Captions capture attention

Captions capture attention. But judging by most web sites out there, this blog included, they are grossly underutilised.

I first heard of the significance of captions at a Nielsen Norman Group seminar on usability three years ago. It shocked me at the time and a vowed to spend more time writing engaging one or two liners to sum up my images. A quick glance back through my blog posts will prove that promise didn’t last long.

At the session web content expert John Morkes quoted Poynter research* that online news readers focused on the headline, summary and caption, in no particular order. Yes, the study was on news – of the journalistic not corporate kind – but I think we can assume that user behaviour is generally the same for all prose heavy content.

Usability gurus tend to agree that readers favour written content over images – three times to one, is a common stat. In the next breath they add generic or “fluff” photos are largely ignored. Visual designers on the other hand explain that an image captures attention and draws the eye down – to the caption!

A caption pushing Pepsi's key message about soft drinks in schools would give value to this boring, generic shot

A caption pushing Pepsi’s key message about soft drinks in schools would give value to this boring, generic shot

Whether your photo, video, graph or infographic is informative or decorative it still makes sense to cash in on user behaviour and write the best caption you can, and hopefully convince the reader to hang around a while longer.

Of course, like any content, they should add value.

Message and keywords continue to be your motto. Like your headline your caption should let the reader they have arrived at the information they are searching for. This also has SEO advantages, but since the way search engines work is still largely a mystery to me, I will leave it to others to explain. What I have worked out is that search spiders can’t read image data, so they look at the text immediately around the image – the caption!

Don’t just repeat the headline or summary. Use your captions to continue the story. Quotes, statistics and your most interesting details are a good place to start. What will make your audience sit up and take notice? This may well be the info you want to use in your introduction. Not a problem. But do try to vary the way its written, cutting and pasting is not helping your cause.

A quote not only livens up a headshot caption it is also a chance to inspire the reader, as this example from the BBC shows

A quote not only livens up a headshot caption it is also a chance to inspire the reader, as this example from the BBC shows

Avoid the obvious. Captions, whether in print or online, are pointless if they simply say in writing what the reading can see for themselves.

For example don’t just add the name of your expert under their headshot, add some information that shows why they are an expert. A quote, the number of years on the job, qualifications – anything other than John Doe.

Instead of “The crowd at last year’s fair” opt for a more inspiring statement, “2000 people attend the 2010 seminar with 50 per cent spending 20 dollars on more”. Rather than “Our new hand-held model in green”, why not try, “Testing by Safe Products confirms the new hand-held model is lead and cadmium free.”

Keep it simple. Don’t over sell yourself. Use the same principles of writing that you apply to all your online content. Captions laden with marketing jargon and big claims are turn your readers off. If you do hook them, you better be able to back up your caption in your text or you will lose all credibility.

For tips on how the practical art of caption writing, I recommend this article from Poynter

*I can’t find the Poynter study, it appears to be removed from their web site, but I’ve located countless references in other’s work and have the citation in my course literature so I’m confident to quote it.)

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