How do you optimize websites for people that are readers who are suffering from chronic attention shortage?
You need to make your sites findable, intriguing, readable, engaging, usable, popular – or, in short, “fire up“.
“fire someone up – Fig. to motivate someone; to make someone enthusiastic.”
A shocking reading statistic from US libraries shows almost 20% of Americans don’t read books at all.
Let me confess: I didn’t read books until I was 16. I didn’t even read newspapers or magazines until I was 14. We didn’t have the Internet or mobile phones back then, so I wasn’t reading websites or SMS either! To make things worse my mother was a linguist focused on teaching language and editing literature.
These days I roughly read a 500 pages book a week. Sometimes I read two or three books at once.
How did that miraculous transformation happen?
My case seemed to be hopeless like with the rest of this one fifth of the population. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read. I could read in three languages by the age of 14. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t think books were attractive enough for me. I didn’t appreciate books and I didn’t think reading could enrich my daily life.
It’s not a story about me here though. My point is that you can make your content
so that everybody will want to read and enjoy it.
People who don’t read lack a basic human experience. They don’t have access to a whole universe of knowledge.
It’s our task to enable these people to read again or at all.
With websites and mobile phones being used by almost everybody it’s far easier to encourage people to read in these times. How? You need to make your site:
You have to ensure the findability of your content – be it text or mixed content (text and images) or solely images. Even images without text can make people read. Image captions are a good start.
How did I finally start reading? When I was 14 my mother pointed out an article to me about my favorite sweets in the weekly magazine my father had subscribed to for years. I have looked at the magazine covers for ages but didn’t even read when they featured barely clad women. The mags always lay around the living room.
Thus my mother only needed to point it out casually. She didn’t have to get up, search for it and peruse dozens of other magazines to find it.
Nowadays, it’s not as easy to get your content around where the hard to reach audience stays. One day it’s Facebook, next day it’s Instagram, third day it’s Snapchat. Don’t just stay in your ivory tower and wait for everybody to come visit you. Spend some time on outreach efforts.
You can publish quotes from your favorite authors on social media. Indeed on sites like
aphorisms work best!
Don’t just optimize for Google. Work on your internal search. Tag your content. Make sure your images and quotes can be found on Pinterest or Twitter.
Now you agree that just staying where you are and waiting passively may not be enough. You will probably wonder how to make people who never read become interested. People who can’t read or comprehend fast need other forms of content that don’t require huge chunks of text.
You also need to point them to content that would interest them. You need to intrigue them. Don’t just attempt to make people read what you think they should.
Even clickbait can help. Don’t give away everything in the headline.
Readability is a huge problem with both books and websites alike.
In these times our attention spans are extremely short. Small screens on the go make reading even more difficult. We can’t focus on longer paragraphs or even sentences anymore.
This is also an accessibility issue. Readers may have cognitive deficits. I have cognitive deficits myself when I’m tired or when I experience pain from migraine attacks. I can’t read properly then. Other people may be perfectly average but have difficulties when reading while on the go, holding a baby on their arm, or trying to multitask in general.
Keep sentences short. Don’t complicate things to sound smart. Your website should be written for everybody.
It’s not about writing a thesis in college. It’s about reaching a wider audiences. Twitter is a good exercise. Make your messages work in 140 characters and write like that for the rest of the Web. Authors like Ernest Hemingway or Paul Auster have used simplicity to reach millions.
Simple word choices, short sentences and paragraphs won’t suffice though. You need to format text:
- bold text
- text-marker effects
have proven to work best to enhance website readability.
There is this old social media cliche that “you have to engage in the conversation”. It’s true. That’s like you have to write on the Web. Write in a conversational tone. Talk to your reader.
Ask questions in your articles, not just rhetoric ones. Add calls to action asking for feedback!
Appeal to emotions by telling stories and speaking about real people like yourself.
Cover worthwhile causes. Don’t just promote yourself and push what you like. Publish what others love.
You are meant not to judge a book by it’s cover but we all do. What’s on top and gets seen first counts.
Make a good first impression by placing attractive visual content on top of your page, each page.
OK, you have done everything right. Now the fire is already burning. Your site and content are findable, intriguing, readable, engaging…
What’s the problem then? Your site may still fail as a whole. It can be all of the above but when it’s not usable it’s wasted. Usability or in modern words user experience matters on many levels. Can everybody access and use the site?
Or is it rather built for healthy white males, speaking English – as seems to be the case with the new WhiteHouse.gov?
Some of these non-readers may be actually disabled – blind, for example!
When you fail to provide alternative text to your images and make the page navigable using the keyboard you lose that person.
Others may be healthy and enabled at the first sight – but like me often sick and tired (no pun intended). After staring all day into the screen
- I can’t read long paragraphs anymore
- sift through huge mega menus
- or even deal with bright colors with a lot of contrast.
Don’t be overtly creative when building sites. The website is not the artwork, it’s the frame the artwork is in.
Keep it simple with low cognitive load by not reinventing the wheel.
Just place the logo on the top left, the navigation on top and the content below. Don’t add more than 6 menu items.
Cut out or limit the blinking ads and misleading “you may also like” partner stories.
Even when the fire is burning and almost everybody can use your site it’s still not enough to succeed with your website. You of course need to become popular. You can become popular in general but also your niche or area.
Popularity can be relative. A popular restaurant in your neighborhood does not have to be McDonald’s.
Consider popularization as explaining science to larger audiences. It’s about understanding. When scientists write for each to get reviewed by their peers nobody else will really understand them. Many bloggers and website owners write like scientists only for their colleagues. Remember to publish for average people as well.
Cover topics that matter for many people. Use language even your mother can understand without cryptic acronyms and insider lingo.
Don’t assume everybody knows what you are talking about and provide context on top.
Last but not least simplify the linking and sharing process without only focusing on third party sites. Let people link to your site easily and share your content by mail or using messenger apps.
Allow copy and pasting! Sometimes it’s even impossible to select a headline or text quote due to bad design.
Are you enthusiastic now? I certainly hope so. Of course I tried to use the FIRE UP approach myself here.
Did it work? I have no idea! You have to tell me below in the comments or on social media!