3 Sticky Ways to Hold Reader Attention

Sticky Attention

Your copy might focus on benefits instead of features, have the right balance of emotion to logic, and maybe you’ve even snagged the reader’s attention with an arresting headline. But after your reader clicks through, does your copy hold her interest?

If you can’t keep the reader’s attention, nothing else matters. And the online world demands your best techniques to hold reader interest, because tempting distractions are always just a click away. All writers and marketers have their favorite tricks to glue reader attention to their content, so here are three of mine.

1. Pair your copy with an arresting image

Some images create a strong emotional reaction in your reader, which creates a much more receptive mindset for your persuasive copy.

My Copyblogger post on personal elements in blogging was accompanied by an image that created plenty of interest before readers ever got to the words.

My post on my own blog about how to be an authority and a nice guy used an image that created a very different feel (I hope), but it also primed the reader for a particular emotional connection to the post.

Strong images are strong because they inspire strong emotion. Whether that emotion is lust, tenderness, awe, sympathy, or just plain curiosity, a powerful image alters your reader’s consciousness for just a few moments. That split second of emotional transformation allows your message to sink in much more deeply.

2. Use questions to capture and keep reader attention

Smart copywriters use questions to get the reader’s train of thought moving in the right direction. Ask questions that uncover pain points or explore insecurity.

Ask questions that enlarge your readers’ dreams, questions that get them to paint a mental picture of the fantastic rewards your product can bring.

We humans are the most curious animal on the planet, and questions are irresistible to us. When we hear a question, we want to answer it. Keep your readers’ interest up by setting their curious minds in motion with questions about how they can solve their problems with your solutions.

3. Get nitty gritty

Abstraction is boring. Ever read a psychology textbook in college? The theoretical discussions and clinical descriptions made for an excellent sleeping aid. But the case studies–real-life stories of crazy people and how being crazy affected their lives–woke you right up again.

Content with lots of specific details will hold reader attention much better than content that waffles on about general concepts. Vague, abstract generalities are hard to relate to. But when you get down to nitty-gritty specifics–exactly what goes into a technique, or the scary details about how you were almost homeless before you discovered this new business strategy–your reader wakes up again.

Use details and narrative to show the reader what really happened. Get nitty-gritty with your reader and she’ll reward you with her sustained attention. And that attention can be profitably turned into sales.

What are your favorite attention-holding techniques?

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Reader Comments (38)

  1. says

    I use istockphoto and Flickr Creative Commons. (I only use “attribution only” images, which have no restrictions other than providing a credit to the image). Between the two of them, I can generally come up with something that will work well.

    Sourcing images can take a long time, so I keep lots of lightboxes in istockphoto and have a fairly extensive “favorites” file on Flickr. That gives me a sort of library to browse through when I want to find an image reasonably quickly. Every time I’m searching for a particular image, I save all the images I like for future reference, so I can easily find them again.

    istock images are typically more professional and corporate, and it’s a good source for images of objects isolated on a white background (nice for blog posts). Flickr are more variable in quality, but you can often find more quirky and mood-setting images there. They each have their strengths.

    Occasionally I need to hit Fotolia if those two let me down. I needed a strong, simple image of a Magic 8 Ball recently, and couldn’t find one on either ISP or Flickr.

  2. says

    “Ever read a psychology textbook in college? The theoretical discussions and clinical descriptions made for an excellent sleeping aid.”


  3. says

    These are great ideas! Thank you.

    I have one to add. Seems the articles I get the MOST response to is when I reveal part of my humanity and vulnerability. Seems odd, doesn’t it? We’re suppose to be the expert, right? But, when our readers hear we’re a human being, just like them, with challenges and feelings — they want to hear more.

  4. says

    One way I use to keep reader attention is to write from a personal angle. Other people’s lives are interesting, and even more so if that story they tell resonates with whoever is reading.

    It’s capturing that, “Oh, yeah, I know what you’re saying… been there, done that, James.” Those types of post consistently get people coming out of the woodwork to share their own stories.

    Case studies is another good one – again, a story about someone’s life.

    Questions are effective too – especially when you combine a question and your personal life. Many people *love* the opportunity to tell someone they feel ‘out of their league’ what to do.

    For example, say Brian asked the crowd their thoughts on a problem he’s struggling with. How much would you like to bet that he gets a *ton* of comments? And that personal touch? The story? And the readers sharing their stories?

    That would rock.

    Of course, my perception is that the biggest thing Brian might ever struggle with is what color socks to wear with those pants, but hey. 😉

  5. says

    Question about arresting photos…

    Since I’m new to the role of writing my own blog, I’ve wondered what the options are for snagging photos online and using them in my posts. I always attribute where I found the photo, but is that enough?

    Can you use istockphoto images without any worry as long as you attribute? For Flickr, is there a way to search for the creative commons photos with “attribution only” requirements?

    Thanks in advance!

  6. says

    Great post Sonia!

    My company is at a crossroads with PR firms who clearly don’t get this. Can you offer any advise on how to find an employee or PR firm who can help a company engage in social conversation in an intersting and remarkable way? Our company is remarkable and our PR is NOT!

  7. says

    i would like to add
    Good copy is all about creating active, vivid prose that flows with natural rhythm.

    The basic tools for creating rhythm in writing are:
    Grammar – sentence structure and punctuation.
    Active/ passive prose
    Clarity v clutter/ confusion
    Word choice

    Rhythm is to writing, as textures are to designing. It adds interest, tone and emphasis, it breaks-up monotony, it catches the ‘ear’ and holds attention, or gently blends and creates flow. Rhythm creates mood and evokes emotion.

    Note – The perfect length for a headline is determined solely by the minimum length needed for it to be effective.

  8. says

    All good points that come under the “tell a good story and your readers will stick with you” umbrella. Yes, the compelling images can draw a reader into a story faster than a $50 headline, but it is the narrative that will hold them from start to finish…

  9. says

    Excellent concepts Sonia. I personally like to attribute something that all readers can relate to (cupcakes, sales people, etc.) and then draw connective tissue back to my topic at hand (typically HR related). The concept that ideation for solutions are everywhere can be quite compelling. Thanks for the tips!


  10. says

    Great tips, especially the third one about being specific. I think being specific goes hand in hand with the quality of the post.

    If you are doing a post which is “how to” in nature it is really important to go through all the steps carefully. As someone who knows what they are talking about, it is easy to skip over info that a beginner would get lost on.

  11. says

    Thanks for the advice yet again. I don’t get to read your posts everyday and always feel like I am going to miss something. Yet another gem.

    I like the being specific part also. I am usually very specific but for some reason when I am writing a blog post I tend to be general. I guess I am trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Should I worry about this or should I be specific and get more solid regular readers at the expense of losing others?

  12. says

    Thanks for these tips! I’d just add a piece of advice I got from a former boss, which is that you don’t want to ask questions that aren’t really questions you’re asking people to answer…these typically appear at the beginning of a post, or in a tease. The risk is that while the question may add a bit of flourish, or feel catchy, you risk that readers will read it and answer “no” in their heads.

    For example, “Looking for a new local band? Check out the XYZ concert…” — a reader might read the question and think, in her head, “no, not really” – and that puts distance between you and her. Instead, just get to the point: “The XYZs are playing Saturday night…[insert compelling details].”

    This is of course very different than asking targeted questions of readers, which I agree strengthens blog posts.

  13. says

    I love to use arresting images that are symbolic to the post topic. Works wonders. But absolutely number one is the headline. It all starts there.

  14. brad says

    Good points. I would say the biggest “problem” I see in writing is it takes to long to get to the point. Sure setup is important, but if you get three paragraphs in, and still haven’t gotten to a point then something is wrong.

    This article is a good example. I knew right away what you were getting at, and was able to decide whether i was interested. I have seen so many others that are just so ambiguous that, although the title is interesting, I get bored a few minutes in. This is especially true of longer articles.

    If it takes more than 20 seconds for a reader to establish what it is you are trying to convey, you have failed.

  15. says

    @Mary Allen (& James too), isn’t that cool? That always surprises me a little, too. Sometimes folks get a little mixed up about that “authority” thing–absolutely, you need to know what you’re talking about, but your content is also much more effective when it comes from a human voice.

    @david mullens, one nice thing about istockphoto is that once you’ve bought the image (and they are very cheap), you use it in almost any way and you don’t have to provide any credits or anything. And yes, there’s an option in Flickr to just search for images available as “Attribution Only.” Look for the “Explore Creative Commons” menu item, and it’s in there.

    @Sandi, that’s not easy, but it can be done. Your company might consider creating a blog of your own, which is a great way to put your story out in a way that encourages reporters and customers to find you.

    @CoachKip, my bias is for writing to one well-defined reader. It’s a little scary because you feel like you’re shutting people out, but I’ve always found I capture more than I lose.

    When I write my newsletter, for example, I keep a particular actual customer in mind–I write to her problems, her aggravations, her interests. It gives the copy a lot more life than trying to write to everyone’s issues.

  16. says

    Thanks for the great tips. I’ve noticed I get more comments on the posts I publish with photos. A lot of the time, I use photos I take myself (of the sky, flowers, etc.) and other times I use photos that only require credit to the photographer.

  17. says

    I think I’ve done pretty well with some of these things on my old blog. Should add more photos though. Certainly good tips for beginners, and good reminders for the rest.

  18. says

    I need to start adding images more often, err I mean at all. I notice now that I have read this, I am constantly drawn to articles with intriguing pictures. Thanks for the tip, I’ll have to get on that.

  19. says

    Yes too often images are overlooked. For one thing images can a laugh and put the reader in the right mood while presenting a point. Also they break up the huge text blob.

    Questions are also essential. It makes it more of a dialogue with the reader. Rather than you telling them everything.

  20. says

    While adding images don’t forget about “title=” and “alt=”. This will give you a lot more.

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