Digital communications and social media have had a tremendous impact on our ability to maintain focus and attention — not just online, but in the real world. Online and offline, we are awash in content that's fragmented and comes at us fast. Distractions are everywhere and, for social change organizations, creating awareness around complex issues can feel like an uphill battle.
But even as short-form platforms like Twitter increasingly shape how issues are framed by the media, recent studies show that when it comes to audience engagement, long-form content performs better than shorter content. So, while we may live in a world dominated by short bursts of commentary, opinion, and insights, long-form content remains a critical (and effective!) format.
While every organization with a message to communicate has to learn how to navigate this dynamic, social change organizations face a bigger challenge. Because when your mission revolves around a complicated issue, is connected to a problem in a far-away place or the distant future, or is just removed from the concerns of everyday life, maintaining audience engagement is inherently more difficult.
Still, it usually boils down to the same question: How can we elevate our issue or cause and engage our target audiences? The time-tested principles used by storytellers since, well, forever are an excellent place to start.
Leveraging Narrative Structure
Whether presented as narrative or as academic research, all long-form content can benefit from the three-act structure of exposition, confrontation, and resolution familiar to professional storytellers. In general, it works like this:
Invite your audience in. Whenever you are asking an audience to engage with a longer narrative, it’s important to invite them in to the narrative by stating up front the things you have in common. Establishing a shared understanding and creating common ground with your audience — and appealing to their "better angels" when appropriate — makes it that much easier to pivot to the more complex ideas you need them to engage with and to share new perspectives they are likely to value.
Establish your "characters." Establishing common ground with audience members also earns you their interest and attention — equity you can use to deepen their engagement with your issue or cause. In storytelling, effective writers use this equity to establish their "characters" and the underlying relationships that animate them. Keep in mind, characters don't need to be actual people — they can be a commonly held belief, a way of doing things, or an entire system that impacts your mission. Whether you're sharing a traditional narrative or specialized academic content, it's important to establish this framework sooner rather than later, and to supply important details that will deepen your audience's commitment to, and understanding of, the issue at hand.
Introduce a catalyst. By this point, your audience should both be familiar with your issue and inclined to commit themselves to learning more about it. It's time to elevate their interest by revealing the catalyst! For social change organizations, a catalyst could be a new way of addressing systemic inequity or research that offers insights into how to think about social change in a new way. Whatever the case, your goal is to provide a compelling reason for your readers to step up their investment in your work. And the more complex the issue, the more important it is to clearly lay out the related activities and/or outcomes that are part of the catalyst. Done well, you'll create a connection with your audience that boosts their willingness to engage with and support your mission.
Create a resolution. For many social change organizations, impact is something that happens in the future (sometimes the distant future). The delay in being able to demonstrate results is a major challenge for social change organizations working to address deep-rooted problems such as poverty, structural racism, or climate change. So if your audience is still engaged with your long-form content at this point (and you certainly hope they are), it's critical to offer them some kind of resolution. Depending on the nature of your organization, that resolution can take a number of forms — a satisfying conclusion to a story about impact, a roundup of resources they can use to further their own change-related efforts, and/or a list of things they can do to strengthen their engagement with your organization.
Again, whether your content falls into the emotional narrative category or is fact-based research, the key to deepening audience engagement is maintaining an equal focus on both its structure and substance. And the same best practices that work online can be applied to any medium or format.
Tips for Content Creators
Now that you have a better understanding of the principles of effective narrative, here are some recommendations for crafting compelling long-form content that will deepen audience engagement and spur potential supporters to action:
Be consistently thoughtful. The bar for high-quality long-form content is, well, high. And with so much content so readily available, ensuring that your content is respected, remembered, and returned to means making sure it always speaks to and reinforces your organization's credibility, delivers meaningful value, and provides a great reading experience.
Editorial creativity is paramount. To spark and sustain engagement, long-form content needs to be focused and well structured. To keep your audience's attention, try alternating between simplicity and complexity. Punctuate deeper dives into an issue with simple summaries and key insights. Doing so will not only underscore and amplify what's at stake, it will make it easier to move on to the next idea you need to communicate.
Empathy is important, but... Successful communications is about more than just making sure your ideas are clear, concise, and well-stated. It's about meeting your audience wherever they are (i.e., creating common ground). That said, conveying empathy isn't about purple prose or being gratuitously emotional. Instead, it requires establishing a genuine, meaningful connection to the people you are hoping to engage on terms that resonate with them, and building trust.
Make sure your audience doesn’t get lost. Consistency and clear expectations are critical to building trust — especially in long-form content that requires a greater commitment from your audience (and even more so online). Both in the language you use and the actual vehicles you create for your content, cues designed to orient audience members within the reading experience can reduce cognitive load, improve content accessibility, and create a sense of anticipation that keeps audience members reading.
Provide a place to rest. Giving your audience members conceptual places to take a break is a great way to reduce the fatigue often associated with reading long-form content. Analogy, metaphor, and digression are tried-true techniques that, when executed well, can reinforce context, add needed perspective, and reinforce reader understanding. From a design perspective, creating visually (and conceptually) separate material such as sidebars is also an excellent way to introduce a change of pace into complex material.
Don’t be afraid to pick a fight! As our name suggests, Constructive is all about positive dialogue. But that doesn't mean we don't appreciate the importance of taking clear positions and standing up for what we believe is right. If the issue your organization is working to address requires you to take a stand, you can strengthen your case by contrasting your position with the position of those who see the issue differently and explaining in clear terms what's at stake.
Leave your audiences wanting more. Every piece of content you share with your target audiences should leave them better informed and feeling energized. But the next steps are crucial. You need to give them a rationale for wanting to help you advance your cause, including a range of actions and an explanation of why their actions will create more impact when combined with the actions of like-minded people (as always, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts!).
We create content in hopes that people will engage with our ideas. Storytelling has long been one of humanity's most powerful ways of translating ideas into action. While sharing our ideas through digital communications may be different than telling stories around a campfire, the fundamental principles are the same.
To truly engage an audience, digital content must be meaningful and deliver value — wherever and however an audience chooses to consume it. In a world of too many choices, sustaining online engagement requires that we design and deliver experiences that highlight the alignment of our ideas and activities to the interests of our audience. When ideas are presented in a way that our audience finds to be both accessible and useful, those ideas will be shared with others. At Constructive, we call that a win-win!
Matt Schwartz is founder and executive director at Constructive, a New York City-based brand strategy and experience design firm dedicated to helping social change organizations achieve greater impact.