First the Serial podcast became wildly popular. Then President Barack Obama sat down for an interview with Marc Maron for the comedian's WTF program, and the audio-only format that is podcasting was validated like never before. The developments largely flew in the face of the increasingly accepted notion that content on the Internet doesn't stand much chance of being widely shared if there are no accompanying visuals like video, image scrolls or slideshows.
But it turns out that many people still like good, old-fashioned storytelling. So could the next big thing be reading—you know, with thousands of words strung together—even in this tl;dr era?
Wattpad, a publishing platform for long-form fiction and nonfiction, suggests it's possible, attracting 40 million unique visitors a month. And, it's lining up sponsors for the stories, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Sony Pictures, Comedy Central, Mondelez (Sour Patch Kids) and Kraft, which is currently running ads on the platform for Athenos Feta Cheese.
"In Q1 of this year, we closed more native ad business than all of last year, and Q2 has been a really strong quarter with new brands like Kraft and Comedy Central joining the platform," said Candice Faktor, Wattpad's head of business.
Jon Levy, brand manager for Athenos, said Wattpad lets marketers effectively reach millennials as well as other demos. "It's also an opportunity to leverage storytelling to share recipe ideas that will inspire readers to choose [the feta cheese for dishes]," he said.
His team is currently working with Wattpad writer Rebecca Sky, who's penning a love serial for the brand called Food for the Heart. Sky publishes a new chapter each week in the tale of a young American woman in Greece—the home of feta cheese, of course.
Wattpad also has some other intriguing examples of marketing. For instance, Chipotle recently ran an essay contest on the platform, and 10 high school students were awarded $20,000 for their winning submissions.
"Our contest, which included an integrated in-store and digital campaign plus the Wattpad partnership, generated 40 percent more entries than the benchmark we set," explained Mark Shambura, Chipotle's director of brand marketing.
Meanwhile, Wattpad offers writers like Sky and Lindsey Summers cash for their work. Summers wrote a teen-drama serial called The Cell Phone Swap that got 63 million reads. She penned an additional teen serial called Forever Sweet for Sour Patch Kids that centered on Valentine's Day. The brand has accrued over 3 million minutes—involving 800,000 reads—spent with its branded content.
"[We are] a growing candy brand that is looking to connect with teens. To be relevant to this audience, we understand we need to reach them in a variety of ways," said Farrah Bezner, a marketing director for Mondelez's candy business.
Author Summers' take on the branded-content experience: "I got a lot of new followers."
And while she didn't disclose how much she made, Faktor of Wattpad said, "We are on track to pay writers approximately $1 million this year to write fiction that entertains a millennial and generation Z audience."
When it comes to the social storytelling space, Wattpad competes with the likes of FastPencil.com, BookGlutton and WriteOn. But Toronto-based Wattpad seems to have its ad-revenue game together to a greater extent than such rivals.
Consumers seem riveted: The platform has seen more than 125 million content uploads across 50 languages since launching a little less than a decade ago. Readers spend a collective 11 billion minutes a month on Wattpad, averaging 30 minutes per session.
And it's just words—lots of them. WTF?
"Wattpad has been bucking the trend of storytelling via pictures, podcasting and visually orientated content on demand platforms like Netflix and Hulu," said Dan Gilmartin, CMO of BlueConic. "For marketers, this represents a compelling opportunity as long-form content allows them to connect with the audience over a longer period of time versus quick hits in short form. Marketers tend to follow trends and work to leverage them to their brand/product's benefit. Content, whether leveraged for inbound or used as a platform for advertising, is no exception."