Rarely do people read content from beginning to end.
Maybe it’s because of our microwave, instant gratification culture. Maybe it’s because millions of other articles are vying for people’s attention.
Whatever the case may be, it’s crucial to take the right approach when writing for online readers—a new approach.
There’s a certain art to digital writing that differs significantly from writing traditional paper text.
You need to crack the code if you expect to convert more of your audience into actual customers.
You need to switch up your game plan.
In our early days of writing, we were unsure of how people viewed and engaged with written content.
Now, we better understand how people interact with written content online.
What you’re viewing right now results from our research and testing.
It’s about scannable content.
What you’re up against
First, let’s set the stage for the idea of scannable content.
Did you know that the average time on a web page is 5.59 seconds?
That’s not ideal when your goal is to keep visitors exploring and to get them interested in your product/service/brand.
However, this increases dramatically for niche blog sites where the average is two minutes and 15 seconds.
You’ve got only a small window to grab their attention and motivate them to read your content. And it’s unrealistic to expect visitors to read it entirely. Hardly anyone does that anymore.
In fact, research on the way people read websites found that only 16% of their subjects read a webpage word by word. Most participants—79% of the test subjects—scanned new pages they came across.
The takeaway is that fewer than two out of 10 people will read an entire blog post. The vast majority will be highly selective about what they read and will merely scan through it.
CXL provides a deep dive into the science behind how we interact and engage with online content.
Another interesting thing is that just because content gets shared doesn’t mean reading engagement increases.
Chartbeat analyzed 10,000 articles shared on social media and found “that there was no relationship whatsoever between the amount a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention an average reader will give that content.”
This graph illustrates this phenomenon:
What’s the solution?
It’s simple. You need to become adept at writing scannable content. This is what the modern digital reader is looking for (whether they consciously know it or not).
What exactly is scannable content?
“Scannable content is text and images formatted and a layout that users can quickly and easily read as they scan the page.
The content’s scannability is the total impact of the messaging, formatting, and writing techniques that are used to make it easy to scan.”
This writing format is geared toward 21st-century readers, primarily reading content on a screen instead of a book or any other print publication.
It’s specifically tailored to streamline how readers absorb information to keep them interested.
And it works.
Dr Jakob Nielsen even found that scannable online content boosted readability by 57%. If you’re used to conventional writing (e.g., large blocks of text), you should throw that approach out the window.
You need to embrace scannability. Fortunately, there’s a step-by-step process you can follow.
1. Write short paragraphs
You might have noticed that we prefer to use short paragraphs in our content.
Really short. In fact, many of our paragraphs are only a single sentence in length.
That’s not by accident.
This technique is perhaps the most important when it comes to creating scannable content.
Allow us to provide you with an example. Here’s a large, ugly block of text:
You probably find yourself straining your eyes to read through it.
And here’s some text broken down into much smaller, more digestible chunks:
Which do you find more aesthetically pleasing and easier to read?
We would bet you’d say the second one.
It’s broken up in a way that allows you to move seamlessly from one point to the next without taxing your brain in the process.
The key is to include only one idea per paragraph and make it a maximum of four sentences. However, we try to stick with just one to three.
Remember that white space is your friend, so use plenty of it to break up text into smaller chunks.
2. Keep your sentences short
There’s no reason to drag your content out by writing long-winded sentences and using PhD-level vocabulary words that only the academic elite will understand.
You need to remember that your audience will consist of many different readers with varying levels of education (and vocabulary).
It defeats the whole purpose if readers have to continually check the dictionary to understand what you’re trying to say.
That’s why you’re better off keeping your sentences fairly brief and not getting overly wordy to sound smart.
As a rule of thumb, any more than 16 words per sentence is too long.
Be practical, and try to simplify complex information as much as possible so that everyone can understand it. Dumb it down if you have to, but keep the value high.
3. Follow the four-syllable rule
A simple strategy to ensure your writing isn’t wordy is to avoid using any words with more than four syllables.
For instance, you would want to stay away from:
You get the idea.
Your readers should be able to maneuver their way through your content without becoming exhausted during the process.
4. Use subheaders
Most readers won’t be interested in every single point of your article.
Instead, most readers would prefer to bounce around to seek out the few pieces of key information that interest them the most.
You can accommodate this desire by including several subheaders throughout the body of your content.
This breaks it down logically, making your content flow.
They are a quick and easy way to locate the main points and accelerate the scanning process. Just make sure that each subheader encapsulates what the following paragraphs cover.
Also, try not to get too clever or cute about it. Instead, keep your subheadings simple and practical.
5. Use bullet points
Who doesn’t love bullet points? We certainly do.
They seamlessly break down information so readers can extract key data without thinking too much about it.
Here’s a good example of bullet points used to perfection:
Rather than writing out your list in a sentence, separate your points by commas, create a bullet list, and your readers will love you for it.
6. Sprinkle in images
Images serve two distinct purposes.
First, they serve as eye candy and fulfill your reader’s subconscious desire for visual stimuli.
Second, they provide periodic breaks between blocks of text.
Both help keep readers on your site for longer and encourage them to engage with your content.
We try to throw in an image at least every few paragraphs or so because We know the images we use to enrich our content with information and add validity to our points.
We recommend using data-driven pictures (like graphs) or images to serve as examples rather than merely using placeholders because these will add to your content’s overall depth.
7. Add links to external sources
To add authority and credibility to your writing, it’s a good idea to include quotes, data points, graphs, etc., from reliable sources.
We do this with pretty much every piece of content we write. It backs up our argument and proves that we’re not just pulling statistics out of thin air.
But since it’s not practical to include every gory detail, you’ll want to include a key sentence or two and insert a link to the original source.
If your readers wish to learn more about a certain topic you cover, they can visit the link. As a result, this won’t bog down your content with extraneous information.
8. Create lists
We love lists.
We find something about breaking down content in a logical, sequential order satisfying. It keeps things neat and tidy.
Apparently, we’re not alone.
A study performed by Buzzsumo and Okdork analyzed over 100 million articles to determine which received the most shares. According to their findings, lists were the second most shareable format (only infographics were shared more).
Usually, we wouldn’t retain information from studies from 2014, but the data is still valid today and makes for an evergreen case study.
We also suggest you read recent current advice on creating viral content.
If you want to maximise your content’s scannability, use plenty of lists.
We’re not saying do this for every single piece of content you create because it will become redundant, but 50% or so should be a good number to shoot for.
Lists are a great weapon to have in your arsenal because they lend themselves to being scanned naturally.
Creating scannable content has arguably never been more important than it is today.
By accommodating the modern online reader and presenting information in a streamlined, visually appealing way, you can improve the reader’s experience.
This technique also prevents cognitive overload, which can drain a reader’s mental energy.
The result is happier readers who spend more time on your site and are more likely to convert.