The science of reading in the digital age

7th July 2017
Author: Etienne Clergue
Posted in: Thought leadership

Understanding reader behaviour to improve content.

Learn more about the science of reading and how it can help you refine your content marketing.

Click to read The science of reading in the digital age


Reading is not a natural process but an art we have taught ourselves. It has become a social tool to deliver learning and thought from person to person, culture to culture.

“To completely analyse what we do when we read would almost be the acme of the psychologist’s achievements, for it would be to describe very many of the most intricate workings of the human mind”  Margaret J. Snowling, The Science of Reading: A Handbook

As the digital age surges forward how we read and absorb information is further evolving. Visual and interactive communication combined with text is becoming key to telling a memorable story. And as marketers we want people to read our content to the end, remember what it was about, who we are and what we offer. We want our story to stick in reader’s minds.

With the vast amount of content that is being produced on a daily basis this is becoming a bigger and bigger challenge for anyone wanting to be heard. So, understanding how we read can be key in determining what content works and how it can most effectively be delivered to the desired audience.

When faced with visuals and text formatted similarly on both an ipad and a static magazine, a one year old displays an expectation for interaction. This will without a doubt become the norm for future generations.

History of reading

How reading has evolved

Reading imparts knowledge in a condensed visual way within a given context. It educates.

Reading is a complex “cognitive process” of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning (reading comprehension). Reading is a means of language acquisition, communication, and of sharing information and ideas.

Some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, began as characters shaped like the objects they represented — a person’s head, an ear of barley, a fish, all depicted in a meaningful sequence. It was in essence visual storytelling. It communicated something that was of use to the ‘reader’. Textual characters continued to develop further becoming less elaborate and more linear. They became mark making with meaning and were communicated via anything from imprints in clay, to lines on papyrus to eventually recognisable text on weighty tomes of paper.

The invention of the Guttenberg Printing Press in 1450 was transformational in enabling written content to become accessible to the masses. The ability to create text in a mechanical and repetitive way allowed for faster paced creation and widespread distribution. Content began to reach far and wide.

Hieroglyphics of Hatshepsut

Reading Today

Reading today infiltrates so many aspects of life, and via the internet – which I guess you could class as a sort of 20th century Guttenberg Press – with worldwide reach. When it comes to digital the process of reading has become a fast paced thing.

The viewer estimates the interest of the written page in a very short space of time. He navigates the Internet, deciding on what to read and what to discard with just a few rapid mouse clicks.  And so it has become crucial that content that lives online has to be able to grab attention … immediately. And today’s online reading experience has to also be accessible through all digital channels for content to have a chance of reaching its desired audience. By 2020 Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce. Their world is digital. They are tech savvy. It’s how they read. If we want to grab their attention we need to understand how a good reading experience can be effectively taken online.

How reading works

The importance of visual information

90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. We are naturally wired to communicate visually.  And pictorial symbols/images have been used to pass on crucial information for thousands of years.

“Modern society literally ‘speaks’ with images – In both our online and offline world images are everywhere and for the current generation communicating without the use of images would seem implausible.”

Pictorial symbols eventually evolved to written communication: In essence the written word is a condensed way to impart visual communication via marked symbols and in a contextual way.

A region of our brains evolved over 10 million years to specialise in the visual recognition of objects. And we have further developed a corresponding area located in the brain’s left hemisphere that recognises words. Humans are biologically unique in our ability to process written information. We’ve learnt to recognise the familiar and so file ‘text’ in our brains in a different way to anything else. We’re able to recall the familiar lines of text and depending on juxtaposition we are able to decode and make sense of it.

So given the pace at which we process visual information (almost instantaneous) it follows that text (which requires our brains to decode) paired with visual imagery will be far more effective than text alone in grabbing a reader’s attention.

When people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retained 65% of the information three days later.

“People following directions with text and illustrations do 323% better than people following directions without illustrations.” W. Howard Levie & Richard Lentz

Today visual communication is as important as ever and has exploded thanks to the Internet (think emojis, video, instagram, snapchat etc). Fundamentally we have a deep, ingrained desire to share information this way.

In an analysis of over 1 million articles, BuzzSumo found that articles with an image once every 75-100 words received double the social media shares as articles with fewer images

Take a look at the following video from Stanford Graduate Business School for a neat summary of the power of visual imagery paired with text.

Where is online reading at for marketing

These days there is simply too much content online to navigate and more and more is produced every minute.

Currently there are circa 47 billion webpages comprising 100 trillion words. Two million blog posts are made each day and around 300 to 500 new websites are created every minute. That’s almost an incomprehensible amount of content and it’s no wonder that much of it never gets read, never even reaches its intended audience. 27 million pieces of content are shared each day

A whopping 81% of people just skim read content on the Internet. But that’s not particularly surprising when you consider the way in which a large degree of content is delivered – a lot exists as scrolling text which is arduous for the brain to read. Fatigue sets in – the reader never gets to the end.

“The average internet user only reads 20% of a page.” (Source, Jakob Nielson, Userability Consultant)

Yet we have the capability to make online reading more accessible, we surely understand how it could be more effective, so why do so few people take advantage of this knowledge? “Content marketers have reached a market saturation point where increased effort yields diminished results.” Heidi Cohen

Based on research conducted by the Content Marketing Institute, 60% of B2B and B2C marketers are struggling to produce engaging content and 35% find it difficult to produce a wide enough variety of content to keep their audience interested. There are ways to help marketers use the right information to aid marketing efforts. In the same way athletes analyse their diet, kit and training regimes, we need to analyse our content to squeeze as much out as we can. Marketers who take the time to understand how online reading works will get better results. And get ahead of their competition!#

How to cut through the noise

Enter interactive content. Getting your readers to become emotionally involved is guaranteed to grab and keep their attention. The most read article in the The New York Times in 2013 was an interactive quizz. Given the quality and nature of the Times’ overall content –  a very telling statistic.

And a recent Demand Metric report found that interactive content was 93% effective at educating buyers and 88% effective at distinguishing a brand from its competitors. According to a Content Marketing Institute study from June 2016, 81% of respondents say interactive content is more effective at getting audiences’ attention.

“By its very nature, interactive content engages participants in an activity: answering questions, making choices, exploring scenarios. It’s a great way to capture attention right from the start. Individuals have to think and respond; they can’t just snooze through it.” Scott Brinker, ion interactive, author of

However getting interactive online content right is posing problems for marketers. Flexibility of tools, time constraints, skill-sets, deadlines and costs are all major issues that are being faced. And so what to do to address this? Let’s take a look at some options …

Application to marketing

Making online content ‘readable’. And so … given how we have evolved to read, good online content marketing should incorporate the following:

  • Be visually impactful: Strong, interesting, relevant, high resolution images will immediately draw the audience in.
  • Short and punchy headings: Grab the reader’s attention. Get them to want to know more.
  • Be relevant and useful: Needs to educate and impart meaningful information.
  • Be a great story: Draw the reader in with strong narrative.
  • Interactive elements: Our eyes scan a page before focusing in. Include interactive elements to grab attention and enhance the textual narrative. Video, polls, graphs, charts etc.
  • Be shareable: Make it easy for your readers to share on all or any aspect of your content.
  • Be accessible and readable: Across all platforms. This is essential.
  • Be measurable: Gain insight into what your readers like and don’t like. Measure your content performance. And iterate and improve.

Compelling visual elements result in a 37% increase in engagement from targeted customers.

“Tweets with images receive 18% more clicks, 89% more favorites, and 150% more retweets than plain text tweets” – Buffer

“Interactive content such as apps assessments calculators configurators and quizzes generate conversions moderately or very well 70% of the time compared to just 36% for passive content” Demand Metric, Content & Buyer’s Journey Benchmark Report


So, some of the overriding challenges that are facing marketers when it comes to generating content that can cut through the noise are:

  • Producing engaging content
  • Producing relevant, consistent, on brand content that is genuinely useful
  • Having the time and skills to not only create content that resonates but being able to publish with visual impact
  • Creating interactive content in a simple and cost effective way that performs across all platforms
  • Measuring content effectively
  • Proving ROI

The following video provides an overview to CMI’s Benchmark Budgets and Trends Report 2017 and encapsulates some of the key challenges facing marketers today.

54% of B2B marketers and 50% of B2C marketers cited “producing engaging content” as a top challenge. For B2B marketers, it was the most commonly cited challenge (Source: CMI Benchmark budgets and trends report 2015)

It also underlines those we’ve highlighted ourselves derived from our own discourse with marketers. Timeliness, relevance, visual impact are a recurring theme.
And other research indicates that marketers are crying out for practical ways in which to address these issues.

More engaging content formats, simpler methodology with which to produce interactive content and the opportunity to speed up content creation in-house to ensure what is being said remains alligned with the organisation’s voice and message.

“29% of marketers say content formats are boring or uninspiring” CMI Benchmark budgets and trends 2017

Some [organisations] struggle with maintaining their brand voice as brands expand their in-house teams and outsource content creation to external agencies and partners – Marketing Insider Group

Fifty-two percent [of respondents] said tools to simplify the process would encourage them to use interactive content. Followed by education on how to use (45%), best practices (42%), and ease of use (42%) – (Source: CMI & Ion Interactive)


  • Time constraints
  • Budget restrictions
  • Effective measurement
  • Generating interactive content
  • Proving ROI
  • Skill-sets
  • Lack of content strategy
  • Buy in from rest of business


Five things Marketers can do … NOW

  1. ​Invest thought in the content format
    Make it visually attractive and interactive. Find ways to incorporate images, polls, rich media. This will help your readers’ connect with the content and remember it better. And anything that gets your audience emotionally involved is likely to keep them there.
    81% agree that interactive content grabs attention more effectively than static content.
    79% agree that interactive content enhances retention of brand messaging when combined with traditional marketing tactics.
    79% agree that interactive content can have reusable value, resulting in repeat visitors and multiple exposures.
    Source: CMI Deliver peak experiences with interactive content
  2. Empower your team to create their own content
    Find tools that will help you with this task. They are out there!
    Keeping the process tight and in-house can lead to greater content consistency, brand consistency, greater understanding of readers’ needs and overall timeliness.
    93% said interactive content is somewhat or very effective at educating the buyer, versus just 70% for static content (Source: Ion Interactive)
  3. Find a way to measure engagement
    More than just open and clickthrough rates. Being able to track how your readers engage with your content at numerous touch points can be revelationary.
    Knowing what interactions take place on a page by page basis, how long readers spend there etc. can help inform and iterate your content strategy on an ongoing basis.
    Content marketers can learn and benefit from looking at the full picture of their results – Buzz and Impact. One tells you the health of your distribution while the other tracks the resonance of your content (Source: Denis Pinsky, Forbes)
  4. Learn what affects your audience
    Do this through iteration and A/B testing. Discover which content your audience wants.
    Test which types of content get the most engagement. Learn from the reading behaviour of your audience.
    Ask them what they want! Netflix are plowing millions into determining what their audience wants. Even down to enabling viewers to interact and determine some of the story line itself.
  5. Look for opportunities to produce timely content
    It can take time to generate quality content. Ensure that no longer than is necessary is spent finding ways to distribute it, with efficiency and across as many channels as possible.

Find content creation solutions that don’t require an agency to design and generate. There are tools our there that can help you at every stage.

And get the most out of each piece of content by distributing as widely as possible. Embed into website and email and ensure that it can be shared as easily as possible across all social channels.

According to Ion Interactive 70% of marketers say that interactive content is effective at converting site visitors.

“88% said interactive content is somewhat or very effective at differentiating from competitors, versus just 55% for static content.” Ion Interactive

Turtl case studies that reflect the power of interactive content

4 key takeouts

  • Look for applications that are capable of producing more timely content
  • Ensure that content is engaging and interactive
  • Spend time on the format of content and ensure it is visually attractive
  • Measure content performance at every stage of the customer journey

Need help with your content marketing strategy or want to learn more about our content tools? Get in touch