How People Read
Before we talk about the art of subheads, let’s take a quick look at how reading habits have shifted. Jakob Nielsen (and I’ll confess, I’m an unabashed fangirl of Jakob’s big brain) analyzed a study by Harald Weinrich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder and Matthias Mayer, “Not Quite The Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use” and discovered the following conclusions:
- When you add more copy to a page, people only read 18% of it.
- On an average site visit, people read half the information only on pages with 111 words or less.
- In addition to reading content, people study page layout, navigation and images.
- A user will read about 20% of the text on an average page.
The Internet is a noisy place—and that means people are juggling a number of distractions when they reach your content. The solution? Subheads.
Use Subheads To Tell (Part Of) The Story
There’s no way someone is going to glean the complete essence of a blog post or article just from the subheads. Yet if you carefully craft these natural dividers, someone can still get a sense of the piece from your headline and subheads—and that information should be compelling enough to encourage them to keep reading.
What’s more, subheads carry some SEO weight, too. You might be tempted to sneak in a clever pun or a pop culture reference in that subhead, but try and resist the temptation. Instead, use that valuable real estate to create a brief phrase that not only tells the reader what’s ahead—include keywords, too, which help optimize your content and make it more discoverable.
Even if someone doesn’t stick around to read the full piece, providing subheads gives them enough contextual clues to satisfy their curiosity—and if they discover information they find entertaining or helpful, they’re more likely to return to your site for more, share your link, save your page to read later or curate your content.
Subheads Give Readers a Break
One thing bloggers regularly struggle with is writing posts that are long enough to deliver value but short enough that readers don’t have to hit the snooze button while reading. Our best practices advice is that blogs should be no less than 300 words and no more than 500-600 in length. Anything more than that requires a commitment of your readers that they are often either not willing or not able to make. Especially if you’re writing pieces that are stretching the limits of recommended post length, adding subheads will help your readers hang in longer and serve to break up (both visually and contextually) the content into those proverbial bite-sized pieces that help readers get what it is they’re looking for from your content.
Subheads: Helping You Serve Your Audience
We optimize our websites for mobile visitors. We use data and analytics to drive our content and social networking strategy. As mentioned in the paragraph above, think of subheads as another optimization tool designed to make your content more visible and more readable, even for those who don’t have time (or the attention span) to finish the full piece. A successful strategy is all about serving your audience and customers—and if stats show that they’re not reading content like they used to, it’s time to adapt and deliver information in ways that make sense for your readers.
What do you think? Do you read by scanning like I do or am I totally off base?