Online Writing Requires Different Style

Marketing ‌• September 27, 2009

Have you ever wondered if people read a computer screen differently than they read a normal document?  I recently stumbled across some research that points out the differences.  The Nielsen Norman Group conducted research that tracks the eye movements of readers of web pages and they found that the majority of people read online in an “F” shaped pattern.  Heavy at the top, medium in the middle, and light at the bottom with skimming done up and down the left-hand side of a page.

Some other interesting findings come from the Poynter Institute which did side by side reader comparisons of print and online editions of local newspapers.  Some of the interesting findings in this study were:

  • Online readers completely read stories that were 1-4 inches in length 98% of the time while only 75% of readers completely read newsprint stories of similar length
  • Headlines and photos were the first visual stop for print readers; navigation was the first stop for online readers
  • Online ads with moving elements attracted a lot of eye stops, more than a quarter of the total on ads
  • Banner ads and small ads generated the most eye stops, and it was equal

I guess the answer is in fact that online reading patterns and habits are different than in the physical world.  From a marketer’s perspective these research studies provide some great guidance in writing for your online readers:

  • Most online readers like shorter stories and value a story that has the most important information upfront
  • A majority of online readers look for informative words in headlines
  • Use the top of your landing page to position the most important information
  • Either use the top or left hand column of the page for navigation schemes

Seems like a lot of common sense stuff, but when you know that it is based on actual research it is much easier to believe and more compelling to implement.

Sam McCue
Inbound Marketing guru, avid fisherman, and all-around backcountry enthusiast.

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