What Every B2B Marketer Needs to Know About Readability
Is the content you publish engaging enough? If you’re worried it’s not, you’re definitely not alone.
B2B marketers have named a perennial problem with producing engaging content. In the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs 2016 B2B Content Marketing Trends report, “Producing engaging content” was the #1 challenge marketers face. 60% of the survey respondents say they struggle with it.
This is nothing new. If you look back through prior years’ surveys, producing engaging content comes in either first place or second place every single year, all the way back to 2010. The only issues that have ever beaten it out are “lack of time” in 2014, and “producing enough content” in 2013.
Seems like we’ve got a trend here, eh? Also seems like we’re not finding a good solution for it.
There’s a whole book to be written about how to create engaging content, but for the moment I’d like to focus on just one wee aspect of it: Readability.
Readability is how easy it is to read written text. Two factors contribute to it:
Before you dismiss this as something only writers and designers should worry about, consider this:
- Readability has a powerful effect on conversion rates
- Readability affects your search engine rankings
Improving readability is a particularly excellent opportunity for B2B marketers. Know why? Because a lot of B2B content is awful to read.
I’m sorry to say that. I don’t mean to hurt people’s feelings. It’s probably not even your company that’s publishing this gruesome stuff. But I think a lot of you will agree that even in the last week, you’ve read some B2B content that gave you a headache.
Somehow, it seems like B2B marketers and publishers have decided it’s okay to write turgid content. Some of us seem to believe that complex thoughts require tangled sentences.
Take, for example, this section of an article from a major marketing trade organization. I didn’t need the Hemingway app to tell me it was bad writing, but Hemingway (and a few other useful tools, such as I have blurred out most of the words to protect the … not innocent.
Grade 17 is post-grad. Writing at this grade level is not a good thing. It does not mean the copy is more intelligent, or prove that the writer is a good/smart/superior writer, or that the subject matter is just so darn complex that most meek-minded folks wouldn’t be able to understand it.
It’s bad writing.
Even if this person was writing about particle physics, the words should have been easier to read. No less than Einstein said:
And lest you think some of the world’s finest writing is written at this inscrutable level, consider Shane Snow’s chart on Contently:
Ernest Hemingway: just over 4th grade level. Jane Austen: less than 6th grade. Seth Godin, Sheryl Sandburg, F. Scott Fitzgerald: all under 8th grade. So please don’t tell me – or anyone – writing at a high grade level is required for expressing ideas. Even complex ideas. Even world-changing idea revolutions.
And it’s actually bad for business. Really bad. Because 50% of adults can’t read above an 8th-grade level. And according to a 2003 report from the US Department of Education, the average American reads at a 7th or 8th-grade level.
Herein lies a rub. Many B2Bers will respond to that stat with, “Well fine, but our audience isn’t average. Our clients are college-educated and highly literate.”
Fair enough. But it ends up that even highly literate people prefer copy that is easier to read. Consider a case study from the Nielsen Norman Group,“Lower-Literacy Users: Writing for a Broad Consumer Audience,” by Jakob Nielsen. The Group had a major pharmaceutical company’s website rewritten to accommodate “lower-literacy” users. Then they tested the readability of both versions of the website with groups of high-literacy and low-literacy readers. Here’s what they found:
In the table above, “success rate” refers to how easily people were able to complete basic tasks. “Satisfaction” measured how much they liked the site overall. As you can see, there were dramatic improvements in all three measurements for both groups. Everybody liked the “low-literacy” version better.
Readability helps conversion rates
There’s an old rule in direct response copywriting: Never, ever confuse your reader. It was laid down because confused people tend to not take action. They don’t buy, they don’t click through – they don’t do anything. They freeze or bail.
The same old-school copywriters who urged us not to confuse our readers also advised writing at a 5th-grade reading level. Why? Because that’s the reading level where copy converts best. It’s “simple” enough to be clear, but just complex enough so you don’t start sounding like “See Dick run. See Jane run.”
Conversion specialist Michael Aagaard supports this “more clarity = more conversions” principle, too. Here’s how he illustrates it in his eBook, 7 Universal Conversion Optimization Principles.
Does that mean your copy has to be at that low a reading level? No. But it reinforces how the clearer your copy is, the better. In the same blog post cited above, Jakob Nielsen recommends a 6th grade reading level for major pages – your home page, landing pages and the like. But he does say it’s acceptable to use an 8th grade reading level on interior pages.
In many circles, an 8th grade level is considered a safe, readable level for most B2B audiences. Get much higher than that, and even your more literate readers will start to furrow their brows as they read. Or they’ll just … you know … remember they had something else to do. And be gone.
Readability boosts search engine rankings
Google is onto this idea that good readability makes for good engagement. They’re so convinced of it that they made it a ranking signal.
Both Moz’s Ranking Factors Experts Survey and Searchmetrics 2015 Ranking Factors Study name reading level as one of the hundreds of things that affect search engine rankings. In Moz’s survey, reading level even outranked use of HTTPS/SSL in terms of influence over how high a page appears in the search results.One last thing about this readability for rankings stuff: Notice the footnote in the graphic above? Pages in the top 10 results tend to be easier to read.
‘Nough said. I think that’s probably enough information to convince you that readability matters, and that it can affect your business results. But what about how to improve it? What might a marketer do to take a page with poor readability and turn it into something more engaging?
Glad you asked.
As mentioned before, readability really breaks down into writing and typography. So I’ve sorted a number of ways to improve readability according to those two aspects. Consider these a starting point for making life easier for your readers. They might also make a nice checklist to use before you publish.
How to make your writing more readable
The #1 way I see writers muck up readability? When they force their sentences to do more work than one sentence should be asked to do. So break up those sentences. Give them – and us – a breather. You can throw in long sentences, especially if they’re expressing a more languorous thought (rather like this one, which does seem to be running on) but make them the exception –or risk boring readers. (That one is 34 words, if you’re counting.)
Another old-school copy trick: Never let a paragraph run for more than 5 lines.
- Avoid gerunds (“ing”) and nominalizations (so use “use” instead of “utilize”).
- Use subheaders.
They help people scan your copy. They’re also great for search engine optimization.
Try putting the primary thought or keyword of the bullet point in bold. It’ll make it stand out more.
This timeless advice from The Elements of Style still applies. If a word, a phrase, a sentence or a whole paragraph does not deliver some value to the reader, cut it.
As in “We closed the file”, not “The file was closed”. The only time to skip this is if you’re trying to avoid assigning blame. As in “Alicia lost the account” versus “The account was lost”.
A free online tool that shows which sentences need help. It also points out adverbs, passive voice, and other opportunities. Or try the Readability Test Tool.
Use voice recognition software to capture your words as you talk. It blows me away how clearly and directly and powerfully some people speak, yet put them in front of a keyboard and it all goes to muck. This post has some great tips for how to talk your way towards better copy.
Want some reading recommendations for ways to clarify your words? Check out:
- Use a typeface that supports clarity.
There are a bunch of studies around the web about which typeface is easiest to read. Alas, they contradict each other. All I can tell you is to consider testing the typeface you use on your site. It can make a big difference in conversion rates, bounce rates, and other critical metrics.
Anything below 12-point type is hard to read. There’s another interesting case study about how increasing type from 10pt to 13pt and increasing the line height resulted in:
- A decrease in bounce rate by 10%
- A decrease in site exit rate by 19%
- An increase in pages per visit by 24%
- A 133% increase (yes, you read that right) in form conversion rate
Lest I skip my drumbeating about mobile, please check your pages on mobile devices too. Tiny type hurts some people’s eyes.
- Know where to place images.
Did you know putting an image above a headline will get the headline read by 10% more readers? Or that image captions get read four times more often than body copy?
- Use margins and white space.
People form an opinion about web pages in 50 milliseconds – about 0.05 seconds. Proper use of white space and margins will make your pages look easier to read.
If we want to engage our audience with our content (anyone who doesn’t care, put your hands up. I thought not.), we have to make it appealing. In addition to being useful, the copy has to be easy and interesting to read. The layout has to be pleasant to the eye and set up for scanners. Otherwise, even if the ideas in the writing are fabulous, you’ll miss most of your potential audience.
What do you think?
Is there a problem with readability in B2B marketing content? Are there other ways to improve readability besides what I’ve mentioned here? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Editor’s note: In the 90s I met the wonderful Jane Root, who changed how health care information is written. She said lower literacy levels saved time and increased compliance at all levels, regardless of education or language fluency, so outcomes were better. Her advice to writers:
“It’s information, not literature.” –slx
Content marketing has become an important piece of a modern digital marketing plan. Marketing teams are producing more content than ever, working closely with editorial teams, and pumping out blog posts – all to attract more potential buyers to their web properties. Download, “How to Make Any Content SEO-Friendly,” to learn everything you need to know to make your content SEO-Friendly.