The science of reading and why it matters for marketers
Writing marketing copy is easy, right? You just need a good command of the English language, an understanding of your target market, and what’s best summed up as the gift of the gab – the ability to use words to drive actions in others.
Thing is, that’s only helpful if people actually read your words in the first place. And with attention spans seemingly getting shorter every day, getting people to take the time to peruse the copy you’ve so carefully crafted isn’t easy.
Which is why it’s so important to understand the science behind how we read. By doing so, you’ll be able to structure your copy in a way that gives maximum results, whether someone reads it in depth or just gives it a glance.
We all know that scanning is the new reading, especially online. How often do you read something from the first word to the last? Instead, we’re much more likely to relax our eyes and let them dance across a screen until they find something of interest that we feel is worth spending a bit more time on.
What you may not know is how many different ways people can scan information. The Nielsen Norman group, which “provides research-based UX guidance, by studying users around the world”, describes at least half a dozen including:
Layer-cake pattern: where we read headlines and subheads (H1 and H2) but ignore body copy.
Spotted pattern: where we’re looking for something specific like a link or a particular phrase and ignore everything else.
Marking pattern: where we stay focused on a particular point and use the mouse or our thumb to scroll the page past our eyes.
This hierarchy has massive implications on how a copywriter will weight copy. Not only do we want to encourage people to delve deeper, we need to ensure that even if they only skim the surface, they’ll get the essential messaging without having to read more.
The shape of words
I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to title case. I just don’t like it. Capitalising every word in a sentence is not only frustrating because no one understands the rules – do words like ‘the’ and ‘of’ deserve capitals or not?
It’s more than this. The thing is that we don’t actually see words as individual letters to be pieced together in order to understand their meaning. In fact, we see words as images, with our eyes taking in each one as a whole at a glance.
To illustrate the point, have a look at this meme that is regularly shared on social media:
Although you won’t find the Cambridge study it references, the point is that most of us can read the text because our brain contextualises words and predicts what will happen next. This phenomenon is the reason it’s so hard to pick up errors in your own written work and why it pays to employ a proofreader.
It’s also the reason why I find title case frustrating. Because we’re far more used to words being written out in lower case, adding a capital at the beginning of each one makes a sentence feel clunky. Our eyes catch on those capitals and we have to work harder to translate them into familiar word images.
That’s why at Rin Hamburgh & Co we prefer to stick either with sentence case (ie first letter capped up, everything else lower case) or keep caps lock on.
Making an impact, fast
If you needed more proof that the eye captures words as images (or if you just want to marvel at the human brain for another minute or two), check out this advert from Honda:https://www.youtube.com/embed/iO7BmPoL6a4?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1
The implications of the Keep Up campaign are important to copywriters because we understand that we have a limited amount of time to capture people’s attention.
Imagine a flyer that is glanced at for a few milliseconds before the recipient decides whether to engage further or chuck it in the bin. Or the billboard that has a similarly short window in which to convey information to a driver before their car whizzes past (or risk making them crash).
When it comes to marketing copy, it’s not enough to be articulate, clever, or even engaging. You have to understand exactly how your audience is going to be consuming that copy and the science that underpins how they will engage with it.