Reading science: how to create B2B content that works for your reader’s brain

Science says your audience isn't reading as much of your content as you might think. Here’s some advice on how to change that.

man reading and typing

Think about the last time you read an entire blog post.

No cheating – I mean every, single, word. I’m just guessing here, but it probably wasn’t in the past week.

Don’t worry; you’re not the only one. In fact, Jakob Nielsen’s study of how we read digital media says most users only read 18% of each page.

We all skim blogs to find the information we need – gathering the general gist of a piece or even just mindlessly scrolling. That’s nothing to feel guilty about – it’s natural, and nobody has the time to read every piece of content in full.

But it is a problem when you need people to read your content in detail.

What’s stopping people reading your content?

You may not know it, but you might be actively encouraging readers to skim through your content, or even avoid it completely. Everything from the word count to the language you use can have a huge impact on your reader’s attention span – as well as their ability to take information in.

In fact, Nielsen’s study says readers only spend an extra 4.4 seconds more for each additional 100 words on the page. And with an average reading speed of 200 words per minute, that means your readers will only take in 18% of that added information.

It’s not just your word count that makes a difference, either. There are a wide range of design factors that could deter your readers too, from the typography you use to the layout of your information and how easy your website is to navigate.

So, how can you avoid these pitfalls, and create content that really works for your audience? We’ve gathered some key advice below.

1. Don’t overcomplicate your language

The process of reading can be split into two parts: fixation and saccades. Fixations are short stops on specific points of a word, while saccades are rapid jumps between words. This all happens subconsciously, at incredible speed, as your eyes cross the page – and you can use it your advantage in your content.

Ideally, you want your reader to go through your content at a steady pace, with consistent saccades and without too many fixation points that trip them up. That means getting rid of any overly technical language you don’t really need.

Inflated language doesn’t make your content sound smarter; it just distracts your reader and draws their attention away from the point you’re trying to make. Even worse, it can put them off your content completely. Instead, aim for your content to be readable by a 12-year-old –  especially if your audience is reading on a screen.

Sarah Richards puts it best in her book Content Design: “It’s not dumbing down, it’s opening up. The more familiar your words are to the reader, the faster they can understand what they mean.”

2. Use the F-Shape reading pattern to your advantage

Another influential study from Jakob Nielsen revealed that most users read web pages in an ‘F’ shape.

It’s a shape that can be split into three key parts:

  1. The user starts by reading horizontally across the top of the page
  2. The user moves down and reads in a second horizontal movement
  3. The user scans the left side of the page in a vertical movement

The obvious negative is that most of your content isn’t being read thoroughly. But you can still use this concept to your advantage.

Nielsen’s heatmaps prove your most important information needs to be included upfront. Whether that’s in your opening paragraph or your standfirst, you can’t waste time teasing your audience on your key idea.

As your reader starts to scroll further through your content – and starts to stick to the left side of the page – it’s important you include plenty of attention-grabbing headlines and paragraph openers. And if your headings themselves deliver the thrust of your message, then the F-shape means they’ll get the point even if they do only scan.

3. Use specific examples to help your audience understand

If you’re trying to sell a technical product, or explain a complex concept, try putting it in a familiar context the average reader would understand. It helps to keep your audience engaged, and simultaneously proves your expertise on the topic.

Sometimes, that might mean using a metaphor, to give your reader a parallel that’s easy to grasp. But more often in B2B, we can include specific examples and use cases that help to ground an idea in the real world.

Let’s take 5G as an example. If you’re talking about the network’s extremely low latency, back it up with a specific use case: “5G’s low latency will enable real-time control of robotics, which can be used to perform intricate surgery, or carry out remote maintenance on aircrafts.”

Readable content pays off

Google’s search engine optimization doesn’t just rely on keywords anymore. Instead, it’s constantly gathering data around user behaviour on each web page to find out which content pieces have value, and which don’t. (If you’re interested in how search algorithms affect copywriting, my colleague Ben takes a deep dive here.)

Ultimately, it means the more readable your content is, the longer your audience will stay on the page, and the more favoured the piece will be on search engines.

It’s one more way that taking the time to understand how your audience engages with your content can pay off in the long run. A little bit of research into the way people read can help you get more people to your content, keep them engaged longer, and deliver more information while they’re there. Which makes you that much more likely to achieve your goals.


More posts you might like…

How can I make complex B2B content readable and compelling? | B2B Content Tuesday

Simplifying complex subjects, without dumbing down, is a vital part of creating B2B content that works (and gets approved by stakeholders). Here are some tips, suggestions, and tools.

Readability in B2B content: does your Flesch-Kincaid grade matter?

Readability can separate successful content from the mountain of unread marketing bumf. By asking your writers to put their copy through a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test, you can ensure your content is clear, concise and readable.

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