Content as Onboarding: How to Focus on the Parts of Your Article That Matter Most to Readers

When you sign up for a new app, what are the first steps you take?

Customizing your settings?

Installing add-ons and extensions?

Setting up your profile pic? (<– this is a personal favorite)

The steps you’re asked to take—click here, customize this, try that—are referred to as onboarding, the process of helping a new person get accustomed to a new place.

There’s onboarding in new apps, new jobs, new everything. Maybe even new pieces of content?

Content as onboarding

The idea struck me as I was reading through some onboarding research that Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich had shared with our team. He looked at the routes taken by individual Buffer customers in their first several interactions with the product. For example, here’s one person’s route:

  • First day
    • signed up via email
    • skipped onboarding
    • connected facebook
    • connected Twitter
    • changed his schedule
    • connected bit.ly
  • Second day (3 days later)
    • changed schedule some more
    • shared update through dashboard
    • played with queue editing, twitter auto-complete, etc.
    • added lots more updates

It’s fascinating detail to know! And it helped me remember back to when I first started using the product, too. (If you have similar memories, it’d be really cool to hear your first steps also!)

Looking through this research, a couple of big thoughts surfaced:

  1. A lot of my assumptions were wrong about how people come on board with Buffer.
  2. Onboarding is quite the non-linear flow.

Then the following day I sat down to write a blog post and it hit me like a ton of bricks:

Content is onboarding!

/trumpets sounding, cymbals crashing, angels singing

Here’re some thoughts I had.

First things first, my assumptions are often wrong about content

When I write a new post, I get absorbed into the flow and minutiae of the words. I pore over the details. I observe my content from a deep, thorough perspective, which is super great for creating high-quality content that is professional, helpful, and complete. (I’d encourage any content writer to try approaching it in this way.)

However, here’s where I often get it wrong:

The way I view my content as the writer may not be the same way someone views my content as its reader.

I like to think of this with a cooking analogy. We writers are the chefs, and blog posts are our entrees. We fuss over the perfect ingredients, seasonings, and pairings. Meanwhile, a huge handful of the people we serve might eat the salmon and push the spinach off to the side, or say it tastes “good” without recognizing any of the subtleties, or pick off all the capers and take 3/4 of it home in a doggy bag to microwave later.

Point being, there are a million different ways to consume content, including the way we writers consume it ourselves, which is quite often different than how our reader does.

For instance, here’s an “onboarding flow” for a recent post I enjoyed.

  • First day
    • See an interesting link mentioned in a newsletter.
    • Save to my Pocket account to read later.
  • Second day (5 days later)
    • Notice the image + headline in my Pocket.
    • Remember why I wanted to read this in the first place.
    • Open the story in Pocket.
    • Read the first heading after the intro.
    • Get intrigued by heading, read the first part of the section.
    • Start scanning.
    • Find an ordered list and start reading.
    • Get hooked.
    • Read the rest of the story.
    • Mark the story as favorite in Pocket, which turns on an IFTTT recipe to add the story to my Buffer.
    • Revisit the story in my Buffer queue to change the text of my status update and to check on imagery.
    • Share.

Non-linear flow to onboarding. Non-linear flow to consuming content.

How do people read your posts?

For that matter, how do you read blog posts?

This is where I started really thinking about the onboarding flow for my content.

What is your reader’s first touch point for your article?

It’s likely not the URL you use to preview your article—unless you could somehow sneak into all your readers’s homes and add the URL to their browser window before their next Internet session.

A reader must take an action before finding your article.

Here are some routes.

Via email: The reader must be intrigued enough by either a) the subject line or b) the “From Name”. And then, in the body of the email, there must be a further connection to your content (we’re at touch point #2 now). A headline. A thumbnail photo. A button.

buffer email

Via social media. This could mean being enticed by a headline in a social media stream, a photo/visual/image, the social proof of a lot of likes or comments, or something as simple as seeing your name + “new content.”

fb-annotated

Via an RSS reader. Depending on format of the RSS reader, this touch point could be a headline or a photo/visual/image. Here’s what a list of posts looks like in Feedly.

moz-titles only

Via your blog or website homepage. Some folks might bookmark your home page and come back daily, weekly, frequently, etc. They’ll see your headline or thumbnail however you might have this designed on your blog. Here’s a sample from the Wistia blog:

wistia blog

Beyond the first touch

If the first touch is strong enough, the reader will click through to the full article. Awesome! Now they’re on your page. Congrats!

And now that your reader is on your site, here is how they might view what you’ve written.

Part one: The openers

The Headline

Will your reader really look at your headline? Or, better put, will the headline on your article’s page make a difference on whether the reader keeps reading?

Quite possibly not. They’ve already seen a headline on social media or email or RSS. They might very well skip it here on your post.

The meta information

Here’s another area that gets skipped … unless it catches the reader’s eye for the wrong reason.

An untrustworthy profile picture. The eyes and brain recognize faces like none other, so if there’s something off with your photo—if it’s tilted or skewed or you’re making a funny face or it’s just overall unprofessional—people will notice.

A wayback date. Occasionally, people will skip a post if the date is too old. Reading something from 2011 in 2015 is likely to send people away.

The first paragraph

I’m going to go out on a limb here: It is incredibly hard to lose someone in the first paragraph.

If they clicked the headline, they’re invested enough to read beyond the intro.

In theory, the introduction supports the headline. If the headline says “This is what the story’s about,” then the intro says “Yup, the headline was right; this story is about this.” A mediocre-to-great intro will keep people on the page.

There’s been tons of great articles written about crafting an awesome introduction to your blog post. Definitely read up on some of those awesome pieces. An intro helps set the tone for the whole article, although perhaps more in the psyche of the one writing it than the one reading it.

The only way to lose someone here is to write a really bizarre, poorly worded, grammatically incorrect, or tone insensitive intro. Long intros could scare a few folks off as well. Also, having no intro—jumping right to the headers, for instance—might be so out-of-the-box as to send people scurrying away.

Part two: Give them a nugget to grab onto, make the nugget findable

Based on your headline, your readers have gained an expectation to receive a certain value from your post.

Give them this value.

If it’s a list of tools, make the tools easy-to-see with a heading. If it’s a lesson you’ve learned, bold your key paragraphs so the reader can find them. Make the value easy to find and locate without having to read every single word. And in the process of doing so, add additional nuggets.

A nugget can be anything useful, interesting, entertaining, or helpful that a reader takes from a post.

A nugget can be a teaser or a hook to draw people into reading more in-depth.

Here’s where the real onboarding control takes place. As writers, we can do our best to guide readers from section to section throughout our posts. Readers aren’t obligated to follow, mind you. They might still skip around.

And in that case, we make it easy to skip. Here are a few ways to make your posts easy to scan and the nuggets easy to find.

Headers

Use variations of headings. A mix of large headings and small headings (H2 and H3) are all you should need (if you end up going any deeper, use bold).

Images

Create awesome, eye-catching images. Make the images as self-explanatory as possible.

Captions

Here’s a crazy stat from Bnonn of KISSMetrics:

Captions under images are read on average 300% more than the body copy itself.

If you do captions, do them well. Add keywords and useful descriptions and nuggets.

The conclusion

I’ve recently started renaming my final section on blog posts as Summary. I found this is what people are looking for at the bottom of a post—Summary, Takeaways, Action Steps, TL;DR. Any of these will work.

The P.S.

The P.S., like captions, are a hugely popular spot to read. According to Michael Fortin, it is the second-most-read part of a sales letter. It is a “second headline.” If readers scroll all the way to the bottom while scanning, the P.S. leaves a great, small spot to make an impact.

Subheads, blockquotes, bullet lists, short paragraphs, etc.

Think of the words of your article as lying at the intersection of writing and design. You are a designer now. Your tools are word processors and markdown code.

Sometimes, I’ll cross my eyes when looking at a blog post I’ve written so that the words on the screen are slightly blurry and all I’m catching is the general layout and flow of a piece. For example:

how people view blog posts

 

It’s likely that some of your readers might see your posts in a similar way, seeking out the headlines and looking for a nugget to read deeply.

Summary: How do you put this all to good use?

One way to tell how people might read (or scan) your articles and blog posts is to use a free tool like Inspectlet to capture video sessions and heatmaps of readers actually viewing your page. Here’s a heatmap for a recent blog post on my site.

blogpost heatmap

Knowing how someone views your page—or at least considering the many different “onboarding flows” people may take to consume your content—should be helpful in thinking of your finished articles from a new perspective. Here are the tips I’ll be trying out:

  • Think of the first touch points for your article. Emphasis the headlines on social, email, and SEO as much as you do on the post itself.
  • Format your blog post with scanning in mind. Break up long paragraphs, add lots of headings and lists.
  • Share your most valuable nuggets. Place your key elements and catchiest taglines in easy-to-find places throughout the post. Guide the reader along.

Do you have any tips about what you’ve discovered with content? How do you feel about the whole concept of “content as onboarding”? I’d love to hear your input. Feel free to leave any thoughts you might have on Twitter here:

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I lead the marketing team at Buffer, a SaaS tool with a blog of over 1.2M monthly visits. Let me show you how we got there and how we plan to grow.

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