Debunking the “people don’t read copy” myth

Written by
Ally Willis

“People don’t read copy.”


Ah, the sentence that bristles the hairs of all good copywriters.


After all, there is this Nielsen study:

“We found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.”

For starters, this study is from 1997. Might as well be the Bronze Age, in Internet terms. Secondly, the samples users were asked to read are as dry as Arizona’s last monsoon season.


Take this line:

“Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).”

Oi! That’s some snoozy copy, huh? This popular study is poor support for the “people don’t ready copy” myth. And yet folks love referring to it!


The alarming thing is that I’ve seen website copy — especially in the professional services world — sound almost exactly like that bland-as-white-rice line from the Nielson study.

Why does so much skim-worthy copy exist?

I have my theories:


  1. Folks believe the (not true!!!) myth that users don’t read copy, so they throw some words onto the page and call it a day. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: who wants to read copy like that?
  2. With the rise of robocopy (aka GPT), generic, “marketese” language copy runs amok. (You know what I mean: fluffy words that, when you pause to think about it, don’t actually communicate anything.)
  3. Agencies often approach websites with a “design first” mentality. So they whip up some gorgeous mockups with Lorem ipsum placeholder copy. The copy must adhere to the design constraints. This can lead to filler copy — empty words that satisfy the mockups, but don’t actually move the user along the buying journey at all.



Is there any proof that people DO read copy?

Here’s a great example: Hubspot performed an A/B test on a landing page to determine if copy influenced users’ actions. The verdict? Heck yes, it does. You can read about that A/B test here.



But… even the best copy gets skimmed sometimes

Granted, it’s not just bad copy that gets skimmed. 


Whether or not people skim also depends on factors like: 


  • The type of content they are reading (blog post vs. sales page)
  • Where that user is within the buying journey (problem aware vs. most aware)
  • The type of decision maker they are (quick vs. slow; logical vs. emotional)
  • How the copy fits within design (big ‘ole chunks of copy are more tempting to skim)


For example:


User A is referred to your firm by their business colleague who is a client of yours. As a referral, this user is more likely to land on your site and head straight to the Contact Us page.


User B stumbled upon your firm’s site via Google. This user is more likely to spend time reading your website copy to determine if you’re a good fit.


In my next post, I’ll be covering metrics to help you determine if folks are reading your website copy… or scrolling right on by.



Need help writing website copy that moves your users to action? We can help with that.

Ally Willis is Co-Founder and Head of Strategy at Starling

With a background in conversion copywriting since 2017, she helps clients ask questions, analyze research, test theories, and dig through the results to create custom website optimization strategies.

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