Tablets open readers up to longer stories

When you’re reading on a desktop or laptop, there are always distractions. An email message pops up. Links take you to new windows. A chat icon starts flashing. When you’re surfing on a smartphone, there are constant distracts there, too. It’s annoying to read long articles on tiny screens, and text messages keep coming in. On the other hand, a tablet or e-reader shows you just one thing at a time, with fewer distractions. The whole point of the e-reader is to encourage reading actual books in peace. E-book and tablet tech is nudging users to relax and enjoy a longer read.

Case in point, user statistics show that people who use smartphones for Web browsing spend less time on sites and click away quickly. In comparison, iPad users spend “about 35 percent more time browsing, they view more pages per visit, and they are more likely to be loyal visitors,” according to Metro Media Works. These new tablets are encouraging readers to slow down.

And tablet use is exploding, not only among consumers generally, but among business users. Apple shipped more iPads in the fourth quarter of 2011 than any single manufacturer sold personal computers, double the same pace a year ago. According to a CNet report, businesspeople are quickly adding tablets to their work routine, and it should be easy for Apple to convince enterprise users to adopt them. A new study released this month reports that tablet use among small and medium business owners quadrupled over the past year.

Consider the intersection of the tablet boom with trends like online e-book stores. New technology is steering readers away from top ten lists, quick-hit Web surfing and SEO-friendly headlines toward an old-is-new resurgence of thoughtful long-form journalism. From high end tablets like the iPad to inexpensive e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook, readers are learning to value longer texts and in-depth reporting. And for b-to-b publishers with deep knowledge resources, that may present an opportunity.

For a long time, short snippets of content, search-engine-optimized for catchy headlines and high Google ranks, was the norm for generating Web traffic. Some still say — with more or less snark — that throwing a ton of content online, with little regard for quality or accuracy, is a successful business model.

But now, despite being conditioned to regard the quick hit as the best hit, editors are finding that you can boost Web traffic by running fewer articles. That’s been the case for Salon.com, where year-over-year traffic is up 40 percent as the site has decreased the number of posts it publishes by 33 percent. Salon editor in chief Kerry Lauerman attributes the trend to an emphasis on “high-impact, important stories.”

The same philosophy is driving a new start-up, called Matter. Crowd-sourced through KickStarter (where it raised $100,000 in nine days), the new Web magazine promises to “focus on doing one thing, and doing it exceptionally well. Every week, we will publish a single piece of top-tier long form journalism about big issues in technology and science. That means no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists. Just one unmissable story.” With media attention from Reuters, Poynter, Mother Jones and more, even if nothing comes of Matter, the idea is certainly
buzz-worthy.

Matter’s micro-payment business model is very similar to the emerging trend of cheap e-books, inspired by the Apple iTunes idea of 99 cent songs. Many writers, self-publishers and now even mainstream publishers are turning to low-cost e-books as a way to drive sales — and given the extremely low overhead, profit margins are high enough to make even the most inexpensive e-books pay off. With no physical distribution or print costs, as e-book stores such as Amazon’s and Apple’s offer 70 percent of the purchase price to publishers, it is relatively easy to make money.

According to the New York Times, short e-books are the long magazine articles of today. Dwight Garner rhapsodizes over the possibilities of Amazon’s short e-book, called Kindle Singles: “Here’s what Kindle Singles actually are: probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place. They’re works of long-form journalism that seek out that sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books.”

According to j-prof Wayne MacPhail, Apple’s free e-book creation software has the potential to create a new kind of long-form journalism. He says, “as a journalism instructor, it’s iBooks Author that has me most intrigued. … I think iBooks Author could be the platform for a whole new form of rich-media, long-form journalism.”

Another advantage of the long-form piece, according to Matthew Yglesias, is that these articles often remain valuable long after they are written. “Really well-done non-newsy features now have the ability to live forever,” he says, forming a kind of digital back catalog that can continue to generate revenue into the future.

Business-to-business publishers know that tablet browsing is growing in importance, but they do not know what to do about it, a new ABM survey reveals. One possibility, as they explore strategies to ride the coming trend, is to take a look at repurposing the high quality evergreen content they already have in hand, and to consider giving writers and editors the resources they need to create longer, in-depth articles that can thrive in a new media environment of tablets and e-readers.

By Michael Moran Alterio

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