Coming Soon to a Website Near You: The Never Ending Story Stack

Sep 26, 2014


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Article ImageThe explosion of smartphones, tablets and touchscreens has certainly benefitted consumers, who now have greater and more convenient access to content than ever before. But the way that content is organized and displayed on digital devices has changed radically in recent years, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of the infinite scroll-a tactic used by publishers whereby articles, posts, and other pieces of content are vertically stacked atop one another, either in full text form or in truncated form with hyperlinked headlines, on a page that seems to run on virtually forever.

Introduced a few years back, the infinite vertical story stack has been firmly embraced by many publishers and bloggers, such as Fortune, The Chicago Tribune, Mashable, and The Daily Beast. This approach has its pros and cons, as well as its fans and critics.

"The advantages of the vertical story stack are more profound on a smartphone, since it requires the least thumb or finger movement and can be operated with one hand," says Mansi Goel, editor of WorkoutTrends.com, who has juggled with the idea of incorporating infinite scrolling in the design of online magazine. "From a marketing perspective, this drives more visibility to articles as it keeps people hooked from one article to another."

For editors and brands trying hard to determine how to target the needs and interests of their audiences, stacking a group of related stories provides more chances to find the right piece of content that will work for each person, says Matt Kumin, CEO of PublishThis.

"It can be as simple as the right headline, the right story, even the right word that gets them interested," Kumin says.

Kim Garretson, director, Realizing Innovation online service for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, admires the value of vertical story stacking and infinite scrolling for the mobile web, especially when partnered with responsive design and touch scrolling features built into tablets and smartphones.

"The pagelessness of the infinite scroll experience is a good thing, because many users today don't want to spend too much time clicking into page after page. The old paging-style web with navigation tabs and ‘click here to read more' teasers has really lost favor over time with digital audiences," says Garretson. "And I'm encouraged by the fact that technology has progressed to where we see a combination of better visuals and text on the scroll to maximize an optimum user experience."

The infinite scroll approach has its drawbacks, however, including long load times for pages with ample graphics, video streams and other elements that trigger longer buffering-which could dissuade impatient users with short attention spans from continuing the scroll. Additional disadvantages include little to no access to the footer and little room for commenting and user engagement.

"Also, if you just go for a lot of content but don't make sure you are targeting well, the gem piece can get lost in the stack," says Kumin. "Quantity isn't enough-quality is key, even when you are looking for more. This is why monitoring content is so important and why curation can help you find the right messages at a scale without dropping in quality."

Seth Knapp, a digital publisher/blogger, agrees that users seeking quality content may be deterred by publications that simply stack virtually unlimited content. 

"Many people will automatically refute the quality of the publisher and their ability to act as an expert or thought leader," says Knapp, who believes that infinite stacking is usually an ineffective strategy for most content sites, with the exception of online newspapers and digital dailies. He suggests that moderate vertical stacking is probably a better alternative, particularly for online magazines and blogs with contributors.

"Stacking a handful of articles can be effective to showcase trending posts, most e-mailed, most popular, and the most current published content.  This method also does not discourage readership, as does high vertical stacking, as it allows the reader to dig more and find archived articles if they want more," says Knapp. He recommends no stacking for personal blogs that have high quality, rich content, focus on lengthier posts, and don't update very often.

Publishers and content providers need to carefully consider the sophistication of their audiences before adopting the infinite scroll. A general audience may prefer a wider net of stories and more frequent skimming, while a more learned and selective audience could prefer fewer, higher quality, and more specific stories.

"The point is to know your users and figure out how they will react to a broad list of stories or deeply specific, targeted stories," says Kumin.

That means doing your proper due diligence.

"You should conduct a lot of research through polling and surveying to ensure that readers will like it," says Garretson. "I recommend trying limited stacking at first-maybe four to eight stacked stories-but request feedback from your audience on that page asking if they like this approach or not."

Garretson adds that content-heavy sites that lack a strong contingent of mobile web users-including sites targeted to older demographics and users who have not yet gravitated to tablets and smartphones-should probably avoid stacking altogether.

Vertical story stacking isn't likely to go away, Mansi says, especially considering the public's reliance on the mobile web and an increasing shift toward usage of detachable keyboards and touchscreen monitors.

"Infinite scrolling provides a great value to those looking to generate awareness and leads, but it also convolutes an already diluted world of online content.  The ease with which someone can put together an online publication with ample amounts of vertically stacked content has created a system that will most likely perpetuate itself for a long time," says Knapp.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)