Content creators must understand online reading behaviours to better cater to them
In this day and age, we find ourselves swimming in written content, most of which lives online. At the time of writing, there are 1,956,314,304 websites on the internet and 130 trillion pages indexed on google.
That’s an incomprehensible amount of content and it’s no wonder that a lot of it never reaches its intended audience. Much of it never reaches any audience. Attention runs thin.
The proliferation of content has changed how we read. As Mairead Small Staid describes in a recent article on the Paris Review, referencing the work of essayist Sven Birkerts: “the deep, devotional practice of “vertical” reading has been supplanted by “horizontal” reading, skimming along the surface… Horizontal reading rules the day.”
Readers have a finite supply of attention and it’s in huge demand. A whopping 81% of people just skim read online content. The average internet user only reads 20% of a page, according to usability consultant Jakob Nielson.
Simone Weil, french philosopher
This isn’t particularly surprising when you consider how a lot of it is delivered: scrolling text, arduous for the brain to read. Fatigue sets in and attention dissipates. Readers wait for something to jump out.
As far as we can try to change online reading behaviours, our energies are better spent changing how we cater to them. First, we need to understand and the intent behind them.
Nir Grinberg, research fellow at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, published a report in 2018 which looks at the ways we read online and categorises reading types by clusters of behaviour. The research dataset comprised of more than 7.7 million page views of 66,821 articles. The articles were sourced from financial, tech, how-to, science, women, sports and magazine sites.
The study looked at scrolls depth and speed, time spent reading and length of interactive engagement, such as mouse clicks and cursor movement.
Shallow readers are a minority and are those who don’t qualify as a bounce, but only make it only a shirt way through the article before quitting, with very low levels of engagement.
Chances are, the content hasn’t delivered what this reader was expecting when they clicked through or didn’t deliver it fast enough.
This type of reading involves the reflective scanning of an article. Readers make their way through the entire article, but at speeds of up to 1823 words/minute — well above in-depth or even typical skim reading rates.
The study found significantly more scanning in sports content compared to other categories, indicating different intent, likely looking up a particular game result.
Alyssa Galeros Keefe, senior director of marketing
Some readers engage with an article and turn idle – with long periods of inactivity. They are characterised by a long dwell time combined with a slow rate of scrolling.
Idle behaviour is likely a result of either distraction or multi-tasking while engaged with an article, and is common with ‘how-to’ content, with readers likely following instructions, splitting their attention between the two.
Grinberg’s read category is split in two. This category of reading behaviour sees the whole article covered at a pace between 200-600 words/minute on average. This range covers skim reading and depth reading.
The read (long) end of the spectrum reflects extended and highly engaged reading, with interaction beyond the body of the article. This is probably the holy grail for thought leadership content creators.
The study showed that extended reading is not achieved by the strength of writing alone, but needs to be coupled with strong interest from readers. Readers of magazine content are twice as likely to engage in longer reads than those of other content categories in the study. Marketers should look to magazine publishers for inspiration on how to achieve this engagement.
Explore your analytics to discern which type of reading behaviour is happening when readers click through to your content. Tools like Google Tag Manager can help you track things like scroll depth, to better understand how people are navigating the pages of your website.
Think about what your content is trying to achieve, e.g. deliver instructions, build an argument, showcase examples, share facts. Similarly, consider the intent that would bring your readers to that content, and what that means for the time spent and interactivity. The behaviour your content garners is most accurately evaluated in the context of what your content is designed to achieve.
With this understanding, you can take steps to optimise your content for that behaviour. For example:
Learn more about the reading brain to improve your content:
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