What The New Yorker Magazine Can Teach You About Content Marketing that Works

Image of February 2006 New Yorker Magazine Cover

You probably already know that your business needs online content marketing. What you want to know is how to create content that actually works.

You want content so irresistible it makes your followers swarm to your website, light up the comments and share it like wildfire.

You want content so persuasive that readers stampede your email newsletter subscription box, instantly download every report you publish and snap up your products.

You, my friend, want content that engages.

Well, today is your lucky day. In a few moments you’ll know not only how to write content that engages, but also positions you as an authority in your space and dominates in the search engines.

And our working example will be an upper-crust cultural weekly (the most popular upper-crust weekly at that).

The gold standard of epic content

There’s something about a New Yorker article, isn’t there? It’s the humor, the depth and substance. The staying power. The storytelling.

It’s the pull of a story like Carnal Knowledge (how I became a Tuscan butcher), House Perfect (is the IKEA ethos comfy or creepy?) or Marathon Man (a Michigan dentist’s improbable transformation).

All epic reporting. All non-fiction stories. All unforgettable.

And when I say epic I mean over 10,000 words long. In the print edition these stories range across twelve pages. Online they scroll for ages — and click through seven pages.

The long-form story (“epic content” in the Copyblogger vocabulary) is The New Yorker’s unmovable anchor in the rough seas of magazine publishing. A monument to good writing. A reason that people are willing to scale a pay wall.

The Atlantic, The New Yorker’s contemporary (and equally successful partner), is using the epic content model (and seductive headlines) to build a sustainable business around an audience that wants substance — and substance to share.

As both The New Yorker and The Atlantic demonstrate, this model works. And the New Yorker model is now the buzzword for all things content marketing.

The current shape of content marketing

Technology media is joining the bandwagon: Fast Company is producing long-form posts that draw readers.

Wired has been at this for ages. Feature articles like Gone Forever: What Does It Take to Disappear Forever? and Hans Reiser: Once a Linux Visionary, Now Accused of Murder are the center of gravity for Wired.

What do these companies know? They know that quality content rules.

American Express, Mint, and Hubspot know it, too. They’ve built their brands, generated leads, and acquired new customers based on massive amounts of content.

Then there is a scrappy company called Copyblogger Media — a nearly seven-year-old software company built solely on the back of authoritative content, and the audience that it attracted.

Content marketing is here to stay. Why? The demand for content never changes. It is never limited. The only things that are limited are attention and distribution.

But, without an audience, content has no value.

Tumblr wants to be the next New Yorker

There are a lot of media sites with huge audiences. The only problem is their content is shallow and dies off quickly. This is why low-grade content creators like Gawker and Buzzfeed have jumped into the long-form game. They’re trying to add content with substance to build companies with depth and maturity.

Tumblr is now the newest — and possibly the most notorious — to have popped into the game. The twist is that Tumblr is looking for New Yorker-style long-form writing.

Not surprising, veteran writers find this pitch suspect. Here’s what Tom Chandler of The Write Underground wrote in response to a recent PandoDaily piece:

… ‘Real’ New Yorker journalism involves airplane flights and fact checkers and multiple bouts with copy editors and long stretches of time and yes — a living wage for talented writers.

Maybe even a few copy editors.

In other words, I don’t believe Tumblr is really interested in ponying up the real costs of ‘New Yorker‘ journalism; like so many ‘maturing’ online publications they’re seeking the credibility and prestige of New Yorker style journalism, not the investment.

His point: epic content comes at a cost.

Are you, as a content marketer, willing to do what it takes to create it? Should you create it? And can you even create it?

Let’s take a look.

What is epic content?

The definition for long-form, epic content is hard to nail down. Do we define it by the quality? The time it took to write? The research involved? Or the length of the article?

It’s not just a list of 73 ways to become a better writer or a gargantuan guide to content marketing. Those are good, but we have to take it a step further.

  • Long-form content has substance. There is a drilling-down into a topic that will leave you reeling with a load of new information.
  • Long-form content tells a story. The article is built on a narrative. It is the equivalent of a This American Life episode (and the Ira Glass Guide to Link Bait).

In How to Create Epic Content I shared seven examples of epic content:

  • Ultimate guides
  • In-Depth
  • Tutorials
  • Lists
  • Interview Round Ups
  • Story

No matter the type, the one thing they all share is staying power.

In the business-to-business world, think of:

These epic articles fly in the face of conventional wisdom that says people don’t want to read a lot of content on the web. Conventional wisdom says make it brief. Otherwise you get burned by the dreaded tl;dr — “Too Long; Didn’t Read.”

But that is changing.

Why epic content matters now

Here’s the thing: a writer or site that continuously produces quality content builds an audience. Great content drives people back to the blog or website.

This is what occurs when you obey the first rule of Copyblogger.

And this is the type of content that people hang on to for a very long time. As Mallary Jean Tenore reports in this Poytner article dated March 1, 2012:

Pocket (formerly Read it Later) data shows that, on average, users keep a video or article in their queue for 96 hours before marking it viewed. As this Bit.ly study shows, that’s a pretty long time compared to the life span of stories shared on Twitter.

From the same article Mark Armstrong said:

Let people take content with them, and they will soon value it more highly than if it is shot at them. Content creators will be rewarded with a longer social lifespan for the stories and videos they work so hard to create. And that ultimately lifts the value of a media brand.

We once feared that the web was killing our brains. Not so. Evidence seems to suggest that instead of destroying our minds, we’ve revolted. Consumers are demanding that writers respect their intelligence — and give them something substantial.

We want something that we can take anywhere — during those times between task and location — and read.

How we consume epic content

People want epic content. It’s one of the reasons that Matter could raise over $140,000 on Kickstarter to create long-form journalism on technology.

The rise of tablets, smart phones, and apps like Instapaper and Pocket (formerly Read It Later) have also made it easier for people to find and save articles for later reading.

In turn, websites like Longform, Byliner and The Atavist and #longreads hashtag have surfaced to help us satisfy our desire for epic content.

It’s the new tools that have made this happen.

In a panel at SWXW on the Death of the Death of Longform Journalism, Evan Ratliff and Max Linsky (founder of Longform) discussed how the problem wasn’t that the stories were too long. The problem was the delivery method. And now we finally have the tools to read pieces when, how, and where we wanted.

My personal favorite is Readability. With a simple Chrome extension, I save articles as I surf the web, which are also saved on my phone. And when I’m stuck at the Chinese joint waiting for my Moo Goo Gai Pan I can read a great story.

That short scenario is played out millions of times a day. Lewis Dvorkin from Forbes shared this data about our new reading habits:

Perhaps not surprisingly, the data from more than 100 million articles on ReadItLater shows that consumers save articles consistently throughout the day. But here’s when they’re reading it: on computers, from 6pm-9pm; on iPhones, at 6am, 9am, 5pm to 6pm and 8pm-10pm (“the moments between tasks and locations”); and on iPads, predominantly from 8pm-10pm.

On a whim, I polled friends to corroborate the research above. I asked three questions: How do you consume online content? When? Where?

The garden variety answer was this: “1) Phone, tablet, desktop; 2) Always; 3) My home office.” And one Facebooker summed it up nicely: “It’s all about utilizing the little moments of time efficiently.”

And this holds true for the business world, too.

Can you deliver epic content?

There’s no question about it: people want epic content. It doesn’t matter if you are in the aviation engineering business (think GE) or the SEO business (Raven Tools) — your customers want stories.

They want them epic, New Yorker-style content.

But can we as marketers give it to them? A recent research report from Content Marketing Institute (2013 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends) suggests that we don’t think so.

  • More and more companies are using content marketing to build brand awareness, acquire more customers, and generate leads.
  • According to the CMI report, these companies are spending 33 percent of their marketing budget on content (up from last year).
  • Furthermore, fifty-four percent of marketers will increase their content marketing spend as more executives are buying in.

With this growth in content marketing, however, come doubts.

Marketers are unclear about content marketing tactics and their two biggest challenges are producing enough content and creating content that engages.

Last year 40% of B2B marketers identified their content marketing as “effective” or “very effective.” That number dropped to 36% in 2012.

This is corroborated by another research report on content marketing: 2012 B2B Content Marketing: Ready for Prime Time. Lack of resources leads the list of top challenges for content marketers, but this is closely followed by a lack of skill to create engaging content.

Which brings us back to what The New Yorker can teach us about content marketing.

The New Yorker guide to content marketing

The New Yorker is the authority when it comes to long-form journalism. That’s why Tumblr invoked their name when advertising for freelance writers.

But what can they teach you about business-to-business content marketing? What can they teach us about using epic content to build the value of your brand?

Fortunately, a lot.

  • Solve business objectives — Your costumers are probably not looking to kill time with a seven-thousand word essay on Taylor Swift’s teenage angst empire (New Yorker customers are, however). Your customers want to know how to generate more traffic, leads and sales. Use epic content to do that.
  • Educate with stories — Dig into the history of your company or customer testimonials. Begin with a meaningful conflict, agitate the pain and then trot in your solution. As The New Yorker has demonstrated, people like in-depth stories. It makes learning fun. Give it to them.
  • Diversify your content — Think blogs, email white papers and ebooks. The more vehicles in which you communicate your message the more people you will reach and the more effective you will be. Warning: Keep your message consistent across mediums.
  • Use social media — Unless you’ve got a huge audience already, your epic content will be DOA if you don’t use the power of social media to gain exposure. And don’t forget to make Google+ a strong component of your content marketing strategy.
  • Invest in quality writers — Great content is hard to create. And you can’t fake it. Gone are the days of keywords stuffing or outsourced content farms. Only superior content will build your influence with your target audience and Google. There’s no way around it (even if you are Tumblr).
  • Speak their language — When you answer their questions, alleviate their fears and encourage their desires you will write effectively for both people and search engines.
  • Create a schedule — A giant publication like The New Yorker knows six months out what content it will create—and when it will publish. Create and manage an editorial calendar, using tools like the WordPress Editorial Calendar plugin.

I’ll dig in deep with some of the above techniques in future posts. In the meantime, get free access to the Scribe Content Marketing Library and work your way through the Copyblogger guide to content marketing.

Over to you …

What challenges do you have when it comes to content marketing?

Do you wish you could create more content?

Do you feel your content could engage your customers better?

Does your content fail to get traffic? Rank high in search engines? Have your subscriber numbers stalled? Do you wish you could get more social shares?

Share your struggles in the comments below so we can give you the help you need in future blog posts …

About the author

Demian Farnworth


Demian Farnworth is Copyblogger Media's Chief Copywriter. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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Comments

  1. Honestly, I am tired of creating more content for the sake of attracting another pair of eyes. I want the content to do the marketing literally. Let it go to market places and make pronouncements. I want people to come running, to take their seats on the front row and wait patiently for the next act.

    • Eventually that can happen, but until you have a minimum viable audience, you’re going to have to hustle to get the word out.

    • Having a successful blog is a two prong strategy ; a fine balance between epic content and SEO content. In order to get the epic content out there you have to throw little hooks of “optimized content” into your content map. This is what helps you in making money and eventually keep the blog running. The only reason why so many bloggers fail in the first year is not realizing the need of both types of content.

    • Ideally this is what we all want but I’m afriad we have to earn it first, by putting the work in

  2. Fascinating, Demian. I bet epic content could also lead to other good things, like a book deal.

    • That’s true, and the motive behind sites like Atavist and Byliner. But those guys are taking content not used for a story and developing a short book out of it–and then selling it as a Kindle Single.

  3. Great questions Demian. Epic content is the way to go in my opinion. Epic is a relative term but in my experience I have found that posts about topics that no one has heard of has gotten me the most traffic. On the other hand, the “cookie cutter” posts, Like : The Top 5 ways to do something get very little in comparison.

    • I’ve written plenty of top 5, 7, 10 etc. posts that have gone epically viral. It’s about connecting with what your audience desires and over-delivering on value. You can drone on for 5,000 words on a topic that doesn’t matter to your audience, and nothing comes of it other than filling space on a web page.

    • Yes, be careful about thinking that “Top 5″ posts don’t work. Crappy “Top 5″ posts don’t work. (Although they work better than crappy posts that aren’t in the form of lists.)

      Make it genuinely useful and interesting, then use the proven models for attractive content, and you don’t have to worry about a technique being “overdone.”

  4. “The more vehicles in which you communicate your message the more people you will reach and the more effective you will be.”

    You can’t assume your entire audience is looking for one form of content. The more platforms you can exist on the more chances you have to interact and reconnect with your target audience.

  5. Some thoughts that come to my mind supporting your thesis:
    -Long form is perceived as more valuable. Articles=Free, Books=Paid. TV show=Free, Movie=$12
    -I am perceived as being smart or legitimate because I have written books by people who never take the time to read my books
    -Jakob Nielsen has always advocated long form content on his site over short articles
    It may just be because it is long, but I think this is a good post.

    • I love point number two. I actually love all of your points. The perceived value, so true. And Nielson advocated a balance of short and long–depending on your frequency. And I think this post is a good one too, but that’s probably because I wrote it (not because it is long).

  6. Great article, there is a big debate within my home, I say epic content is better and my other half prefers to switch off if something is too long.

    Short and straight to the point is ok if you are reporting that a celebrity has fallen over in the street drunk but for more important and educational pieces you cannot scrimp on words, too little and you might leave people guessing.

    I love long posts, as long as it leaves me educated when I have finished reading it. I am aiming at writing bigger and longer posts as I grown into my blogs. I just hope my readers love them!
    Cheers
    Andi

  7. I believe the most important characteristic of epic content is its “wow” factor and that takes a lot of things into consideration. It’s NOT about the length. I believe you can create epic content in fewer words (takes great skills) and you can deliver trash in 10,000 words (That’s annoying, you know). “What’s in it for my audience?” should be the question that drives us when we write. If we are very focused on this we will end up with epic content — NOT always but more often.

  8. tl;dr

    ;)

  9. Really great article.
    The dilemma is ever growing in terms of what content should be like. Eventually it all comes down to the question of whether we are willing to invest in its creation. Invest time, money, research, editing; spend some time researching our audience and their needs, look at some valuable already created content, apply copywriting…

    Creating great content means knowing our audience and answering their questions. Sometimes it just means creating relations between one subject and another from a slightly different perspective. Random affinities ( a term coined by Ian Laurie from the SEOMoz community meaning two topics that are connected by a common audience) are always a perfect way to captivate the audience by being original and inventive.

    I particularly love the comparison with the style of The New Yorker. Long articles, captivating stories, some witty and humorous approach… The web even allows placing of breathtaking images as to bring the editorship to a whole new level. I always think about great content being similar to those long articles you find in a nice magazine that you read while waiting at the barber shop. Articles that will never be out of date… Evergreen content…

    It’s probably because of this fact that I read Copyblogger, and sites like ViperChill and Fast Company. And there are many other readers who just like me crave for substance.

    Too bad many marketers focus on promotion rather than content creation. And this practice although fairly innocuous with regards to their overall brand development, is however limiting their potential. Great content promotes itself, and I strongly believe that. I find that whenever I make a long evergreen article, or some interesting interview the links come by themselves. Social sharing is almost guaranteed. And comments and engagement experience a spike.

    Great article Demian I really enjoyed it.

    Take care
    Slavko

  10. The “#longread” phenomenon fascinates me. I’m very much a “tl;dr” person. If you can’t be succinct and provide valuable, actionable content, I get bored and move on. This post was even a struggle for me. Are our engagement metrics–time on page, social shares, etc.–flawed? It shows that people are aware of and sharing the content, but it doesn’t mean they read the entire article. Do people read every word? Do they understand it? Or do they share based on a perceived authority due to length? Are people really as interested in this epic content as we think, or are they sharing without ingesting themselves? Are people engaging with the content itself, or are they engaging with the sharing of it?

    • As a couple of commenters mentioned, it’s smart to diversify. (Although some bloggers and publishers have made their success on the back of long-form content exclusively.)

      Some readers want a very deep dive. Some want the highlights. You need to be careful, though, because the “highlights” short-form readers often tend not to be buyers — their interest is just casual. But every combination of publisher/market/audience is different.

    • Great litany of questions. One of the more humbling things that I learned as a writer was that only about 10% of your audience will read every word you write. That’s probably even lower online (and even lower since that percentage is fairly old). That’s keeping expectations realistic.

      And I’m guilty of reading an article halfway and then sharing it. But I’m also guilty of storing these same articles with Readability or Evernote and then going back and reading it fully–or using it for research and linking back to it. That’s the point with the new devices and long content: longform reading apps and new devices have suddenly lengthened their shelf life. We aren’t forgetting this epic content nearly as easily.

      And don’t forget the SEO and link value of content. Keep in mind, before you create content, you need to have a strategy based upon your business and marketing objectives. That will dictate what kind of content you will create, where and how often.

  11. Looks like content is still king. As a beginning blogger I am still working on cracking a thousand words with each post, but I’ve started to see it pay off.

    In my own reading, I love Seth Godin’s blog which has pretty short posts. I find I get more actionable advice out of long posts. I like being told why this is going to help me, not just that something is going to help me.

  12. Demian,

    I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

    If memory serves… I read one article in the New Yorker about ### years ago, so it wasn’t the title that pulled me in. I’m one of the loyal members of the copyblogger tribe and have come to trust its contributors because Brian and Sonia vett well. Period.

    That being said, I’m thankful that I read the whole thing because it confirmed what I thought I knew instinctively, that there are others out there like me who appreciate the deep dive as Sonia mentioned.

    Now I can write without the inner voices screaming at me to condense everything to 600 words.

  13. Demian, you, my friend, are an epic content producer. This post is brilliant, once again.

  14. Making sure to market your content effectively is important because if it doesn’t reach the right people than you won’t yield the necessary results. Really great article Demian!

  15. Nice article! So often, I find myself stumbling across folks with the view that “if it can’t be said in a 140 characters, it’s not worth saying”. And I deeply don’t agree. Some things, yes, can be summed up like that. Some things _should_ be summed up like that, for the sake of humor or just plain brevity. But not everything. Long form has its place, and definitely has much to offer as well. Thank you for laying that out so clearly.

    • So true. I’ve been re-reading the Age of Propaganda by Pratkanis and surprised about their level of hostility toward the short form (this is BEFORE social media)…you need a lot of space to make a successful argument. I couldn’t have done this post in 140 characters (though I could’ve summarized it in that amount)…or 600. Simply wouldn’t have worked. Here’s what I’m not saying: verbosity is the same thing as epic. You still need to edit ruthlessly.

  16. I know you mentioned mixing it up with video and shorter pieces, but has anyone considered that a longform piece doesn’t have to be one long piece of copy? Design can be implemented to “trick” the reader into delving deep into a piece without the, “OMG, look how long this is,” terrors setting in.

    A 5000 word piece could consist of 1500 words of text broken up into three blocks of 500 words. Each block could be separated by video (representing 2000 words) and an infograpic (representing another 1500 words).

    Yes, it’s a lot more work – but ask yourself this: how epic and easy to consume could that final post now be?

    • Yeah, that’s one way to chunk content. Using headers and images is another. Look at The Verge. And breaking them into pages (like the New Yorker does) is another way.

      One thing I can’t stand, though, is to break content in pages just to get the page count up (which makes it easier for pubs to sell advertising). Think Wired or Business Insider.

  17. I absolutely agree that having a schedule is very important to making great content that gets attention. Google likes regularly published content, as do readers. In addition, having a schedule keeps you on track with your writing. :)

  18. Certainly will be interesting to see how this evolves. Tumblr could sure use some viable New Yorker style options to subscribe to even if they have to do it themselves or be involved in the collaboration.

    There are very few we can find ( their search is another problem ), and most if not all of the well known long form publications including The New Yorker use Tumblr to post a snippet and a link back to their main sites.

    Barina Craft blogs on Tumblr trying to use the strategy that Amy Dyslex outlined in an earlier comment in that the length of the posts varies and optimized to some degree. Nothing close to 10,000 words yet, but have a few ideas waiting in the wings.

    Copyblogger is a must read and look forward to more of your ‘epic content.’

  19. Epic content is harder than hell to create and takes ample time and resources to do so, however, when you get those few wins along the way, they truly do the marketing for you and take your blog to the next level. In addition to this, once you get a few wins under your belt, it becomes easier to create epic content more frequently and get even more wins.

  20. We shouldn’t think in terms of “versus”, though. As many of these comments mention, diversity is the spice of life. One of the things you need to look at, though, is your target audience. I have some friends who I know would never read this article, for instance. It’s too long, it’s devoid of pictures and it quotes people they don’t know. Epic content isn’t for them. If they’re really who I’m targeting, though, I need to tailor my content to them with short form articles awash with pretty and funny pictures and infographics.

    Another thing that’s equally important is the idea of empowerment. Gone are the days where we identify a lack of something in our audience (you do not have a great car, buy mine, for instance) but instead we identify a strength of theirs and get them to improve upon it even more. The simple act of telling someone “YOU can write epic content” is far more valuable than saying “epic content isn’t for everyone”, despite both being equally true.

    • I have a lot of friends who will never read this article. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t read a 10,000 word article. EVERYBODY will read an article that is about them–no matter the length. And epic is more about depth–depth of research, depth of time creating something beautiful. Some of Seth Godin’s short posts are epic because he’s an authority with decades of experience. It’s the iceberg phenomenon that counts.

      Good thoughts, Tom.

      • Demain,
        It is an excellent piece which solidifies that content is not the King but the supremely reigning Emperor. Add in the proper SEO tweaks and it is the Zeus. :P

  21. For me personally, i never created epic content because i think it’s gonna take a lot of collecting data, and that’s the one that always keeps holding back to create such contents. But i think epic content, either it has 1.000 to 10.000, it should be engaging the readers to keep reading until the end. Maybe that’s right, it should be broken into several pages so people will not be overwhelmed with consuming the words.

    Great post Demian..

  22. Question: Has it occurred to anyone on this thread that the idea of creating engaging, insightful long-form content is what the entire industry of magazine journalism does everyday? It’s awfully glib to say, Hey, content marketers, what you need to produce are New Yorker-style articles to build an audience! There are legions of entire staffs of journalism professionals laboring everyday to produce articles that approach the quality and depth that the New Yorker seems to effortlessly produce every week. But, really, it’s not effortless. It’s David Remnick, the editor, tirelessly searching out talent and ideas to create probably the world’s best content product, at great cost and through sheer sweat. You might even call that content-production operation epic.

    • Of course we’ve thought of that. That’s why we used them as a model for this post. :D

      • But, how can the New Yorker be a useful model? What creates the “quality” that you’re recommending is the specific way that it executes long-form journalism. Are you suggesting that content marketers create their own journalism operations? Because, what gives the New Yorker its credibility is in no small measure due to the fact that it is positioned *outside* the government or any company that it covers, which in a nutshell is the most meaningful difference between content marketing and journalism. Creating quality content is easier said than done. And that seems beyond obvious to me.

        • Are you suggesting it doesn’t have it’s biases? I’m not saying journalism and content marketing are the same thing. I’m not saying content marketers should be journalists. But they should look at the content and ask the question: is there anything we can learn from this? I would argue yes, otherwise I wouldn’t have written the article. I’m not really sure what you are opposing.

          • I guess what seems not useful to me is that it sounds like what you’re recommending is along the lines of: Create content for your targeted audience that amounts to what would merit being written as a book within your industry. Which is what the New Yorker is to the field of long-form journalism.