Do people really read anymore? It’s a bit of a conundrum that content marketers and bloggers are facing today:
- Publish lots of consistent content.
- Make sure it’s long-form content.
- And then there are the trolls who seem to love TL;DR (meaning too long; didn’t read) which actually gets searched about 74,000 times every month.
So how do you get people to read your blog, really?
Reading something on the web takes 25% longer than reading it off of the printed page. Do you have 25% more time? I know I don’t.
And that’s why I find that I scan content online much more than I do when I’m reading a book or magazine. Maybe I feel like things are going faster when I’m online, or maybe it’s just a habit. Whatever the case, much of the content I consume online starts out from scanning.
I’m a scanner.
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Who Scans Content?
Scanning is not the same as speed reading (if there is such a thing). Rather, it’s more of a triage approach to gathering information.
Scanners are people who whiz through a piece of content, grabbing as much information as they can without reading every single word. (And by scanners, I do not mean the rather frightening movie of the same name, because believe me, you don’t want to attract those kinds of scanners.)
Scanners aren’t there to read your blog post in depth. At least, not at first. They might dive in and read if your content caught their eye, but for the most part, when someone is in scanning mode, they’re basically on the fast hunt for specific information they need right now.
Scanners might need your content for research for their own content. They might be searching for new content ideas. Or, they might truly be looking for information, but have a time crunch to work under and are trying to cram as much into their mind as they can before they move onto the next thing on their list.
Creating Scannable Content
If you break down scanners' behavior, you’ll understand a bit more what they're looking for, and how to create content that fits their needs.
1. Maximum information, least amount of time.
Scanners want to get the most amount of information, in context, in the least amount of time.
Richly woven metaphors and thick prose need not apply; these are the “skip-over parts” of excessive description that you can avoid and not miss anything important.
Say what needs to be said, now.
You may have a point to make, and data from six different sources to back it up. Use all the data, build the proof, but be sure to summarize it in a visually noticeable way (e.g. pullquote, chart) so the scanner doesn’t have to wade through it.
2. Easily understood information.
Scanners need a bird’s-eye-view of content to get an understanding of how things fit in. Content needs to be easy to understand in a single sitting in order for scanning to work. Easy-to-understand content is:
- Visual. Visual content is popular for a reason. Readers don’t have to dig into chunks of text to find numbers and learn whether the author is describing a trend. They can look at a nice bar graph instead. Scanners appreciate visuals that fit the content and are in proper context instead of arbitrary images that are simply there because people like pictures.
- Arranged closely. Closely arranged content isn’t content without white space. Rather, it’s related content that isn’t broken up too much. Using lots of graphics or CTAs in the body of your content serve as speed bumps, slowing scanners down. They have to scroll a lot, both up and down, to get a sense of where the copy they are looking at falls into place. Graphics push copy further away from their headings and subheadings, so they quickly lose the context the outline-format heading system provides. Using graphics to get people to slow down is kind of the point for some blogs, because they want to convince you, then convert you, and not see you bounce in and then out with the data.
- Short. Author Jeff Goins makes the point of noting that shorter content is more conducive for scanning than uber long content. Part of this has to do with the ability to maintain an understanding of a piece of content. If it’s extremely long, it tends to have lots of headings and subheadings. This makes it harder to remember as you scan it. (“What point was this under? What are we talking about again?”)
- Paced. When it comes to the topic of scanning, what I mean by pacing is more about visual arrangement than storytelling. Pacing has to do with white space, headings, pull quotes, bold/italics, and bullet points. Scanning a small paragraph is easier than a long one. Bullet points indicate an important list. Bold or italic text adds emphasis inside a text block. Pull quotes highlight important thoughts. And headings mimic an outline format.
- Shareable. Scanners readily share; it’s both curating and bookmarking to them. They might not leave comments that keep conversation going, but they do have a propensity to share on social media even if they haven’t read the full post. Social share buttons and techniques are not wasted on scanners.
- Weight. Posts that have a lot of weight are posts that are (usually) long, in-depth, and packed with multi-faceted information. Lighter content is more conducive to speed reading, and possibly more conducive to scanning as well. Content with one key point, hammered home, is great for scanning. The denser and more in-depth the content, the less scanning works. If you have a seriously meaty post, you will need to carefully consider how you make it scanner appropriate.
3. Scannable content favors the left.
There’s a reason the left sidebar is popular in apps and on websites.
Your eye follows a predictable pattern (most of the time) when reading. For scanners whose native language is read left to right, 60% of their time is spent on the left side of the page. Take this into consideration when contemplating centering your headings or CTA. You’d be better off keeping things starting on the left (and vice versa if your language reads from the right).
4. Scannable content rates high on the search engine.
Let’s not forget that scanners are scanning before they even get to your site. In a Google eye-tracking study, they found out that people generally stick to the first two or three search results. Scanners rely on Google to serve up the best options.
That means you’d better work hard at hitting high in search results if scannable content is what you’re banking on.
5. Best stuff comes first.
This is the inverted pyramid approach that reporters often use in writing.
People will scroll, but not forever: 80% of readers time is spent “above the fold”. That means you should put your best content above the fold.
Where that “fold” hits for people who might be using a laptop or a mobile device is different, but just look at it as front loading your best content, your most important data, or your most amazing graphic. Think of the fold as the first break in the content, such as your first CTA or where you place an advertisement. Get the good stuff before that so they have a reason to even be interested in your CTA as well as read past the fold.
6. Looks like someone cared.
Let’s not underestimate the value of a first impression. You can follow any number of rules and get everything up against the left and be the first search result and have your copy broken up into usable chunks and still get a scanner to bounce out. Why?
Your website is a mess.
Simplicity cannot be oversold. Get rid of the distractions, whether it’s too many fonts or colors, or a bunch of craziness with ads and graphics in a sidebar.
If you’re using a professional template, chances are you have professional design going for you. But if you aren’t using a template, or need to update your brand look, do consider hiring a professional designer to help you with your logo, color palette, and font pairings. It’s a shame when great content is ignored because it was wrapped in an old circus tent.
Getting Conversions Out Of Scanners
OK. So you know what kind of copy scanners are looking for. And you can serve that up to them. But what are you looking to get out of scanners? Like any visitor to your site, you want conversions. The idea that someone bounces in, grabs a few morsels and the leaves is disheartening.
To inspire action, you have to make something sticky, something that slows the scanner down slightly, without shattering their ability to absorb the full post.
The standalone CTA.
Headlines (and headings) matter, because that’s what scanners are relying on. But here’s a better approach: the copy surrounding your CTA matters. Hugely.
Think of your CTA as a standalone piece of content.
You have to take into account all of the things we’ve established that scanners rely on. White space, design, color, attractiveness, clarity, easily understood information...do your calls to action do that? Do they get to the point—in clear language and paced design—and leave no doubt what the benefit is and what the reader is to do?
The copy and language surrounding the button is a big deal.
The logical leading.
Your CTA has to make sense not only within the post, but within the headlines and headings.
By creating content that is front-loaded and with headings that forgo the clever for the accurate, you funnel that scanner through the post one main point at a time so that when they arrive at your first CTA, it makes sense to them. Your headings should mimic the carefully constructed logic that the full reader is getting so that when both the reader and scanner arrive at the CTA, it isn’t unexpected.
For example, this is terrible:
How To Train A Cat To Do Tricks And Become Famous
- Choose a subservient breed.
- Gain its trust.
Download our free copy of the best slow cooker recipes!
- Purchase treats for bribery.
- Get an Instagram account.
Ridiculous example aside, it’s easy to forget that even if you go into detail about how to use a slow cooker to gain a cat’s trust (I don’t even want to know), your scanner won’t have read that detail and your CTA will be utterly unmotivating because it has the feel of someone who only has one ebook to offer (slow cooker recipes) and is going to push that in every blog post.
Your CTA must:
- Fit the logic of the scannable elements.
- Fit the search terms that brought the scanner there.
The reality of scanners should motivate you to make many different offers, ebooks, or other action items that fit with the broad swath of content you write about.
Value the periphery.
There’s the big action you want (“Click here to buy my $500 seminar!”), but there are also the peripheral actions that can pay off in other ways (“Tweet this quote”). That periphery has value; it’s not just leftovers.
Salvage peripheral action and make social sharing easy. Even if the scanner doesn’t make the big conversion you hoped for, you can still get a social share out of it.
Should All Content Be Built For Scanners?
One last thing: Not everything you create should be built for scanning. It’s OK to make an entree even if everyone seems to be lining up for dessert.
There are people who are actually reading and would benefit from content optimized for the hardcore reader. If everything were to cater to people who skim but don’t read, the world would be populated by Clif’s Notes instead of novels.