Unfolding the Fold

Marketers often get caught in antiquated paradigms, and apply print-era (or even broadcast era) reasoning to online marketing.

One example of this is the expression “above the fold”, which is originally a newspaper term, used to capture layout segmentation principles that suggest important content should go above where newsstands and readers typically folded huge, unwieldy newspapers in half. Making designers aware of the “fold” was, simply put, meant to ensure that the most important content would always be placed high up on the page so that it would be seen, and not rely on readers “unfolding” the newspaper to continue reading.

In web browser terms, back in the days when screen resolutions and viewports were much more uniform, and before mobile devices were used to render web pages, “the fold” used to refer to where the browser window would cut off content, and require scrolling.

But with an increasingly divergent proliferation of connected devices, with varying viewport sizes and screen resolutions, it is not meaningful to pretend that there is a universal measurement for where “the fold” actually is located. In the web development world in particular, objections to the concept of “the fold” occur with increasing frequency and ardor, asserting that a) the “fold” does not exist, and b) users are perfectly capable of scrolling. Both of which are perfectly accurate statements.

But even if the term “above the fold” is archaic, and incorrectly implies that there is a specific, consistent coordinate beyond which all users are less inclined to look (which there obviously isn’t), the objection often made that referring to the “fold” means you’re implying that users CAN’T scroll is tantamount to constructing a bit of a straw man.

This seems to be one of many areas where people in marketing/communication and usability/technology seem to not be able to understand each other. I don’t know that any marketer would suggest that users are physically unable to scroll, or intellectually incapable of understanding the concept of scrolling. But just because users CAN scroll (i.e., possess the empirical knowledge how to do it) does not mean they WILL. Any suggestion to the effect that “users will inevitably scroll down a page to see the remainder of the content” is just flat out incorrect, and there is plenty of data to prove it.

It’s our job as marketers/communicators to make scrolling worthwhile; to motivate users to partake of the content on the entire page. Otherwise, we will continue to see the same heatmap data that we always see – that content gets progressively less and less exposure the lower on a page it is placed.

We shouldn’t assume that our content is so inherently valuable to users that they will always scroll to read it.

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