May 14, 2015

Why Your Text Treatment Might Make People Sick — Literally

Can a font make a difference in the health of your communication efforts?

The topic of font has received plenty of attention from the health care community in recent years. In 2007, researchers from Harvard Medical School concluded that features like white space, lists, headings and larger fonts all helped patients understand the benefits and side effects of their medications, along with how to take their medications properly.


Since then, medical experts have applied similar findings to everything from asthma management to pediatric oral health guidelines. In March, a study was published in Patient Education and Counseling, exploring the impact of font and headline complexity on patients' perception of a medical program. Researchers found that patients who received information in an "easier" font, with a simpler headline, perceived the program as easier to follow and more beneficial. 

Why so much attention to font and style? Experts recognize that these factors directly impact patient comprehension and compliance. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directly address these elements in "Simpy Put," their guide for presenting medical information to the public. The guide includes an entire section on typeface.

Other health care organizations, like the National Library of Medicine and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, have also jumped on board. Among their recommendations: Don't use fancy or script lettering. AVOID ALL CAPS. And stick with simple fonts like Times New Roman, Arial and Helvetica. 

It makes sense that a simpler font would make it easier to read complicated health information, but what does that have to do with your content marketing? After all, your products and services aren't nearly as complicated as medical information ... or are they?

Often we forget that our prospects and clients don't understand our industry nearly as well as we do. Your industry may be simple to you, but to your customers, it could be just as complicated as brain surgery. 

With that in mind, it's worthwhile to heed the CDC's suggestions as you craft your materials, whether they're for the health care industry or any other.

Lesson #1: Don't Overthink Your Fonts. 

What's your favorite font? Maybe you wish you could write everything in Papyrus, or perhaps you're a brave soul who embraces Comic Sans. But there are plenty of reasons that simple fonts like Times New Roman, Helvetica and Arial are so ubiquitous. Most importantly, they're easy to read. Moreover, they confer a certain authority to your text; using a more common font gives your reader a measure of comfort in the familiar. 

Consider this: In July 2012 filmmaker Errol Morris conducted a little text-treatment experiment on his unwitting New York Times readers. He wrote an article about the likelihood of being killed by an asteroid. Morris quoted physicist David Deutch on the subject. At the end of the article, he invited readers to share their perspective. What readers didn't know, however, was that they saw Deutch's quote in one of six random fonts.

Turns out that readers who saw Deutch's quote in Baskerville were much more likely to believe it, while those who saw it in Comic Sans were less likely to believe it. Thus your font choice can lend (or reduce) your message gravity. 

Lesson #2: Size Does Matter.

You've heard it a million times. Size matters, especially when you're ... reading. For most materials, size 12 is sufficient for your body text. If your content is geared toward older adults, consider increasing the size to 14.

You can (and should) also use text size to help your readers understant how your content is organized. Make titles largest of all, with headings and subheadings progressively closer to the size of your body text. 

A relatively new wrinkle in size matters for content marketers: mobile readiness. Check both your email campaigns and your website to ensure that the font is big enough to read on mobile devices. Marketing experts also recommend that you use no more than 50 characters per line in emails, to improve readability. 

Lesson #3: Riddle Your Content with Bullets.

Okay, you don't want to go overboard here, but bullet points and numbered lists are powerful tools for organizing your content and making it more digestible for your readers. A few pointers:

  • Use bold text as needed. If you elaborate on each item, keep the details in regular font to set off the items in your list.  
  • Skip transition words. Words like "first," "next" and "finally" are superfluous in a bullet or number list, and they just slow your reader down. 
  • Choose the right format. If you're listing the steps in a process, or if your list has more than about five items, use numbers instead of bullet points. 
  • Keep bullets simple. Avoid ornate or unconventional bullet points. You're aiming for visual efficiency.

Lesson #4: Don't Be Afraid to Illustrate. 

Images should both enhance and complement your message. If you're depicting real-life events, people or emotions, photographs are usually the best option. Simple drawings are ideal for abstract topics or for sensitive subjects. And infographics are incredibly useful for quickly summarizing key data.

Always keep your audience in mind as you choose images. Consider the following pair of images, taken from the CDC's "Simply Put" guide: 



Image A works for health care professionals, who have a more professional and neutral relationship to the subject matter. Meanwhile, Image B is preferable for the general public because the photograph is much more compelling.

Overall, the sophistication and look of your illustrations will contribute to your brand identity, just as much as they do your marketing message. 


Have more questions about content marketing? Schedule a free consultation with our team!

Request a Consultation

Kristin Masters

Kristin Masters is a content marketing specialist with almost a decade's experience in SEO and social marketing. A HubSpot maven, Kristin has developed and implemented inbound marketing strategies for a variety of B2B and B2C clients. Kristin graduated from the University of Florida with an ever-useful specialization in 18th-century British literature. She teaches Bikram yoga.