People just don’t read any more. Right?
If you look at the data on how people read on the internet, it’s easy to get discouraged quickly. Way back in 1997, Nielsen discovered that most readers on the “Web” (as it was more often called) scan content instead of reading word by word.
In a later eye-tracking study, Nielsen found that readers use an “F-shape” scanning pattern—that is, they read the first few lines left to right, then jump down and scroll.
More recent research by Chartbeat studied how people scroll through articles on slate.com. The result? 38 percent of website visitors left immediately. 50 percent of the ones who stay will leave within the first few hundred words.
What does this data mean for people who do content marketing? How can you write blogs that people love to read?
Will people read long content?
At this point you might be thinking that anything over 140…sorry, 280…characters is too much. But the answer isn’t all doom and gloom.
First, scanners are still reading pieces of your content—and a scanner that reads 20 percent of a long blog post is actually reading more of your work (on a word count basis) than one who reads 20 percent of a short blog post.
And remember: there are still people who read every word of your content. If you write incredible content. If you format it for scanners. If you address their needs.
I wish I could remember where I heard this, because it’s the best argument against “people don’t read on the internet” that I’ve ever seen.
Do you know what you call people who read long content?
Long content or copy can actually convert much better than short copy. That isn’t to say that long content is always preferable—length depends on needs, product, positioning, and stage of the customer lifecycle. But in many cases long content performs better.
Intuitively, this makes sense for two reasons:
- Long content gives you more chances to address audience concerns. If your audience is still in the early stages of awareness, they have more questions that need to be answered before they are willing to buy.
- People who read every word of your content are invested in what you have to say. Your job isn’t to appeal to everyone. It’s to serve the people who will become your best customers.
Still not convinced? A case study might help.
When Crazy Egg, the website heat mapping tool, set out to optimize their home page, they turned to the experts at conversion-rate-experts.com. Yes, that’s their real URL. They tell it like it is.
The conversion rate experts increased the length of the home page by nearly 20 times!
Look at this thing. It’s massive.
Source: Conversion Rate Experts
It also increased conversion rates by 363 percent.
In a world where only 16 percent of people read word by word, how can long content like this perform so well?
More importantly, how can you use that knowledge to write blogs that people love?
First: Format to improve readability
Before we talk about what makes content compelling—and how you can create mouthwatering content that people love to read—let’s spend a few moments talking about how to get people to read more.
Yes, people who are willing to read a lot of content are more likely to become buyers. But:
- That doesn’t mean we should ignore everyone else
- We want to make it as easy as possible for them to read our content
Making some tweaks to the formatting of your content can greatly improve its readability, which in turn can improve the percentage of people who actually read it.
It’s funny—the original 1997 Nielsen study actually came to this conclusion, but most people only cite it as justification for the idea that people don’t read.
Nielsen also found that improving the formatting of content improved usability by 124 percent.
In other words, making content easier to read and scan helped people read and scan it more easily.
This is an intense scan. Most scanners aren’t this intense. Make content easy to read.
With the more recent advances in heat mapping tech and web design, we know more today about creating scannable content than ever.
On a structural level, here are a few ways you can improve scannability:
- Short words. Avoid jargon.
- Short sentences (but mix sentence length to improve flow)
- Short paragraphs
- Bulleted lists (like this one)
- Images that break up text and add meaning
On a content level, there are some things you can do to improve engagement
- Grab people with the headline
- Make a compelling promise with your introduction
- Keep to one major idea per paragraph
- Use descriptive sub-headings (rather than clever ones)
- Caption your images (captions get read more than body text)
Following basic best practices for formatting can help make sure that more people read your awesome blog posts.
But how can you make sure that your blog posts are awesome?
The secret weapon of content marketing: Deep audience research
Yeah, yeah. “Know your audience.” Read any marketing blog ever written and someone will tell you that you need to “know your audience.” It’s almost a marketing cliche.
Except that, in my experience, people actually don’t know their audiences.
You might have a sense that you’re targeting new mothers aged 27-35. And that kind of demographic information has its purposes in market research.
But it doesn’t tell you anything about how a new mother feels when she wakes up to a screaming baby at 2 in the morning. And 2:37. And 4:15.
Demographic information might give you a general sense of someone’s problems, but it doesn’t tell you how they feel about their problems. It doesn’t tell you how they talk about their problems.
And that information is the secret weapon of content marketing.
A secret weapon that’s small enough to fit in your notebook
When you can mirror people’s feelings in your content and copy, they feel like you understand them. They see their own words and language reflected back at them and think “this person gets it.”
So they listen to what you have to say.
The advice to “know your audience” is actually great advice. It’s the only way to create content that people actually read. No, more than read—it’s how you create content that they crave.
This type of research led to one of my proudest moments as a content marketer.
The article in question didn’t perform as spectacularly as some. It had a little viral bump of a few thousand visitors right when it was published But since then it’s been mostly pretty quiet, slowly gathering steam in search.
Here’s a Google Analytics screenshot of the article’s pageviews, excluding the viral bump.
Gradual traffic increase from rising search ranking
As a side note, this article is an example of how SEO-friendly content can also be extremely engaging to real people. SEO doesn’t need to mean scammy keyword stuffing!
I’ll get to the point.
That article has been moderately successful, and I think it’s share of search traffic will keep going up. But when the article, which is about what to do when you feel anxious at the gym, got posted to Reddit, one of the comments validated this entire approach to writing content.
“This is exactly how I feel every time I go to the gym.”
Comments like that are why it’s worth putting in the effort to do audience research and use audience language in your content.
Even though it hasn’t brought in a ton of traffic (although again, it’s rising in search results), the article has a solid conversion rate and solves a real problem—one that not many people have a good answer to.
Everyone wants to feel like their problems are understood. So how can you actually do the audience research that helps you understand your their problems?
Let’s get something out of the way—the goal of this type of survey isn’t to prove anything with 95% confidence.
If you’re doing large-scale market research, quantitative surveys can be a valuable tool. You can measure general sentiment, population-level needs, and easily compare results over time.
Qualitative surveys suck at that. But that isn’t what we want to use them for.
In a qualitative survey, we want to understand how people feel about their problems. We want to get the actual words and phrases that people use, so that we can steal them to make our blog posts more engaging.
To do that, we ask open ended questions. I’ve written a whole other article on customer research questions, but here are a few to get you started:
- Have you tried to do ____ before? Tell me how it went (What did you try? What worked and what didn’t?)
- What’s your biggest challenge in doing _____? I’d love to hear the details, so please share as much as you like.
- Why do you want to be ____? Tell me the story.
These are three actual questions I used in an audience research survey last week.
Notice how each question is extremely informal, and how I added in prompts for more details. I want people to write as much as possible—and by adding these prompts I was able to quickly get valuable long-form responses.
Surveys are great because you can get a lot of responses from a lot of people very quickly.
They also have limitations. In a survey, it’s sometimes hard to dig past surface-level insights and get at the real, burning pains that people need help with.
Sometimes people aren’t willing to share those pains. Sometimes they’ve literally never put those pains into words before. In a survey, it’s hard to prompt people to go deeper.
That’s why one-on-one interviews are an unparalleled form of audience research.
In an interview, you get to ask follow-up questions. You get to build a rapport, which builds trust and makes it more likely that you can really dig into people’s problems.
An interview probably doesn’t need to be much longer than 30 minutes, and you can set them with a quick email to your list.
In the interview, you’ll want to ask questions that get at people’s biggest needs, struggles, and desires. You’ll also want to prompt them to go deeper into their answers with phrases like:
- Tell me the story
- How do you feel about that
- Why do you think that was
- Tell me more
“Tell me more” might be the most powerful phrase you can use. The more you get people talking, the more likely they are to uncover hidden insights.
Amazon review mining
Ok, let’s say you don’t have an email list. Let’s say you’re having trouble getting survey results.
Maybe you’re just starting out, or maybe you deal with a sensitive subject area that people don’t want to talk about. Whatever the reason, there’s still hope for your audience research.
People talk about themselves online a lot. If you’re doing audience research, you just need to find the places where your audience talks about their problems.
This might be on forums, in Reddit threads, or in Quora answers, but one of the best places is in Amazon reviews.
When you go to Amazon, you can search books by category. Just look for the books that:
- Address the same problems you want to address
- Are generally being read by your audience
If, for example, I wanted to sell a product or service that helped 20-somethings adjust to a 9 to 5 career after college, I might look at the Amazon reviews for the book Adulting, by Kelly Williams Brown.
Then I might read this review.
What a gold mine of information! Look at some of these gems:
- “We don’t have the support, financially or emotionally…”
- “We have a lot to learn in a lot of different areas of life, and we have to figure it all out quickly and at the same time”
- “Having resources like ‘Adulting’ speeds up the process exponentially, and helps us organize all of the things we need to learn”
The review also calls out some of the especially valuable advice in the book, like:
- Keep a spare toothbrush on hand for guests
- A list of the most important kitchen supplies
- Which cleaning supplies to buy
From that one review (and there are hundreds), I’ve learned that 20-somethings:
- Feel stressed about figuring out the day-to-day of adult life without support
- Want tools and resources that can help them manage things more easily
- Are trying to figure out what’s important to keep around the house
- Constantly feel like there are aspects of adult life they haven’t even considered
Now all I need to do is write blog posts to solve their problems, using the kind of language I find in these reviews.
Amazon reviews are a treasure trove of insights. I learned this technique from conversion copywriter Joanna Wiebe, who has a fantastic blog post and video guide about Amazon review mining.
The final step: Answer burning questions using audience language
You know how to format content for scanners. You understand that long content has value, when you can get people to read it. You know how to do simple audience research to uncover burning pains.
This part is easy. To write blogs that people love to read, all you need to do is answer people’s questions, using the same words that they use.
Keep a file of audience quotes open while you write for inspiration. Use a conversational tone. Write with the second person “you,” as though you’re talking to a individual.
Before I leave you to write blogs that people love, let’s go through a quick example. Haven’t you always wanted to learn about inground fiberglass pools?
How content marketing carried River Pools through the 2008 recession
In 2008, River Pools was in trouble. The economy struggled to stay afloat (pun intended), and it was getting harder and harder to find people willing to buy pools.
They’re nice pools. But a tough sell in a recession.
Instead of doubling down on advertising, which was expensive, Marcus Sheridan decided to slash his advertising budget and focus on a new form of marketing: content.
Through industry experience and audience research, Sheridan had a list of questions that people had about buying inground fiberglass pools.
He knew that people looking to buy pools had a series of questions they needed answered before making a purchase, so his strategy was as simple as it was effective: answer them.
He wrote blog posts on common questions that were hard to find answers to. Posts like:
- How much is my pool really going to cost?
- Should I get a salt water system in my pool?
- How much does resurfacing a concrete pool cost?
Over time, River Pools became the most-trafficked pools website in the world. Business picked up considerably, and Sheridan has since spun off his success into a consulting company called The Sales Lion and a book titled They Ask, You Answer.
Conclusion: Writing blogs people love to read
People don’t always want to read a lot on the internet. But when you do deep audience research to find their burning pains, you can create compelling content—content so compelling that they feel like you’re reading their mind.
Do deep audience research. Use their words in your writing. Format for scanners. And create blogs that people love to read.