The Content Corner: Will You Read This Entire Post?

Apr 11, 2016

Deep down we’ve always known that people only read a small portion of any content shared online. In many ways that can’t be fixed but there are ways to help people read more or at least scan better.

Internet Life

There was a book I loved as a child that featured the Sesame Street character Grover, titled The Monster at the End of this Book, where Grover keeps warning the reader to stop turning pages because there is going to be a scary monster at the end. This of course has the opposite effect as the reader is made more and more curious and is turning the pages faster and faster. In the end, (spoiler alert) Grover is the monster, but I wonder if the book was a blog post, how many readers would have never found out? Do we have to resort to narrative tricks or cliffhangers to help drive our readers to the end of our content? Well, sort of.

Facing the Harsh Truths

I recently wrote about the challenges of content metrics and one specific observation stuck with me: social media shares have little connection to people reading an article. Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile bluntly stated that their metrics and research have found “effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.”

As far back as 2008 (and I still use this quote often), Jakob Nielsen broke our hearts by pointing out that people read about 20% of all Web content. This was only shortly after the launch of the first iPhone and the smartphone revolution that certainly reduced this amount even further. In fact, more recent studies have found content viewed via mobile social media apps is processed faster than the same content via desktop. Mobile news feed content can be retained after only .25 seconds of exposure according to research by Fors-Marsh, an applied research company. Yes, one quarter of a second is now a baseline unit of measure for content consumption!

So what are some of the reasons no one is paying close attention to our labors of love?

Mostly the same reasons we all scan and skim (and even share articles we didn’t finish!):

  • Everyone is busy
  • Most people are reading content on a mobile device and are actually mobile
  • Many people are also distracted or multitasking

How do we find a way to grab their attention in a quarter of a second and then hold it for the 4-5 minutes it will take them to read our article?

We don’t.

Keep on Chunkin’

When I say we don’t, I don’t mean we throw up our hands and become Luddites. But we do have to accept the limited attention spans of a majority of today’s content consumers and work with it as best as possible.

When you think about it, a large influence on how we write for the Web was Nielsen’s 20% estimate that crystallized how people’s reading habits changed as the medium shifted online.

Writing for this 20% includes tips I have mentioned before:

  • Clear and concise headlines are critical to grabbing a user’s attention
  • Bulleted lists are easily ingested by a scanning reader
  • Headings and clear summaries also help quickly convey the key information

Another “trick” that could be as effective as Grover’s protests is fairly well-publicized, but I feel we could all do better, and that is “chunking.”

Chunking most commonly relates to breaking content into smaller and easier-to-scan portions. This is especially important and is an area where I think we can all do better when it comes to paragraphs.

We need to balance the original purpose of a paragraph (a section expressing one point or idea) with the scanning habits of readers and start strategically breaking up paragraphs (or chunking). I frequently review my posts for a sense of how they read narratively, but I also should step back more often and review how they scan.

When included with other techniques such as clear headings, bulleted lists and bold or linked text, chunking helps a reader scan. Good uses of chunking also can make an article more inviting to the reader as opposed to dense paragraphs with no breaks or headings, which can quickly turn off a user as daunting or too long to read on their phone. The Nielsen Norman Group article cites a user that described a page of unchunked text as “busy,” “wordy,” and “unwelcoming.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses chunking, bullets, headings, and bold text to effectively convey critical information as part of their See Something, Say Something program.

Suspicious activity is any observed behavior that could indicate terrorism or terrorism-related crime. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Unusual items or situations: A vehicle is parked in an odd location, a package/luggage is unattended, a window/door is open that is usually closed, or other out-of-the-ordinary situations occur.
  • Eliciting information: A person questions individuals at a level beyond curiosity about a building’s purpose, operations, security procedures and/or personnel, shift changes, etc.
  • Observation/surveillance: Someone pays unusual attention to facilities or buildings beyond a casual or professional interest. This includes extended loitering without explanation (particularly in concealed locations); unusual, repeated, and/or prolonged observation of a building (e.g., with binoculars or video camera); taking notes or measurements; counting paces; sketching floor plans, etc.
  • Some of these activities could be innocent—it’s up to law enforcement to determine whether the behavior warrants investigation. The activities above are not all-inclusive, but have been compiled based on studies of pre-operational aspects of both successful and thwarted terrorist events over several years.

    Protecting Citizens’ Privacy & Civil Liberties

    The “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign respects citizens’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties by emphasizing behavior, rather than appearance, in identifying suspicious activity.

    Factors such as race, ethnicity, and/or religious affiliation are not suspicious. The public should only report suspicious behavior and situations (e.g., an unattended backpack or package, or someone breaking into a restricted area). Only reports that document behavior that is reasonably indicative of criminal activity related to terrorism will be shared with federal partners.

    How to Report Suspicious Activity

    Public safety is everyone’s responsibility. If you see suspicious activity, report it to local law enforcement or a person of authority.

    Describe specifically what you observed, including:

  • Who or what you saw;
  • And let’s be honest, getting some users to quickly scan our content is going to be the best possible outcome. As Neil Patel points out, we are writing content that really hits a specific audience and the interested people (our prime audience) will read a majority of what we’re writing. We just have to remember the basics of writing for the Web and the scanners out there, but also realize that there is a dedicated audience that will read what you are writing as long as it is consistently shown to be worth the time they invest.

    Reward the Dedicated

    Patel and many others stress the importance of making sure every post or piece of content is focused solely on helping a user solve a problem. And I agree that a great deal of your content needs to be developed with that in mind, though I guess at times I fail to practice what I preach.

    Variance is allowed on platforms such as a blog where you not only provide answers or guidance or expertise, but you do it with a certain voice and style. Readers may connect with the combination of your personality and the issues you share and discuss. Those who scan may not care about your pithy remarks or thin, geekish veneer, but others will be drawn to whatever helps you stand out.

    When I discuss topics like this I wonder if our own concern for voice or style is all that separates us from the algorithms or from creating Web content with no narrative structure but just chunks of information stripped to its most basic and digestible form. This seems like my idea of efficient content gone haywire and breaks the balance of creating content for the scanner and the dedicated reader.

    Did you make it this far? If so, I hope it was worth your while and hopefully you can strike that balance between straightforward content that is scannable, but is also rich enough to attract and maintain a more invested reader base. Always think about stripping away 80% of anything you post and look at whether or not what’s left gets your main point across. If it doesn’t, revisit the techniques shared here. See if you can improve your summary or key points—or just keep warning people about the monster at the end of your post.

    You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.