The terms ‘epic content,’ skyscraper post, and ‘10x content‘ have been thrown around a lot over the past couple of years. And before that, it was ‘flagship content‘ and ‘cornerstone content.’ They all refer to long-form blog posts and articles.
Articles over 1,500-1,800 words are routinely referred to as long-form content. And in the era of snackable content—I hate that phrase btw—that’s a fair definition. A survey by Databox has shown a positive correlation between a higher word count and a higher search ranking.
But what about content that truly goes above and beyond? And does word count have to be the benchmark by which epic content is judged?
I’ve been keeping a Google doc loaded with truly outstanding epic content published from 2017 onwards. Once the doc was bursting at the seams, I decided to reach out to some of the writers and editors to get them to break down their process for creating these long-form posts.
I’m truly grateful to Deanna, Joel, Paul, Abraham, and Niel for taking time out of their schedules to answer my questions.
Epic Content Examples
- 1️⃣ Complete Oral History of Boutique Hotels | Deanna Ting
- 2️⃣ How Customer-Driven Copy Helped HubSpot Increase Conversions by Nearly 100% | Joel Klettke
- 3️⃣ Building a Lightroom PC | Paul Stamatiou
- 4️⃣ The 100 Pages That Shaped Comics | Abraham Riesman [Editor]
- 5️⃣ Ultimate Guide to Creating Original Research Content | Niel Malhotra
- 6️⃣ Bettertopia – Panasonic | IC4DESIGN
- 7️⃣ No Frills — #Hauler
Complete Oral History of Boutique Hotels | Deanna Ting
Deanna Ting is a writer, editor, photographer, and reporter based in New York City. She’s also the Senior Hospitality Editor at Skift, a media company that provides news, research, and marketing services for the travel industry. Imagine having to research, write and edit eight to 10 weekly news articles. How about taking on a second mammoth project that ends up becoming a 60,000-word piece on the four-decades-long history of boutique hotels?
Deanna, of all of the pieces that I’m featuring – this is truly the most epic. It’s stood out in my mind ever since stumbling across it in the spring of ’17. Are you an avid fan of oral histories and did any of them serve as inspiration for this project?
I do love reading oral histories. One of my recent favorites is this oral history of what has to be one of my all-time favorite episodes of the U.S. version of The Office, from Rolling Stone.
When it came to putting this oral history together, however, I looked to an oral history that my colleague, Dennis Schaal, wrote in 2016, all about the history of online travel. It’s an incredible piece, and it gave me a framework for how I wanted to craft my own oral history of boutique hotels.
What did the timeline and process look like from idea to publication in March 2017?
Following the success of “The Definitive Oral History of Online Travel,” Skift CEO and founder Rafat Ali asked me and Greg Oates, who was then a senior editor at the time, to work together on crafting an oral history of the boutique hotel movement. Greg is now an editor for Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.
As soon as we were given this assignment, I immediately started sending out interview requests as early as June 2016, and from there, it was just a matter of talking to more and more people who would refer me to other people who’d prove to be crucial to the story.
I think I probably could’ve filed the story earlier if I didn’t also have to juggle my full-time job as a breaking news/analysis reporter on hospitality here at Skift, but the news cycle that year was particularly crazy because of so many big mergers taking place, namely the insanity of the Marriott-Starwood merger, which I covered extensively for Skift. I’m also the only reporter on staff who writes about hotels and Airbnb, so I’m on deadline 24/7.
It was also a challenge to get a hold of certain crucial players, namely Ian Schrager and Barry Sternlicht, both of whom are known for not giving many media interviews. For Barry, my only chance to talk to him was at the opening of his new 1 Hotel in Brooklyn, but right before I interviewed him, I had to file a breaking news story related to an Airbnb acquisition; it was a bit nuts, to say the least. And for Ian, I had to track him down at a hotel industry conference in Los Angeles. Funnily enough, however, I now communicate with Ian every now and then. He emails me his thoughts on my stories from time to time, which I so appreciate and value.
I learned so much during each of the interviews I did–and everyone I spoke to was so knowledgeable, and so many of the interviews were just, well, entertaining. I really tried my best to make sure that each interviewee’s voice was kept in the piece.
By February 2017, however, I felt like I’d gotten to the point where we had gotten all the interviews we needed, so it came time to put it all together. While this was originally supposed to be a joint project between me and Greg Oates, I wound up doing the majority of the interviews (Greg interviewed just 7 subjects). Greg was also unavailable to help with the writing of the oral history, so I decided to just write it by myself. And I wrote all of it in a single week.
You were dealing with a cast of 26 characters and 19 milestone dates on your timeline. What did you use to keep all of that organized?
We kept all the audio files and interview transcripts in Google Drive, but I wrote everything in a Word document on my own computer. I had an outline that I pieced together that I referred to, but to be honest, the writing of the piece is a bit of blur now. I just remember that because I had done the majority of the interviews myself, I think it made it easier for me to remember what each subject said, and helped me put the narrative together more quickly.
Another difficult part of this was trying to get photos and images, but somehow we managed to pull it together.
15-20 years ago, I could see a project like this getting released as a book via a small niche publisher. How did the ‘powers that be’ at Skift feel about the end product? Would your team attempt something this ambitious again?
I think they were very pleased with the end product but, if I’m being totally honest, it was also very clear that they did not invest nearly as much time marketing this oral history like they did for the oral history of online travel. I feel like it didn’t receive the promotion it deserved at the time, but I’m glad to know people are still finding it, reading it, and enjoying it. That’s been the most satisfying part about it.
I would definitely attempt something like this again, but only if I were granted a book deal at this point, or a very sizable bonus. Working on an oral history of this magnitude should be a full-time job unto its own!
Taking a quick look through your bio – travel, reporting, and writing is in your blood. Is there a book hiding within you (or your hard drive) that needs to get out?
There are plenty! I just wish I had more time to actually write them.
Joel Klettke is a conversion copywriter that specializes in the SAAS and B2B fields. You can find him over at Business Casual Copywriting or at Case Study Buddy, a done-for-you case study writing service that gives SaaS and B2Bs an easy way to capture and share customer success stories. He rarely has time for blogging these days – so it was a privilege to get to read both a 3,500-word article and to read about his process.
Joel, I know as well as anyone that a 3500-word post is a different beast than a 750-1500 word post. You’re taking the reader on a (14-minute) journey. How did your outline process work for this one? You’re not wireframing or bullet-pointing features and benefits – but you are hitting beats. Did you lay it out from beginning to end before writing the meat of the piece?
I like that you describe it as taking the reader on a journey — because a lot of companies treat blogging like trying to cram a word salad down a reader’s throat with a plunger.
To be honest, though — writing this post WAS very much the same for me, process-wise, as writing a smaller post.
Assuming I’ve already defined my topic, audience, and the big “so what?” of the piece, my writing always follows four stages:
- In this phase, I go out and collect all the information I need for a piece. It’s a brain dump where, in an unstructured and loose way, I collect as much information as I can.
- I don’t put limits or restraints on myself, and I’m not writing to be perfect at this stage. I take handwritten notes, and I fill pages up with ideas, references, and must-use points.
No matter how short the piece, the next step is to take another sweep through the research and start categorizing it:
+ What themes are emerging?
+ Which ideas or pieces of information fit together?
+ Which points support others?
Along the way, I’m actively cutting out information that’s nice, but not needed to support the piece.
Then, I take what I’ve grouped and flesh it out with a skeleton of a narrative: what does my audience need to understand, and in what order?
How can I naturally lead them from one idea to another?
With the research complete and skeleton mapped, I write. I’ve never been good at the whole “horrible first draft” thing — I constantly hit backspace and try to refine as I go.
Just because I refine as I go, doesn’t mean the piece won’t need to be tuned up. Most of what I do during the editing phase is cutting things down.
Anything non-essential is eliminated. Anything that speaks over the audience’s understanding is toast. And anything that’s not compelling is quashed.
At that stage, I’m left with what I hope is a great piece.
This was as much a *looking back* article as it was a *this is how we did it* post. Did you have notes that you referred back to? Or was it a case of living and breathing it long enough that it stuck in the back of your mind?
Understand—this was the largest client I’d ever worked on, with the most exciting numbers I’d ever been allowed to publish.
When something looms that large for you, you don’t forget the details.
The process I was writing about is the same process I use, day in and day out, on every project I work on. It was FRESH in my mind because I live it out every single day. It’s what I do.
For me, this post wasn’t theory; I wasn’t just regurgitating research I’d picked up somewhere.
I had dozens of emails to reference from the project. I had Slack conversations. And, of course, I’m still connected to the people I worked on the project with, so they were there to ask questions of.
I don’t think anybody could write a process-based piece like this if they’ve never actually done it. The audience would smell it.
And that’s part of why so many process posts are trash: the people writing them haven’t actually done what they’re writing about.
You’ve previously worked in SEO agency life. And you now have years of copywriting experience under your belt. You’ve been exposed to thousands of mediocre blog posts. What did you set out to do differently with this particular post (and really any blog-type writing that you occasionally do)?
Can I take a second to address WHY there are thousands of mediocre blog posts?
It’s not because people are poor writers. It’s because businesses don’t care. They claim to love and value content, but most don’t.
Just spend five minutes on a job board where writers are hired, and look at the rates companies offer writers. 1,000-word articles for $5? Full websites for $500?
It has yet to dawn on most businesses that what they publish is who they are to their audience. The way you communicate is how you will be perceived.
Your writers are your spokespeople! But companies don’t care.
So you have these small armies of poorly-paid, ill-trained writers spewing out garbage en masse at insane speeds as they just try to keep food on the table.
You have SEO departments defining the content calendar based on keywords to target instead of audiences to engage. Does anybody else see how INSANE that is?!
Ah. That felt good.
Now, to your question: every time I sit down to write a blog post, I start with the “So what?”
- WHY should anyone read this?
- What will make this piece worth their time?
- What am I trying to leave them with once they close the browser?
- How will this piece be different or better than what’s already out there?
If you’ve ever listened to a terrible storyteller, you understand that the worst ones never know their own “So what?”
Once I’ve defined that, the next step is to get RUTHLESS about my opening paragraphs.
Too many blog posts open with the generic, “Such-and-such is an important trend in business” instead of grabbing their reader by the collar and giving them a shake. If your opening paragraph sucks, it doesn’t matter how good the rest of your piece is, because it’s pretty unlikely anybody will see it.
In this piece, I extended a personal invitation to the reader: “If you want to make sure your new copy hits a conversion home run, keep reading.”
Who can say no to that? Nobody sane. And then, we were off to the races, and I let the narrative I’d defined spill out and tell itself in a nice, orderly fashion.
Hubspot publishes anywhere from 150-250 posts a month, yet your piece netted 1300 social shares and ~140 links. Did you do anything *extra* personally to push this post to the forefront? Did Hubspot?
I think this post was such a big deal because it dangled some pretty tantalizing numbers.
DOUBLE conversions for a juggernaut like HubSpot? That’s got mass appeal.
I pushed the piece heavily in my own networks across LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and more. I shared it everywhere I could, and spoke about the work at conferences, referencing the piece there, too.
And because this was such an important “win” for me, family, friends, and followers all got on board and started passing it on, too.
To this day, I keep referencing it on podcasts when I’m interviewed. And it’s pinned at the top of my Twitter — until I get a bigger, better result for an equally awesome company.
Building a Lightroom PC | Paul Stamatiou
Paul Stamatiou is a designer for Twitter and lives in San Francisco. He writes extremely in-depth articles about technology and design over on his personal site. In this case – a 24,000-word guide on how he went about putting together a new computer system to edit his photos.
Paul, your post on building a Lightroom PC received well over 1000 shares between Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, and dozens of links. What was the most surprising reaction to the post?
Not too surprising but there were definitely quite a few folks that were shocked at the price of the whole setup. I didn’t build the PC as a guide for others (though I figured I might as well document it and talk about the importance of certain parts and my decision process so that others could make their own decisions if they built their own PC) so some parts were definitely expensive and tailored for my particular needs (and well, I didn’t really have a budget for the build). But I think that’s also what makes my posts do well — there always tends to be some element of going overboard in some way.
You mentioned the piece taking 4 months of weekends to complete. Any idea of how many hours this added up to?
Oof, I have no idea. It was a lot of work, that’s for sure. From researching and ordering the parts, setting it up and using it myself, and then running into issues or things I wanted to improve as I used the PC over some time.. not exactly the kind of thing you can just sit down and write all at once. But the photography for this one took quite a while. I wanted to do something a bit different, so I ordered a studio lighting kit (backdrop, 2 large flashes, et cetera) and learned how to use that for some shots. And I would go back and reshoot things a few times.
I counted just over 90 accompanying images for the Lightroom guide. How on earth do you organize that many images when you’re in draft mode? And speaking of draft mode – do you write in Google Docs?
I talked a bit about my writing process in the iPad post, but I usually start with some kind of outline that generally covers what I want to talk about for any post. Sometimes I can crank out a 1-page outline at a coffee shop in 20 minutes. Sometimes, it only comes to life as I have begun the project/build/whatever-the-post-is-about and am learning as I go. That outline may live in something like Google Keep or Bear notes app. Then I’ll start writing the post directly inside my blog’s Jekyll git repo with all the HTML markup (while Jekyll is primarily for Markdown posts, I prefer to write in HTML so I can use the custom tags I have for various heading styles and photosets).
The photos for the post are continually added as I write the article—sometimes I go back and add or edit photos that were earlier in the post several times. For the Lightroom PC post, I took in excess of 1,000 shots with my camera. Each time I would import the raws to Lightroom, then whittle them down to the few I’d like to keep for whatever I was focusing with that particular shoot. Sometimes I’ll realize I’m not particularly happy with one of the angles and will go back and shoot it again. When I’ve narrowed down the shots I’ll tweak some basic adjustments to get it to look how I want, then I’ll export the full-size JPGs. Then I run a script to resize them multiple times (my site will pick a photo size variant depending on the width of the browser or how many photos I show in a row to save bandwidth).
Then I run them through XnConvert to compress the JPGs. Then I use XnConvert to also create WebP images (which I try to load if supported by the viewer’s browser to save even more bandwidth and load faster). Finally, I’ll upload them to my AWS S3/CloudFront bucket, set the ACL permissions and cache header. To get the markup for use in the post, I have a Rake script I wrote that takes the directory of images and generates the markup for me. From there I just need to move things around to have the photos show up how I like in between paragraphs, et cetera. Needless to say, it’s a process.
Your most recent post ‘Made on an iPad Pro’ clocked in at a *reasonable* 10,000 words. Any plans to tackle another huge project?
Once I finish a post, I basically never immediately have a plan for the next post. I don’t treat it like I’m on the hook to write about something unless I find something really, really interesting to me. The process of writing in-depth about a subject also helps me learn about it as I have to find ways to describe these topics. My posts tend to be in the realm of interesting angles about some tech product that has woven itself into my daily life, an in-depth how-to guide for something I’m interested in, describing my process for how I do something or telling a visual story with my photosets.
Do you have a word count in mind when tackling each subject – or do you just wait to see where each piece lands?
I never have a count in mind, but I also never have a deadline in mind. When I feel like I’ve fully fleshed out my outline and covered everything I wanted to cover, then it’s ready.. and by that point, the posts tend to be a bit long. Oddly enough, I always start a post thinking it won’t be that long and I can describe things fairly succinctly.. then I keep coming up with things I want to cover or talk about as I go. But for the most part, being in-depth is my writing style. I don’t publish articles on my website often: not including my photosets, I publish maybe ~1.5 posts per year. I’ve been running my website for almost 13 years now. I started by frequently posting tech news snippets (sometimes up to 3x a day) and the occasional how-to guide or product review. But then I got older and had less free time to keep up with the frequent posting and also began to favor the type of content that no one else could write about exactly like how I had in mind, something right up my alley. So that’s how I’ve been approaching it for the last few years or so. I think this tweet sums it up best:
Stammy doesn't run a "blog" – he runs a really great personal magazine that only publishes when they have something good to write. https://t.co/AoECiVjTF3— Eric Florenzano (@ericflo) June 12, 2018
The 100 Pages That Shaped Comics | Abraham Riesman [Editor]
Abraham Riesman is a staff writer at New York. He’s previously done writing, video, and audio for The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, Vice, WNYC, NY1, The New York Sun, and WBAI. In April 2018, Vulture published a 32,000-word article chronicling the 100 most important single comic book pages. Riesman and Vulture editorial corralled 10 writers to accomplish this gargantuan task.
Abraham, you oversaw ten writers and 100 short form writeups. Heidi MacDonald mentioned that there was quite a bit of ‘spirited debate.’ How did you guys conduct these group conversations? Was there a Slack thread?
The conversations were held entirely in either (a) an internal email listserv that I set up or (b) Google Docs that I created for various drafts of the list and its entries. One clarification: not all of the people who had bylines wrote final entries — some of them were just in a brain trust that came up with the list, itself.
What did the timeline look like from the initial idea to the April 16, 2018 publication date?
Y’know what, I can’t remember when the idea was first presented to me by my boss, Vulture’s editor, Neil Janowitz. But it wasn’t all that long before the due date — probably mid-March? After that, we had about a week of recruiting people to join the initial brain trust, then about a week and a half of hammering out the list, then a few weeks of writing entries. After that, it took about a week to do final edits on the entries and build out the site, and voila, there we were.
Once everyone decided on their chosen comic pages did the essays trickle in one by one from each writer? Or were you seeking batches? Could you go into a bit of detail regarding the editorial workflow?
They trickled in one by one. I told our writers to send entries in as soon as they’d written them, so we could get going on editing. Then I’d do an initial pass on them and make additions/deletions/suggestions, the writers would incorporate/approve those, and then it was off to other editors on the Vulture staff for a final round of edits.
For these massive undertakings, does Vulture do anything *extra* for promotion, beyond pushing it out to your various social channels?
Not really. We rely on the fact that our reach is already pretty large and on our confidence that it was a quality product that would receive good word of mouth.
From a technical standpoint, mammoth pieces like this—and the 100 jokes article—on Vulture end up collecting thousands of social shares, hundreds of domains linking back and dozens of page one Google results for valuable search terms. Has editorial expressed the desire to keep doing these periodically?
I’m but a lowly writer, so I’m not privy to those conversations, but Vulture is always thinking of bold and ambitious new ways to present our work to readers, so I’d be shocked if we didn’t have more large projects in the vein of 100 Pages and 100 Jokes in the future.
Ultimate Guide to Creating Original Research Content | Niel Malhotra
Niel Malhotra is the founder of Growista, an agency that helps companies turn raw data into high-quality content that gets shares, traffic, and backlinks. As a programmer, Niel analyzes large amounts of data and turns it into a unique article, complete with charts describing that data. In March 2018, he wrote a 13K-word guide on how he produces original research content.
Niel, you mentioned using Workflowy to build your outlines. Could you go a little more in-depth about your process?
When it comes to content outlines using workflowy for epic content, I had a basic process: Parts and charts and details. So, I created 9 overall parts. Each part had a chapter. Each chapter had an explanation in it.
It looked like:
The Creating Original Research Guide has eight chapters, 44 subheads, and clocks in at 13,000 words. How long to outline a huge undertaking like that versus doing the actual writing?
I’m estimating, but the outlining and prep work was about 15 hours. Writing took about 20 hours. 5 hours for editing.
You’re one of the rare creators out there who turns data into content. What tools or software do you regularly use to collect and analyze data before building out a content asset? What resources would you recommend for someone wanting to dip their toes into ‘data storytelling?
To collect and analyze data, I just use regular programming. Sometimes, I do site scraping where I grab the HTML of a page (I have a piece on AirBnB data coming up for a client that involves screen scraping). onomics.com is a great tool for visualizing data. Resources, besides my guide which is the best thing on it on the internet :), I’d suggest looking at the priceonomics site and the priceonomics content handbook: https://priceonomics.com/the-content-marketing-handbook/ I’d also suggest starting with a survey or partnering up with someone who knows how to program (it’s really hard to do this work if you don’t).
I know you’re as fascinated by the *content promotion* process as I am. Once you released this guide onto the web – did you unearth any new promotion or distribution strategies?
Right now, my best promotion strategy is Facebook groups. The thing is, a lot of groups don’t let you post links. That’s okay. You can still just post the summary of what you wrote, and if the content is relevant enough to the audience and good enough, they’ll find their way to your content anyway.
“BETTERTOPIA” – Panasonic 100th Anniversary Global Web site | Illustration by IC4DESIGN
IC4DESIGN is a production team consisting of illustrators and graphic designers based in Hiroshima, Japan. Their strength is fun & detailed illustration work. Their work is included in major international art projects around the globe.
This sixth example of ‘epic content’ is solely visual, by way of a giant scrolling interactive graphic.
IC4DESIGN designed a future city filled with Panasonic’s products and services for this special project. Some of the scenes contain animations. When you find a certain scene and click it, you’ll jump to detail pages.
The idea behind “BETTERTOPIA” was to create a better city for the future. IC4D matched it with their style of illustration. They mixed old-school-future images inspired by 1950’s-70’s aesthetics. Bright-colored buildings, curved shaped vehicles and so on.
Because it’s a WEB illustration, the display size is fixed. The image clocks in at a staggering 1400 x 14674 pixels with a 13.5mb file size.
They go into further detail behind their design process over at the IC4DESIGN Behance page.
No Frills — #Hauler
And finally – it’s time for some Canadian content.
Is it possible for a grocery chain to be cool?
No Frills sure makes a convincing argument with their Hauler project. If you live in a major Canadian metropolis (sorry Montreal) you are probably familiar with the black and yellow branded discount grocery store chain.
In 2018 they launched a limited edition collection of streetwear under the moniker and E-store, Hauler. Several of the t-shirt designs quickly sold out.
You absolutely have to check out this 90-second ad.
I’m pretty sure that’s the most insane (and awesome) commercial that a North American grocery store chain has ever unleashed.
An Instagram account also compliments it – and the campaign picked up mentions in Fader magazine as well as dozens of Canadian newspapers and blogs. The endeavor was a success.
So what content has recently blown your mind? Share it with us below in the comments.