Writing for Scanners and Skimmers—Without Losing the Deep-divers

by: Teresa Schmidt

Copywriter / Content Strategist

We all know that people have short attention spans. Most visitors spend under 15 seconds on a web page. Meanwhile, “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read) has made its way into the lexicon. Attracting and keeping an audience is more challenging every day.

If you’d like to increase audience engagement with your content, a good place to start is by recognizing how people read on the web and then presenting your information accordingly.

Scanners, Skimmers and Deep-divers

Website visitors are often referred to as "scanners, skimmers and deep-divers." Who are these people?

  • Scanners: Scan primary and secondary headlines to see if they’re interested in the content.
  • Skimmers: Skim the page, looking for emphasized text (bold words, bullets) and images to get the gist of the content as quickly as possible.
  • Deep-divers: Look for in-depth content and will read most of it, assuming it’s relevant (and interesting).

Whether we scan, skim or deep-dive depends on our needs, our interest in the topic and of course—our available time. You might be 99% skimmer/1% deep-diver, 50%/50% or a combination of all three. And for sure, your website audience includes all three.

So, how can you structure content to give scanners and skimmers the information they seek, without losing the deep-divers who want more?

Think in Terms of Layers

One way to approach this type of content delivery is to think in terms of layers. You can communicate a quick answer to a reader’s question with very few words, by way of a well-written headline or an impactful statistic. For readers seeking more information, the next layer might include an infographic. Your most interested and engaged readers will look for in-depth writing, detailed charts and additional content.

Put Your Content to the Test

Take a look at your existing content to see if it meets these best practices:

  • Is it scannable, with distinct primary and secondary headlines, bullets and buttons?
  • Is there plenty of white space around text and images?
  • Are paragraphs clear, concise and easy to read?
  • If you scroll down the page, can you easily get the main ideas?
  • Are there quick links to additional content for deep-divers?

Put yourself in the audience’s seat to objectively review your site. Or, try conducting a mini-usability test with a friend or colleague, using guided questions like, “What are the key takeaways on the About page?”. If they don’t understand what a page is about, your content needs some work.

4 Ways to Improve Content for Skimmers and Deep-divers

1. Visually break up content.

Let’s implement the best practices above to make a block of text more scannable.

Instead of this:

Capsulon is a medication that treats hair loss, only needs to be taken once a day, and has been clinically proven to be reliable, effective and safe.

Try this:

creation phase

The primary and secondary headlines satisfy scanners and skimmers, and the call-to-action button takes deep-divers to the information they seek.

2. Give them some eye candy.

Presenting important ideas through charts, graphs or images is always a great idea. Not only does it break up the content (see #1), but the information is more likely to be retained. Text makes our brains work harder and takes longer to process, because each letter or symbol must be decoded first. Plus, colors, shapes and pictures are way more interesting than words.

creation phase

Which would you rather read?

3. Consider their mobile experience.

More people than ever are using their mobile devices to access the web, with 65% of digital time spent on mobile, and just 35% spent on desktops, according to comScore.

  • For scanners and skimmers, avoid making them scroll endlessly to find the most important content.
  • For deep divers, links should be distinct from regular text and buttons should be tappable—that is, large enough for the average finger to tap once and make work.

4. Test and measure.

To ensure you are meeting visitors’ needs, conduct tests, measure results, iterate and repeat. Your metrics will tell you if visitors are quickly finding what they need, getting frustrated because they can’t find it, or staying, clicking around and engaging with the content. And if you want to know what visitors are doing every second, including how far down the page they go, software (like crazyegg) can tell you.

Actually, You Can Please Everyone

Now you know that scanners, skimmers and deep-divers alike are visiting your websites—and many are doing so on their mobile devices. Keeping these tips in mind will help you better meet everyone’s content needs—and turn that old saying on its head.

Further Reading for Deep-divers

Let’s talk.

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