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Gaming the system with skim-proof content

Gaming the system with skim-proof content Madhuri Shekar

Chances are you're not going to read this article.

If you're like most people browsing the internet, you're going to skim this. You might read the first paragraph; you will probably glance at the sub-headings; and you may just hit the back-button before you reach the end of the first page.

That's how everyone interacts with your textual content as well. Whether it be website copy, a press release, an email newsletter -- and in this day of ever-shrinking attention spans, even your Twitter account -- web users rarely use the internet for reading. They skim, flick, and click. There is a way, however, to game the system so that the content you need to communicate gets across to the user in the most efficient manner.

The "F-shape" of reading: Front-load your message
These graphics should tell you all you need to know about how people read on the internet-

The above images are the results of an eye-tracking study conducted by Nielsen Norman Group. Looking at how 232 users scanned thousands of web-pages, the study found that users primarily read in a pattern resembling the letter "F". The red areas indicate the areas they focused on the most, followed by yellow and blue. The grey areas were not noticed at all.

What does this mean?
Readers will focus first (and often only) on the top paragraph of your content. They will then skip to the top of your second paragraph to see if content retains their interest. Then they will quickly skim through the rest of your content, not reading, but barely glancing at the beginnings of your sections and sentences.

Therefore, the opening few lines are crucial to get your message across -- make sure that everything you have to say is communicated in those lines.

Readers on the internet have little patience for beginnings containing fluff. Keep your message short, simple, and at the top.

Headlines headlines headlines
Headlines are crucial to pull people into your content -- a strong, intriguing headline makes them more likely to click on your links, as opposed to the hundreds of others vying for their attention. Headlines also enable you to break up your text into easily readable chunks, allowing the reader to easily skim the content.

Here are some basic rules to follow in crafting the perfect headline:

  • Keep it under 65 characters to optimize search engine indexing.

  • Use the active voice, strong verbs, the present tense, and the most important words up front. The subject-verb-object structure is a good format to follow.

  • Think like the audience you want to reach -- what terms would they type into the search engine when looking for your content (or your competitors')? Use those keywords.

  • Headlines indicating numbered lists (e.g., 5 ways to get more clicks) are surefire ways to draw in your audience, as you're setting up a clear expectation on the length and readability of your content up front.

Make your content universal -- readable at any time, any place
It's easy to get caught up in hyper-targeting your audience, and using phrases and buzzwords that you think will get the right kind of attention. However, the web is a truly international space. Over one billion people are surfing the internet, so don't miss out on an opportunity to communicate with new users/customers just as well as you do with your target audience.

For starters:

  • Make sure your language is as clear and simple as possible. Forty-three percent of Americans have basic or below-basic literacy skills (according to the U.S. Department of Education).

  • Clear and simple language also enables translators (robotic or otherwise) to easily render the copy in other languages.

  • Avoid slang terms, idioms, irony, overly descriptive, or potentially misunderstood phrases. Don't let your language unintentionally turn off a potential client or customer.

  • Eliminate bias from your copy -- use gender-neutral pronouns. Invest in a stylebook to make sure you are using proper spelling and capitalization, and always aim for neutrality.

Always end with an action item
The back-button is the most clicked icon in any browser. If you manage to get your reader to the end of your content, what a terrible waste it would be if they simply went back to where they came from. This is why you should always end with an action item to drive the user further into your website and/or content. For example:

  • Link to another page/article within your website

  • Include a subscribe button so users can sign up for regular updates

  • Link to your shopping cart so users don't have to leave your page to make a purchase

  • Link to affiliate products

  • Link to your bio, other websites, or additional information on your brand or company.

  • Always include a share button to allow the user to share your content easily and quickly.

Always drive the reader deeper into your content -- don't give them an easy out.

Does your content still make sense if you skim?
A crucial step before releasing any product into the market is to user-test it rigorously -- and the same goes for your online content and copy.

Before you unleash your copy upon the world, read it to yourself while thinking about how a typical user would view it while browsing the web. Answer these questions, and if you encounter problems in the following areas, go back and make revisions:

  • Does it skim easily?

  • Have you constructed clear, compelling sentences?

  • Will your title and key points be easily searchable through the major search engines?

  • Do your sub-headings tell the entire story?

  • Is anything open for misinterpretation?

If you've made it this far, here's a quick recap

  • Over 50 percent of Americans read at an 8th grade level or below, so construct your language appropriately.

  • The resolution of a screen is much lower than that of paper, making online reading more difficult then reading a book or magazine.

  • Thus, people tend to skim online content, rather than read it thoroughly.

  • Always end with action items for your users, and embed them throughout your copy.

  • Keep your language actionable, simple, and universal.

And be sure to check out other articles on iMediaConnection on optimizing your website and email communications.

Madhuri Shekar is a freelance writer and digital marketing consultant in Los Angeles.

On Twitter? Follow Madhuri at @madhuri567. Follow iMediaConnection at @iMediaTweet

Madhuri Shekar is a freelance writer and social media marketing consultant. She has previously worked at Rogers and Cowan in the eMedia department, and at Sony Pictures Television in New Media Research.Madhuri holds a Masters in Global Communication...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Jeff Cannon

2011, January 20

Wonderful article. It really should be re-titled "structuring your content to your customer's needs." All of this is crucial to making sure your customers actually want to read, watch and listen to what you have to say.

Well done!

It's not a matter of screaming louder. It's a matter of speaking more clearly.

The next time you're writing something Think about what your clients, customers, and prospects want.

Think Cannon

Jeff Cannon