Rethinking The Think Tank
With A ‘Snowfall’ Experiment

At Washington, D.C.’s policy think tanks, the debate over how to create digital content that succeeds at provoking deep thought over serious ideas is in full swing.

The Brookings Institution, perhaps Washington D.C.’s most renowned policy institute, has begun publishing one of its first experiments, The Brookings Essay, a series of long-form articles with innovative interactive design similar to The New York Times “Snowfall” essay.

“This is a test to see if we can use the Brookings brand in combination with the form to gain a new audience,” said David Nassar, Brookings’ VP for communications. “What we’re saying is, maybe form can be another arrow in the quiver. Form can be another asset to draw on and can play an effective role in whether the ideas have impact.”

Brookings is quite pleased thus far with the response. Its first essay, a beautiful and intricate look at the historical and present relationships of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, saw a 325% increase in time on page over regular Brookings content.

Brookings is reimagining what a think tank is in the 21st century.”

Its second essay, a long look at life for the families affected by the Sandy Hook massacre, had a 125% increase in time on page. But the most exciting metric for Brookings is that nearly 72% of visitors to the essays are new visitors, meaning that they’re attracting a fresh audience to the Brookings brand. The essays were also generally well-received by traditional media, with several staff writers for The Atlantic tweeting the essays and commending them for their informativeness.

“Brookings is reimagining what a think tank is in the 21st century,” said Nassar.

Creating a “Snowfall” style essay is not easy, though. At the moment, each essay takes between two and three months to produce — well behind the news cycle. But Brookings may prove that readers don’t mind revisiting a topic down the road after the initial media rush, once more information is synthesized and more conclusions can be made.

Iran surprises the world.

“Iran surprises Itself And The World.”

As Nassar pointed out, Brookings has always been in the content business. In the past, that content has taken the shape of policy papers, blog posts, videos, infographics, events, and a self-produced journal. Now, they’re leveraging the full interactive possibilities of the web to make complex topics easily digestible.

During Jeff Bezos recent visit to The Washington Post, he made an observation about how articles about serious ideas can affect enormous audiences. Bezos cited Max Fisher’s 9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask, which has well over half-a-million Facebook shares. As Bezos rightly said, it takes incredible empathy to take the time to explain something so simply, when the amount of information available is so overwhelming and complicated. As the success of the Brookings’ essays show, the public clearly has an appetite for content that goes to great lengths to provide clarity and insight. In the content-overload era of the web, publishers and brands who go above-and-beyond to cut through the noise will likely reap the rewards.

-Sam Petulla

Image by Shutterstock

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