Some of the tests results I love to follow are those from The Poynter Institute. Their eyetracking studies are some of the largest ever conducted in this space.
While their tests are primarily done for, and funded by, major newspapers, their studies are incredibly revealing nonetheless. For instance, they've tested how readers read stories in three different formats: tabloid-style (folded vertically), broadsheet (larger size, folded horizontally), and online.
Of course, my interest is certainly focused on the online version. But their newspaper studies are very revealing in terms of what captures people's attention, how they read, and how much of it they do read.
Their website has come out with five key findings. (Their full report is due out in a few more weeks from now.) But let's take a closer look at these findings, and my interpretation of what they mean for the web.
They discovered what news source was read more than any other. And the revealing statistic here is that 77% read more online. I don't mean they read more news online. I mean they read more of it online than offline.
Nearly two-thirds of online readers, once they selected an item to read, read all of the text. This is surprising since it was thought, for a long time, that people scan online more than they do offline.
The truth is, I believe, people scan more online to find what they want. In fact, one finding classified readers as either methodical or scanners. And they found that offline, readers are more methodical. About 75%. But online, it's 50/50. That is, 50% are scanners, and the other 50%, methodical.
But once they found what they want to read online, the study discovered that they read it more intently and thoroughly.
Offline, people are limited by the paper's number of stories. And the linear reading process forces people to scan through it to find interesting elements, as opposed to online where they search for the information they want, or find teaser copy that interests them and then follow links to keep reading.
This means several things. First, blogs are more important than what was previously thought. But more importantly, excerpts, especially on front pages (whether it's on a blog or a website), tend to drive readers deeper into the website, and to be more interested in the item they've chosen to read.
Second, if people read more intently once they've chosen what to read, it means that headlines, links, and excerpt (e.g., teaser) copy that lead them to this content in the first place is more important than ever online.
Plus, headlines and teasers with great copy, especially those using intrigue, curiosity, and a newsy element to them, will be chosen more often AND be read more intently. So headline copy, whether it's on an excerpt (or even those used in testimonials, for example) or on a page, does matter — and probably moreso online.
Moreover, excerpts with photos, icons, or graphics also help the navigation process. (I talked about the value of "iconizing" your posts with avatars or icons that represent the main idea or benefit in the content.)
It's the same with most operating systems these days, like Windows or Mac. In large part, computers are icon-driven instead of code- or command-driven, unlike their predecessors. As Mark Twain once said, people don't think in words or numbers. They think in pictures.
People are drawn to pictures, and when they see an icon that represents what a program is or does (or in the case of content, what the story is all about), they tend to chose it more, as icons draw the eyes and tell people what's in store in just a fraction of second.
Some people have debated the idea of putting full articles on their front page instead of excerpts. It's still arguable, but I do believe the study points out that adding content teasers, coupled with icons that represent what the story is all about, will get increased readability, interest, and response.
In fact, the study also found that large headlines and photos got more attention. But online, people are also attracted to teasers and directional elements that guide people into taking action (such as navigation links, photos or graphics elements with directions, forms, etc.
About photos, here's something interesting: the study discovered that real, action, color photos got more attention that, say, mugshots, studio, or still photos. (That's why, for example, a photo — or even better, a video — showing the individual in action, rather than a still, studio photo, will get better results.
I often tell my students who are, for example, professional speakers, to show on their profile or "about" pages a shot of them speaking on stage, preferably in front of an audience. While it grabs more attention, it also delivers another, more important element: social proof.
(If you remember, the picture of John Reese at the top of the Traffic Secrets salesletter's body copy, which I wrote for John, didn't have his mugshot — like most salesletters — but a photo of him being hounded by audience members at a seminar.)
Finally, another interesting finding from the study showed that people are drawn to alternative story forms, instead of just plain-old text — such as Q&A's, timelines, sidebars, charts, maps, lists, and so forth.
What does this mean? Add bullets to your content or copy. Add photos and graphics, particularly if they tell the story themselves (including samples, screenshots, and elements of proof). Even better, add video and audio.
It's all part of the “samplification” trend I often talked about.