How the web has changed reading behaviour and why it matters
Are you a scanner?
Before you have read these words, it’s likely you have already scanned this page and picked out a few parts or headings that may interest you.
It’s one of the key differences between reading print and reading on screen, but there are many others that have come into play as more and more of the content we consume is online.
Skimming and scanning, F-patterns and inverted pyramids may sound like terms used in sports analysis, but they are actually a few of the ways readers prefer to engage with content on screen.
The fact is that living in a digital world has led reading habits to change dramatically. So, in order for your online content to be successful, it’s crucial to understand how your viewers see your content and what you can do to make it more effective and enjoyable for them to read.
Or, did you read this first?
When most people read a book, or even a newspaper or magazine, they usually read several pages or articles in order. But online, research suggests that more than 75% of us will scan the page first, trying to pick out individual words or sentences. It’s often a choice made automatically, our eyes naturally jumping ahead to identify whether reading the piece of text we are presented with is actually worthwhile.
This is where skimming and scanning comes in. When you first opened this blog, it’s likely you scanned the headline, the first sub-heading, and then picked out some of the words in bold. If they caught your attention, perhaps you skimmed through the introduction and decided the read was worth your time.
The point is that you need to make your online content scannable if you want readers to take notice. Advances in technology have left readers with incredibly short attention spans, so readers tend to scan copy to find key information. If they can’t find it quickly, they will move on.
The easy fix is to make sure your key messages stand out in some way, whether it’s through sub-headings, bullet points or bold fonts. Keep your paragraphs short and think carefully about the placement of your keywords on your viewers’ screens. But there are other, more subtle techniques too.
Making sense of the F-pattern
Scanning a page is one thing, but eye-tracking technology tells us that the F-pattern is the most common reading style when it comes to online behaviour.
This means most readers start reading horizontally at the top of the page, scan down, glance across once more, and then continue down the left-hand side of the page, creating an F shape.
Make sure you bear this in mind when drafting copy for your website or emails. Getting the most important parts of your message into that F-pattern means it will likely be read by more people.
Turning that copy pyramid upside down
Use these tips if you want your online copy to be more effective.
The line above is a very short example of the inverted pyramid style, which simply means starting with your conclusion, or putting your most important messages at the top.
We’ve already covered how short attention spans are, so if you’re worried that your reader won’t make it to your conclusion, why not start with it!
If you’re covering a lot of ground or if your copy presents complex ideas, the inverted pyramid can be a great way to get your key messages at the top of the page where they are more likely to be digested and understood by the reader.
You won’t believe what happened next
The heading above hopefully made you cringe as much as I did when I was writing it. Simply put, clickbait and overly ‘marketese’ content should be avoided at all costs. Not only will you annoy your viewers, who simply will not give you the time if you cannot give them valuable content straight away, but you will also damage your credibility.
If your writing and messaging are strong enough, you won’t need to rely on such underhand tactics. So instead, consider these tips:
Identify keywords and make them stand out
Break up blocks of text with sub-headings
One idea per sentence, two sentences per paragraph