How users read on the web

How Users Read on the Web is an article from 1997 on writing style, formatting and language – and research on what worked best for websites. It’s old, but I’d still put stock in it, just from how tired I still get after reading hyped, flashy, marketing copy.

Here are some highlights:

People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.

[W]e found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links.

Users detested “marketese”; the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims (“hottest ever”) that currently is prevalent on the Web. Web users are busy: they want to get the straight facts. Also, credibility suffers when users clearly see that the site exaggerates.

Check out the table with test results for how changing writing style improved usability. Their theory of why it happened hit home for me:

Our conjecture to explain this finding is that promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts “Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,” their first reaction is no, it’s notand this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site.


Getting attention and being worthy of it

It’s so damn disappointing to be drawn in by a catchy teaser only to find you’ve wasted eye/ear/brain space on something with no substance.

The well-cut movie trailer for a terribad film; vaguebook status updates that pepper your feed; that guy who’s great at saying something shocking but can’t follow it up with a well-considered argument – it’s all about stealing your attention, but giving nothing back.

[B]ecause we live in the age of attention scarcity, many people think that getting attention is the hard part. But attention isn’t actually the rarest commodity in the 21st century.

Trust is.

Copyblogger shares why it’s important to be worth the attention you ask for:

Voice and tone – adapting to emotions and mindsets that underpin user scenarios

Much of the time, we take a pragmatic approach to communicating with our users – as in: “Here’s a situation. Here’s what they need to know. Let’s tell them.” And much of the time, our circumstances are so simple, we get away with not fussing more.

Other times, it pays to consider a user’s emotions and mindset in a given situation, particularly when the stakes are high, a subject is touchy, a topic is complicated, or if the brand we represent is less than trusted.

The company who run MailChimp (a diy email newsletter service) run an interactive handbook of common communication scenarios, what users are feeling in those scenarios, and simple tactics for adapting your language to address those feelings.

All the examples are relative to email marketing, but skimming a few will give you a feel for good ways to cater to your audience’s mood.


How to write good on the internet:

The writer of this article is a giant robot dinosaur named FAKE GRIMLOCK who is on a mission to “DESTROY SUCK ON THE INTERNET”.


You can enjoy more of his advice at

The importance of storytelling


When most people think about marketing, these are the tools they think of: print, radio, TV and the web. None of these, however, are ingrained in us as much as storytelling. We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years, but we don’t have to go back that far to understand storytelling’s powerful effect on our hearts and minds. Go back only as far as your childhood, when you begged your parents to read your favorite story—the one you already knew by heart—just one more time. Why did you do that? Why was it so important to hear that story?

Stories and the art of storytelling play a major role in content marketing today. Not all brands realize the importance of unearthing their core story and learning to tell stories in ways that endear new fans and motivate advocates.

Source: 7 Reasons Storytelling is Important for Branded Content

I’m not keen on storytelling driven by marketing, but that’s not to say it’s bad – storytelling can be done well and with integrity. Just like SEO, used car sales and Christmas.

If he started it, but you kept it going, you also started it.

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ToneCheck subverts the ‘cycle of amplification and reaction’, a known occurrence in communication psychology (third axiom, in case you’re interested) where we tend to believe our behaviour is simply a reaction to the other person’s behaviour (“he started it”). By limiting aggressive phrasing in emails, this software limits the chance of conversations escalating into a flame war.

Tone is a balancing act on our our websites – making our copy sit well between technical jargon and marketing-speak. If we sound too serious, we’d alienate people who aren’t familiar with the topic. If we’re too casual, we sound like we don’t care about our customers’ problems. If we’re too witty, we may come across as being insulting to someone’s intelligence. And SEO can go eat a poo.

We don’t always get this right, but it’s certainly front of mind – all we can do is keep trying. 🙂

On good copywriting

One of the worst mistakes copywriters make is to assume their job is about writing. It’s not.

When you write a novel or a poem, readers wants great words. People expect this kind of writing to deliver a certain art and beauty. When you write websites, ads, white papers, or other business materials, readers simply want information. They just want to find out how to solve a problem or meet a need.

This isn’t to say that copywriting can’t be well-crafted. But it should be crafted in such a way that the words disappear and the meaning shows through. I like to think of good copywriting as if it’s a toy store window: clean, polished, and invisible, providing a clear view of the wondrous goodies inside.

Source: Why Good Copywriting Goes Bad: You’re Not Stupid. You’re Just Ignorant.

And some funnies…

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Pic sauces: