Writing Content for Readers Who Scan
There are readers who want to delve into every article they read, approaching each new page the same way they'd approach a good book. They read thoroughly and completely, giving the page their full attention. However, it is far more common in today's fast-paced, mobile-oriented world for readers to simply skim (or scan) the content. In some cases, all they do is scan for a few moments and then move on. In others, they scan multiple articles and settle in to read when they find one that piques their interest. Either way, though, don't lose heart. You can still write intentionally for these readers and their fast reading habits.
The F-Shaped Scan
Readers do scan in a variety of different patterns, choosing how they process information. You can track this data with heatmaps that follow eye movements and demonstrate where people looked, how long their eyes lingered, and how they progressed through the page. When doing so, experts found that the most common scanning scape resembled the letter F.
What readers tend to do is start with the headline and the first block of text, reading most of what they find and creating the top of the letter F. They then jump down a bit and read a smaller portion, still reading horizontally but not taking in quite as much information. That's the second horizontal bar on the capital F. Third, they quickly run their eyes down the left side of the page. This is a vertical read, meaning they are no longer taking in full sentences. It can be fast or slow. That completes the overall shape.
What It Means for Your Content
Perhaps the main takeaway here is that the lede is incredibly important. Most readers will still read the beginning of the article and linger there. That's your chance to hook them and draw them into everything else the page offers.
Generally speaking, you also know that readers are going to hit the first lines of paragraphs and even the first few words of new sentences more than other parts of the page. On that vertical scan, they read the first few words of each line, possibly looking for keywords indicating which paragraph gives them the specific information they seek. In something like a news story, they may also be attempting to quickly take in the general details to understand what happened without delving into the meat of the article.
Writing for Scanners
Life is busy. People are busy. Scanning happens on computers, tablets and phones. People simply do not have the time and attention to read everything. They scan to get information more quickly or to decide which of several options looks worth that time investment.
To write for these readers, you must set your content up with an emphasis on first lines, ledes, first paragraphs and first words. Put as much information in these high-traffic areas as you can. Just as with a store's physical location, traffic matters and location matters. When you find out how the "traffic" moves through your content itself, you have a better chance of connecting with readers, increasing dwell times on pages and making conversions.