Your web visitors come to your site to find out more about what you do. They’re looking for someone to help them.  If you’re like most companies, you are willing to invest large sums in the design and build of your website but much less in web copy to make it whistle and whirr.

Writing compelling web copy is a hugely undervalued skill. Too many companies think that being able to write is all that’s required. But even people who write well for the paper page can come unstuck with website copy.  

Only a very small minority of writers have a good understanding of the digital mindset.

The digital mindset increasingly influences how visitors respond to a web page. As a web writer, you need to know about the psychology of how people read online and you must write with this in mind.

Whether you’re a professional or in-house copywriter, you do your readers a huge service when you write with a clear understanding of how they will treat your hard-crafted words.

Your re-wired brain

Since 1991, as the influence of the Web has grown, something weird has been going on.

“Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

That’s how the technology writer, Nicolas Carr, described the change in his relationship between offline print and online words.

He realised that reading online was damaging his ability to read offline. So accustomed was he to the frenzy of online gratification, he found it hard to take pleasure in more gentle linear reading.

Perhaps you feel this too?

It wouldn’t be too surprising. Research shows that, over the past 20 years, our brains have been cleverly re-wiring themselves to process the multiple types of media a web page throws at us.

How do they do it? Well, it’s to do with Neuroplasticity.

Your brain is a massively plastic organ. It can re-programme itself and alter the way it functions. Your brain literally changes when experience, circumstance and need dictate.

But, just because our poor brains are learning to cope, it doesn’t mean that blasting it on all levels is an effective way of getting your message across.

Spending time online is:

  • Tiring – you constantly stare at the screen.
  • Stressful – you need important information / stuff NOW!.
  • Addictive – you find it impossible to switch off.

The quest to gorge

Most of your readers are on a quest. Certain people, who have something very specific in their mind, are willing to spend hours hunting it down. It’s called ‘information foraging’.

Because you know the answer’s out there, you willingly scan headlines, keywords and images in the hope of finding it. 

When you find what you want, you will greedily GORGE on it.

Yes, you will gladly stuff your brain with all the valuable nuggets of information before you.

That’s why web writers should…

Cultivate the 16%

According to Jakob Neilsen, the usability expert, 79% of online visitors don’t read. They either scan or skim. 16% will read word for word. I guess the other 5% don’t hang around…

Understandably, most web writers interpret this as a call to action. They make their web pages highly scannable to appeal to the 79%.

While this is a good thing, focusing on the BIG number often means the 16% are often overlooked. This is a mistake.

It’s a mistake because that 16% generally represents the people who have the problem you solve. They are your real customers, followers or fans. They want what you have.

So you want to keep them glued to the page.

Encourage them to stick around by making their reading experience as pleasant as possible.

Here are five ways you can do this:

  1. Create a double-readership path so the copy can be read on multiple levels.
  2. Deploy copy cosmetics: font, size, bold, italics, colour etc.
  3. Use web writing approaches to suit topic, market and audience.
  4. Change and vary tone and style.
  5. Use short sentences and words with a low syllable count.

The digital mindset responds well to each and all of these techniques. Try them. You’ll find your visitors stay longer (the average is 16-24 secs).  And they’re more likely to read other things you write.


Published 3 March, 2011 by Joe Pelissier

Joe Pelissier is Managing Director at Pod Publications and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter, or connect via LinkedIn

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Comments (8)

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Matt Clark

Matt Clark, Analytics / CRO Consultant at Userflow

Great article,

Sums up what I have been recently trying to explain to a client about the differences between the way users read on the web against the way they read on printed media.

He felt that by building a huge case for his product with thousands of words he would be successful in converting them - the results have proved otherwise!

over 7 years ago



Excellent points, especially that about cultivating the 16%. There's no point in targeting the masses, if the masses are less interested in what you have to say than the select few that you're currently ignoring.

I noticed the way you spaced out this article- creating new paragraphs when new paragraphs weren't required. This, I suppose, is one of the techniques used to write web copy. With the world shifting to digital, many accomplished print writers are finding jobs in this arena, while their content is good, they have to learn to mold it to the needs of their readers.

over 7 years ago

Craig Brewster

Craig Brewster, Founder at your mum

You make some interesting points and references here. I especially like Nicholas Carr's article.

I have spoken to quite a few copywriters about how to make their copy work online and I've even written a short list of do's and don'ts to help them along:

I think the major issue for many writers is that writing for the web can feel more mechanical; it can feel like there's less room for creativity.

But I don't think this is the case.

Yes, there are a different set of rules to master but creativity comes from knowing how to make the copy shine within these constraints. I often liken this to a journalist who has to write an article with a specific number of words by a set deadline.

I think you can tell I am not an expert copywriter but I believe that good copy is the same offline as it is online. The words may be different but the principle is the same. It’s not about overlong flowery prose or massaging the writer’s ego; it’s about getting your point across creatively, clearly and succinctly.

To this end, I think we all need to allow copywriters time to deliver the same message twice. They need to think from the outset about how to deliver the same message across multiple mediums, each with a different set of rules. Writing for the web is not simply about editing what has been written for a print brochure.

This will become ever more important as the variety of channels increases. Do smartphone users scan copy in the same way as PC users?

over 7 years ago

Martin Schweitzer

Martin Schweitzer, CEO at infotrust E-Marketing Consultancy

The 16 % rule is a nice point. It's worth to think about it. In Germany it is exactly as you described it. Putting a huge amount of money into webdesign, but handling website copy superficial. But this will perhaps change in the future. Optimized website lead generation consists of great webdesign, and website copy which persuades.

over 7 years ago


Emily Hill

Great article, Joe. The key thing is the double readership path, as a good website should meet the needs and expectations of as many users as possible.

It doesn't necessarily follow that the 79% of 'skim readers' are less likely to buy than the 16% of 'detailed readers'. A reader from the first category could, for example, be very early on in the buying process and may be doing some initial research to get an idea of what's out there, without wanting to spend too much time reading detailed information. If he/she lands on your site for a few seconds and there's a punchy home page with a good description of what you offer, plus a straightforward newsletter sign up box it's very possible you can capture that person's data and keep in touch with them until they are ready to buy.

If the same punchy home page also contains links to a more detailed resources section (blogs/ articles/ white papers) for the reader who is further along in the buying cycle and is ready to do their extensive research as soon as they land on your site, then your web copy has a fighting chance of converting both types of user.

over 7 years ago


Helen K

Thanks Joe. I think the double readership path and the copy cosmetics combine very powerfully. As a copywriter I am often frustrated when I write and format my copy specifically to cater for this dual readership, but then the formatting is ignored by the web developer or designer putting the copy into the site. That's why I like publishing the copy myself to ensure this formatting element is not lost.

over 7 years ago


Joe Pelissier

I'm ejoying reading all your comments. Thank you.

I sense a little frustration out there amongst copywriters that is to do with working with web designers and content management systems that don't always allow you to publish the copy in a way that will help readership...

As Craig Brewster points out, we are going to have to adapt our writing style to suit all sorts of delivery channels. Interestingly, I am running a course on this in Germany for Die Akademie so I am encouraged by Martin Schweitzer's comment.

Re. how I laid out this article with one sentence per paragraph, this is called 'chunking'.

Although it increases scrolling, it improves readability.

Like many things that tend to work online, it breaks the so-called 'rules' of wrting for print.

over 7 years ago


David Shephard, President at Jib Design

I only got 16% of your point

over 7 years ago

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