By Georgina Laidlaw

Mobile First Content Strategy

By Georgina Laidlaw

If writing for web has come to be seen as a major element in a site’s success, writing for mobile is set to become the next poster-child for digital content creators. And one that contains just as many challenges.

The mobile-first approach applies just as well to content as it does to design. In this post, we’ll look at two tools that you can use to assess written content for its appropriateness to mobile, or to hone your own.

WCAG 2.0

Many of the the much-loved Web Content Accessibility Guidelines relate specifically to text content, as explained by the 4 Syllables consultancy in their Accessibility for Web Writers series:


  • 2.4.2 Page titles: Page titles should be descriptive of the page content
  • 2.4.4 and 2.4.9 Link purpose: Links should be meaningful
  • 2.4.6 Headings and labels: Headings and labels should be meaningful
  • 2.4.10 Section headings: Use headings to organise and show the structure of content
  • 3.1.2 Language of parts: Use mark-up to identify foreign language words and phrases
  • 3.1.3 Unusual words: Define or explain non-literal phrasing or jargon
  • 3.1.4 Abbreviations: Define or link to definitions of shortened forms
  • 3.1.5 Reading level: Write at lower secondary level, supplement difficult text with other media, or provide an alternative version of content written at lower secondary level

At a glance, these guidelines seem self-explanatory—even self-evident. But many “creatives” see them as restrictive. They curtail the author’s “freedom.” They rein in the “voice.”

The thing with mobile—particularly in the case of smaller devices like phones—is that people don’t have the time or attention to get their heads around the lyric beauty of your prose.

The usability (read: usefulness) of your text comes down to comprehension, retention, and applicability. In this context, reading level deserves special attention.

Why Reading Level Matters

I used to be a reading-level sceptic. Reading level seemed all very well, but my audience was smarter than an eighth grader and my brand was prestigious. Sticking blindly to a reading level would insult my readers and undermine my employer’s carefully-cultivated brand.

If that’s how you feel, that’s fine. But for the moment, let’s put those objections aside and focus on the usefulness of your digital text.

The Flesch Reading Ease score, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level consider three elements of language that affect comprehension:

  1. Sentence Length
  2. Word Length
  3. Syllable Count

As you can see, these elements are extremely pertinent to the mobile environment—by which we can and should infer more than the device, screen size, and download speed. Mobile writers need to be conscious of the situations in which mobile users read their text. That’s more likely to involve physical movement of the device, noise, screen reflection and grime, and more.

For these, as well as situational reasons, it’s extremely important that text displayed on mobile devices can be read and grasped extremely quickly. If reading on a computer monitor is a drag, reading on a phone is torture. More than ever, your readers are reading for facts—for answers—and they need them fast.

In this context, writing in short sentences, with shorter, more common words, makes perfect sense.

What About Creative Flair?

To say that these reading scores undermine creativity is like saying an artist can’t create anything decent with oil pastels alone. Or watercolors. Or a pencil.

It all depends on the artist.

The creative challenge for mobile writers is to communicate. As an example, let’s take the 4 Syllables description of reading level (numbered guideline 3.1.5 in our earlier list):

“Write at lower secondary level, supplement difficult text with other media, or provide an alternative version of content written at lower secondary level.”

In case you’re wondering, I’m using the 4 Syllables version because it rates far better on these readability scales than the official WCAG 2.0 description.

To test the reading scores of this content, you can copy it into MS Word, and run a spelling and grammar check. Once that’s done, a little dialog box will appear to tell you the reading scores.

Flesch Kincaid Figure 1

The 4 Syllables sentence has a Flesch Reading Ease Score of 10.6 (which means only the university-educated can understand it—and that’s at the best of times). Its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 12.0, suggesting that you need a twelfth-grade education to understand that sentence. As a comparison, this article’s Reading Ease Score is 52.1, and its Grade Level is 8.6.

Let’s assume we all finished high school and/or went to university, so we don’t have trouble comprehending the 4 Syllables description. What’s the big deal?

Well, imagine you’re on a packed train home, being jostled by other passengers, with an elbow in your left ear and death metal blasting from a fellow commuter’s headphones to your right. You’re tired and hungry. You had a rough day. And you’re thrown against the door every time the train hits a bump or rounds a bend.

Wouldn’t it be easier to read—and comprehend—a sentence written more like this?

“Write for an eighth grader—if they get it, most everyone will. If the content is really complex, explain it with different content types.”

According to the Flesh Reading Ease calculation (74.8), people around 16 years of age and up will be able to understand those sentences. You don’t even need to have finished junior school to grasp it: the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Score is 5.8.

Perhaps the tone is too casual, but you get the idea. The second version of that text uses natural language, which, I believe, is more likely to be “heard,” and more loudly, in the reader’s mind as they’re reading, since it’s more familiar. It also has a more natural rhythm. And the shorter sentences mean more capitals—which makes it easier for your commuting readers to find their place again after their battle with the next bend’s g-forces.

Other Challenges

The idea that we can reduce every sentence to language appropriate to an eighth grader is imbued with well-meaning hope… but is it practical?

The WACG suggests that if your text can’t be so reduced, you should write a second version that explains all the complex bits in eighth-grader terminology. But no client I’ve ever worked for has been happy to fork over the extra dollars to make that happen.

In the next post, I’ll talk about some of the challenges mobile writers face when using reading scores in practice—and how we can work around them to make our text usable on mobile devices.

  • As with any marketing strategy, be prepared to shift gears if you are not satisfied with results. This means that at the beginning of your mobile marketing efforts you will want to define clear time-sensitive and realistic goals for what will indicate success of your mobile marketing strategy for you.

    • Georgina

      Sure. But a mobile marketing strategy is not a mobile content strategy.

      • Here here! How many people fail to make that distinction?

  • Georgina – This is very helpful. Thank you. Some of the points – like the WCAG guidelines – seem obvious, as you note, but applying them is not always easy, especially when creatives are trying to be, well, creative. My hope is that mobile analytics will demonstrate the difference between well-optimized content and not-so-well optimized content in terms of desired results. It often does.

    I’m not sure I see the distinction between marketing strategy and content strategy. All content accessible online plays a marketing role, or at least it should.

    • Georgina

      Hey Mark,
      Glad you found this piece helpful.

      I wanted to pick up the point about marketing and content strategy. To my mind, two definitely cross over, and for some sites that form marketing collateral for a brand, the content may be entirely marketing copy.

      Also, content should work with marketing strategy in terms of editorial choices about topics, tags, keywords, and so on.

      But to me, content is product. Marketing attracts readers to that product. Just as Coke is not a Coke billboard, BuildMobile is not a banner ad or a retweet.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on that distinction :)

  • The idea of a mobile first strategy is good, but the principles that you listed should be the same for everything you ever write on the web, which is why the concept of mobile first is so valuable.

    “Use headings to organise and show the structure of content”

    “supplement difficult text with other media”

    If you’re not doing this for your desktop browser content, you have already failed. All of the other principles are equally important.

    The “provide an alternative version of content written at lower secondary level” argument is nice on a theoretical level, but most orgs don’t have the resources to duplicate their content in this manner. It is often more difficult to distill a high level discussion down to a simple voice than it is to make something more technical and detailed.

    • Georgina

      Great points Dan. Agreed, agreed and agreed!

  • “If reading on a computer monitor is a drag, reading on a phone is torture.”

    With all due respect, I consider this sentence BS. I very often find myself reading longer articles and e-books off my smartphone while I often find them on my desktop computer. It doesn’t give me the overview of a bigger screen, but once I know where to find them it’s imho. a nicer device to read from than my laptop. A tablet would be the best of course (apart from when you find time to read on the run, maybe without a bag with a tablet in it), but that’s another story.

    • Georgina

      Hey Simon,
      Yeah, it’s a pretty subjective thing. I agree that tablet is probably the most enjoyable reading experience of them all but I find the point you mention most frustrating: the need to zoom on phones reduces the context for the content, which can be extremely detrimental, but is most often just disorienting, for me almost to the point of distraction. Depending, of course, on page layout ;)

      I also find that the content on mobile is frequently accompanied by reduced surrounding functionality (commenting, choosing pagination options, etc.) which is a drag too.

  • Jim Batty

    … “The thing with mobile—particularly in the case of smaller devices like phones—is that people don’t have the time or attention to get their heads around the lyric beauty of your prose. ” …

    We’re not necessarily talking about lyric beauty, we’re talking about communicating something we believe of value or importance to a reader (and thereby attracts them to engage with or buy it). THAT may require ‘big words’ or ‘big ideas’. You can’t conflate writing for post-grade-8 people and lyric beauty.

    Also, I’m not sure how valuable it is writing for people undergoing horror commutes. Maybe earplugs and spikey jewellery would sell well.

    • Georgina

      Re: your point on lyric beauty, I’m with you. There are boundaries to the applicability of the eighth-grader “epitome”, especially around audience, and I talk more about them in the follow-up to this article, Mobile First Content in Practice.

      I keep reading endless articles about the use of “weasel words” or jargon online, and while I’m all for accessibility, to, as you say, get some audiences to engage or buy, you need to speak in the language they expect, understand, and relate to. Usually that requires certain language, and often it’s not language an eighth-grader would use. Still, I think these tools are really helpful in making the writing as accessible as possible while achieving the end goal.

      As for the “horror commute”? Dan that scenario is played out daily in peak hour on the trains, trams and buses here in Melbourne, Australia, as I’m sure it its in many other cities! If it’s not the norm where you are, where are you? Because I think I want to live there. ;)

      While we may not be creating content specifically for that setting, I do think it’s a good idea to consider the worst case scenario in planning and creating content. Mobile users are frequently accessing text content online while walking, talking, trying not to collide with pedestrians/cars/cyclists, travelling in public and private transport, standing in the sun (which affects screen readability massively) and so on. In my personal experience, the horror commute is one of the *better* scenarios in which I’m accessing mobile content, since I can give the content my full attention (provided I can block out the death metal). Your thoughts?

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

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