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Can This Simple Formatting Change Make Your Marketing 22% More Profitable?

Updated: Mar 23, 2018

Imagine increased response rates, more first-time buyers or donors, and larger orders or gifts—all because of the format of your direct mail, email, or web message. I recently attended a Direct Marketing Association of Washington (DMAW) luncheon meeting about “the science of reading” to find out how this may be possible.


The presenters included Christopher Nicholas (PhD in Neuroscience) and Kath Straub (PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences). Both have done considerable research into how the brain perceives and interprets words and letters—and how to drive consumer behavior using this research.


You’ve probably never thought about this before, but reading is made up of a series of eye movements, called saccades. Between these saccades, your eyes land or fixate on what you are reading. Each of these fixations last about 200 to 250 milliseconds. That’s about enough time to take in 7 to 15 characters, or 2 to 2.5 words.


One-in-six characters is a space. There are also line breaks, which the brain reads as a space. And the average English word has 5.5 letters.


When text appears in print, on a computer screen, or on a smart phone app, spaces are the same size between words and within lines. Also, text often breaks to the next line wherever the type ends.


This type of spacing is not informative to the reader. Why? Because it forces the eye to skip back and forth to complete a fixation, or phrase.


It wasn’t always this way. Handwritten letters naturally include shorter spaces within a fixation and don’t insert line breaks within phrase boundaries. The presenters showed a copy of the Gettysburg Address written by Abraham Lincoln as an example.


These observations in the “science of reading” led to the development of phrase-based formatting. Forty years of reading studies, across labs and with different methods, show improvement with phrase-based formatting. Studies show reading speed increases from 11% to 23%. Retention rate, or comprehension, improves by 10% to 28%.


An editorial study of a Reader’s Digest article found a 38% increase in reader enjoyment when the article was phrase-formatted. Another study found that phrase-based formatting increased comprehension by 18% in the presence of distractions, and by 10% without distractions.


These studies demonstrate that phrase-formatted text allows people to read faster, enjoy what they’re reading, and remember more. So what does this mean for your marketing results?


For one, it can make your content more actionable. One study compared the effects of a standard text-formatted webpage ad versus a phrase-formatted ad. Both ads offered information about managing type II diabetes. Yet the phrase-formatted ad had a 142% increase in click-throughs! In another study of an online newsletter, researchers found people were 10% more likely to forward it to a friend if it was phrase-formatted.


Phrase formatting can also raise direct mail response rates and make your mailings more profitable. Two direct mail case studies found increases of 12.6% and 16.3% in response when using phrase formatting. Average order/gift sizes increased 7.7% and 3.23% respectively. As a result, income per piece when text was phrase-formatted increased by 19.5% to 22.8%.


Of course, you still need great copy to make your marketing effective. But phrase-formatted text may make your copy even more powerful by making it more enjoyable, memorable, actionable, and persuasive to the reader. It may also improve enjoyment of your editorial products, making people more likely to subscribe and/or renew them.


I’m in the process of working with a few of my clients to apply this new technology to some of my control packages to see how it works for myself. I have to admit, it’s pretty intriguing—and it makes a lot of sense, especially when reading is difficult. How many times are people trying to read your marketing message while doing other things or dealing with multiple distractions?


If you’re curious about learning more about this new technology, I can put you in touch with a few different production firms that can help you test it. They’ll convert your existing, already-designed marketing promotions for approximately $100 a page (and they tell me quantity discounts are available).


You can request certain “hard” page breaks to remain, and copy within sidebars and wrapping around photos will not change in an obvious way. In fact, it’s hard to tell at a glance when you compare a phrase-formatted page side-by-side to a standard text-formatted page.

Let me know if you’d like to learn more…and I’ll share what I learn also in a future post.

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© 2018 Kim Krause Schwalm