People Read on the Web the Same as They Do Offline

meerkats scanning

There’s been a dangerous rule floating around the web for the past decade that people read differently on the web than they do offline. Well, they don’t. They read exactly the same way.

So called web copywriting guru’s like to say that people scan and skim on the web, so writing for the web should be different.

Scanning and Skimming Since the Dawn of Time

Scanning and skimming are nothing new; people have always read that way, it’s actually part of our survival instinct to scan and skim the horizon for any possibility of mating , potential dinner and  threats from things that might see us as dinner, but that’s another story.

To understand how ingrained scanning and skimming are just look at how newspapers and magazines are designed and laid out.

Go into any newsagency and what do you do? You start scanning the titles of all the magazines looking for something that might interest you. When you find one, you skim through it to see if it contains the information you are after. If it does you take it home for further reading.

Offline publishers have known this for centuries and design and layout their publications accordingly.

Next, have a deeper look at any newspaper or magazine.

There are headlines to grab your attention, sub headings to draw you in, short paragraphs to help you read in digestible chunks, graphics and images to make the story more appealing, and a variety of layout and design tricks to give the page even more interest.

These are all the same things that an online copywriter will tell you to do, so what’s new?

Stop Obsessing About the 90%

Online writing experts may also tell you that 90 percent of your browsers will only read the headline and first paragraph, so you need to make it stand out and get your point across in the first sentence.

Anyone who’s worked in offline media knows that that has been standard practice for the past century. There’s even a formula for it called 5W’s and an H.

Online writing experts also obsess about trying to communicate to the 90% who skim over your headlines. A good marketer, adman and copywriter writer knows that once the remaining 10% of people read past the first few paragraphs, they’ll read the whole piece.

Most of us professional scribes can tell you that one way or another long copy works better than short. But knowing that is useless if you do not know how to write long copy.

It is very, very hard, no matter how many people tell you their magic system will do it all for you.” - Drayton Bird

Focus on the 10%

And it is this 10% who will make you rich. These are your potential customers. These are the ones who are interested enough in your story to read the whole thing. These are the ones you should be targeting, not the 90% who are just breezing by.

The whole nature of how people behave online is exactly the same. We start out searching for information, we scan and skim the choices looking for something that might prove valuable, and then once we find the information we like; we consume as much of it as we can.

EG: When you find an author you like you start reading all their books. When you find a blogger that you like, you start reading more of their posts and read the whole of their posts.

The bottom-line is don’t restrict yourself to always writing short pieces just because some well meaning but uneducated online copywriter told you too.

Identify your target customer first and understand what they want. Do they want comprehensive information or short snippets?

Also be clear about what it is you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to educate potential customers or existing customers? Are you merely trying to entertain? Are you trying to lead them down a sales path or merely position your company and services?

Each objective will require a different copywriting approach.


Now here's Drayton on why long headlines work better than short ones.

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