Fergal McGovern
Fergal McGovern 9 July 2019

Are You Making Your Customers Pay a Content Tax?

How hard are you making your new and existing customers work when they read your content?

The human brain is a complex and amazing organ. But it has its limits in how much attention it can pay to any one thing. 

This is called cognitive load theory. It describes how much working memory the brain has to use to understand and act on a task. 

Content and the cognitive load

Most organizations are fully aware of the role content marketing can play to help them achieve their customer and revenue goals. Thanks to the “content is king” chestnut, teams have gone into overdrive producing content. And it’s not just the Marketing team. Multiple teams produce content in enterprise organizations.


It’s fair to say that your old and new customers have a lot of content to get through. Now think of how much mental effort you’re asking them to spend each time. There’s more to reading a blog post/white paper/ebook etc. than meets the eye. 

In fact, customers are doing many things when they consume content. 

  • They are looking for relevant information when they land on your content.

  • Their brain is navigating your content layout.

  • They’re breaking up complex language to understand what you’re saying.

  • They’re making sense of new concepts.

  • They are standing in a queue for a sandwich looking at their phone, waiting for the kettle to boil or something else unrelated.

Your existing and potential new customers will stay engaged only as long as they’re able to perform these tasks with ease. They’ll click off of your content if the cognitive load becomes an overload. The cognitive load is a content tax you’re asking your customers to pay.

You’ll pay a content tax too.

Clicking off of your content is called bounce rate. HubSpot estimates that bounce rates can be as high as 70% for some pages on your website. Just think about that. You’re spending time and money creating content that people click on and then leave. Not a great investment!

Optimizing content for readability

Don’t get me wrong. Good content marketing is a great way to serve your customers. 

It’s also a great way to keep search spiders happy and rank well. 

The reverse is also true.

Create poor content and people and search spiders will be unimpressed. A  high bounce rate penalizes your ranking.

We need to forget the “content is king” slogan. We need to focus on readability instead.

Readability is a metric that can be objectively measured. Content that earns a good readability score will make your customers’ lives simpler. Quite simply, good readability = low cognitive load.

Think of how your customers access your content. 

We know from thousands of studies that most people search for information on their cell phones. Gone are the days we sat behind desktops or laptops in our spare time reading content. Now, you’re dealing with someone standing in line to grab lunch and scrolling through their phone.

This is your customer. They’re scanning your content. They want the information they’re looking for quickly. And they don’t want to increase their cognitive load while they scan your words.

Jakob Nielsen is a world-recognized researcher in user experience. In 2008, he released a study that showed people read 20% of a website page. That was 11 years ago. An internet minute in 2019 looks like the image below. Huge amounts of new content are being published every 60 seconds. Imagine how little attention your customers can focus on your content today.


(Ref: VisualCapitalist)

How to write for readability

There are a few things you can do to write for readability. 

  • Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. 

    • A relentless focus on user experience will immediately have you writing simpler content. 

    • Present information in a clear way. 

    • Use short sentences.

  • Write with you in mind. 

    • Think of the content you’d like to read to answer your questions.

    • Break complex concepts into bite-sized pieces. 

    • Signpost new concepts with sub-headers. 

    • Keep Calls To Action to a minimum. 

  • Use cognitive aids.

    • Break up content with images.

    • Use bullet points.

    • Share checklists for actionable content.

Technology can also help. 

The readability algorithm was developed by the US Navy in 1975. It is called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. It was first used to assess the difficulty level of training manuals.

Today, our technology solutions use this test to measure readability for your content.

It’s simple to make your content readable and more engaging when you use technology to help you. After all, words matter. And your customers shouldn’t have to pay a content tax to read yours.

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