The average website visitor's attention span is that of a goldfish. That’s no more than 45 seconds or the time it took you to read this paragraph. But some sites defy these estimates. How? By using effective strategies to grab a person’s attention and persuade them to stick around and engage with the content.

Here are a few that will help you be one of them.

1. Know your audience.

Who is your website for? What do they want from you? And what do you want them to do? Answers to these questions are vital to creating great content. A language that is standard for one audience might be meaningless jargon to another. Knowing your audience is the difference between keeping them reading and losing their attention within seconds.

To help you answer these questions, use the personas created as part of the UX design process (or create them if you haven’t already). They will give you a sense of what voice to use – whether you tone things up, tone them down or stay neutral – and what they’re already likely to know about a subject.

2. Know yourself.

How do you want your audience to perceive you? What is your brand identity, and how does this inform the tone of your writing? What are your key messages? Answers to these questions will help ensure that your content is consistent and cohesive such that your audience knows what to expect and keeps coming back.

If your organization hasn’t already done so, consider putting together a tone guide specific to your organization that nails down these attributes and helps keep them consistent across all your content.

3. Know your medium.

If your medium is the web, search engine optimization (SEO) is your friend. While SEO is a field of expertise all its own, any content creator can master basic SEO writing techniques. This involves using the right keywords where they have their maximum impact and paying attention to placements like:

  • Title tags
  • Internal links within content
  • Alt attributes of images
  • Headline tags (these should always have an H1 heading).
  • Meta descriptions

Additionally, Google pays attention to content in boldface and bullet points. So do your readers.

4. Accept the fact that your readers won’t read the whole thing.

Web readers typically don’t really “read”. They scan, usually in a Z pattern – from top left to bottom right. List-type articles are ideal because they don’t force readers to commit to reading an entire essay. Likewise, short paragraphs, bullet points and subheadings all contribute to maximum scannability.

5. Think about context.

What is it you’re about to write? Are you making a flashy new sales pitch or are you bearing bad news? The answer to this question should influence the tone of your writing. If it’s a technical piece, opt for a neutral tone. If you’re announcing a company anniversary, you can go for the superlatives. If it’s a sombre subject, you’ll want to tone things down.

6. Aim for a grade 8 reading level.

Even if your core audience consists of Ph.D. holders, web content much above a grade 8 level is going to lose readers quickly. It is also worth considering that many readers are likely not to be native English speakers. Sites like Readable test the readability of your content and flag words you might want to change to reduce your grade level.

7. Structure content using the inverted pyramid method.

Good web content typically opens with the most important information right up front, followed by the next most important information and so on. This is called the inverted pyramid method. In list-based articles like this one, each item should start with the “conclusion”.

8. Choose a self-explanatory title.

Avoid the temptation to give your blog post a clever-sounding title. Readers will only click on your page if it corresponds more or less exactly with what they’re looking for.

9. Start with a hook.

Remember the opening sentence of this post about goldfish? In writing parlance that’s called a “hook”. A hook can be a quote, an attention-grabbing fact, or a relatable anecdote but it should be short, to the point and unexpected enough to keep the reader engaged. This is where you can indulge in the sort of cleverness best left out of your title.

10. Use the active voice.

There are exceptions to this rule, but in general, you want to use active rather than passive voice in your writing. Active voice has the advantage of being more direct, more authoritative and generally more concise. 

11. Go straight to the point.

Learn to write effectively for the web by copying and pasting a paragraph – any paragraph – from the web into a Word document. Do a word count. Then try cutting it in half while not losing any meaning. Repeat the process until it’s a quarter of the original length. Now you’re probably looking at appropriate web content.

12. Chunk content into bite-sized segments.

People absorb information more slowly from a screen than from a printed page. Long paragraphs like you would have in a book are anathema to good web writing. Paragraphs should be limited to one essential point and be no longer than a few sentences.

Chunking content is particularly important when it comes to being device friendly. A paragraph that is five lines long on your desktop screen will probably be close to twice that on your mobile phone. 

13. Bullet points and numbered lists are your friends.

Not only are they easy for people to read, but they are also search-engine-friendly and great for positioning keywords.

14. Use subheadings.

The more you can subdivide your writing, the better. Just as you want to chunk your content into bite-sized paragraphs, dividing up your content thematically with subheadings will make it easy to read. This becomes especially important for longer pieces of content. As a general rule, a 500-word blog post should have three subheadings.

Subheadings are also a best practice from a web accessibility standpoint, especially when used in the appropriate order (<h1>, <h2>, <h3> et cetera).

15. Ensure your hyperlinked text flows naturally.

Any web copywriting expert will tell you to avoid the words “click here”. There are always alternatives that make sense in the context of the content. Similarly, hyperlinks should not be half a sentence long (unless it’s a very short sentence) but rather just enough of the wording for the link to make sense.

16. Emphasize using boldface, not all caps.

Nobody likes being yelled at. Always use boldface when emphasizing certain words within your text. Just be sure to use the tag <strong> rather than the tag <b> from an accessibility standpoint. The former is considered semantic markup and will give visually impaired readers additional meaning.

17. Be sparing in your use of exclamation points.

When used selectively, exclamation points serve an important purpose in writing, especially when you’re toning content “up”. However, excessive use of them will make your writing look childish.

18. Paraphrase, paraphrase, paraphrase!

The temptation to copy and paste content from other sites has never been higher, but so has the likelihood of getting caught, which can result in penalization by search engines or worse. Even if it’s not flagged, plagiarism erodes the quality of content. Grammarly’s plagiarism checker can help you paraphrase content you like from elsewhere until the wording is truly your own.

19. Don’t forget the all-important call to action.

Remember back in point #1 when we asked what you want your audience to do? The answer to this question should be first and foremost on your mind as you write and culminate in a call to action, typically at the end of the content. If your reader has reached the end of your content, you want to take full advantage of that fact and keep them engaged.

20. Have processes in place for proper editing and proofreading.

A writer is unlikely to be a subject matter expert. Organizations that produce great content invariably have streamlined processes whereby content is first edited by a subject matter expert, and then proofread by somebody preferably with advanced writing skills themselves.

Read moreA Plain Language Guide for Writing Inclusive Digital Content

Last but not least

Everything mentioned in this list takes time and none of it should be rushed. Content produced in the final ten minutes of a person’s shift and posted at the last possible moment is guaranteed to be of poor quality. From a time management standpoint, it is important to have time roped off in your calendar dedicated to writing.

And remember, even the driest of subject matters can be livened up by spirited writing. Always ask yourself “Would I want to read this?” and then find ways to keep yourself interested as a writer. In the end, you’re doing the work – you might as well enjoy it.