Web copywriting 101: Sub-headings

Copywriting

Ian Lurie Jun 4 2012

I went to read The Skills Gap Myth on Time.com this morning, and I saw this:

lots of text

Whoa. That's a lot of text.

I know I’m off Diet Coke, and low on caffeine, and my brain’s working in slow motion. But still, that’s an awful lot of uninterrupted text for a Monday morning. When you’re writing online, you need to break up the page. A solid, endless scroll of text will make even the most determined reader hesitate.

Couldn’t the web editors at Time do something like this?

That's better

That's better, yes?

The problem with reading online

Reading text on a screen makes comprehension and retention harder. iPads and other tablets are changing this for e-book text, where there’s a finite screen length and near-instant load times. They’re not changing this for web pages, where the page can stretch and people hate waiting for a new page to load.

So, you need to provide breaks: A time for the reader’s brain to rest. Sub-headings are the easiest way to do it.

Sub-heads: The rest between intervals

In cycling, I train using intervals: A hard effort, followed by a rest, followed by a hard effort. That lets me do more, in less time, and not have my heart pop like a grape in a microwave.

By inserting a few sub-heads at logical points in the article, you can take the whole article from this:

Lots of text, no breaks

To this:

Just a few sub-heads

Not a magic solution

Adding sub-headings is easy and fast. It provides the reader a quick road map, and splits the page into shorter reading efforts. That’s all good.

You can do even better, though, with smarter typography—take a look at Pearsonified’s Golden Ratio Type Calculator— and intelligent use of images.

Some evidence

Sorry, I don’t have the perfect study proving all this. It’s mostly common sense:

  • Reading from a monitor is hard.
  • On web pages, people scan first, then read.
  • This is completely different from e-books read on tablet computers, so studies showing folks are fine reading War & Peace on their iPad don’t apply.

I do have a good anecdote, though: We gave one client suggestions for revamping their blog posts. They added more sub-headings, dispersed imagery throughout those posts, and made some small typography changes. Time on page went up 50%. Bounce rate from blog posts fell 15%.

It’s not that hard

It took me about 3 minutes to add 5 relevant sub-headings to the Time Business article. If that can cut bounce rates by even 1-2%, I’ll bet it’ll pay off in higher ad impressions and revenue for Time Business.

Give it a shot. If you’re comfortable sharing, send me your data. I’ll pull it all together.

If you want to compare versions of the article, here’s the original. And here’s my version, with sub-heads.

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12 Comments

  1. I agree with you that using good sub-headlines is just common sense and best practice. I don’t have much data on it – since I know subheadlines work, I never really test page versions without them.

  2. I thought the example was going to be from some generic site – then I saw that it’s from TIME. I honestly only read your subheadings, so I’m not entirely sure if I missed anything important though :)

  3. A few months ago, Forbes basically took a story from the NYT, gave it a better headline and improved the formatting to be more web-friendly. The Forbes article went on to receive millions of hits, much more than the original. It’s a great case study of how important formatting can be. I don’t understand why so many traditional media outlets don’t “get” this.

  4. It’s amazing what a little visual interest can do – and how a lack thereof can prevent someone from reading a piece of content altogether. Thanks for sharing the golden ratio calculator. :)

  5. I love using the 50,000 foot test for pages on a site (sorry, don’t know the proper name for it), just taking a screenshot of a page and zooming out to see how easy it is to digest information, find the primary CTA, etc.

    Then again, this post makes me sad when I think back to your earlier blog entries about Target, which were great, and how they never made the changes :(

  6. Julia

    And on top of that if the sub-heads are tags it can be really good for SEO !
    @Kelly: do know where I can find the case study you are talking about?

  7. Excellent point made here – it’s amazing how often even credible sources think the reader is going to wade through line after line of their writing without a break.

  8. This should certainly help website viewers retain segments of relevant content as they scan lengthy articles.

  9. Yasir

    Subheadings make your readers to detect detailed information rapidly. They also give the reader an idea of how deeply a topic is covered.

  10. People skim when reading online. If your content is lots of bulky paragraphs it’s harder to find what you may be looking for. Sub-headings keep things neat and also people to find key points while browsing.

  11. Good stuff. I’ve written about this ad nauseum because stylizing a page can make such a huge difference in readability. For whatever reason, print media stylizes their material nicely yet much of online media just throws a wall of on a page.

    If anyone is looking for inspiration, two sites that use subheadings exceptionally well in their blogs are unbounce and SEOmoz.

  12. Great point Ian! Online reading is actually a lot tiring to the eyes. And it will definitely help readers to see sub-headings so that they actually have a trigger on when they can relax a bit, and make the decision to continue as they read. I would rather have them read online articles in bite-size pieces rather than not read them at all.

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