Getting the attention of online readers

If you’re writing anything for the web—whether a blog, news article, press release, company bio, etc.—there’s nothing more crucial than keeping the reader interested. The average person’s attention span is just eight seconds (fun fact: that’s one second shorter than the average goldfish). Is your content dynamic enough for readers to stay with you longer than that?

Online readers aren’t committed to your piece of writing. It’s not like they’re sitting at the kitchen table, alone with the newspaper and a mug of coffee, free from distractions. Of the billions of other things readers could be perusing online, they happened to come across your page—and you only have a few lines of text to prove yourself worth reading. To do this, you have to write strategically.

First impressions

Studies that have tracked eye movement on websites show just how important the title and first few lines of your web content are. People skim online text in an F-shaped pattern, which means they read the first few lines, and then skim vertically down the left side. You need to captivate the reader with the first part of your content so that they’ll read until the end—and, if you’re lucky, post comments and share through social media to bring in more readers.

The first thing readers see is the title—make it catchy and short. Using action words helps to make the title seem more dynamic as well. If it’s long and weighed down with big words, people either won’t read the title or won’t deem the article worth their time.

Next up are the first few sentences. They need to both hook the reader in and provide enough information that they know what they’re about to read, all while being short enough to keep their attention—a tricky balance to maintain. Take your time writing the lead paragraph. Keep it interesting, informative and short (no more than three sentences). If the reader is bored or confused by the end of the first paragraph, they’ll quickly click away to another site.

A different approach

Online writing should be conversational and easy to absorb quickly. Keep it much simpler than you would for any other type of publication. It helps to read your writing out loud to make sure it’s not overwritten and jargon-y, and to save readers the headache of untangling what you’re trying to say.

While large paragraphs are usually appropriate in most other forms of writing—proposals, essays, letters, magazine articles—avoid using them online. Nothing drives readers away faster than large blocks of text that scream, “I’m difficult!” Break up your paragraphs so they are about three to four sentences long.

Words should also be uncomplicated. If there is a plain word that could replace a challenging one, use it. This doesn’t mean you should dumb down your work, just make it easier to understand (this takes a lot more time and effort, but it’s worth the work to help the reader stay with you).   

Other strategies

There are a few other simple ways to make sure readers stay engaged:

  • Inverted pyramid: This means the most important information is at the top (including some sort of conclusion about the topic) and the least important is at the bottom.
  • Subheadings: Break up the text into sections so that it’s easier to scan.
  • Lists: These are usually easy to read and can help readers get key information quicker.

If you keep all of this in mind while crafting your article to suit a web audience, you’ll be well on your way to building a stronger readership.