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How to Get People to Read Your Online Content

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There's a myth floating around that people don't read online content.

Of course people read online content.

For some reason, the myth persists. Even the UXD big names bemoan it. Jakob Nielsen's declaration in the early days of the Internet went like this: "How users read on the web: They don't."

Nielsen's takeaways were spot-on, but his opening salvo was wrong. One writer for e-consultancy claimed, "People don't really read on the web." His article, which I actually did read, contained a glut of images (mildly annoying). You may have read variations on the theme that people don't read content online.

Here's the truth of the matter: People read content online. They just do it differently.

People do read online content. They just read web pages differently from how they read a novel, or a dictionary, or Time magazine. Eye-tracking studies confirm this, but a healthy dose of common sense should make this fact obvious.

  • You read Harry Potter differently from the way you read the Chicago Manual of Style
  • or the New York Times
  • or Better Homes & Gardens
  • or your Twitter feed
  • or an email from your spouse
  • or the menu at Chipotle
  • or a billboard on the freeway.

Obviously, you're going to read Internet pages differently from other mediums. People read content in differing ways, depending on where that content appears.

Not only is the medium the message, but the medium determines how we absorb that message.

Enough with the theory; now let's get to some solid rules for creating compelling content. We're going to make this real simple with only two rules. This is not the article where I tell you how to craft the perfect headline or instructions on writing content to convert. This is the big-picture instruction on how to get people to read your online content.

There are two simple rules to remember: Relevance and Skimming.

1. The Rule of Relevance: People will read content that is relevant to them.

Readers yearn for relevant content. Think about a simple example. If you aren't interested in an article on how the USPS is changing mass mailing regulations for businesses, you're probably not going to read nor even scan an article on that subject. If, however, you're a marketing manager who sends out mailers on a weekly basis, you'll want to read the content. The deciding factor on whether or not you read the USPS article is relevance.

Zoltán Gocza writes, "People only read word-by-word on the web when they are really interested in the content." Engaging someone's interest or being relevant is crucial for effective and readable online content.

E-commerce professional Angie Schottmuller makes this point, "What makes online content great?....It comes down to relevance." People are looking for things that match three criteria in "the triangle of relevance."

  1. The content is important because of the current season. That is, the content coincides with a time or event that adds relevance. People are more likely to read an article about St. Patrick's Day in March rather than in September. Relevance is chronological.
  2. The content resonates with a reader's area of expertise or business. A web designer is not going to be interested in vibratory equipment safety procedures. Relevant content meets a reader on their turf.
  3. The content is significant because of the reader's personal interests. Every individual has their hobbies, interests, curiosities, pet peeves, goals, or dreams. Content that appeals to this set of factors is relevant. Someone who loves vacationing in Mexico will be attracted by a headline for "All-Inclusive Cancun Vacation." People choose to read about things that they love.

Although Schottmuller proposes incorporating every one of these three criteria into your content, this may not always be possible. Realistically, you should target two of the relevance components in order to create content that attracts your readers.

The takeaway here is obvious. Figure out what's relevant to your users, then create that content.

2. The Rule of Skimming: People will scan content to find out if it is relevant.

The distinguishing characteristic of online readers is the practice of scanning or skimming.

I've positioned this point as the second rule, because it builds on the rule of relevance above. First and foremost, people want something relevant. Thus, they will scan in order to discover whether or not the content before them is relevant. If scanning establishes relevance, they will continue to read

Jakob Nielsen's groundbreaking eye-tracking studies proved that scannable copywriting produces a 124% improvement in visibility. A major Poynter study reached the same conclusions regarding reading practices. People skim headlines before they read the content. Thus, declares one proponent of skimming, "All content should be skimmable content."

The rule of skimming provides several guidelines for how to structure your content:

  • Your headlines are the first place people will look for relevance. Solid headlines are the key to powerful web content. Ensure that your content makes the connection from the outset by means of effective headlines.
  • Bullet points and numbered lists are the second connection point for relevance. If the headline and subheads are relevant then readers move to the second scannable portion of the text -- lists. Bullet points or numbered lists make an impact because they are easy for the eyes to move quickly over.
  • Text formatting provides a third level of scannable text. The final area for the reader who is scanning content is formatted text. Bold text, specifically, is the best way to format relevant content that you want the skimmers to see.

Scannable web content is content that will better engage with your users. Break up your text into chunks, headlines, bullets, and bolds. This will improve readability, and encourage response. For more information about how to format and optimize web copy, see my post "10 Steps to SEO-Optimizing Your Blog Articles."


I've provided two simple pieces of advice for content that people will read:

  1. Relevant
  2. Scannable

As a final reminder, all online content should be great online content. There is seldom an excuse for posting shoddy copy, shot through with typos and poor grammar. Readers can be finicky about quality, and they have every right to be. Your credibility is on the line with every word that you create. Make it count.

We live in a day of TL;DR -- an abbreviation for "too long; didn't read." Weighing in at 1,090 words, this article qualifies for accusations of TL;DR. But if you made it this far, as only a meager 20% percent of visitors will do, you were obviously interested.

Point proven.

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