People Don’t Read on the Web…Please Read On

avatar Melissa Lord | Managing Director

This post was originally published June 24, 2019 and was updated June 29, 2022.

A friend and I were texting back and forth last night, me bemoaning the fact that I didn’t know how to start this blog article about web copy, him doing the virtual equivalent of nodding sympathetically. He said if he were writing the blog, he’d write about the recent redesign of the homepage. His observations included the following:

“The dumbing of America”

“Assuming people can’t read”

“Everything needs a picture of Kim Kardashian”

“Legitimate web sites looking like tabloids”

Now, to be fair, there are two things you should know about this friend:

  1. He is a seasoned and very talented creative director, strategist, and copywriter.
  2. He firmly insists that “this whole Internet thing” is a fad and will die off one day soon.

So, I don’t claim that he is at all representative of … well, anyone.

And a news website, whose primary function is to tell the news, and attract a lot of visitors in order to entice advertisers, is certainly a different beast than a typical business-to-consumer (or even B2B) website, which will have a specific, prescribed action that it wants its users to take.

But it got me thinking about some of the “truths” of online marketing—specifically, of writing copy for online marketing.

Most aspects of the website development process are subjective, but good user/testing data is able to uncover some patterns of best practice. This is true of everything from the colors of your CTA buttons to the theme you build your site on to the fonts you use. Of course, your copy is no exception.

There are a lot of “truths” in online marketing as it relates to copywriting. Below are four of the biggies that we like to keep in mind for all of our website development projects.

People Don’t Read

Multiple studies on website usability, engagement, conversion, etc., have proven this to be true: People. Don’t. Read.

As people who spent their days painstakingly creating website and advertisement content, this pains us. But as working professionals with a host of devices (think desktop, laptop, iPad, and iPhones), we get it. And we’re guilty of it, too.

At this point, research has shown how most site visitors take in a page – the F pattern. While many articles have been published about it, it really only makes sense when you see it in action. The heat maps and examples show just how little a site visitor reads of actual text, so it’s important to follow this pattern if you want readers to get ANYTHING out of your website. 

Words Matter…

The parts of a web page that do get read almost universally (by approximately 80% of visitors)—and which are key to website conversions—are the headline and the “call to action” (in effect, the “click here” button or link that represents the desired action the people behind the website want the user to take).

So with probably fewer than 10 or 15 words to convince your visitor to do what you want them to do, those words matter. And they’d better be good.

Gone are the days of print ads chock-full of purple prose and effusive descriptions. You’ve got a second to grab your reader, and less than a second to convince them to do what you want. This blog post from CrazyEgg discusses tips for brevity in writing in today’s digital age. 

…But Not in the Way You Might Think

There are many tested “formulas” for creating headlines and calls to action that will inspire the clicks we desire. Here’s a Wordstream article that discusses 5 of them, though, take them with a grain of salt.

It’s not that the creative strategy isn’t important. Of course it is. But in online marketing, it’s the conversion strategy that’s absolutely crucial. And little things make big differences—“Get” vs. “Download,” “Download” vs. “Read,” “Read” vs. “View.” Now, we doubt anyone working on “offline” marketing would say they weren’t ultimately looking for conversions, but here’s the thing. Online, it’s all totally testable, trackable, and measurable.

We remember years back when we would all ooh and ahh over the click-through reports we’d get on our banner ad campaigns (which were, of course, billed by impressions). Even then, we thought how fortunate it was that our [not direct-response] print and broadcast ads couldn’t be measured that way—we’d all have been out of jobs. Today, we’re held to the numbers.

Less Quantity, More Quality

One final word of caution: just because there are fewer words doesn’t mean we can let the proofreader go home. In fact, one might argue that, with less copy, quality assurance is even more important. We have such a small, small window of opportunity to convert potential customers, and nothing destroys credibility faster than misspellings or typos. But look on the bright side—there’s really not that much copy to proof. And no one’s going to read it anyway.