Eye-tracking studies reveal design secrets

I stumbled onto a fascinating list of design tips based on eye-tracking studies.

The studies referred to here focus on Web sites. But there are lessons to be learned for advertising design. Here are few takeaways:

I think every designer should be a student of reading and legibility theory. In case you’re interested, here’s some additional info on reading, legibility, and ad design.

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The brutal truth about how people read mail

Every time I see a piece of direct mail that’s a work of art or filled with clever copy, I wonder what the creative team is thinking.

Like the other day when I got a clever mailer from Sprint. The cover headline was “You can’t add hours to the day …” That’s it. No other words. No explanation. No offer. No clue. Of course, the rest of the headline was inside, assuming you have nothing better to do and keep reading.

Most people won’t. Because they have 20 other pieces of mail. And have to pick up the kids from band practice, and fix dinner, and feed the dog, and do the laundry, and finish a report for work, and on and on and on.

I guess many creative people in marketing departments and ad agencies are so busy being creative, they simply don’t have time to think about how busy other people are.

If they did, they’re realize that maybe eight out of 10 people will chuck their mail right out of the box simply because it’s advertising. Those who do look at it will only glance at it. And they’ll be glancing for something that interests them. Notice I didn’t say they’re glancing for something that “entertains” them. When they don’t see anything interesting in a few seconds, whoosh! Two-pointer into the round file.

That’s how I read my mail. I bring it into the kitchen and stand next to the trash bin. Or I sort it in my garage on top of the row of garbage cans so I can instantly stuff what I don’t want into one of the recycling containers. It never even gets into the house.

People are fast and ruthless. Aren’t you? I’ll bet all copywriters and designers are too. They’ll chuck the junk as fast as the rest of us.

But somehow there’s a disconnect between the real world they live in and the fantasy world they assume the rest of us live in.

Watch your spouse or a workmate open mail sometime. Then think about how that should affect the way you write and design mail. Sort of makes you sick. But it should inspire you to be a little more realistic too. And the same applies for any other type of ad.

I have a more detailed look at how people read direct mail over in my article archive.

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Postcard copywriting and design blunders

Most people sort their mail ruthlessly. They spend maybe two seconds at the most deciding whether they’ll read something or trash it. So if you’re writing or designing any direct mail piece, you need to capture their attention and get them interested FAST!

I got this postcard in the mail yesterday. Glance at it for no more than a couple seconds then continue reading below.

real estate postcard

Okay your two seconds are up. Do you know what this postcard is selling? Kitchen cabinets? No. Mortgages? No. Hard to tell by looking at it, but it’s actually advertising some condos up the street from me.

Now I know about the condos. I’ve heard about the real estate group selling them. But I honestly couldn’t figure out what this card was about until I studied it, which is something most people will never do.

To be fair, on the back there is copy that uses the words “ranch and townhome condominiums.” But the copy is structured so you have to piece it together in your head to understand it.

The problem here is one of both copywriting and design. The writing doesn’t clearly state the subject. And the design makes the headline and copy hard to read. That’s death for any selling message.

The headline reads, “I looked at 19 different types of cabinets.” That makes me think the postcard is about kitchen cabinets, not condos. The copy doesn’t clarify this at all. It goes on, “This one spoke to me. More choices. More quality…” And so I remain confused about the real subject.

The copy ends with “…more reason to buy than ever before.” Buy what? Then there’s a box with a mortgage rate. Whoa! Now I’m really confused. I thought we were talking about cabinets.

This is a classic problem. The creative concept masks the intended message. The headline and photo are focused on an idea that is not instantly connected to the actual subject, which is buying a condo.

Worse, there’s no call to action anywhere on the postcard. So I have no idea what they want me to do. Visit? Call for an appointment?

This is an example of how NOT to write and design a postcard. What would I do to correct it? Trash the whole thing and start again. I’d come up with an offer, say a free interior design guide. Then I’d offer it to anyone who toured the condos. You could still show a great photo of an impressive kitchen, but I’d want to show people enjoying the kitchen, not holding a door.

I’d give a clear call to action. Give dates when people should take the tour. Provide a map on the back so people could find the neighborhood. I’d even insert a personalized message to summarize the offer, which is one of my trademark techniques for postcards,

And of course my headline would be crystal clear. Something like “Visit The Estates this week to see how you can have a beautiful new home with a kitchen like this, with your choice of high-end cabinets and granite countertops, all for less than $800 a month!” The design would lay out the headline so that “you can have a beautiful new home with a kitchen like this” would be emphasized in larger type, sort of a headline within the headline.

Now I didn’t put much work into that headline, but it immediately issues a call to action and makes a promise that’s enticing. I’d follow this up by explaining how home buyers could design their own kitchen and get their free designer guide.

See the difference? My approach focuses on getting people to tour the homes so the sales people can do their work. The original approach just throws ideas out there with no consideration of whether people understand what the subject is or what action they should take.

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A hardworking print ad doesn’t try to be clever!

Let’s take a look at a few principles for writing and designing effective print ads. And instead of rehashing “classic” ads that you always see in advertising and marketing textbooks, let’s just pick an ad out of the newspaper. That’s where a lot of the ad dollars go anyway.

newspaper print adHere’s one I ran across today in my local paper. It’s not pretty. And it ain’t Shakespeare. But it’s a damn good ad. Why? Mostly because it’s all business. The copywriter isn’t trying to entertain. The designer isn’t trying to impress. Take a good look.

The ad copy here is doing smart things:

1. The headline selects the audience and identifies a problem.

2. The subhead promises a solution.

3. The body copy suggests the solution is easy.

4. The offer is simple and direct. And it’s free!

5. The title of “Dr.” and the testimonials establish credibility.

The ad design is smart as well:

1.The headline and subhead are big and bold.

2. The illustration ties directly to the headline.

3. The body copy is in large type and bulleted to make reading easy and scanning effortless.

4. The offer and call to action are highlighted and cannot be missed.

5. There is not one hint of cleverness to distract from the message.

This print ad won’t win a single award. Most ad agency copywriters or designers couldn’t bear to be in the same room with a print ad like this. But this is solid advertising. This is the sort of ad that works!

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A revolution in advertising design? You decide.

A direct mail company has introduced a printing technology they call “ReadSmart.” Here is their description:

ReadSmart automatically formats text through subtle manipulation so that the printed page reflects the structure of language. Text becomes easier to read, maintaining the overall normal appearance of the page without changing any words, fonts, grammar, or punctuation. ReadSmart can also customize formatting to match certain demographics of intended readers, further increasing the appeal and impact of copy. Source: Direct Group

They cite research that claims huge increases in comprehension, response, and profits. Does it work? It appears to me that the technology is grouping phrases in the copy, which is exactly what reading studies have shown to be an efficient way to read. But the grouping is very, very subtle. So I suppose it’s possible, though the claims seem pretty dramatic.

If you’re curious, here’s a sample pdf showing before and after copy. Decide for yourself. And if you know anyone who’s tried this, let me know. I’m curious.

UPDATE: Direct Group has removed this from their site.

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