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Most People Skim. Few Read Deep.

Excerpted from Making Money with Donor Newsletters

Watch your own behavior the next time you pick up the newspaper.

You browse first. If you find something of interest, then you start reading. And even then, you often read no more than a paragraph or two before jumping to another story, unless you're enjoying a leisurely morning.

Same goes for donors. When your newsletter arrives, the first thing they do is browse: skim a few headlines, look at the photos, maybe read a caption, to see if anything's of interest. If nothing is, they put the newsletter aside, likely never to return.

Which means, if you have nothing of interest in your "browser level" (see the list below), you've wasted your time and money.

Don't expect donors to read deep, because most of them won't. Instead of saying, "When people read our newsletter ... ," start saying, "When people skim our newsletter, this is what they will learn."

What Readers Look At, Science Says

Siegfried Vögele, dean of the Institute of Direct Marketing in Munich, Germany, electrified the direct marketing industry when he introduced his eye-motion research in the 1980s.

In his studies, Vögele used cameras to observe the human eye as it encountered a fresh printed page. He confirmed that our eyes tend to look first at the biggest splashes of ink (photos, headlines) and then at briefer, bolder things (captions, bullet lists, three-word paragraphs). Long copy—articles and such—is ignored until last.

A decade later, Drs. Mario Garcia and Pegie Stark Adam conducted the first Poynter Institute study using eye-tracking equipment. Their findings reinforced Vögele's:

  • Photos attracted attention. Color photos were viewed as often as black and white. Color was a powerful tool that pulled the eye toward various parts of a page, especially when readers viewed two facing pages.
  • Eyes followed a common pattern of navigation. The majority of readers entered all pages through the dominant photo or illustration, then traveled to the dominant headline, then to teasers and cutlines [captions], and finally to text.
  • Teasers [pull quotes] accompanied by visuals received far more attention than text-only teasers.
  • Two facing pages were viewed as one. When viewing two inside facing pages, readers entered the pages on the right-hand side and traveled immediately left. Readers viewed a two-page spread as if it were one single unit.
  • Readers love color. The majority of participants said they read more of the text on a colorful page, though, in fact, many had not. Color also gave readers the illusion that there was more information than appeared on the pages.
  • Images (photos and graphics) were viewed more than text. Photos and artwork were looked at the most, followed by headlines and advertising, then briefs and cutlines. Text was read the least.

In time, these findings may change, as print media gives ground to digital media. But not until the Baby Boom is history, at the soonest.

Why What You Put on Your "Skimming Level" Is So Important

I feel safe saying that no more than 20 percent of your so-called "readers" will ever penetrate much beyond the first sentence of any given article.

What are the other 80 percent doing? They're skimming. They're looking briefly at your "skimming level," comprising ...

  • Photos and illustrations
  • Headlines and decks
  • Pull quotes (Poynter called them "teasers")
  • Captions (Poynter called them "cutlines")
  • Bullet lists

I.e., they're looking at anything that's easy and quick to read.

Successful publications are built backwards from the needs and wants of their target audiences. The target audience for donor newsletters is, of course, donors. So ... what do donors want and expect from the organization they've helped?

  • Reports on how their donations are changing the world
  • Appreciation, praise, and head-over-heels love

And ... where will those messages and sentiments have the best chance of penetrating the largest number of "reader" brains?

NOT in the lengthy bits (articles).

Any message you hope to get across MUST be in the bigger, bolder, briefer bits (headlines, pull quotes, captions), the bits that people habitually skim.


Most-People-Skim-Few-Read-Deep_Tom-Ahern.jpgTom Ahern
© Tom Ahern. Excerpted from Making Money with Donor Newsletters. Excerpted with permission.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America's top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999. Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the United States, Canada, and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful. His consulting practice, Ahern Donor Communications, Ink, specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.

Topics: Fundraising