Connecting with Millennials et alia

I need to crowdsource this concern via my blog, and I’ll likely advertise it on FB and Twitter, too.

(Why, yes, there is a little irony there, not least because I really am going to do all that in just a minute.)

I’d like to know how a writer such as I can best communicate with my target audiences aged 18-35…you know, the people I’ve been teaching for 30 years…if I want to say something to them/you longer than 140 characters, or a Facebook update, or a blog post.

Heretofore (to use the lingo of precisely no contemporary communicator), I have resorted to writing books, with certain gratifying results. But if I have something less-than-book-length to say, I customarily have put it into an article in a relevant journal.

Alas, even smart, well-educated young people are, I am told by various smart, well-educated young people, no longer reading magazines. They do all such reading on-line.

What then, I ask, about longer pieces, so-called “long-form journalism”? Does anyone really sit at his desktop, hunch over her laptop, or thumb endlessly down his/her phone to read a piece of 2000, 3000, or 4000 words?

“Not likely,” comes the sardonic response.

But is that so? And if it is, what ought I to be doing (differently) to connect with such audiences when I have something more complicated and substantial?

Again, I’m not asking how I compete for attention with the Kardashians or the local sports team or the latest disaster. (Come to think of it, the Kardashians often qualify as “the latest disaster,” but I digress….) I’m asking how I can connect with the same people who tell me they follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my weblog or enjoy my speaking or read my books.

Crowd: Tell me, please.

18 Responses to “Connecting with Millennials et alia”

  1. Kevan

    John! I’ve been following you on Twitter for a couple years now, and find your perspectives typically balanced and engaging, provocative and valuable. Incidentally, I first read your work in the Vancouver Sun online, which led me to follow you on Twitter.

    Summary: People still read longform, they still read magazines, their reading is done online, and they use bookmarking tools to take the pieces “to go.”

    When people want to save longer form pieces to read later, tools like Pocket are used. It’s a chrome extension that lets bookmark pieces for easy access later.

    Other similar tools exist like Instapaper:

    Some services spend time aggregating the best long-form pieces during the week, and provide email digests of the best of the longform web. One such service I subscribe to is called Longreads:

    Patheos is web community for writers of faith perspectives to publish long-form perspective. Here is Frank Schaffer’s personal blog on Patheos as an example:

    As web-only platforms to consider, Medium is a strong choice:

    Definitely keep pursuing traditional publishers like magazines/newspapers: The Guardian, Globe and Mail, the Sun, New York Times, Huffington Post, FastCompany, HBR, etc. Everything that circulates virally through longform reading/sharing services still starts on a “home”. What homes do you have access to? Where do you have inroads? Still the Sun? What about Regent World? What about Christianity Today? Other schools, like Seattle Pacific University’s magazine?

    For growing your own personal brand and reach as an author, Michael Hyatt’s book “Platform” is a great help.

    I hope you continue to push hard on writing and sharing pieces; your perspective is needed. Don’t buy into the hype about millennials losing their attention spans. Focus is sharper than ever, longform is experiencing more than a healthy renaissance.

    • John

      Thanks, Kevan. I knew about Instapaper, Longreads, and Patheos, but not Pocket or Medium. I’ve written for the Globe, National Post, Christianity Today, Christian Century, and many others, and yes, they do have websites that extend their reach. It’s just that longer articles (as in the magazines, not the newspapers) are the ones in jeopardy, and I’d be glad to know that people really do read those articles they file away via Pocket and Instapaper…

      • Kevan

        A thought…Have you checked out Quora? People ask questions, others post answers. You could find pockets of inquiry that line up with the topic you wish to share about. Publish your longform piece as an answer to an existing question on theology.

        Quora is getting more and more use as a place for exploring rather rich intellectual and cultural territory (at least, as far as the internet goes). Top answers get shared and re-read quite widely. The q&a format means the audience is already asking for content to be generated, so you’re not fighting for an audience.

        Some existing questions as examples — people are already asking all the questions your articles are posing answers to:

        From my perspective, two wishes I have for the internet, which I don’t mean to foist on to you, but you are welcome to consider:
        1) How can we shift towards co-creating understanding together, rather than aspiring to persuade people one-directionally?
        2) Who is the Internet Chaplain? Who takes responsibility for the web’s theological growth and development? Imagine a role where a theological mentor participates activities in online interaction, to help people explore the depths of their human questions.

  2. Charles

    Finding that sweet spot is not easy. Somewhere in Google’s repertoire, they think 2400 words is an appropriate length. I have experimented on my technical website which is aimed at a more literate audience with the amount of words and 2400 seems to get the best response. Not immediately, but over the long term, these articles get more consistent results.

    • John

      Interested to hear that someone like Google might actually have done some research on that “sweet spot” question. If you (or someone else) can direct us to such research, I’d be grateful…and so would a lot of online editors!

    • Steve Wilkinson

      I’ve heard similar Charles… I’ll have to make note of sources, John.

      I think the general advice is to target the 900-1500 word range, but that articles which go into more depth, and are longer, actually get more traffic and engagement. (I think for many involved in content marketing, it’s a time/frequency trade-off which pushes the ‘sweet-spot’ lower…. but that doesn’t necessarily deliver the top spots… it delivers a bigger audience.)

      My theory on why this is, would be:

      1) For Google to have enough actual content to meaningfully index and put ahead of other content, it has to have some substance/length to it. That’s just more of a current algorithm / keyword reality. (It was common practice several years ago to do a lot more frequency at 300 to 600 words, but I’ve heard that doesn’t work anymore, as it probably shouldn’t.)

      2) When you run across a really great, in-depth article, it stands out compared to articles that just brush the surface and aren’t, ultimately, as valuable. Even if one is more likely to read a 300 word article, they are less likely to share it and promote it.

      3) I’ve noticed that on any given narrow topic, there are usually a few truly in-depth pieces of content, which become the go-to guides. That often can’t happen in 1000 words.

      • Steve Wilkinson

        BTW, here is a perfect example (which will probably be of interest to John). Over 5000 words. I ran across it while I was in the middle of something else, but it so caught my interest, I just had to finish reading the whole thing.

        How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name

        Note the ‘share’ and ‘like’ stats… and it was just published hours ago! I’m sure more than a few of those are from millennials (though maybe just us old-timer Mac folks will truly understand).

  3. Jesse

    tl;dr – consider summarizing your arguments from linked pieces in your posts, instead of just introducing the topic.

    Are you familiar with tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)? I’ve seen it used to quickly summarize a longer argument and/or link. As I recall you tend to introduce the topic in your posts as a teaser or a headline, but leave the actual arguments to the linked pieces themselves. I wonder if you might be able to summarize your longer pieces in a few paragraphs on Facebook (obviously much more challenging with Twitter) along with the link.

    While there is an obvious cost in terms of nuanced communication, you may be able to pique enough curiosity to convince more readers to investigate further. There may be cases where the tradeoff is worth it, and a little bit of engagement is better than no engagement at all.

    • John

      Alas, my experience with controversial FB posts is that you’d better say everything you want to say as well as you can possibly say it or you spend the next week of your life clarifying, correcting, and repeating…and that’s no fun. Or do I miss your point?

      • Jesse

        Well, the discussion can be part of the fun, and it might be the only engagement with the topic you’ll get from some readers. I don’t think these kinds of summaries are appropriate in all cases, but I think they might get more people thinking than headlines alone.

        • John

          We have different ideas of “fun,” Jesse, if you really like what I’m talking about trying to avoid! Discussion is great. But dealing with people who are taking off in wrong directions because I haven’t taken sufficient pains to be clear? Not great. And I’m not trying to “get people thinking”: anyone can do that with a tweet. I do it myself. I’m trying to communicate a complex subject and that’s why length is required. THAT’s the challenge: getting such discussion in front of the right audiences. What do they read, if anything, that is that long?

          • Jesse

            I imagine your public discussions attract more cranks and vitriol than my own, making mine much more fun than yours, or at least less likely to spiral into misery. Fair enough.

            On the substance, ultimately I’m asking how important it is for your readers to digest your whole argument. Can you live with some readers only getting the highlights? How much of the discussion does the right audience need to see?

            • John

              See? Even via a blog post of that length (the original one up top), we’re not quite connecting! I’m not asking, “How can I get Millennials et al. to pay attention to my message?” but “What media, if any, do Millennials et al. access to read long articles?” Advising me to communicate more briefly is literally beside the point. I appreciate the engagement, though, and it’s all instructive.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      I agree with Jesse to the extent that the goal of Facebook (for the wise FB user) is to get people back to your home base. (Facebook is, IMO, a horrible place to try and have a discussion both for social AND technical reasons).

      But, it’s a great place to get visibility. So, your target audience might not read long articles via Facebook, but they might find you there and then go where you direct them to read long articles.

  4. James Allaway

    You could record a video of yourself speaking but with cats in the background, cats are still big business on the internet I’m told.

    On a more serious note I am quite happy reading long form from the internet, but I recognise that I am now edging out of your target demographic. I tend to use Evernote combined with web tool called clearly that grabs longer articles into Evernote for me read offline at my leisure. I’ve built up quite a library of articles over the last couple of years that has been useful in research.

    We’ve been doing some informal research with the undergrads we work with about what they read and they don’t read magazines any more but some of them do read single articles from the magazine Relevant when they pop up on their facebook feed. There is probably more to be discovered on why they read Relevant and not other content.

    Anyway at this point I guess I’d suggest that part of the way forward may be that you remind/instruct those of us who do read your various kinds of work to pass it on to others who we think may be interested. I am part of a couple of facebook pages who share various short and medium length articles.

    At a more wider level, I don’t know of many places where people are being encouraged to read at a journal article level, so perhaps part of the way forward is that some of us need to make more of an effort to encourage that kind of engagement. I fear the issue may be less to do with how you might do it and more to do with how few in your target demographic are engaging at the level you are talking about.

    • John

      This is, characteristically, a thoughtful and informative comment, James. Thanks. I do agree that people like you, involved in student ministry, have a vital part to play in the instruction of the students you serve as gatekeepers and advisors, directing students’ attention as best you can to the most helpful stuff you come across…rather than, I suppose, tacitly hoping that it will somehow get to them (which, of course, it likely won’t if you don’t send it). That’s among the main reasons I was convinced to start tweeting: at least as much to alert followers to cool stuff other people were writing as to advertise my own wares….

      • James Allaway

        And as a non-twitter user I appreciate that you post your twitter feed to Facebook.

        The challenge I find with pointing others to content is that a substantial amount of the reading I do is for my own interest so reading becomes a personal thing rather than something that is viewed as potentially shareable. It has been all too easy to neglect thinking of others who might also benefit from reading an article.

        On a related note I’m also increasingly aware of the delicate balance around the volume of posts that results in people missing connections to articles that they would find useful. The most recent case in point would be the Starbucks cup nuisance last week. So many people were posting links about why Christian’s shouldn’t be making a fuss that I switched off from Facebook for a couple of days. That’s why I’ve tended to find facebook groups a more useful means for sharing articles in that I can know with relative confidence that articles posted there will be of some use and I get a notification when something is posted where as I am sure that some posts that would be just as useful get lost in the general noise of my facebook feed.

        P.s. I take it that’s a no to the video of you with cats? Just wanted to check 😉

  5. Steve Wilkinson

    I suppose I don’t fit the demographic, but I follow a lot of people marketing to the demographic…

    I’d say for depth, podcasting would be the medium of choice (or, as you’ve been doing… blogs.) For a bit shorter content, with potentially greater exposure, maybe impact, videos (i.e. YouTube).

    The reason I say podcasts, is that it’s a medium that doesn’t require you to quit something else that you’re doing. In other words, you can listen to it during a commute, or while doing the dishes. For busy people who still want to learn, I don’t think anything beats it. (I suppose audio books are good too if your content can be discovered.)

    I just don’t have much time these days to do a lot of in-depth reading. So, I’m pretty picky about what I do read and follow. And, it’s often driven by something I’m researching, rather than just following a set number of blogs anymore.

    But, I do follow a number of excellent ministries via podcast, as well as everything from business, health & nutrition, personal improvement, etc. And, the only way I can do that is via podcasts. If it were books or articles, I’d just seldom get to it.

    The problem with video and YouTube is kind of the opposite of the above. You’re trapped there focusing only on that one thing for whatever period of time. (That’s very good, for the audience you’re able to attract.) At least with a blog, one can skim it and read it more closely for the details if they wish.

    And, I don’t buy that people don’t read long-form anymore, they are just more picky about it. So, I think they tend to check you out, amongst the flood of info, by shorter content. But your real followers will read the longer form content as well.

    I actually listen to a number of podcasts that range from 1 hour to over 3 hours in length. As one of the main podcast gurus often says, there’s no such thing as too long, only too boring. (I remember reading books while in school, where I was thinking… yea, I could have put that in about 20 pages instead of 200.) But, you’re certainly right that some things take some space and length. I don’t think that scares away people who recognize the value you provide.

    Yes, the average web-surfer often sees a long scroll-bar and moves on. But, from what I’ve heard, it’s the long, in-depth articles and tutorials that actually get the most traffic and response. (I’m not sure how that works out for theological articles, but it does for general web-informational stuff.)


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