Part One: The Sun Always Rises In the EastThe sun always rises in the east. Okay. Porpoises are pretty damn smart. Sure. People don’t read online. Damn.
I write for a living (among other things), so this last dictum just plain sends me over the edge. And I’ve been encountering it recently from everyone, everywhere, all the time. You know that skill you’ve honed over decades? That ability to use the written word to persuade a reader to believe in something, to take some beneficial action? That’s all over with now. Really? I have to disagree—while at the same time acknowledging that THERE IS A REAL PROBLEM.
To even the casual observer, this adage that no one reads online feels experientially real. We’ve all observed for ourselves the way our eyes flit almost randomly about the throbbing digital page. We don’t read, we scan. We don’t dive, we surf. Image over substance. Clever ha-ha trumping smart. It’s as if we’ve all been airdropped into some virtual show-me state: You have 10 seconds of my mindshare so just draw me a picture, okay? We’ve all been there. We’re living it daily. Like it or not.
So, what the hell is going on? And what can we writers (and marketeers) do about it? How can we elevate the conversation within a communication ecosystem that appears to be outright hostile to thoughtful prose and discourse?
It’s about time. There’s a plethora of research out there dissecting online reading behavior and some of it’s enough to make any self-respecting wordsmith reach for the bottle. Cited findings of this ilk often tend to be taken out of context, have all the trappings of being definitive, and are easy to lob like a grenade into any discussion on copywriting best practices.
By way of example, here are few data points extracted like unexploded munitions from a very lengthy and detailed study:“25% of all web pages are displayed for 4 seconds” “52% of all visits are shorter than 10 seconds” “Only about 11% of sites are visited for more than 2 minute - Weinreich et al, “Off the Beaten Tracks: Exploring Aspects of Web Navigation”, IW3C2 2006
Four seconds. I love that. We generally accord random, out-of-home roadside billboards a greater share of our attention. So what gives? If we accept data like this purely at face value we’d all just kick back, write a few crisp ad lines, then call the game due to lack of interest. What stands out for me, though, when I look at those three data points are the two words: more than. 11% of sites are visited for more than 2 minutes. There is a world of easily overlooked possibility living and breathing within those two words. What it all comes down to—nearly always—is context.
Online, the term context covers a lot of bases. The reader’s mode or purpose. The digital property she is currently visiting and interacting with. Even the physical device being used can play a significant, contextual role in shaping their experience.
Purpose. People are online for all kinds of reasons and, more frequently than not, their goals will determine the extent to which they are willing to read what’s been written.
- The social hang? Initially not, although many times scanners will convert to readers once they begin to explore content recommended by a peer. Social platforms like Facebook and Pinterest are frequent jumping off points for exploring a wide variety of article-length, peer-vetted content.
- Researching purchases? Depends on the amount of money at stake. It’s been well documented that the digital realm is where most purchase decision-making starts out. The more considered the purchase, the more the role of informed research comes into play—and the more likely it is that a user will settle in for some detailed online reading.
- Hungry mind. Open mind? Sometimes a human being just wants to learn something new. Not just hear about it, but actually understand it. Closely related to the research mode, there’s nevertheless a bit more of the serendipitous, free range mentality at work here.
- Roam-o-Rama? The intention here is purely to surf, to forage. This mindset is generally disinclined to spend more than a brief few moments on any particular page or site. It’s a mode characterized by plenty of divergent, tangential linking and often fevered bookmarking for later visitation (which I would venture rarely takes place). StumpleUpon.com epitomizes this behavior. When a user is in the mode, they will not read what you’ve written—unless they come back to it later.
Understanding your visitors’ goals (and their associated exploratory modes) is one of the best keys to knowing what and how much to write.
Location. The flipside when talking about purpose is, of course: What do the owners of online property want? When we’re designing a digital experience at Enlighten we always focus on the overlap between business and user needs. This is where the interaction design should be the most directed, detailed, and purposeful. It also happens to be that part of the digital interaction most likely to serve as the springboard for a deep dive into more detailed and richly conceived content. Depending on the goals of the site, this activity could take the form of time spent interacting with rich media applications, streaming video, or…actually reading. It’s my stubborn belief that at the intersection of focused interest and quality content, online users will read. There is plenty of research to the contrary, however, most of those frequently quoted data points draw no distinction between user modes—glomming them all together into a one-size-fits-all assessment that heavily skews towards the “nobody reads” camp. I hold that online users will and do read when the content presented is timely, useful, and compelling. Otherwise not.
I can hear the naysayers rioting in the halls now, rallying around the mantra that flickering screens are deadly to reading and we are, as a culture, devolving back to pre-literate times. This point of view has merit—online attention deficit disorder (OADD) is real even if I just coined the acronym. The positive news, though, comes in the form of highly portable, instant-on, very high resolution devices (thank you Steve Jobs). The explosion of the eBook market, the ubiquity of Adobe Acrobat (PDF) as a universal file sharing format, the growth in diversity and reach of online blogging, the rush to market of high quality, highly interactive, news and magazine tablet apps—all these point to a coming renaissance for human communication. A renaissance that will retain the written word front and center.
Next time. Part Two: Content Matters