The purpose of content marketing isn’t to increase blog traffic.
Yet here we are, focusing on things like getting more social shares or growing our email list—things that have numbers we can measure. In the midst of all of this focus on growth, we missed on something incredibly important: How do we get people to read our content?
You’d be surprised at how much money and effort you’re putting into content that isn’t being read.
Why People Aren’t Reading Online Content
Let’s put a number on it: Less than half of your blog readers actually read past 100 words.
That’s 100 reasons you should focus on creating content that keeps readers interested in your entire blog post.
That’s a real bummer if you’re writing long-form blog posts of 2,000 words or more.
In 2013, Slate author Farhad Manjoo wrote an article about how people don’t read online content. Manjoo asked a data scientist to analyze Slate’s traffic, and discovered that online readers have a dismal ability to focus.
By the time readers scroll to the 100-word mark, half of them have decided to leave, though some will share the partially-read post on their way out the door.
Manjoo, a writer, was bothered. He noted the poor connection between shares and blog readership. Lots of social action didn’t mean deep reading, and content that was fully read didn’t always generate many tweets.
Manjoo’s article was shared an impressive 13,000 times, with a majority of those shares, if the research was correct, from people who didn’t read past a few introductory paragraphs.
Like Slate, you put time and money into creating great content. You assume that if it was shared, it was (mostly) read. Wrong. There is a lack of blog readership happening that those sharing numbers can’t measure.
You can stop reading now if you don’t care if anyone reads your content.
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Banner blindness and desensitization
When the web was new, maybe readers noticed banner images. This is no longer the case, however.
It’s called banner blindness, and it means that repeated exposure to banner images and other marketing techniques have left readers desensitized. Even if a banner graphic or pop-up modal is important, you’ve unwittingly used a form that your reader has been trained to ignore and skip.
How bad is this ability to ignore? According to HubSpot, the average clickthrough rate of display ads is 0.1%, with half of those being accidental. Readers are learning to tune things out, and this includes your content. Your best work, your most clever copy, your beautifully designed ad. Unnoticed.
There is so much content marketing spilling over the dam that readers, in doing everything they can to maintain focus, have learned to block out what they think isn’t important—just like they learned to ignore banner ads. To cope with all of the content, readers default to skimming and skipping.
Elmore Leonard and the skippable parts
In his 10 Rules Of Writing, author Elmore Leonard ended his list with this: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Leonard understood how people read books, whizzing by solid paragraphs of purple prose to get to the dialogue. The dialogue, after all, is where the characters develop, where they interact, where the action happens.
How do people read online? They read just as Leonard warned us about. They skip what they think is unimportant. They skim until they see something interesting.
According to Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat (the same company that Slate used for data analytics) 55 percent of online readers spend less than 15 seconds on a page.
Why aren’t they reading the whole thing?
People are reading under time constraints.
They are reading in hyperspeed. A bulleted list tells them that they can grab information quickly.
Paragraphs that have more than one idea won’t fly. Every paragraph’s first sentence must be a lede.
They don’t have time to read a lot of copy. They’re busy looking for something to share, not a meaty thesis that they have to think about.
People are only reading what they think is relevant.
Researcher Jakob Nielsen found that readers are skimming first, deciding whether or not there are enough indicators that tell them to read.
They want to see keywords highlighted through the copy, whether as subheaders, bold text, or color. They don’t want to see clever subheadings.
People want the conclusion first.
They warm to the inverted pyramid style of writing that is familiar to journalists, laying out the conclusion first.
80 percent of a reader’s time is spent “above the fold”, i.e. before they have to start scrolling. Everything important has to be at the top.
People don’t have time for snake oil.
Readers look for cues that you and your copy can be trusted. They don’t like marketese (“best ever!”), and they want to see outbound links.
In essence, skippable parts are the author’s vanity at the expense of readers’ time. Your content must be built for skimming.
Unfortunately, content marketers are busy creating long-form posts because search engines seem to prefer them, according to Neil Patel of QuickSprout. They compound this insult using questionable graphics and call-to-action techniques because the analytics “prove” that this works.
This is a problem.
With the explosion of content marketing techniques that are built for traffic hits and analytics rather than readers, we have trained our readers to ignore our content.
There is less and less leeway when it comes to getting your content noticed in a crowded arena with weary and unwilling readers. It’s do-or-die within in a few seconds. It has to happen in 100 words.
How To Get People To Read Your Content
Nielsen’s research suggests that only 20 percent of your web copy is read. How do you feel about that?
You probably hoped for a better return on your financial and time investment.
Your introductions really do matter.
Introductions start with the hook—that matters. You have to avoid the initial bounce of readers who click in and out in an instant.
But past the hook? Your first 100 words are important.
Write headings that tell what the content is about.
People are skimming the internet, so be sure your headings and subheadings are clear. Avoid vague headlines.
That way, if someone is skimming, they know what your content is about and whether or not it's worth their time to read. If they determine it isn't worth their time...
You have to let some readers go.
Not everyone wants to read every piece of content you create. Perhaps a team blog has a leg up on solo blogs in that having a team of bloggers with different writing styles and topic ideas means you'll have a good mix of content.
Some content is a hit, some is a miss, and some topics your regular readers don't care about. That's fine.
You must make your content fit how people want to use it.
You may wish to write 5,000-word blog posts, but your readers may only want cursory coverage. Bend your content to fit how it will be consumed.
Not getting comments? Not getting much discussion on content toward the end of a long post? Readers not sharing Click To Tweets from the end of your posts? Then maybe your readers want shorter posts.
Stop fixating on clicks, hits, and conversions. What happens after the click is as important. Medium.com understood this from the beginning, and chose to measure how much a piece of content is read versus whether someone clicked through to it.
This is your takeaway: readers use your content how they want to, not how you want them to.
So let's go back to the opening sentence: The purpose of content marketing isn't to increase blog traffic. The purpose is to give people something they want to read.
Blog traffic—and all of those other things you measure—are what happens when you get that right.
Start to value readers, not just clicks and numbers, unless you don’t really care if anyone actually reads your content.