How to Keep Online Readers Engaged in Long Articles
Check in with your audience and avoid shouting into the void.
According to a study by Microsoft, humans now have an attention span of eight seconds. Eight seconds! Don’t ask me for details on the study, I only skimmed it. And please don’t click away to that study link, I only included it so you’d believe me.
Anyway, if you’ve made it to this second paragraph, congrats! You’re a rare breed. Though you’ll notice that I’ve increased my odds by appealing to writers in my title. Writers tend to be readers by nature and practice. Reading articles from start to finish is like our daily push-up routine. Our attention spans are swole.
“I never read stories that are seven minutes or longer, but even if you uploaded one that was twenty minutes long, I’d read it. I’m not even joking. I feel like I’m reading a book when I read your work. It always pulls me in, takes me to a new time and place, and you always share such valuable lessons I know to take with me for a long time.”
I was especially flattered because Itxy’s a genius at writing short, 2–5 minute shots of motivation; stories that help you reflect on your life and boost your mood. She also somehow manages to be completely genuine and vulnerable in the tiny amount of time she allows herself. Mark Twain once joked, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” It takes serious talent to write short stories/articles.
I have a different style. Not better or worse, just different. My average story is a 9-10 minute read. I’ve experimented in the 3–5 min. range, as well as the 15–17 min. range, but 10 seems to be my sweet spot. This can sometimes deter readers from clicking on my stories in the first place because they’ll decide they just don’t have the time to invest. And that’s ok. Those types of readers aren’t my audience. My people are the type of people who are hoping to be swept up.
You may be asking yourself, if Itxy’s tightly-crafted 2-minute pieces are pushing the average reader to their limits, how the hell do I manage to convince people to gift me 10 minutes of their time? 12? 15?
Jesus, be patient. I’m getting there.
1. Who are you writing to?
Ugh, I know. You’re sick to death of this question. But I’m going to make an argument that it’s because you’re misunderstanding the connotation. I’m not trying to put you on the spot and I’m not demanding to know your “brand”. I love asking who you’re writing to because, if you do have an answer, it’s usually a thinly-veiled description of yourself:
“My audience is people who love extreme endurance sports and bathing in tubs of ice. I have a publication called ‘Burns So Good’.”
“My audience spends hours every night reading Good Omens and Harry Potter fanfiction. You know. The intellectual queer millennial.”
“I write for the modern anarchist — people who campaign against the establishment from their laptops and live in cute little off-the-grid tiny houses.”
“I market myself to people who want to market themselves. It’s best if they have a healthy appreciation for puppets and dad jokes.”
I might as well have asked you what your greatest passion is. In fact, when I’m at parties, I do ask people that. It’s my go-to conversation starter because we live in an age when the standard ice-breaker, “So what do you do?”, fills people with so much existential dread that we end up lying awake all night, imagining the answer we wish we’d given.
“What do you do?” means “How do you make your money?”. It implies, “I’m going to judge you if you haven’t figured out how to monetize your passion”. It’s an awkward question and nobody likes answering it. Stop asking it, please. Stop writing like you’re thinking about it. This is why people hate to be asked who their audience is, because they think their answer has to sound lucrative.
“What’s your passion?” throws doors wide open. It’s what I’m really asking when I ask, “Who are you writing to?”. It kind of throws people off at first, but once they understand that I’m looking for a more heartfelt conversation, they’re more than willing to talk to me about the thing that gives them life — whether that’s video games, history, comedy, down-hill cello-playing, public hospital crawls, competitive dog-walking, the study of non-sentient aliens …I could go on forever but I’m already giving your attention span a work-out.
What I’m saying is that this question has led to some of the deepest, weirdest, most engaging conversations I’ve ever had. Authenticity is rare. People are hungry to invest their time in it.
“Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know.” ― Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Writers are intensely passionate people but we’re terrified that we might be the only person who cares about what we care about, so we hide behind generic topics and “professional” language. We chop our thought processes down to bite-sized little presentations instead of inviting people in to watch us cook.
On the other end of the spectrum of “unhealthy ways artists handle their inferiority complexes and social anxiety”, we put on shows and pretend there’s no audience at all. I’m using a lot of metaphors here, I know, but we write under pseudonyms and we “write like nobody’s watching”. We get up on stage and do the whole dance with our eyes closed.
I wrote an article a while back about needing to put myself in that mindset just to get over my writer’s block…and then I deleted it. What can I say? Life’s complicated and I’m a multi-layered mess. I was feeling particularly anxious at the time and writing something that basically said, “I’m going to try to imagine you’re not real, ok?” to my audience felt like the only way to settle my nerves down.
Obviously it didn’t work or that article would still be up.
I think we often spend so much energy trying to protect ourselves that we miss an opportunity to open our eyes, step down into the audience, and involve people in the show.
When you have your audience in mind (feel free to think of them as your best friends/interest soulmates), you not only have a better awareness of your own self and your own voice, but you know how to talk to your audience. You know what lingo to use, where they might drift away from the story, and how to recapture their attention. What would capture your attention?