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To Catch a Reader - 9/15/2009 -

Here's how to use magazine "on-ramps” more effectively to lure skimmers into reading your magazine.

By Laura Normand

READERS ARE FICKLE CREATURES – often too busy or too distracted to cozy up to that brilliant article you labored over. So, here's the big question: How do you catch a reader?

Consider this: According to research conducted by Dr. Dan Ranly, professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, just five to 10 percent of people who pick up a magazine read a full article. That means out of 100 of your magazine's subscribers, you're lucky if five ever get past the title. (Editor's note: Don't miss "A Fresh Set of Eyes,” in the September/October 2009 issue of Association Publishing, where Dr. Ranly discusses how associations can create better-read publications.)

"Readers are fundamentally disinclined to read our magazines,” explains Tina Hay, editor of The Penn Stater, and presenter of a session called "Magazine On-Ramps: Using Headlines, Captions, and Other Extras to Engage Readers” at the 2009 Association Media & Publishing Conference. "We have to stop them in their tracks.”

Stop (Reader) Traffic

Resign yourself to the fact that readers are actually skimmers and learn how to cater to their caprices. As Dr. Ranly's research cites, here's the breakdown of what they'll read:

  • Headlines—90 percent
  • Captions—50 to 90 percent
  • Leads—40 to 70 percent
  • Subheads—50 percent
  • Body copy—5-10 percent

These are the elements that jump off the page and catch a skimmer's eye. If well-written, your skimmers might just keep reading. As Hay puts it, "Try to snag the skim reader who doesn't have any intention of reading the magazine.”

This Might Hurt a Little

Writing great headlines, leads, captions, and other "on-ramps,” as Hay refers to them, doesn't come easy. Hay, referring to what Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute calls ‘first-level creativity,” suggests purging the ideas you know are cliché, tired, or clunky by putting them down on paper anyway. "Then keep at it,” she says. "Push through until you've reached the deeper, less obvious level of creativity.”

Some caveats: Don't promise what you can't deliver. If your headline and lead make the story sound more interesting than it really is, says Hay, you risk disappointing your reader.

  • Here are some of Hay's favorite eye-catching headlines:
  • It's Not the Economy, Stupid
  • Life and Meth
  • Kelp Wanted
  • Poppy Love
  • Pirates and Wookies and Orcs, Oh My
  • Who Died and Made You Supreme Court Justice?

Ooh! Shiny!

Grabbing readers may require sacrifice. Painful though it may be, cutting text to make room for pull-quotes, sidebars, and captions is a necessary measure.

If you're looking at a page full of body copy, step back and think about the mile-a-minute skimmers who will likely flip to another section of the magazine – one with imagery, surprising pull-quotes, and easily digestible charts and sidebars. These are the captivating "shiny objects” of your print publication. They cater to the reflexive impulses of your reader.

A word about pull-quotes: Make sure they're provocative. A pull-quote does not need to be an actual quotation. It's any juicy morsel of text from the article that, when it stands alone, teases the skimmer into reading the rest of the page.

Congratulations, You've Made It This Far

On-ramps like captions, subheads, and sidebars should be a treat to readers – an extra nugget of information that 1) rewards them for venturing into the story, and 2) piques their curiosity so they'll keep going.

One opportunity that's often overlooked is captions, says Hay. Always write a caption where there is a photo or chart. "Sometimes someone on staff will say, ‘This photo doesn't need a caption; it's self-explanatory.' And I always say, ‘That's not the point. The point of the caption isn't to label the photo,” she explains. Instead, think of captions as opportunities to tell tiny little stories for the reader who may or may not have time to read the whole article.

If the photo is self-explanatory, Hay advises, add new information that the reader couldn't have gleaned from the photo or from the article otherwise. Don't simply label the image.

"Samuel Wickline is a professor of medicine” doesn't do your article any favors. "Calvin Klein has a Pantone chip taped to the wall next to his coffee maker. Whoever makes his coffee can match it to that shade – and be sure it has exactly the amount of milk he likes” does.

Bait your Hook

Headlines are often slapped onto a story in the final desperate minutes before deadline, and subheads, captions, and other on-ramps aren't treated much better. To sum up, Hay says that good on-ramps:

  • Are reader-centric.
  • Tell enough, but not too much.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Make a promise the story delivers.
  • Work in harmony with the art.
  • Make you want to read the story.

Catching a reader is tricky, and it requires planning. Work time into your editing schedule to write (and rewrite) compelling on-ramps. Like it or not, they're the most widely read parts of your article.

They're also your bait.

Happy hunting.

Laura Normandis senior writer/editor for the Masons of California. Association Media & Publishing (formerly SNAP) thanks her for covering this conference session for our members who were unable to attend. For more on building reader engagement, don't miss the November/December issue of Association Publishing.


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