Parallax Scrolling & Interactivity - Where Is Long-Form Content Headed?

Have you noticed the parallax scrolling style that’s begun appearing in long-form content over the past two years? It seems to be popping up on more and more websites everyday, from traditional news sites to blogs and owned content sites run by non-journalistic corporations and organizations. You’ve seen parallax scrolling. You know, those sites that have layers that move (or don’t move) at differing speeds. Background and foreground images moving at different speeds create an effect of depth on a page. The technology actually started in video games before moving into journalism (remember the arcade game Moon Patrol and the later, more popular Super Mario Brothers?).

This recent ESPN article nicely shows parallax scrolling. As does this Thrillist article. The first example many people saw was Snow Fall from the New York Times, which won both a Webby and a Pulitzer. NPR even does some stories that integrate audio with the visually appealing scrolling graphics and text.

So when did parallax scrolling first emerge as a content feature?

Just a few short years ago, very short, minimally researched, dare I say fluff, articles with click-baity headlines were taking over. It almost seemed as if there was no longer any place for lengthier, well written, heavily researched and heavily vetted content.

Hard news organizations felt the effects of Buzzfeed and gossip sites. The sports journalism world took notice too. ESPN and Sports Illustrated were losing attention to sites like Deadspin and Bleacher Report.

Then Snow Fall was published.

NYT Snow Fall
NYT Snow Fall

Everyone in media, marketing and communications took notice. Maybe long-form content wasn’t dead; maybe it just had to change. It couldn’t be six pages to click through. It couldn’t be a lengthy canvass of white filled with mind-numbing blocks of letters.

News organizations realized that articles featuring parallax scrolling could be a way to combat the Buzzfeed-ification taking over the internet. People were still interested in consuming long articles.

The publishers I mentioned earlier all began to evolve and the Snow Fall style began showing up to contextualize long-form content on more and more news sites. The tactic wasn’t overdone though. We weren’t smothered with fancy graphics. It was something special, only used for really lengthy pieces of content that warranted the extra context.

Before long, non-journalistic organizations took notice and blogs and owned content platforms run by startups, corporations and even non-profits began featuring parallax scrolling designs.

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Just a few months prior to Snow Fall appearing on the Times website, a company was started by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone called Medium that provides an open blogging platform. It doesn’t allow you to obtain a custom URL like with other established blogging platforms, though you have a personal URL that features all the posts you write. The two designed Medium from the ground up with the intent to encourage users to write posts longer than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter.

Medium
Medium

People grasped the encouragement and went far beyond publishing posts longer than 140 characters. Many were quite, quite lengthy. The platform used an algorithm to inform a reader how long it would take them to read a full post. Many were in upwards of 4 minutes - much, much longer than the attention span we assumed online readers had an appetite for in the age of Buzzfeed and Bleacher Report.

Interestingly enough, Medium was the first blogging platform I can recall that utilized parallax scrolling. Williams and Stone added many users simply because people gravitated toward the clean, flowing design.

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Medium and Snow Fall were both important factors leading to an increase in parallax scrolling because they caused more and more people - and companies - to want a clean, modern and aesthetically pleasing look to their longer content.

Soon, out of the box publishing solutions like Ghost and Silvrback were available that offered the Medium look, with the ability to own your domain. This drove some of the larger, more popular blogging platforms like WordPress to respond and offer similar parallax scrolling storytelling layouts to users.

This all eventually leads to the looming question - where are we going? What’s next for long-form content presentation? Parallax scrolling seems to have moved beyond fad status.

Before looking to the future, first we must address the deeper and more telling question - why did parallax scrolling become so popular in the first place?

Asked that question, I think most would respond with, “user experience.”

That’s partially true. A group at Purdue University conducted a study to determine if a site using parallax scrolling really does provide a better user experience. The study showed no statistical differences of the experiences of two groups - one viewing a traditional website, the other viewing a parallax scrolling website - except for ‘fun.’ While parallax scrolling enhanced certain parts of the user’s experience it didn’t necessarily improve the overall experience.

So, maybe it’s not a complete improvement for overall user experience. That’s a broad term, though. I mean, what is user experience, really? If we go back and think about parallax scrolling on publishing websites, what makes it so popular?

Engagement.

Zack Rutherford explains this pretty perfectly in UX Magazine:

“...applying parallax scrolling can help engage your visitors. Creating a visually pleasing aesthetic with a fancy interface can be the difference in holding on to the fragile attention spans of the masses. This is because the unconventional format serves as an invitation to interact. People will automatically feel more engaged when they’re scrolling (which is an instinctive action) because doing so drastically alters the depth and content of their view. By simply scrolling, they’ve seemingly changed the fabric of the site itself. This creates a feeling of power and significance. It’s a psychological trick that pulls a visitor deeper into your website, by fueling their desire to explore.”

He expanded to describe parallax scrolling as:

“. . . an experience that I’ve opted to describe as hypnotic, and it is hypnotic in a sense. When scrolling through a well-designed web page that employs parallax scrolling, a visitor does give up a measure of control to the web designer. Much like a roller coaster, they are along for the ride until they’ve reached the destination. A destination that’s predetermined by you, the designer.”

Everything he says makes sense. The visually provocative scrolling really does capture and hold attention. Personally, I’ve noticed my own behavior proving this to be true. I tend to stay on a page longer because I want to see how a story ends, as well as what happens along the way.

Parallax scrolling also allows you to tell a better story - vitally important when you’re telling a long story. Images and movement help you frame the narrative, ensuring your reader is following along as you want them to throughout the entire story.

Publishers are telling stories, so the fact they would want to use a style that helps them tell stories better and hold their audience’s attention longer makes total sense.

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That brings us back to what’s next. Where is this all going?

In a link, I would say this. At least in the short-term.

That New York Times article is actually an advertisement, a paid post from Netflix timed to coincide with the second season of “Orange is the New Black,” but written by Melanie Deziel, a Times employee.

Go beyond the progressive ad model of the content, though, and focus instead on the design, structure and layout.

NYT Orange is New Black
NYT Orange is New Black

It’s still visually appealing and in line with the earlier examples I showed of parallax scrolling. The images have interesting scrolling functions within them and some even present data, and do it well. What sticks out most to me is the integration of video. I’ve seen it occasionally used within articles but not to this degree. The videos included as part of this piece really help tell the story. And, they don’t appear in a sidebar - they’re right there, in your face, in the body, begging to be played.

While a lot of attention has been paid to the look of parallax scrolling, I think this Times content, along with the comments from Rutherford, show that design isn’t the real change we’ve been witnessing over the past couple years. That’s just part of it.

What we’ve really been seeing, and will continue to see, is a switch to more interactive journalism - both from traditional news outlets and brands creating their own content.

People don’t just want to feel like they’re reading a story. They want to feel like they’re inside the story. Parallax scrolling offers that feeling, and so does video.

Stories that allow us as readers to navigate through them beyond simply reading columns and columns of text appeal to us.

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Looking further into the future, it’s difficult to predict anything long-term given the rapid pace of innovation; however, there are a few cues we can look to in order to develop a sense of where we’re going.

More publishers and brands are starting to devalue the page view as a meaningful metric, instead opting to value time spent or time on site. Publishers and marketers alike are realizing clicks or page views don’t adequately indicate if someone even engaged with your content. This line of thinking is just starting to emerge, and I only see it becoming more popular in the future.

Using time or attention as a metric for measuring the success of a piece of content supports smartly developed long-form content. I expect to see more publishers, and brands, devote resources to long-form content. They may even shift resources away from the quick-turn, click-baity, Buzzfeed-type content. That content won’t necessarily disappear, but as more value is placed on time and less on clicks, we’re bound to see a reshuffling of priorities.

We can expect to see online video views continue to increase, as well. With the quality of online video constantly improving and being catered more to viewers, it will drive more people to watch. Look no further for proof than some of the recentdigitalvideos produced for the World Cup by big brands. Those weren’t repurposed television commercials; they were produced solely for digital purposes. We can bet publishers will continue to improve their digital videos, as well. Already, nearly every major publisher includes video on their website to some degree. Imagine if big broadcast producers like MSNBC or NBC Sports began publishing completely unique online videos you can’t find on their TV counterparts. Similarly, consider if publishers that began online, like Politico, Deadspin or FiveThirtyEight, started producing a full slate of unique programming to tell both short stories and longer, in-depth stories to accompany their written content.

While we’re beginning to see more and more video integrated into written content, I think we may also begin to see the reverse sometime in the future. It could be very powerful for a viewer to have the ability to click areas within a video, while it’s running, and receive short, written copy that provides more context to the video. Think of it as a progression of the sidebar footnotes that currently appear within articles on sports and entertainment site, Grantland.

Grantland Sidebar Footnotes
Grantland Sidebar Footnotes

Imagine watching a video on CNN covering the upcoming midterm elections. As the talking heads cover trends they’ve seen in past midterms, a chart pops up in the video. The talking heads become a voice over. This is similar to what we currently see on CNN on television. But what if you had the ability to click on the chart and investigate the numbers further? That could be powerful for telling a lengthier, more comprehensive story, and also for keeping visitors on your site longer. That could open a whole gamut of possibilities for publishers and brands.

User-generated content is a term many are now familiar with. Brands have been using this tactic mainly for marketing purposes, but what if reader content was used to more fully develop a long-form piece of content? I’m talking about going beyond providing comment threads. To make content truly interactive, it would be developed by both the publisher and the reader, wouldn’t it? This could be difficult in practice, but if someone figured it out, it could be a pretty compelling reason to consume content from that source. It may already be happening to a degree on television.

It’s an exciting time for publishing, whether we’re talking about news or brands. Parallax scrolling is just the start of the innovation we’ll see supporting interactive journalism. We’re heading toward a future where readers and viewers are immersed in stories and, to a degree, feel part of them. It’s going to be exciting to watch.