A Reader-First Internet.

The following is an essay I originally posted on my own site, but felt warranted to post here since this platform embodies everything I talk about below.

People worry about all sorts of things with their website. Are conversions happening? Is everything important above the fold? Are the sharing buttons visible? Does the mailing list signup have the right verbiage to net the most signups?

What’s wrong with all these questions? They’re website owner focused, and not reader focused. And as a website owner, you aren’t helping the reader by promoting your products or mailing list in every possible bit of whitespace, you’re helping yourself.

A person visiting your website isn’t necessarily a customer—they’re just someone wanting to learn something from you. They aren’t going to buy, subscribe or do anything until they’ve had a chance to learn what you have to say. That’s why being able to read your content is the most important thing on your website.

People don’t like being distracted when they’re trying to learn something. Ads, popups, sidebars, share buttons, etc are distracting (and annoying). They are serving your goals, not theirs. Obviously the more you promote everything, the more some folks will take the bait. But is this a long-term strategy? Is it sustainable? How many people are you losing because they’re soured by distractions?

If I click a link from twitter to read an article and a subscribe box appears while I’m trying to read that article, I close the site (I don’t care what A-list blogger’s site I’m on). The trust is gone at that point since the person values promotion over what I actually want to do. For every marketer that has stats showing conversion rates increase hugely when you have a big signup box, lots of ads, 50 share buttons, or popup covering content, there are probably stats showing how many people closed the site because of the over-promotion and distraction.

If you create value in the content you write—for the reader—they’ll be much more willing to do what you want them, and typically they’ll do it without you having to pester them.

When I read a good article that teaches me something or resonates with me, I want to share it on twitter (even if there’s not a share button). If I then read another article by the same author, I will look for the subscribe button (even if it doesn’t popup over the article) so I can then get more articles via email.

So if your site is truly reader-focused, what are the most important pieces?

  • A clear headline (not overly padded with keywords, numbers or seo-optimized phrasings).
  • The content/text of the article in a well-sized, well-spaced typeface. Set in a column with optimal number of characters per line (a CPL of 50-70 is considered ideal) with a line-height of around 130%. And obviously, the content is epic, valuable, and insightful.
  • Actions a reader can take after they read the article (unobstrusively)—such as read more articles on a similar subject, get articles via email or share what was just read.

And that’s it.

Obviously things like promoting your products, having a mailing list subscription form, linking to your social media profiles help your website convert readers into a lasting audience. They just aren’t the most important thing and definitely don’t need to distract from the actual content to be effective.

Serve your readers first, and then they’ll gladly become your audience (or customers) without any prodding. Imagine if that’s how the whole Internet worked?