Writers: Don’t fight skimmers and content skippers

October 12, 2021 10:47 pm

Years ago, I edited a blog series by futurologist Peter Cochrane*. But here’s the strange thing: readers would tell us they’d always first skip to the end. Why? Because Peter always included a line about where he had penned that week’s piece.

Today this isn’t so unusual. We’re used to people working from lots of different places around the world – even Covid slowed this down for only a while. And I receive several newsletters that talk about their writers and those writers’ locations, usually as a sign-off.

I do the same skipping-to-the-end thing now with posts/newsletters from Eric Barker. And I spent many years skipping to the end of the readers’ letters section in the Economist (for the short, humorous letter), though admittedly I don’t get a print Economist so much these days.

Does any of this habitual skipping ahead make a piece of content… less? No. In my examples, I still go back and read the rest. And I’d value them even if I didn’t explore further.

It’s not about time

One blogger I follow on Medium has clearly figured out that readers are skimming her listicles, rather than reading all her words. So if she lures you in with ‘3 reasons to x’, her three reasons will carry the sub-heads ‘This is the first reason’, ‘You won’t believe this reason’ and ‘Finally – the right reason to X’. You get the idea. It’s un-skimmable and annoying.

I think – I don’t know – she does this to improve how long people spend on her pages.

But if someone can get value from what you do in the shortest possible time, that’s a good outcome. More time spent doing something doesn’t necessarily mean better engagement or better results.

Write this way

Think about any item of content as usable in more than one way. Ideally, let your users (readers/viewers/listeners) consume it in the way they prefer.

Think about delivering value rather than getting stuck on delivering page impressions, shares or time on a page. Or even whether your readers read in a linear way.

For a busy, senior audience, fast is good. For our editors at Collective Content, a good piece of content can contain detail but also be scannable and have a standalone one-line summary. That way, you satisfy several types of user, or one user who will use the piece of content in different ways at different times. There is no single right way.

The value, ultimately, comes from your message – not from how it’s consumed.

*And it turns out that Uncommon Sense, the book we created from the blog series, is still available.

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