More precisely, have you ever wondered why this advice is so different from what you learned about writing in school – or even professionally for print publications? I used to wonder. Every one of the articles I read about writing for the web made the point that web users have short attention spans. Obviously, if you’re trying to promote your website, you need to capture that attention, and you need to do it fast.
But that’s true of writing for print publication, too. In fact, whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, advertising copy, or what have you, experts recommend grabbing your reader with the first headline or sentence. Why do you need to write for the web as if that first “grab” isn’t enough? The short answer to that, of course, is “because it isn’t enough for someone reading the web,” but WHY isn’t it enough?
Stoney deGeyter answered that question very well. It’s not you, or your content; it’s the way your reader approaches the medium. The same person will approach different media very differently – with a completely different mindset, in fact. Don’t believe me? Let me run a couple of scenarios by you, and see if they don’t sound familiar.
You’ve just received a book or magazine that you’ve been looking forward to reading for a while. You settle down in a comfortable spot with it, maybe with your favorite beverage or a snack, and you focus on the material. If you have limited time for reading (like a lunch break), you may set yourself the goal of making it through the next chapter or two before moving to other tasks. Either way, you make a point of focusing on what’s in front of you, tuning out other distractions…possibly to the point that you don’t hear what’s happening in your surroundings.
You don’t read much for pleasure? Okay, then say you’re reading a report for work. You’re probably making notes as you go along, editing it if necessary (if that’s part of your job). You may spot a few items that need to be looked up or more closely scrutinized, but you’re not doing that right this instant; you make a note that it needs to be done later, though, after you finish reading the report.
The simple point is that most of us, when we’re reading something that isn’t on the web, are goal-oriented readers. Reading, itself, is an occasion: we get comfortable, set aside some time, and give it our full attention. Even if we’re just e-reading a book on a bus or train until we get to our destination, we’re focused on a goal: “You’re going to get through this and be done with it,” notes deGeyter.
That’s not the way someone reading an item online approaches the task. Such readers aren’t as interested in reading something from beginning to end. Very often, a web user is trying to accomplish something, but reading what you’ve written is not their primary goal. Whatever task they need to complete is their primary goal – and that may just be one goal among many.
Say you sell widgets. A searcher uses Google to find widgets, and finds you. Great! But they may not be looking for tons of uses for widgets; they’re looking for blue and green widgets with the new widget-centering feature, and they don’t want to spend more than $20 per widget. They’re going to look at your widgets page, and the widgets pages of rival widget makers, to get those questions answered.
At least, that’s what your reader hopes to do. But just as they’re getting some widget numbers together, an email comes in from their boss. It includes a link to a recall notice on widget compiling machines, and the boss wants to know if the company’s five machines are affected. So your putative reader is off on another search, reading something else.
And of course it doesn’t end there. Someone a few cubicles over passes by with a reminder about the 3 PM meeting on widget packaging trends, so your former reader needs to do a quick bit of research on that so he can at least ask intelligent questions. Then an IM from a good friend pops up, and he can’t ignore that. Which reminds him to check Facebook, just to see if his other friends have any interesting news; heck, they might even know something about…what was he searching for again?
The point is, people reading the web are usually multitasking. Distractions come at them from several directions at once. When web users read online, they may have a purpose in mind, but it’s not same kind of goal-oriented purpose that readers of offline, printed matter have. Web users are focused on “finding small snippets of information, quickly digesting it and moving on…We may read a blog post, scan our twitter stream, scroll through our RSS feeds, or follow some links to a piece of content that looks like new information,” deGeyter observes. “And sometimes [we're] doing all these things at the same time!”
This is why online attention spans seem to be so short. So if you want your promotional efforts to reach your intended audience, you need to get to the point fast. You need to make sure that all of the relevant bits of information stand out and are easy to find, especially for someone whose purpose might be different from what you’re expecting – and who could be called away at any moment by a more important task or a simple distraction. Good lu—oh look, a squirrel!