I love to read. Learning to read was a transformative event in my life.
That puts me at odds with much of contemporary America. Reading for pleasure is no longer fashionable. Indeed, reading as part of work duties is now greeted with the same level of enthusiasm as high-school students welcome term paper assignments.
Now, I’m not here to gripe about how everything has fallen apart since I was a boy. But the context for business communications has changed radically during my lifetime, and it’s important to begin with a survey of the intellectual landscape.
“If It’s More Than 140 Characters Long, I’m Not Gonna Read It”
It’s been about a decade since consumers became aware of trouble in the publishing industry. Prestigious newspapers ceased publication. Magazines soon followed. Bookstores and even public libraries tried changing their business models—becoming more like coffee shops that incidentally had books to sell or to lend.
Economists have said that it’s all due to fundamental changes in the industry. I think a huge factor has been the decision by many people that anything beyond marginal literacy simply isn’t worth the effort.
You have probably heard the statistics:
- About one-quarter of all adult Americans do not read even one book a year. For those who do read (other than required reading for work or school), the average is about four books a year.
- About half of all adults comprehend written material at the eighth grade level or lower. Think what that implies: anything they read in high school or later was essentially wasted effort.
- Studies from education and literacy organizations show that the rates of voluntary reading have been on the decline among all age groups for at least twenty years.
- Estimates range from 15 million to 30 million American adults who are functionally illiterate.
- When other factors are equalized, readers tend to be more successful, affluent, and engaged in cultural and civic communities. They are less likely to be involved in criminal activity and far less likely to be impoverished.
As Reading Habits Change, So Does Society
Our culture has adapted to a nation of non-readers. Writing letters was supplanted by email, which is now being replaced by various forms of instant messaging and social media. In many workplaces, training for new employees no longer relies on job proficiency manuals but instead uses recorded video.
Apologists say we’re evolving toward a “post-literate society.” I rather think that we’re moving toward an aliterate one, where the deliberate choice of many adults is to avoid reading because it seems like too much work. Now, I’m not normally a person given to pining for the good old days, but this glimpse of a future where the majority of people express their life choices by pointing at a picture menu fills me with dread.
How Does Online Marketing Flourish in a World of Non-Readers?
There is only one thing that prevents me from telling web content writers, “That’s it, friends. The game’s over. Let’s pack it in the camper and head on home.” If you are a business professional in a high-skill field—a doctor, a financial planner, an attorney, or any number of others—then your potential clients have a compelling need to seek you out. They will go to great lengths to find the services that they need, even tackling the enormous challenge of reading. In a way, your website becomes a dating service of sorts, helping match eager suitors to your talents.
Here’s what you need to do for those potential customers and clients: meet them halfway, or maybe a little bit more.
By that, we mean you need to make your website just a little bit more accommodating to people who are not used to reading and dislike the experience. Consider these eight tips when writing content for your site:
- Use shorter sentences and paragraphs. Long sentences are a temptation, but they can quickly scare off an unsophisticated reader.
- Use video judiciously. We’ve long stressed that video is an important element in online marketing. But video clips should enhance your written content, not replace it. A balanced approach is necessary.
- Leash your vocabulary just a little. Most people have a more extensive set of words they recognize and understand than the set they normally use from day to day; these are called, respectively, their receptive and expressive vocabularies. The more often you use harder words, the more likely a weak reader will decide you’re trying to intimidate, confuse, or deceive him. When that happens, you’ve lost a potential client.
- Structure your content for easy readability. Use subheadings to map out key milestones in the text, and bullet lists to break up dense packets of words.
- Highlight essential points. Use italics, boldface, and (very rarely) uppercase to emphasize key phrases.
- Explain terms in context. Don’t shy away from key technical terms used in your industry; instead, introduce those words and educate the reader along the way.
- Use your best writing techniques even on routine matters. Use strong parallel construction to confirm the reader’s expectations and carry him along through the document.
- Never take the easy way out. Show that you’re taking pains to reach out to the reader by writing things out in full. Use Street, not St.; write and, never &. Don’t just meet the reader halfway—go as far as possible to bring your message to the reader’s doorstep.
Our Most Important Lesson
Never, never, never write down to your reader. Don’t drop your standards for grammar and usage. Use “whom” if it’s correct, even if “who” sounds comfortably informal. Your readers may think you’re a little stuffy, but at the same time they will grant you bonus points for knowing how to write. Ultimately, that boosts your credibility in your field.
Do you need more ideas for writing persuasive content at a time when people no longer want to bother reading? Foster Web Marketing is your idea warehouse! Use the online chat function or submit a question through the contact box on this page, and one of our content writing experts will get in touch with you in a jiffy.