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This is why your content isn’t cutting through – scanning

  • Online users scan content because they’re busy and must check whether reading is worthwhile. 
  • Scanning is brutally quick. 
  • Videos get a few seconds to hook viewers before they scroll on by
  • Most publishers seem oblivious to this extreme online pickiness. 

Blame evolution. Half the human brain is tied up with visual processing. It has adapted to deal with life-and-death situations and left us incredibly quick to judge – a tenth of a second to assess a face for attractiveness and trustworthiness. 

And yet this fundamental feature of human behaviour, the development of rapid visual analysis to ensure survival, is generally ignored in content design. 

The competition for eyeballs is so intense that those creating online content are locked into a Darwinian battle for attention, a battle in which only the visually appealing survive.

Most websites, blog posts, social media, search metadata, and social videos ignore the need to make a good impression fast. 

It’s a fundamental error and one of the six most common blindspots of digital media. And it’s why those teams who focus on visuals do disproportionately well.

1. We don’t read, we scan first

One of the most surprising findings in user research is that we apply similar tactics to assessing content to those we use in assessing another person.

When we assess a human face, we are looking for a quick read on whether the person behind it is trustworthy, attractive, or possibly a threat.

When we assess a piece of digital content, we are looking for a quick read on whether the content is interesting, well-produced, and not a waste of our time.

Eye-tracking studies by the Nielsen Norman Group identify a number of ways in which users parse content.

Committed readers jump straight in and read word for word. You perhaps think this is the way that you read web pages. But if that’s right, you are in the minority.

The most common is the ‘F-pattern’ in which users scan right to left at the top, usually reviewing a headline, then focus on the start of the piece, perhaps the first paragraph, and then move down to see what else there is. 

The Spotted Pattern is driven by the search for keywords in the text that establish the piece as relevant. 

Layer-cake scanning involves just headlines and subheadlines. 

Add intermittent

These patterns hold for all online content – homepages, blog posts, search results pages, newsletters, and social posts.

2. We scan very rapidly

Websites: A 2010 University of Missouri study of responses to homepage designs suggested it takes less than 0.2 seconds for someone to assess a website.

Search results: A 2015 eye-tracking study on Google results showed that it takes users 8-9 seconds to scan the first 5-6 results and then read a little more before clicking on a link or refining the search.

The average time is roughly in line with a Microsoft Canada study from 2015 showing attention spans had fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to just eight in 2013. 

That eight seconds estimate is interesting, it turns out it’s roughly how long a recruiter spends scanning your CV and the average watch time of a Facebook video.

Social media posts: Facebook tells advertisers that users only give them 2.5 seconds before they move on to the next social post in their feeds. On mobile, it is just 1.7 seconds.

Social videos: Facebook doesn’t count a video view until someone has watched for at least three seconds. That seems to be the threshold for deciding whether to stay or move on. 

Sixty-five per cent of people who view for three seconds will go on to watch 10 seconds. And 45 per cent of people will watch for 30. 

How to adapt to a rapidly scanning user base

1. Create a scanner-friendly structure

Avoid unbroken text. The hardest thing to scan is a sea of words. This is particularly important on mobile. Anything you can do to break up the text will help users to parse your content. 

Start by keeping paragraphs short.

Employ scan-supporting tactics. The sharpest operators use lots of subheadings, bolding of keywords, and intelligent use of links. Bolded opening words for paragraphs (as in this section) are particularly helpful. 

Axios News is a good example of a publisher that uses bolded text to help break up the page. 

Use images carefully.  Images can increase interest and break up a wall of text. But if they are scattered irregularly on the page will impede scanning and frustrate viewers. The use of lots of small images is particularly problematic. 

2. Use key text effectively

Not all words are created equal. Make the words in headlines, sub-headlines, and the beginning of paragraphs really count.

Self-explanatory trumps curiosity-rousing. The whole point of scanning is to get a quick read. So make headlines and sub-headlines super-clear and avoid the temptation to use intrigue.

3. Be bold with bolding

It helps if the first few words of each paragraph give a strong signal of what it’s about.

4. Use lists

The most helpful thing you can do is to lead with a bullet-pointed summary.  But consider turning other paragraphs into lists, which are natural focal points and signal that you’re making things as accessible as possible. 

5. Hook social video viewers in the first three seconds

About 70% of users scroll past an auto-playing social video within the first three seconds. Consider that as the maximum time you have to hook them and aim to sell your story and pique their visual interest right at the start.