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Reading Habits, Page to Screen

Posted on June 10th, 2009 No Comments

Fact: Copywriting methods change, but basic sales principles don’t.

This means that every major component of print copywriting has an online counterpart which serves the same basic purpose. Although their exact implementations are different, for example, a website’s contact form is obviously related to a print order form.

Print copywriting has one major advantage over online copywriting – history. The print advertising industry has been developing, testing, and refining their sales techniques for decades. The problem is that we can’t simply borrow print techniques for use on the web. Let’s take a look at one of the many reasons why.

Online Reading Habits

Consider reading habits online and off. When people read a book, they tend to move sequentially, finishing each page line by line before moving on to the next. Online readers have much shorter attention spans; they’re used to skimming pages, rather than reading them, and are inclined to bounce from page to page via hyperlinks.

That’s not to say that you can’t “hook” an online reader. After all, setting that hook is the point of all advertising. Hooking web visitors just takes a different approach. Take visual layout as an example. Print ads structure their content based on traditional reading habits – top to bottom, left to right. Not so on the Internet.


Although each chunk of text on a web page may be read (or at least skimmed) from top to bottom, left to right, these rules rarely apply to the page as a whole. A visitor’s attention may bounce from the headline to the header graphic to the copy – or it may follow an entirely different path. Web visitors may scroll up and down the page, or they may not. If there are interactive elements on the page, they will also affect reading patterns.

If we go even further and consider the entire website, we see that reading habits become even more complex. At any time, a user may decide to click on a link and jump to an entirely different page. He may choose to hit the back button and go back a page … or two … or ten. If the website were a book, the reader would have just skipped from Chapter 1 to Chapter 13, back to Chapter 12, and then up again to Chapter 23.

Chaotic? Maybe.

But this is where web copy comes in …

The job of web content and web design is to guide visitors through a website in specific ways,  just as a print ad is written and designed to encourage someone to read its content. Visual cues are important – bright colors and movement attract visitors’ attention to crucial elements of a web page (the order form, for example). But written content is equally crucial. To explain, let me first return to the world of print advertising.

In a print ad, each sentence plays two major roles at the same time. First, it must contribute to the sales pitch – whether by introducing an attractive feature, telling an interesting story, or explaining a killer bargain. Second, it must push the reader towards the next sentence. This push can be accomplished by arousing curiosity (“But wait! There’s more!”), creating urgency (“We only have a few left in stock!”), or even by direct command (“Read on!”).

But what about web copy?

Remember, basic sales principles never change – but techniques do. Web copy must also contribute to the sales pitch and push the reader to keep reading. However, on the web, readers can be pushed in many different directions. In other words, effective web copy must play a role in directing navigation.

This “direction” can be as obvious as putting the words “Click Here” on a button – or as subtle as an in-line link from an embedded command phrase. What links you choose to include – and what links you choose NOT to include can play a big role in determining what a web visitor is likely to do.

Tone is also important. A link labeled “Go!” elicits a different response than a link labeled “Click here for more information.” Neither one is necessarily better than the other – they just appeal to different audiences.

What factors do you consider when writing web content? Have you thought about how online reading habits might affect your website design choices?

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