31 August 2012

Writing copy for the web vs print [A satire]

Source - used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence
People don't read print the same way as they read content on the web.
The Web format allows publishers to influence readers' behaviour and perceptions. Through analytics and eye-scanning technology, we know what pages they've read previously, and what they're going to read next. Writers can present information in a logical sequence, supported by peripheral cues.
If you’re writing for print, however, you’re bound by an entirely different set of rules.

On print, people love to read

There's been many usability studies done on print marketing and publishing over the years, the most extensive of which were conducted by Professor Nelson Yaacob, and MIT. These are their findings.
  • Readers of print preferred large walls of uninterrupted text. They disliked paragraphing, short sentences, bullet lists, and anything that facilitated reading on the web. Comprehension significantly increased with run-on sentences.
  • 68% of the test subjects read word-by-word when reading printed text. In contrast, the control group's web readers only scanned and picked out headings and phrases. Many of them didn’t even realise that the researchers had filled their handouts with lorem ipsum.
  • On average, reading from printed page speeded readers up by 70% compared to the web.
  • Eye scan tests showed that readers strictly followed the left-to-right reading rule. Large pictures, call-outs, and other features common in both marketing and magazine advertising, were consistently missed or ignored.
  • Readers showed much higher levels of trust in brands and publishers when reading print marketing than when reading the same copy on screen.
Professor Nelson developed a number of content-oriented conclusions:
  • Print users are passive, not active. They spend hours reading information they don't need, and they never search for useful information. They just plough on without any goals.
  • The longer the text, the more likely readers are to devour it. Since readers read faster on print than on the screen, printed content should have at least twice the word count as its equivalent on the web.
  • The longer the copy, the more readers will ignore the elements designed to help them scan the text--headlines, summaries, and captions. Such design contrivances only interrupt the reader's flow of reading.

Strategies for print

How do we write compelling copy in print for a generation of consumers that’s acclimated by reading on the web? Professor Nelson’s research gives us some important guidance.
  • People trust what they read on print. There are scammers and spammers on the web, but print marketing is grounded in the real world, where people are friendly and your neighbourhood grocers know you by name.
  • Print copy must have more promotion and less information. Unlike web users, print readers really eat up hype. Facts only distract them from your claims. Use this to your advantage.
  • Be creative with your marketing copy. Words on print aren't subject to the requirements of search engines. Use whatever words you need to impress the reader. If they can bother to pick up your 20-page monospaced, text-only brochure, crossing the living room to pick up a dictionary is a trivial effort by comparison.
  • You can't change copy on print. Remember that you only have one shot to make it count. So make it count. David Ogilvy used to write multiple versions of ads to test with audiences. Drayton Bird wrote multiple permutations of his copy and tested. But hey, it's David Ogilvy and Drayton Bird. They're allowed to do things you can't.
  • Don’t depend on typography for impact. Typography is a distraction that thankfully happens only on the web. Unlike the modern web press, print typesetting can only handle monospaced type. But that's ok–people aren't as easily distracted by typography on print as they are on the web.
  • More text, less pictures. It’s easier to impress your reader with words than with pictures. Remember the minimum word-count requirements you had to meet for school essays? They’re there for a reason.
  • Readers of print marketing material have all the time in the world. They appreciate the effort and expense you've put to into writing and delivering that flyer into their hands. They will read it as if it’s a letter from their friend.
Remember there's only one model for writing for print–and that's the newspaper broadsheet. When writing copy for print, don't make your every word count–make your readers count your words!


aaronchua said...


Sorry for the weird quetion but I really loved your theme. Can you tell me which template is this?

Kok Hong Poh said...

I use something called Personified, which was adapted from another Wordpress template. The name's a little ironic, since I haven't had much success tweaking it to my liking (you might notice that the spacing is a little wonky.)