Journalists and all creative writers are well aware of the need to give their articles a grabbing headline that makes people want to read their story in full, but the purpose of the headline has changed somewhat as news has headed online. With social media sites like Facebook often presenting simply a headline and accompanying image on users’ newsfeeds, it could be argued that the importance ratio of headline to body of text has shifted even further in the headline’s favour.
This is especially the case because a sizeable proportion of internet users appear to read nothing but headlines. Earlier this month, the Science Post published an article titled ‘Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting’. At the time of writing, the article has had almost 52,000 shares, but if you read it in full you’ll soon notice that the Science Post is actually contributing to the farce itself. It’s debatable how many of the people who shared it appreciated the irony of what they had done, and how many did exactly what the suggested 70% do and shared the article without reading it.
However, a genuine study from Columbia University in New York, published in April this year, estimates that 59% of URLs that are interacted with on Twitter (through the likes of retweets, favourites and comments) are not actually clicked through to and read at all. Canadian website Yackler has had a bit of fun with this story, reporting on it with a completely misleading headline about impending doom. Yackler’s Facebook post about the article has been shared and interacted with heavily, with many getting the point, but others perhaps not!
The statistic is perhaps not surprising, but it is rather sad. When so much work goes into putting content together, it’s disappointing to think that even people who have suggested they like it may not have read it. It’s also a somewhat worrying sign of how readily someone will connect and identify with something based purely on a few words without scratching under the surface at all. Next time you walk past a newspaper stand, consider just how many people will form opinions and “knowledge” based purely on catching these imposing front-page headlines out of the corners of their eyes. Daily Mail – I’m looking at you most of all, with your endless prophesies of doom about immigration and vaccinations printed in that huge seriffed font!
Being positive though, how can we use the influence of headlines to get people to at least interact with our content even if they don’t read it? Questions often work well, and so does anything that connects with readers on a personal level. Many commentators have observed the link between social media and narcissism, with one study suggesting that four out of five posts are about our own experiences. So, consider pulling out the ‘what does this mean for me?’ factor from your stories and embellishing it in your headlines.
Also, if you’re thinking that statistics suggest that you don’t have to come up with great articles as long as your headline is catchy, think again. After all, even if 59% don’t read the article, it still means that a weighty 41% will, and you won’t fool them. Neither will you fool Google, which picks up on poor content and penalises it. If you were to pad your articles out with ‘Loren ipsum’ text like the Science Post did, but without a hint of irony, you would not find yourself in the search engine’s good books.
Solid, well-rounded content is the key to online success, but treat your headlines as the inviting gateway to a rich landscape of interesting and shareable material.