Do you read online?
Come on… be honest. Because if you’re like most people, you don’t read online. You scan.
According to usability specialist Jakob Nielsen, on average readers actually read only about 28% of words on the page. Nielsen wrote an entire study about how web users read the web. He estimates that while “on average, users will have time to read 28% of the words if they devote all of their time to reading. More realistically, users will read about 20% of the text on the average page.”
Ouch. Who likes to think people are reading only 20% of what you write? That’s just one out of every five words. But this scanning phenomenon has been documented far and wide. Chartbeat’s analysis of how users read Slate.com shows similar results.
How can you turn scanners into readers?
The bad news is that most readers online are barely engaged with what they’re reading. But the good news is that there are plenty of ways to improve engagement, even to the point of getting people to read most of what you write.
There are two primary approaches to improving reader engagement. The first is to make your content scannable. Ie, to work with readers’ existing online reading habits. Second, create content so good that at least some users will actually slow down and take the time to read it word for word.
To make your content scannable, do these seven things:
1. Use the inverted pyramid structure.
This is how traditional journalists write. You put the core idea of your article into the first sentence of your piece. The rest of the first paragraph expands on that idea, with enough essential information that the reader could just read the first paragraph of this piece of content and still get the jist of the whole piece. (Because, newsflash: Most of them won’t read beyond the first paragraph).
Then you organize your paragraphs so each major point of your post gets its own paragraph. Sort the paragraphs/points in order of importance. For more details on how to structure a post like this, see Ann Handley’s excellent book, “Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content”.
2. Use short paragraphs.
There’s an old copywriting sales letter trick of never having any paragraph go on for more than five lines. Why? Because long paragraphs look hard to read. Even if you’re writing for advanced readers, to their busy, distracted, impatient subconscious minds, long paragraphs = hard to read = skip this.
Want to write like an edgy blogger? Take this advice one step further and try a few one sentence paragraphs.
3. Use subheaders.
Subheaders are essential for scanning. They give the reader a Cliff Notes version of your post. Yes, it’s great if they have keywords for SEO reasons, but it’s more important that they offer a super-distilled version of the content.
Resist the urge to make your subheads hard to understand. A little spice in subheads works, but if people don’t immediately “get” your meaning – whoosh – you’ve lost them.
Want extra credit? Take another trick from long form copywriters: Have your subheads read coherently through the piece, almost like a second voice.
4. Highlight keywords.
Highlighted keywords are a junior version of subheaders. They are little alerts sprinkled through the text that telegraph meaning to people who are scanning your text.
If you’re old enough, think of the Peanuts television shows where all the adults sound like “Blah blah, wa wa, blah-ah.” This is not unlike what scanners/readers are getting from the text of your article. Adding a few highlighted words changes all that muted communication into “Blah blah, wa wa, conversion rate, blah-ah.” It’s not the same as having someone read your work closely, but it’s an improvement.
5. Use scannable lists.
Bullet lists telegraph meaning. They are far more effective than long sentences with lots of commas. So the next time you find yourself referring to a list of three or more things in a sentence, smack those words around and make them line up into bullet points. Your readers will thank you.
6. Add images or video.
If you don’t already know the visuals-versus-text statistic cold, here it is: People process visual information 60,000 times faster than text. We also tend to retain information presented visually longer.
Some bloggers recommend adding an image every screen length, which is roughly every 300-400 words. You can go one better with this advice and add a video, or an animated gif.
For a quick refresher on how keen people are for images, scroll back up and take a second look at the Slate graphic. Note where it says “Most visitors see all content on video & photo”.
7. Use short copy elements like photo captions, call outs and tweetables.
Magazine editors have been using call-outs for decades. They know call-outs are a great way to lure in readers who are just flipping through pages. Newspaper editors have been using photo captions for centuries because they know people are going to look at the pictures first. But if the editor can sneak in a short line of copy below that nifty image, the reader will actually read that short sentence… if only to know what the picture is about.
Nowadays we also have tweetables to add to this list of short copy elements. Use them strategically, and you’ll be able to cram in the essential points of your content into the 20% of words most readers will actually read.
8. Write simply and clearly.
Never make readers work to understand you. It’s our job as writers to do the heavy lifting of thinking and articulating those thoughts. There’s a fabulous free online tool called Hemingway that will score your copy by grade level to make this easier. Aim for no more than an 8th-grade reading level, max. And if you think writing at a higher reading level means you write better, consider the chart below.
How to create content so good that at least some users will actually slow down and take the time to read it – all of it
Now let’s talk about the second approach – crafting more engaging content. These tips are more the bones of your content, whereas the formatting was a bit more like the clothes.
The deal is, you have to immediately demonstrate that your content is going to be better than all the other articles that have probably been written on the same or a similar subject. That means adding some content hacks like:
1. Write a killer headline that draws people in from the start.
Loser headlines kill blog post engagement. Even for awesome posts.
2. Write for a specific audience.
For example, not just “15 SEO Tips” but “15 SEO Tips for Law Firms”. Or, even better “15 SEO Tips for Law Firms Who Don’t Have Any Time for SEO”.
3. Show a contrary point of view.
Handled correctly, controversy can boost engagement like pouring gasoline on a fire increases heat. Just be sure you can handle the heat. Possible examples might include “3 ‘Rules’ of Customer Service You Should Break” or Jon Loomer’s analysis of what Copyblogger could have done instead of shutting down its Facebook page.
4. Show an unusual point of view.
Try borrowing ideas, frameworks or approaches from other industries. For example, “What a Therapist Thinks of the 360 Degree Review Process” or “Why Your Toddler Knows More About Time Management Than You Do”.
5. Offer new information.
This is probably the #1 way to get attention and engagement online. Whether it’s a survey you’ve run, or any other kind of original research, that will be what pulls eyeballs to your article. It’s the kind of new, real-world information people want to know, to read and to share.
6. Use quizzes, polls or other interactive tools.
These are especially effective if you let people see how their answers compare with others.
7. Ask for comments.
It’s the most obvious thing in the world, but many bloggers don’t ever ask for feedback. Maybe you don’t have to close every post you write by asking questions or begging for comments, but try it now and then. Or even better: Write something controversial, then invite flack from people who disagree.
Not to belabor a point, but how do you get more engagement from your posts? Tell us about it in the comments. Or feel free to tell me why I’m completely wrong. Just back it up with facts.
And for more tips on how to make your content marketing strategy lean as an SMB, download our free ebook.