People Don’t Read–They Scan

Colleen Preisner

2 minute read

You may have heard that digital readers don’t read–they scan. Some people even suggest that our brains have adapted to this new way of “reading,” meaning novelists should be alarmed.

But what about digital marketers? Should we be alarmed, too? Well, there was a stat bobbing around recently that said humans now have an eight-second attention span, one second less than that of a goldfish.

While it takes approximately 8.5 seconds to debunk that stat, we do know that the people who are “reading” our digital marketing messages are often just bumping their nose on the glass and moving on.

Readers spend three seconds or less on an email message

Some solid research on email readers tells us that, depending on the device, anywhere from 20% to 43% of readers spend three seconds or less on an email message. That goldfish is looking pretty good.

Why do people scan? Because they have to! There’s simply too much information out there. So what does that mean for marketers?

It means we give them something they’re interested in–and we give it quickly.

To “scan” means to skim and stop when something catches the eye, so our job as marketers is to catch eyes. And catching eyes is not only the job of designers, but also copywriters and analytics people.

What does analytics have to do with scanning?

If a person is only going to spend a few seconds on your message, you will only catch his eye with something in which he is truly interested. We need to know who is interested in what and give them that–and only that.

That’s also why personalization is more important than ever. And personalization doesn’t just mean “Dear Jane” anymore. It means relevance. And relevance doesn’t only mean content, but also things like device preference and time-of-day preference. Hello, analytics.

What’s your hot spot?

For designers, of course, the key is to catch the eye where we want it caught–to engage where we want to engage. Don’t make the hot spot of your email a non-clickable image or a secondary message.

Try this test: If I peek over your shoulder at your message as I’m walking by, what message would I get? Is it the most important or engaging one?

What do scanners look at in the few seconds they give us? We know people tend to scan in an F pattern, giving the most attention to headlines, first sentences, and the first few words of a paragraph. They spend more time on the left half of the page and above the fold, so we need to put our most important information in those places. If they like the information, they might continue reading.

We also know people in a hurry appreciate images. Hence, the rise of infographics. Does this mean we’ll soon be sending only images? As a writer, I hope not. But it does mean we should use images to attract attention.

Scanners are worth our time.

Just because people aren’t reading every word we write doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged. For example, research shows that the likelihood of sharing is not directly related to how far people scroll down. People share articles even if they haven’t read the whole thing! Are you shocked?

All hope for humanity is not lost. People will read if they are truly interested. We just need to send them relevant content and catch their eyes with the right message.

Trendline Interactive

Ready to send better messages?

About the Author(s)

Colleen Preisner

Two decades of experience in the financial services industry. Fanatic of insight-based marketing strategy, having worked in nearly every marketing discipline. She leads Trendline’s Client Services teams across North America. Follow Colleen on LinkedIn

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