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The Death of Snackable Content

Today’s readers want more than listicles and clickbait, and this is driving meaningful change across the digital publishing industry.

Every other headline out there today promises to break topics down into bite-sized bits. "4 Ways to Be a Better Leader," "8 Steps to a Healthier Lifestyle," "16 Abuses From the CIA Torture Report" — it seems as if no topic is too serious or nuanced to undergo "snackification."

Like Cheetos and M&Ms, these articles lend themselves to mindless consumption. There is nothing wrong with them in moderation, but at some point, you start to crave something with more substance. Today’s readers want more than listicles and clickbait, and this is driving meaningful change across the digital publishing industry.


The Internet fundamentally changed the way we get our news and media. People used to subscribe to newspapers that delivered the day’s news, and to magazines that reflected their personal interests. Every article in those publications may not have been appealing to every reader, but there was trust between publishers and readers that the content would be curated, informative and professional.

Then the Internet came along and created an environment where anyone could publish anything. The volume of content exploded — and was delivered for free, because if an outlet tried to charge a fee, the readers would just find it for free somewhere else. As a result, publishers struggled to build up audiences of loyal readers who were willing to pay for access.

Digital media became a volume game. To make a profit from digital ad revenue requires tremendous scale. Eyeballs became the only way to survive, which created a "headline culture" where all content is geared toward pageviews and shares.

The fact is that the human brain loves lists, or really any content that "positions its subject within a preexisting category and classification system." In the maelstrom of Internet content, we are drawn to articles that make clear promises for what we will get out of them, as well as those that do the "chewing" for us so the information is easily digestible.

However, snackable content also precludes depth. The act of breaking topics down into small pieces and making them as accessible as possible prevents them from getting beneath the surface.

Readers are tired of this, and are starting to seek out information that has real value to them. Contrary to mainstream thought that content is shrinking, the tide is actually moving away from 140 characters and ephemeral photos, and toward long-form specialty content.

According to a report from BuzzSumo, long-form articles are shared more than short-form articles — based on the company’s analysis of more than 100 million articles over eight months. The study found that, on average, articles with 3,000 to 10,000 words had 8,500 shares, whereas content with 1,000 words or less averaged 4,500 shares.

No Interest Too Niche

While the Internet led us down the path toward clickbait, it also created a place where anyone can find information about anything, and connect with like-minded people over shared interests, no matter how niche. Are you obsessed with embroidery? Do you consider yourself a logophiliac? Are you a devotee of piloxing? There is an online community for that. Indulging your speciality interests has never been easier.

Just look at the craft-beer movement. According to the Brewers Association, the number of brew pubs and regional and microbreweries jumped from 1,521 in 2008 to more than 3,200 in 2014. Or consider what is going on with specialty coffee — Blue Bottle Coffee recently raised a whopping $70 million to expand into other markets, thanks to the cult-like devotion to its brewed-to-order coffee (and it’s not the only one).

The Internet helped drive the meteoric popularity of these small businesses by creating national interest in their products. It also enabled people who appreciate craft beer and coffee to learn more about the products they so enjoy consuming, and for amateur brewers and coffee roasters/makers to hone their efforts at home.

Beyond beverages, Etsy is another testament to how the Internet is fueling the rise of niche interest groups. You can create, buy and sell everything from wearable plants to healing crystals and find an audience, as evidenced by Etsy’s recent IPO. Pinterest, too, has abundant resources for DIYers or gluten-free, vegan paleo-dieters. The blogosphere is filled with people who are experts on fonts or minimalist architecture or money-saving tips. YouTube is home to robust communities of ASMR fans and fashion-hauler videos. No niche is too small to explore.

The pattern of niche-to-mainstream is not limited to things we buy. TED started out as a specialty conference for wonks and nerds where academic researchers could expound on neuroscience, education specialists could share how schools limit creativity and sociologists could dive into the nitty-gritty numbers behind population growth — all topics that may seem far too boring or in-depth for today’s distracted consumer. And yet, TED videos have attracted billions and billions of views.

Clearly, vibrant subcultures are gaining major momentum online and offline. The members of these communities crave content that is relevant, thoughtful and teaches them something new. They are hungry for content that dives deep and adds to their sophisticated knowledge base. For enthusiasts, "snackable" is not enough.

Get a Hobby

As readers, we can only click on so many superficial articles before they lose their appeal. There is a lot of garbage out there that parades as good content, and readers are learning how to sort the wheat from the chaff. Moreover, constantly clicking on a huge array of topics is exhausting. The ADD mentality is not sustainable, nor is it satisfying.

Millennials are driving this shift, because this generation places a premium on individuality, passion and creativity. Self-learning and hobbies are important to them, and they seek out activities that they feel are meaningful. Their interests (and knowledge about those interests) are an important part of their identity, as are the things they consume, whether it be a news article about privacy or a cup of single-origin pour-over coffee.

The increasing demand for long-form speciality content will shape the future of the publishing industry. An article in Fast Company highlights Wait But Why, a long-form blog that has acquired 31 million unique visitors and 87 million page views, through 80 articles that average over 2,000 words each.

"If you can blow someone’s mind — really, genuinely blow it, again, in a really well-written way — then that’s something they want to share," said Wait But Why co-founder, Andrew Finn.

Publications will realize that there is far more value in creating a strong community around a specific topic and connecting those readers with relevant businesses than there is in mass-producing content for the masses. Readers benefit from better content, and publishers benefit from more effective monetization opportunities. Engagement, rather than eyeballs, will become the underlying drive.

That said, articles like "27 Cats Who Are a Better Human Than You" will always have their place, because everyone needs a little junk food every once in a while.

Joe Hyrkin is the CEO of Issuu, the world’s leading digital publishing and discovery platform connecting people to the content they love most. Reach him @yankeejoe.

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