Write for surfers and divers

Try the 30-3-30 rule

All readers are not created equal. So how can you give your in-depth “divers” enough information without overwhelming your casual “surfers”?

Write for 4 levels of web visitors

Skimming the surface Reach surfers and divers alike with the 30-3-30 rule. Image by Annie Spratt

Use Clay Schoenfeld’s 30-3-30 rule.

In his 30-3-30 rule, communication theorist Schoenfeld suggests that you present each webpage as if one-third of your audience will give you:

  • 30 minutes. These folks are readers, and don’t we wish there were more of them!
  • 3 minutes. They’re not reading the text. Instead, they’re flipping, skimming and scanning for key ideas. To reach them, you need to lift your ideas off the screen with display copy.
  • 30 seconds. With a 30-second attention span, these folks are lookers. They’ll learn whatever they can through an image and a bold headline.

That’s for print. Online, add another 3, for people who will give you:

  • 3 hours. These folks are researchers. They dive deep for data. Give them bottomless wells of information — libraries and archives of white papers, detailed product specs, PowerPoint decks, full texts of speeches and presentations, and so forth.

“The Internet is for everybody,” write Daniel A. Cirucci and Mark A. Tarasiewicz of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “It’s for the 30-second reader, the three-minute reader, the 30-minute reader and even the three-hour junkie.”

So how do you serve all four groups?

Recognize your ‘readers.’

So the first step is to recognize that you have different levels of readers.

Look at three levels of visitors. Writing for the Web author Crawford Kilian distinguishes between:

  • Viewers, “those looking for entertainment, who think dancing boloney is fun”
  • Users, “those who go to the web to get information they need for specific purposes”
  • Readers, “those who are willing to put up with poor screen resolution so that they can actually read something that interests them”

Consider humans and search engines. Branding guru Bob Killian suggests writing for three groups:

1. Quals, or people who just want to hear your brand story plus maybe one proof point. They make up 86% of your human audience, Killian estimates, and 86% of your best prospects, as well.

“When they land on your home page, they’ll give you 4.5 seconds to make clear we-make-widgets-that-wiggle, and we-ship-globally-in-24-hours. (One defining story, one meaningful differentiator),” he writes. “If the first paragraph is ten lines long, they bail out. If you layer on 10-reasons-why, they … bail out.”

2. Quants, or folks people who also want to know your proofs and processes.

Quants “will read the nutrition chart on the peanut butter jar, read the prospectus, read the insurance policy, and so on,” Killian writes.

“They want more than your story; they want drill-down data about ingredients, processes, testimonials, proof statements of any kind – they’ll even sit still for 10 reasons why. These data points can’t be ignored since they are 14% of your human visitors.”

3. Bots, or search engine robots. They’re looking for the same level of detail as the Quants.

Write shallow, deliver deep.

That’s right: For the web, you need to write shorter, making each webpage as tight as possible. But you also need to deliver longer pieces for your deep divers.

“Open with kernels for the 30-second reader,” write Cirucci and Tarasiewicz. “Break to bits for the three-minute reader. Branch to detail for the 30-minute reader. Link to verbal and visual feasts for the three-hour junkie.”

As Eric Morgenstern, president and CEO of Morningstar Communications, counsels, offer your readers:

  • USA Today level
  • Wall Street Journal level
  • Harvard Business Review level

Let them choose.

Or, if you, like I, are more inclined to favor a bacon analogy, think of these layers as:

  • Amuse bouche
  • Appetizer
  • Entree

Or, as one PR pro (whose name I’ve lost) put it:

  • Bite
  • Snack
  • Meal

For an executive speech, for instance, you might offer:

  • A headline and summary blurb on the home page
  • A one-page summary of speech highlights
  • The full text of the speech
  • The speech in streaming audio and video

Visitors can surf as shallowly or dive as deeply as they prefer.

“There’s a story to make obvious, and drill-down stuff to make available,” Killian says. “Never confuse the two.”

  • Lift Ideas Off the Page

    Reach nonreaders with display copy

    Once you’ve written your headline, David Ogilvy famously said, you’ve spent 80 cents of your advertising dollar. That’s right: Display copy — headlines, captions and callouts, for instance — gets the biggest ROI of everything we write.

    Lift Ideas Off the Page in Dallas

    That’s why I’m often amazed that the same folks who spend hours polishing the analogy in the seventh paragraph of their message toss off a headline in the 17 seconds before happy hour on a Friday afternoon. Most of your readers will never read the seventh paragraph. But many more will read your display copy.

    People don’t read. So how can you reach them with words?

    At Catch Your Readers — our two-day hands-on persuasive-writing master class on Oct. 2-3 in Dallas — you’ll learn how to put your messages where your readers’ eyes really are — to use your display copy to pull readers into your message, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Reach “readers” who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your piece.
    • Avoid dropping the piece of display copy that 95% of people read — but that many communicators forget.
    • Run a simple test on your message to ensure that even folks who will not read your message no matter how well you write it still get your key ideas.
    • Make your copy 47% more usable by adding a few simple elements.
    • Pass the Palm Test to make your message look easier to read. Because if it looks easier to read, more people will read it.


Sources: Bob Killian, “How to address your three audiences,” A one-minute BrandAid by Killian Branding, June 22, 2011

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