What Direct Marketing Mail and Digital Designers…

should know about reading.

the-man-received-a-letter-iFirst, reading is a chore for most people.

Direct marketing mail can be colorful and creative. Marketing content must be educational and informational. But in the end, every direct marketing piece is about getting people to read words on a printed page. And that’s no easy task.

I’ll say it again, reading is a chore for most people. And when you see just how hard the process is, you’ll understand why you should avoid getting too creative with type, especially in digital. You’ll see why making reading as easy as possible should be your number one goal.

So let’s take a quick look at the reading process.

In Western cultures, people read left to right. Reading in any other direction is nearly impossible. This left-to-right movement is not smooth. And people do not read word-by-word. The eye actually skips along, stopping briefly here and there to take in groups of words. Reading experts call these stops “fixations,” which last about a quarter of a second each.

The brain divides up sentences into chunks or “thought units.” In the sentence “Mary opened the gift,” the two thought units are “Mary” (the person who did something) and “opened the gift” (the thing she did). So people read left to right skipping from chunk to chunk of information. When people have trouble understanding these chunks, they have to skip backward and try to “re-chunk” the information.

People do not see words one letter at a time.

Just as people don’t read one word at a time, they don’t see words one letter at a time. Every word has a unique shape and people recognize them by their overall appearance. For example, when you see a stop sign, you don’t sound out S-T-O-P. Instead, you recognize the whole word instantly by its familiar shape. But if you use odd type or give words an unfamiliar shape, people won’t instantly recognize the word, which slows or stops reading altogether.

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Numerals tend to have less shape, so the eye fixates on numbers more than words. Also, since lower case letters tend to have more variety of shape than upper case letters, words in lower case are recognized faster than words in all caps. Blocks of capitalized text tend to make people read word-by-word interfering with the chunking process and this reduces comprehension significantly.

Many people read slowly.

Most adults read only about 200 words per minute with a comprehension rate of about 50%. In other words, even in optimal conditions, people tend to read slowly and understand only half of what they read. Why do people read so slowly? One reason is eye fatigue. An adult eye travels about 1,600 feet per day, which works out to 110 miles per year. Tired eyes read slowly.

There’s a lot more to the reading process, but this should give you some idea about how difficult reading is. It’s not a natural act. For many people, it’s hard work. And if you don’t make your direct marketing mail easy to read, people won’t read it. No matter how good your offer or how creative your design, if people can’t read and understand the words, your offer or call-to-action will fail.

Thanks for reading and please share with others, except your competition.

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Since 1993, Direct Mail Success has provided readers the ins and outs of direct marketing mail to get a better response in their marketing campaigns. Download a recent issue and see for yourself.

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