You won’t read this article.

It’s OK; I’m not offended. To be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t either. What I would do, and hope you’ll do too, is skim it — get the hard-hitting points and move on to the next thing I won’t actually read, probably as I’m walking somewhere or waiting for something to come through my inbox.

But maybe you’ll prove me wrong.

I Skim, You Skim, We All Skim

We have more content in more places than ever before. It’s actually staggering to see how much content gets created every second (if you’re curious, check out The Internet in Real Time from WebpageFX).
This explosion in content, not to mention channels on which that content can live, has made it more difficult than ever to make your contributions stand out. And the fact that we live in a skimming culture compounds this problem even further (although one can reasonably argue that the rise in content has fueled this culture).

Consider the facts:

  • Most people who click on a page don’t actually read it, and 55% spend fewer than 15 seconds actively engaging on a page. (TIME)
  • During an average visit to a webpage, users have time to a read a maximum of 28% of the words, but 20% is more likely. (Nielsen Norman Group)
  • The average person gets distracted after eight seconds. (WebDAM)

And here comes the biggest whopper of all: 81% of educated people skim instead of read online, according to WebDAM.

We Skim, But Content Still Matters

Now, I didn’t just lay out those facts to make you question your path in life, although who wouldn’t question the value of creating new content that no one will actually read after learning all of that?
The fact of the matter remains, people are still hungry for content — even if they don’t actually read it.

We Are Social reports there are more than 3 billion active Internet users and 2 billion active social media accounts worldwide as of 2015, and you can be sure that those users are consuming and sharing content.

Audience Attention

What’s a Content Creator to Do? Prioritize Attracting Attention

The data says it all: We can’t expect the majority of people to actually read our content. As a result, we need to plan accordingly, and that means prioritizing attracting attention to our top takeaways.

Sure, we want to keep people’s attention too, but that’s no longer the first hurdle to overcome.

So how do we attract (and hopefully retain) audience attention? The answer is twofold:

Create good content.

By this, I mean create content that’s well-written, adds value for your target audience and is properly promoted to that audience. The need to do this will never go away.

But creating good content is no longer enough on its own.

Obsess over content design and structure.

In today’s skimming culture, how we design and structure our content can make or break its performance and value. You might create the best piece of content, but even if you have the next Harry Potter on your hands, if it’s long paragraphs on a white background, it won’t go very far.

How Today’s Top Content Attracts Skimmers’ Attention

Given that we need to plan for skimmers and the key to attracting their attention is eye-popping structure and design that highlights the important messages, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen some new trends pop up in the content world recently.

Here’s how we’re seeing this play out:

Infographics are on the rise …

  • The use of infographics in B2B content marketing increased by 21.6% between 2014 and 2015. (MarketingProfs)
  • 60% of marketers believe the use of infographics will continue to increase in 2016. (HubSpot)

Interactive content is becoming a must-have …

  • 70% of marketers say interactive content effectively engages their audience. (Designhill)
  • 91% of B2B buyers want brands to offer more interactive and visual content for on-demand consumption. (ion interactive)

audience attention

Listicles or even just “chunky” articles (ones with a lot of headers and bullets) do well …

  • This formatting allows audiences to take in as much content as possible in the least amount of time, enabling them to skim quickly and still find the most relevant information for their needs. (Cision)
  • In this setup, headlines do the mental “heavy lifting” for us, or as Maria Konnikova describes it, it’s like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. (The New Yorker)

Based on this lay of the land, it’s perhaps ironic, then, that longer form content tends to perform better today …

  • WordStream increased user engagement and its average on-page time from 1 minute, 35 seconds to 4 minutes, 33 seconds after it embraced long form content.

audience attention

  • Similarly, Cloud Sherpas reports a steady increase in its average on-page time as the length of blog posts increases, with an average of well over 3 minutes for posts clocking in at 1,400 words or more.

audience attention

… although maybe this trend isn’t so ironic when you consider the fact that the longer the article, the more likely it is to be chunky and broken up with supporting graphics.

3 Actionable Tips for Attracting Skimmers’ Attention

Alright, so how can we use all of this knowledge to our advantage? Start here:

Consider design from the start

When design is an afterthought, it shows. That means you need to consider design, including formatting, colors, etc., from the very start of the content-creation process. Even if you won’t be the ultimate designer, you should have a picture in your mind of how the final product might look. Collaborating closely with designers during every phase of production also helps here.

Additionally, you need to consider design in light of your target channels. For example, how you design content for a blog post will be different from how you design content for an eBook or a Twitter post or anything else. Audiences on each channel behave differently, and you need to account for those differences.

It also helps to consider the nature or type of content. In Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content, Colleen Jones explains how you can quickly come up with visual options for different content types. Here’s a sample.

Content TypeFormat Option
Steps in a process or a procedureNumbered list
Concept or model Diagram
List(s)Bulleted or numbered list
Matrix or table
Statistics or factsBulleted or numbered list

Actively seek opportunities to break up your text

If you have more than 100-150 words in a block of text, it’s probably time to start a new paragraph. There’s no hard rule of thumb here, but shorter paragraphs make it easier to skim (plus giving each new idea its own paragraph is a basic writing best practice).
But, once again, you need to think beyond the words, because design matters quite a lot. With that in mind, you should always look for opportunities to break up blocks of text with images, call-out numbers, featured quotes and other more design-oriented elements that will help the most important details of your message stand out as people rapidly scroll through your content.

In other words, think bite-size. The chunkier, the better.

Learn from responsive design

Finally, take a page from the book of the concept of responsive design. The basic idea behind responsive design is to keep the most important elements of a website available even on the smallest sized screens.

Similarly, you need to keep the most important messages available for the people with the least amount of time (by using elements like headers, call-outs and quick graphics) and the shortest attention spans (by using elements like high contrast, bright colors, layout changes and interactivity).

Basically, forget everything you learned in school about keeping beautiful fluff out of your work, because that’s exactly what will keep those ever-elusive skimmers engaged.

Is the Inverted Pyramid Still the Holy Grail?

It used to be that you could put the most important information first and work down from there, hoping to keep your audience’s interest and at least knowing that everyone would get your big message because that’s what you presented first. In fact, we always considered this inverted pyramid approach a best practice. But, in my experience, the world of content doesn’t work like that anymore.

Today, capturing audience attention and ensuring you convey your message is all about information hierarchy, which requires a close integration between content and design. This means that all the information you likely stuffed in the first 10% of your content using the inverted pyramid approach should now be spread throughout your piece in bold headers, bulleted lists, quick graphics and so on.

At the end of the day, if you want to capture audience attention, you need to focus on how you organize, format and display your content in order to create a complete sensory experience.

The Author

Sharon Shapiro is the Content Marketing Manager at Cloud Sherpas, where she oversees the content strategy, manages the corporate blog and social media channels, and develops content for a variety of marketing campaigns. With a journalism background, Sharon emphasizes the importance of storytelling and providing educational value for readers throughout these efforts. You can find Sharon on Twitter at @sharon_shapiro.

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