9 Content Design Mistakes That Hurt Engagement — and How to Fix Them Fast

Sure, part of creating content is about attracting people to your site with a juicy story or helpful piece of information. But once they’ve landed on your page, don’t you want them to actually read the content you’ve worked so hard to create—and maybe even doing something more valuable on your site like subscribing or purchasing your product?

Too many content teams spend so much time focusing on SEO optimization or coming up with a click-worthy headline so people will land on their page, that they forget to optimize the reading experience to keep folks around. These common design mistakes hurt engagement and conversions, causing people to leave your page before they can get to the good stuff. But with some simple fixes, sticking around, scrolling more, reading deeper, and maybe even converting.

You’re Using a Cover Image That Doesn’t Set the Right Impression

…or worse, not using one at all. The top of your page—the space ‘above the fold,’ if you will—is a reader’s first impression of your article. Do you want that first impression to be a dull, outdated stock image that doesn’t connect to the content at hand, or worse, a boring block of text?

It’s not just to make your article look nice—it’s proven to increase engagement as well. Researchers D Lagun and M Lalmas at the ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining shared that they found “users tend to stay almost twice as long at the first screen when the article starts with an image, compared to articles without an image on top.”

In other words? You can nearly double your engagement simply by choosing a relevant and visually engaging cover image. In a world where bad stock photography is taking over the internet, you have to be picky and make sure someone with a good eye is choosing your media, but it is possible and worth investing time into.

There’s No Logical Structure to Help People Scan

Yes, we would all love it if everyone read every single word of our articles. But that’s just not the reality. The Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) – world leaders in research-based user experience design – observed more than 300 people use hundreds of different websites, and found that most people scan content and make quick appraisals before reading – or moving to the next best thing. Specifically, “In sometimes less than a second, a user can complete an initial appraisal of a page, estimating the nature, quality, importance, and potential value to them.”

“In sometimes less than a second, a user can complete an initial appraisal of a page, estimating the nature, quality, importance, and potential value to them.”

If your article has no hierarchy, no headings, or a confusing layout that’s inconsistent throughout the article, you’re basically burying the lead. Make it easy for readers to quickly scan through and see the value they’ll get out of the article so they want to stick around and learn more.

A logical structure that breaks down content into clear blocks (i.e. introduction, key points, and conclusion).

NN/g recommends having a “predictable” layout as it makes reading easier (and if you make your readers work for it, they’re likely to jump ship quickly). This means your structure should be consistent throughout, and should include elements that folks are used to seeing on the web today, like headers in a larger font that break the content into clear blocks of information.

All Your Text is Formatted the Same

SImilarly, if all your body text is just one big block of words, readers’ eyes are going to start to cross, fast. Not enough publications think of creative ways to break up the body of their article, and it causes readers to give up on digging through the text to find the information they’re looking for.

Images, of course, are a huge way to break up text, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But you can also break up your copy by formatting certain blocks of text in a way that makes them stand out or more easily readable.


Bullet points

are another good example of how you can format content to make it ideal for engagement. As NN/g explains, “A few tiny dots attract the eye and can make a complex concept understandable. Readers perceive the bullets as shortcuts to succinct, high-priority content. It’s not surprising that, in usability studies, we observe readers gravitate towards bulleted lists with fervor.”



Pull quotes

for instance, are popular for a reason. Using pull quotes throughout your article helps attract the eye and show off some of the most compelling bits of content, making your reader want to dig in more.


Your Text Blocks Are Uncomfortable to Read

For the places where you do have paragraphs of standard text, you need to make sure they’re a comfortable width for reading. Column widths that are too wide can have readers overwhelmed by the number of words and make it harder to scan quickly — consumer psychology publication Social Triggers shared that research has found people feel that shorter lines look more organized and are easier to understand. But if you get too narrow, everything can feel cramped and hard to digest.

The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web states states that, “The 66-character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal.” While you don’t need to get too granular with this, aiming for a column width within 10 or so characters of that number should help set your page up for the ultimate readability success.

66

character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal

Data Gets Lost in the Text

If your data is getting lost in the articles you’re writing, you’re likely to lose readers faster, too.

NN/g found that, one of the things that the eye often scans for (whether consciously or unconsciously) is numbers. Whether it’s because the reader is looking for information or simply because the shape of numerals stands out in text, they can draw the eye and keep a reader engaged.

So lean into that fact and create visual elements from the data in your article. This will not only further help break up your text, but also highlight some of the information that is most likely to catch the reader’s eye. If you have the datasets and design team to support it, data visualizations are a powerful way to draw readers in and quickly convey information. If you don’t have the time for something that sophisticated, simply pulling out a data highlight (basically a piece of data stylized as its own content block in a larger font, kind of like a pull quote), can get the job done.

Learn more about Designing Effective Layouts

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You Aren’t Using Enough Visuals

If you’re just using an image at the top of your article, it’s not good enough. Too few visual elements is another surefire way to lose readers to that ‘block of text’ syndrome.

Researchers at BuzzSumo—a company with tools for researching and monitoring the popularity of content—studied over one million articles and found that articles with visuals every 75-100 words received twice as many social shares as those with fewer. (And if folks like your article enough to share, they’re probably pretty engaged.)

Mix it up to keep your reader from starting to tune out the images—for instance, include some small graphics to illustrate a bulleted list in one section, than an immersive, full-width image to drive home a big point later down the page.

Plus, Buffer shared that the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than it does text, so what better way to keep scanners engaged than peppering your article with relevant imagery?

You Aren’t Using Smart Enough Visuals

Keep your imagery extra engaging by using media they can actually interact with. Embedded multimedia is a powerful way to make your page more dynamic.

For instance, instead of using a screenshot of a social media post, embed it so folks can interact directly with the content of the post as part of your article. Instead of inserting a graph or chart as an image, create them directly within your content so they’re searchable and perhaps even interactive (like a data visualization where people can insert different numbers to see how it affects the charts).

One report by DemandGen found that 91% of buyers are looking for more visual and interactive content. By getting creative in how you deliver that, you’re likely to stand out from the crowd and get readers to stick around more.

91%

of buyers are looking for more visual and interactive content. By getting creative in how you deliver that, you’re likely to stand out from the crowd and get readers to stick around more.

DemandGen

The Page Isn’t Dynamic as You Scroll

Another way to keep readers moving through the article? Have the article actually move while they scroll.

This is more of a pro tip than a full on mistake, but including features like parallax scrolling or animations as you move down the page can be a way to catch attention as a reader moves through the article.

According to Katie Sherwin at NN/g, “The velocity of motion is a preattentive trait: an object that moves at different speed than everything else in a scene stands out like a cheetah sprinting through open grasslands; people will notice it without making any explicit effort to search for it.”

“The velocity of motion is a preattentive trait: an object that moves at different speed than everything else in a scene stands out like a cheetah sprinting through open grasslands; people will notice it without making any explicit effort to search for it.”

Katie Sherwin at NN/g

That said, you do have to be cautious with features like this—if not implemented correctly, they can cause usability issues. But added into your content with care, they can really help draw a reader through the content.

CTAs Are Getting Lost

Of course, the ultimate goal is to get your reader to to something else, like reading another article, subscribing, or even purchasing one of your products. While you can gain reader trust and interest through content, you need to guide them along to the action you’re hoping they’ll take with CTAs.

So many content designers don’t want to be too salesy, to try to keep the CTAs subtle, making them look natural within the content or placing them at the bottom. But in an article full of eye-catching images, animations, pull-quotes, data visualizations, and more, a subtle CTA is going to get overlooked.

While you still want to make CTAs feel natural, you also want them to be obvious. Hubspot has found that “text-based CTAs within blog posts convert better. Generally, this text CTA is within the top third of the post, and then accompanied by a separate CTA at the bottom. This pairing has dramatically increased conversions from blog content.”

Download your own copy of “Designing Effective Layouts” as a handy guide and reference

What are you excited to see in the world of editorial, blog, and content marketing design this year?

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