watching the full 2 minutes. The more delighted the users, the more frequently they’ll return, which all adds up to a lot of time spent/user at the end of the month.

‘One glittering paragraph’

Producing compelling short-form content can be just as challenging as creating engaging longer-form content, and there are fewer people who can do it well.

“To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself,” explained Mark Twain. “Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

At Breaking News, where I work, we’re writing even shorter than a paragraph. We traffic in alerts, highly portable units of content that travel seamlessly across mobile, from push notifications to tweets. “Tight and bright,” as our managing editor Tom Brew likes to say. But isn’t a 500-word story a higher-quality output than a simple alert?

Content as connections

As you might expect, I’ll argue no, and here’s why. It’s not just about the content you see, but its ability to make connections. In the case of Breaking News, our editors attach a metadata payload to each alert, unlocking new value beyond a 500-word story. One dimension of that metadata enables us to send a push notification — we call it a proximity alert — to anyone who is within an “impact zone” of a breaking story moments after it happens.

This is where the traditional beliefs surrounding content length and quality break down. Shorter content is not only consumed more on mobile, it’s not only the gateway to longer content, but it can create new value through connections. Think of mobile content as portable objects that can connect with other content (Google Now), people (Twitter), locations (Waze) and actions (Google Maps+Uber). It can adapt with user context, getting smarter with more data from more sensors, learning from past behavior.

That’s where the magic of mobile content begins to emerge. Content that isn’t just created to be consumed, but created to help us unlock new value, save time and live better lives. This is high quality, attracting the largest audiences and making the biggest impact in the years to come.

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