Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
August 20, 2012

Lift Your Ideas Off the Screen with Microcontent, or Online Display Copy

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In the headline for one of his articles, usability expert Jakob Nielsen asks, “How do users read on the Web?”

“They don’t,” he answers in the first sentence.

If you’re lucky, then your Web visitors may scan through your site, searching for specific facts and key ideas. But they aren’t reading. Check out these research results:

  • Half of all Web users scan content instead of reading methodically, a 2007 eyetracking study by the Poynter Institute found.
  • Visitors read only 20 percent of the words on a page, according to a 2008 analysis of nearly 50,000 page views by European computer scientists, psychologists, sociologists, engineers and other professionals.
  • Visitors view most Web pages for 10 seconds or less, concluded four German researchers who studied those 50,000 page views.
  • Fewer than one in 10 page views extend beyond two minutes, the same German researchers discovered. That included unattended browser windows that users left open in the background.

It’s enough to make a Web writer toss his or her laptop out the window.

But you can reach these online scanners if your page will pass the “skim test.”

Microcontent, big impact

The skim test sees whether people can get the key ideas from your website without reading any paragraphs.

To pass, you must communicate the gist of the page through only the headlines, links and other display copy.

Lift your ideas off the screen with microcontent, or online display copy. To do so:

  1. Identify key takeaways. What do you want readers to walk away with? You may have one, three or even five ideas that you want to communicate.
  2. Embed those takeaways in your display copy. Place your:
    • Main idea in the headline and deck
    • Major points in the subheads
    • Series of three or more key items in bulleted or numbered lists
  3. Test your display copy. Show your page to someone who hasn’t been working on your project. Can they identify your takeaways without reading anything but the microcontent? If not, then you need to keep working.

Key to communication

The ability to communicate major concepts in your microcontent for those who quickly scan things may be the most important skill in online writing today. Sadly, it’s a skill that too many communicators lack.

So put yourself at an advantage: Learn to write microcontent that delivers your key ideas online.

Even if your reader clicks away a few seconds after opening the page, then they’ll still get all of your main points.

Copyright © 2012 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Public Relations Tactics.

Ann Wylie, president of Wylie Communications, serves as a PRSA writing trainer and presents writing workshops throughout the country. She is the author of more than a dozen learning tools, including “Writing for Social Media: How to Write Blog Postings, Tweets and Other Status Updates” and “Writing That Sells.”

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