In many sectors of American society any statement can be deemed True if it’s accompanied by statistics. So if I report that the Nielsen-Norman Group (NNG) has used eye-tracking studies to measure how much people read online, and concluded:
On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely
…chances are, you’ll take that as the final word on the subject.
Now, I don’t buy any of that. Sure, I’m willing to assume the NNG has used a methodology approved by some branch of science, and that the results are valid as obtained by that methodology.
But I don’t accept the underlying premise: that you can study human behavior the same way you study elephant behavior. For one thing, you’re asking people to participate in a behavioral study—guaranteeing self-consciousness will creep into the proceedings. It’s a distinction typically overlooked and should make more people skeptical about the veracity of such data.
Of course, that distinction itself assumes that the elephants in question are unaware that they’re being observed—an assumption challenged by documented evidence of elephant cognition.
We could go 1000 rounds on this topic but, for now, let’s throw the whole debate under the bus and start fresh—by asking a simple question:
If reading is the main obstacle to digital communication/marketing, why haven’t we abandoned the print model on which so much digital communication is based?
The answer, I suppose, might be cost. But now that digital video recording is available on millions of mobile devices, we should be able to create a standardized modest-production-value video format that would enable us to stage our brand narrative in a multimedia environment. From there, common sense templating should also offer savings enough to satisfy everyone who believes cost is, and should be, the supreme arbiter of social, cultural and political evolution.
Reading’s new do.
In the scenario I envision, text would be available only in blocks of copy viewable in a separate window as needed. Everything else users encountered would be narrated, conveyed through a combination of video and slide show, with one- or two-line captions. Maybe the solution is a kind of stop action video that puts less stress on bandwidth and—in cases where a bit of detail is essential to clinching the deal—enables users to pause and open a text block, rolled out in animation and enhanced with a variety of visual effects.
Implied in this approach is a communication model adapted to the way we absorb information in aural and visual terms. You’d tell the same story, but roll it out at a different pace and, most likely, in a different order. Just as important, you’d have to think harder about what makes your brand memorable—and what you can reasonably expect users to take away from the presentation.
What would a completely multimedia web presence look like? It would depend entirely on the pace you choose to unfold your brand narrative and the scale of the gesture you want to make. One thing it would definitely not be is static: No landing pages, gallery pages, or pseudo-active marquee slideshows. Users would enter a story already in progress and find their own access point.
Imagine an introductory video, encapsulating your brand narrative in a 30,000-foot view. Arrayed near it are resizable windows offering detailed views of products, customer service options, thought-leadership essays, all conveyed in video/animation with voiceover. Products rich in technical detail could include interactive graphs, charts and tables, and would allow signed-in users to create a private holding area where they could drag and drop content modules to consult on a later visit.
Copy would be confined to supers endowed with PowerPoint brevity—but devoid of PowerPoint tedium. And every text, heard or read, would have a distinct personality, as instantly identifiable as any voice stored in your speed-dial queue. In other words, you’d finally be able to tell Coke from Pepsi with the blindfold on
No question, many developmental stages stand between this embryonic idea and a usable prototype. How, for example, would a multimedia site process purchase orders? While I don’t have the answer, I do know I won’t miss the shopping cart motif one bit if a new multimedia standard comes to pass.
Of course, it doesn’t take much imagination to cough up a bed-pan full of reasons not to go in this direction. Left to their own devices, people with not much imagination will always opt for the status quo. But without imagination, the evolution of digital space will be frozen into its current faux-print model forever. Without imagination, marketers in 2113 will still be whining that “nobody reads” online—while perpetuating a communication model that began as a stop-gap measure in 1997.