Keep ‘Em Hooked: How to Write Engaging Web Content

by • October 04, 2013

Readers have short attention spans. Your words compete with Twitter and Facebook, streaming movies, and games—so how can you keep them interested in what you have to say?

According to Writing Commons, audiences read online text differently from printed matter. “Although online readers can be motivated to read carefully, they tend to be more likely to skim online documents than printed documents,” writes Joseph Oxley. However, according to this 2007 study by journalism research group Poynter, eyetracking data indicates that online readers are actually more likely to read an article regardless of length (an average of 77 percent, versus 62 percent for broadsheets and 57 percent for tabloids).

The same study noted that engagement levels for all readers decreased as the articles increased in length. The shortest pieces (1-4”) were more than 30 percent more likely to be read than the longest pieces (19”+). Ideally, your content should fall between 400-800 words, broken into short paragraphs.

“We live in the age of skimming,” wrote Farhad Manjoo. In this Slate article, “You Won’t Finish this Article,” Manjoo discovered that most readers won’t bother to scroll to the end of his column. More than a third bounced, meaning that they landed on the page and immediately left again. Most of those who remained wouldn’t finish, but surprisingly, many readers shared the article via social media or commented on it…before reading beyond the first paragraph.

In newspapers—you know, the big sheets of paper that people used to read every morning—text below the fold was less likely to be read. The same term is used today for online reading, but now it refers to the text below the point where you’d have to scroll down. In Farhad Manjoo’s Slate column “You Won’t finish this Article,” he found that five percent of readers didn’t scroll down, meaning that they saw only the title and the first few sentences.

Another term from newspaper writing is burying the lead. If you bury the lead, you hide the hook of your story. Don’t test your readers’ patience—they usually don’t have much to spare—by wasting words on secondary details. Every piece you write should begin with a clear, catchy overview of what you’re going to talk about.

Here are five strategies to keep readers engaged in your content:

1. Chunk Your Content

When writing for the Internet, it’s important to “chunk” the information into easy-to-scan sections with clear subheadings. Readers will skim your article and, ideally, pause to read sections that appeal to them more deeply. Essentially, you want to tell them what each paragraph is about upfront so they can decide if they want to read it.

2. Make a List

Online readers are very fond of lists—there’s a reason that list-based sites, such as Buzzfeed, get so many page views. Lists are easy to read since they have fewer of those pesky words to digest. Lists also make a clear promise to the reader, according to Brian Clark of copyblogger.com, since they tell the reader exactly what they’ll be getting from your article: “The 10 Hottest Peppers,” “The 25 Cutest Corgis,” etc.

3. Keywords and Pull Quotes

Try bolding keywords to make them stand out. This lets the reader know what’s important to take away from each section. It also encourages the eye to travel down the page to the next bolded term. Pull quotes—snippets of text that are yanked from the text and presented in large, colorful, bite-sized pieces—are another great way to ensure that your readers take away the key points of your article.

4. Use Images and Infographics

Humans are very visual creatures who are easily distracted by—Ooh, shiny!

Use this to your advantage by incorporating images, both static JPEGs and moving GIFs, to make your article more appealing. Nothing turns off a reader faster than an impenetrable wall of text. Infographics present your information in an illustrated format that’s easy to read, eye-catching, and shareable.

5. Encourage Participation

Finally, invite your readers to join the conversation. Ask questions and elicit feedback by concluding your blog post or article with an invitation to comment.

So, show of hands: how many of you made it all the way to end of this post?

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