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7 Absolute Laws for Formatting Your Marketing Content

Content marketing is as much art as science, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no science. In fact, there are certain very specific rules for setting up your content in such a way as to maximize the reader’s interaction with it. The central concept of all of these rules is called the ‘cognitive load’ — literally, the amount of mental effort it takes to process your content. If you overload someone’s cognition, they either give up and leave, or they don’t retain anything (which means no shares down the road.)

These 9 Absolute Laws are designed to allow you to pack in useful information (which means shares and revisits) without taxing the brains of your visitors. Here goes:

Pick Readable Fonts
Let me make a joke for you in two words: Comic Sans. Now let me hurt your brain with three: Brush Script MT. There’s a reason why the web tends to default to Ariel, Times New Roman, and Verdana: because they’re easy to parse. You don’t have to squint, ask yourself what a given letter is, or ‘fight back’ against the mental ‘volume’ of a very bold, densely-packed font.  In general, pick a single, highly-readable font for your content, and stick with it for almost everything.

Short and Sweet
Not your sentences (though shorter sentences do help) — but your lines. Studies have shown over and over again that a line length between about 50 and 65 characters is ideal for skimming, so do whatever you need to do in order to achieve a line length somewhere in that area. Sidebars are great for this purpose!

Size is Relative
The size of your text is a hard thing to judge, because you can count on your content being viewed on a screen ranging in size from ‘iPod’ to ’96-inch plasma television.’ That’s why the top-of-the-line advice is to make your font scale to the size of the screen it’s viewed on. For the typical 20-inch monitor, the size of choice is 16-point font, and scale from there. Also, in general, you want to space the lines of your content just slightly — by one or two points — to maximize readability.

There are two rules about the contrast between foreground (text) and background: one, they need to have the right kind of contrast, and two, the foreground needs to be the darker color. If you don’t understand why that second rule exists, go take a gander at Ow My Eyes and read that whole block.

That first rule, however, is a little more complex. Contrast comes in two basic kinds: there’s the contrast you get when you put two very different colors on top of one another, and then there’s the contrast you get when you put two very different values (of the same or different colors). Value, if you’re not familiar, essentially amounts to ‘the lightness or darkness of a color.)

Putting a high-value red over a high-value blue, for example, literally makes the text look like it’s wobbling in front of your eyes. But putting a low-value color over a high-value color (darker over lighter, as above) creates the kind of contrast that makes content easy to process.

 Concision and Scanability
‘Scanability’ is just what it sounds like — ‘the ability your content has to be easily absorbed by scanning rather than in-depth reading.’  Scanability comes from having:

  • short paragraphs,
  • simple sentence structure,
  • instantly-understood words,
  • and visual breaks like bulleted lists or graphics.

Make your point in as few words as possible, and format for easy scanability.

Highlight Selectively
The most important point of any section can and should be summarized somewhere within that section, and highlighted. Only 1 in 4 surfers will ever sit and read your content; the rest are skimming. If you give that 75% some indication of where to skim to (i.e. what ‘the point’ is), you’ll increase their comprehension and retention significantly.

Rules are Made to be Broken
The seventh Absolute Rule is that no rules are Absolute. There is a time and a place for zany fonts, eye-bending contrast, and walls of text with no scanability. But those times are few and far between, and those places are almost never ‘within your content.’  If you feel like you want to break one or more of these rules, look for every available alternative first…but if nothing else makes sense, go for it.

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