3 ways subheads help online content

Open this story and scan the subheads. When they compel you to read further, you’ll prove the author’s assertion—and learn how they can work for you and your readers.


Before we talk about the art of writing subheads, let’s take a quick look at how reading habits have shifted.

Jakob Nielsen (and I’ll confess, I’m an unabashed fan of Jakob’s big brain) analyzed a study by Harald Weinrich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer, “Not Quite The Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use” and reached the following conclusions:

  • When you add copy to a page, people only read 18 percent of it.
  • On an average site visit, people read half the information only on pages with 111 words or less.
  • In addition to reading content, people study page layout, navigation, and images.
  • A user will read about 20 percent of the text on an average page.

The Internet is a noisy place—and that means people are juggling a bunch of distractions when they reach your content. A wise solution? Subheads.

Use subheads to tell (part of) the story

There’s no way someone is going to glean the complete essence of a blog post or article just from the subheads. Yet if you carefully craft these verbal dividers, readers can get a sense of the piece from your headline and subheads—and that information should be compelling enough to encourage them to keep reading.

What’s more, subheads carry SEO weight, too. You might be tempted to sneak in a clever pun or a pop culture reference in that subhead, but resist the temptation. Instead, use that valuable real estate to create a brief phrase that not only tells the reader what’s ahead—include keywords, which help optimize your content and make it more discoverable.

Even if someone doesn’t stick around to read the full piece, your subheads can give them enough contextual clues to satisfy their curiosity. If they discover content they find entertaining or helpful, they’re more likely to return to your site for more, share your link, save your page to read later, or curate your posts.

Subheads give readers a break

One thing bloggers regularly struggle with is writing posts that are long enough to deliver value but short enough that readers don’t have to hit the snooze button while reading. Our advice is that blogs should be at least 300 words and no longer than 500 to 600 words. Anything longer requires a commitment that readers are either unwilling or unable to make.

Especially if you’re writing pieces that are stretching the limits of recommended post length, adding subheads will help your readers hang in longer and will break up (both visually and contextually) the content into bite-size pieces.

Subheads help you serve your audience

We optimize our websites for mobile visitors , and we use data and analytics to drive our content and social networking strategy. As mentioned in the paragraph above, think of subheads as another optimization tool to make your content more visible and more readable, even for those who don’t have the time or the attention span to finish the full piece.

A successful strategy is all about serving your audience and customers—and if stats show that they’re not reading content the way they used to, it’s time to adapt and deliver information in ways that make sense for your readers.

What do you think? Do you read by scanning, as I do, or am I totally off base?

Shelly Kramer is a digital marketing strategist and the CEO of V3 Integrated Marketing, headquartered in Kansas City, Mo. A version of this story first appeared on her blog.

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