There are some things you just can’t learn from books (or in this case, articles). When it comes to content marketing, you would think that you can pick up everything you need to know from the surplus of articles out there on the subject.
But despite the notebooks filled with tips on keyword research and CTA placement, you might still find it difficult to make your blog look like the content you want.
And that look might be the most important part of it all.
Some writers might disagree with the suggestion that the look of their content might matter just as much as the value of the content. After all, people have been reading books for leisure hundreds of years, and the most formatting they had was printed paragraphs on a page.
But online reading isn’t the same experience as reading a book. According to Dr. Maria Torheim of the University of Stavanger, reading from a book puts us in a state of “Deep Reading”.
“When reading long, linear, continuous texts over multiple pages that require a certain amount of concentration, referred to as ‘Deep Reading’, the reader often experiences better concentration and a greater overview when reading from a printed medium compared to a screen.”
When reading a novel, we give it the respect and attention it deserves. But an online article just isn’t the same. Dr. Torheim also states:
“It has been found that we tend to read faster on screen and consequently understand less compared to when reading from paper.”
Why that might be, we can’t really say at this point. The easy answer is the plethora of distractions available when reading on a screen, from message notifications to app updates. Even if those distractions don’t occur, our online behavior has already been trained to swipe or slide away every few seconds.
But the why isn’t important. What we need to focus on is that this is how we behave, and answering the question: with this in mind, how do we structure our content differently?
In addition to the study above, it’s been found that people are more likely to engage their visual cortex when reading on a computer or phone screen. By doing that, we tend to convert words into pictures and remember information the way you would call back a memory.
The more successfully an article assists its readers in processing information visually, the more information is retained. And the longer you can keep your reader interested, the better of an authority they will remember you to be.
While plenty of articles will tell you to add videos, graphs, and images to your content to make it more visual, we want to take it a step further.
Here are 5 small visual touches the best blogs add to their content:
If you spend any time watching home design or interior design shows, you’ll find that one thing designers love talking about is adding layers or texture to your home. Instead of having a steady, flat surface, they recommend that a home should have steps, dips, and even thick carpeting to break up the floor area.
The same logic can be applied to your content. Injecting a sense of layers to your page can make it more visually appealing, and help break up a longer article into almost-invisible sections for your reader – just subtle enough to affect them without realizing it.
For example, marketing guru Neil Patel does this quite successfully by giving his images shadows in the middle of some of his articles.
Patel also does this by slightly changing the background of the page to a different shade (but not an entirely different color, to keep the change subtle). This is especially effective when you want to highlight a certain section.
Ahrefs’s blogs usually do this, making the act of scrolling down less monotonous:
This is one I was pretty surprised to notice, because it’s not something I’d seen before: alternating the degree of bolding by paragraph. If you’re looking for another way to turn that blank white wall of a page into something more akin to zebra stripes, you might want to consider using bolding to more effectively break up your individual lines.
Not sure what I mean? Check this out, from our friend Neil Patel:
One line is bolded, the next isn’t, the next is, the next isn’t, and so on. This continues for the entire article, and it’s a technique you can see incorporated in a handful of the most popular articles online.
And what’s interesting is that it seems to be a lesser degree of bolding, keeping the change subtle enough not to be noticed.
Here’s a less extreme example from Hubspot of actively using the bold tool to subtly indicate key sections, with the numbers given a slight boost in thickness:
And if you don’t want to do it line by line, then break up the monotony of your sentences by using the bold tool more aggressively.
While books taught us to use italics to indicate emphasis, bold is a much more effective tool when writing online for making something truly stand out.
Here’s an example of aggressive bolding:
Because you’re not just emphasizing for the sake of emphasizing. You’re playing with the reader’s visual learning experience, giving them an easier time getting through your content. (Why do you think Patel’s anchor text is a nice bright orange?)
But beware: overdoing it can seem obnoxious.
The first thing you might think of here is turning numbers and stats into cool charts and infographics. And those charts don’t only have to be numbers: they can be concepts, equations, big ideas, and more.
Check out this awesome “When Should You Outsource” flowchart from Ahrefs that breaks a thought process down:
Of course, there’s also the typical but effective bullet point system, turning a list of ideas into quick and concise bullet points such as this:
But what else can you do?
Think about your format. Not everything has to be a standard line by line section in your article. In these quotes from Patel’s article on consulting, he decided to take the quotes and give them their own windows, along with the logos of the companies that said them.
And if you have actual people giving you quotes? Why write something like, “The CEO of this company, Johnny Robinson, had this to say about me: ‘He is awesome’”, when instead you could convert this line into an image on its own, like this:
On many of Patel’s articles, he’s got his own format for quotes with giant quotation marks, like so:
See how effectively it breaks up the space between the previous line and the next line, successfully emphasizing the quote and breaking up the section?
Another way you can do it is by formatting the quote like an email with an indent, and signed off with the name, picture, position, and company of the speaker. For example:
No matter what you do, never let your quotes just blend into the rest of the article. After all, the quotes you have are good. If they weren’t, then why would you put them there?
Pick up the closest book and flip to any page, preferably around the middle. Give it a quick scan and answer the question: “Is this book an easy read?”
Generally, you can correctly predict the easiness of a book with the simple test above. While a Harry Potter book might have several short paragraphs and quick dialogue, a Lord of the Rings novel could give you several full-length pages without a single paragraph break.
Try as you might, your blog posts aren’t Tolkien-quality (and even if they were, no one would know anyway, because no one is reading an article formatted like a Tolkien book).
This means you need to keep your paragraphs short, much shorter than the 4-6 sentences rule a teacher taught you in grade school.
Expert Neil Patel perhaps has the most extreme examples of short paragraphs, with many of his paragraph breaks coming in after a single sentence, like so:
You’ll see something similar on data-driven marketing toolset Ahref’s blogs…
And Big Brand System…
You get the point: all the best and biggest marketing blogs write paragraphs short enough to jump over.
One thing that frustrates some readers is not immediately getting the answers the title promised. No matter how relevant your explanations and context, some readers simply don’t want to hear it: they want the answers, right here and right now.
So just give it to them.
Hubspot is great at offering the answers upfront, letting the reader decide on their own if they want to read the rest to find out the whys behind the answers. For example, in the article 3 Easy Ways You Can Speed Up a Video, they include a short box right after the introduction that lists their “easy ways” without the explanations:
In 10 Impressive Ways to Start a Cover Letter [+ Examples], they give up the examples again right after the introduction.
Because why not? It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
Bonus: When you write your conclusion, label it. Why? Because about 8% of readers skim to the bottom of your article and check out the conclusion. If it interests them, they’ll give the rest of the article a chance.
The best blogs have attention given to three areas:
Remember: it’s all about keeping it as far away from possible as a simple page with text. Why spend all those hours creating A+ content if you present it like an exam preparation sheet?
Work on those visuals. Trust us, or work with us at Writrly.